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 Published in SA4x4 Magazine, February 2015

Countless adventurers have searched in vain for a ‘lost city’ in the Kalahari, supposedly discovered in 1885 by showman Gilarmi Farini. Writer and environmentalist Adam Cruise weighs the evidence…

In 1885, the swashbuckling Signor Gilarmi Antonio Farini arrived in South Africa for a protracted trip into the recesses of the Kalahari. A Canadian showman, his real name was William Leonard Hunt, and his rise to fame began as a daredevil walker of the tightrope: he performed across the face of the Niagara Falls before large crowds. After an accident, he changed tack and concentrated on showing exhibits of unusual human and animal forms. Part of that show was a ‘display’ of the diminutive ‘Earthmen’ – none other than the Bushmen, or San-speaking people, of the Kalahari. Keen to ‘obtain more little people’, and seduced by tales of diamonds and good hunting, Farini and Lulu (his former high-wire assistant) sailed to Cape Town. They then trekked into the hinterland, at that time a blank space on the maps of even the world’s most eminent cartographers.         While no great discovery of Livingstone’s sort was made during the trip, G.A. Farini nonetheless presented an informed paper to the Royal Geographic Society, as well as to corresponding societies in Berlin and Paris, about the Kalahari and the benefits of cattle-ranching there. He also wrote Through the Kalahari Desert, a galloping book about his adventures hunting game, collecting plant specimens and meeting the bands of Korana, Griqua, Basters, Herero, the Tswana-speakers of the Kgalagadi, detached Boers, itinerant tradesmen, vagabonds and others along the way.

Lulu, it turned out, was an early and talented photographer who’d taken along one of the first portable cameras, complete with dry plates. He must have been one of the first, if not <italics>the first, to photograph Kalahari scenes and landscape. These photos, or sketches of them, rather, appeared in both Farini’s books and the papers presented to the geological societies.

Their journey, in a light ox-cart, and with some horses and hunting dogs, took them across the Orange River and into what is now the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park; and then on to the Tswana village of Lehututu, which still exists. After that, they travelled up western Botswana and apparently got as far as Lake Ngami before they turned back in a south-south westerly direction before arriving at the Baster lands of Mier. These were under the leadership of Dirk Vilander, whose main base (then) is now Rietfontein, to the south-west of Twee Rivieren on the border with Namibia.

From here on, Farini and Lulu embarked on a hunting spree north and west of the Nossob before making their way south to the Augrabies Falls. This hunting trip is what generated the most interest in the public imagination. After leaving Mier, their point of departure from the left bank of the Nossob River valley was the waterhole of Kij Kij, which still exists in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. This is an excerpt from his account:

“Going further south, the trees became more and more scanty. On the second day we sighted a high mountain, which Jan [the Baster guide from Mier] thought was the Ki Ki Mountain, but we were not far enough south for that, and on reaching the foot of it, it turned out to be one that nobody seemed to have ever seen or heard of. We camped near the foot of it, beside a long line of stone which looked like a Chinese wall after an earthquake, and which, on examination, proved to be the ruins of quite an extensive structure, in some places buried beneath the sand, but in others fully exposed to view. We traced the remains for nearly a mile, mostly a heap of huge stones, but all flat-sided, and here and there with cement perfect and plainly visible between the layers. The top row of stones were worn away by the weather and the drifting sands, some of the uppermost ones curiously rubbed on the underside and standing out like a centre-table with one short leg. The general outline of this wall was in the form of an arc, inside which lay, at intervals of about forty feet apart, a series of heaps of masonry in the shape of an oval or obtuse ellipse, about a foot and half deep, and with a flat bottom, but hollowed out at the sides for about a foot from the edge. Some of these heaps were cut from solid rock, others were formed of more than one piece of stone, fitted together very accurately.”


The men tried to persuade their Baster guides to assist them in unearthing more of the stones, but the locals objected to digging what, to them, was just a useless pile of rocks. Farini’s account continues:

“On digging down nearly in the middle of the arc, we came upon a pavement about twenty feet wide, made of large stones. The outer stones were long ones, and lay at direct angles to the inner ones. This pavement was intersected by another one at right angles, forming a Maltese Cross, in the centre of which at one time must have stood an altar, or some sort of monument, for the base was quite distinct, composed of loose pieces of fluted masonry.”

Lulu took photographs, which remain only as sketches today, and the party moved on. Farini brings the subject up only later, in the paper delivered to the Royal Geographic Society; he was seemingly more pre-occupied with the Kalahari’s potential as a cattle-ranching region.

Over the years, the pile of stones grew in the popular imagination to a great lost city of ancient Mediterranean origin. More than 100 years after Farini’s Kalahari foray, almost as many lost-city expeditions have been launched into the region. Some were amateurish and impulsive, and others well-funded, organised and meticulously-researched by professional archaeologists and corresponding academic institutions.

The most persuasive of explorers convinced civil authorities that they should delve into the South African government coffers to deploy the air force to reconnoitre for aerial signs of the ancient city. But all resulted in a fruitless search − which begs many questions.  Was Farini lying? Did he contrive a story to garner more fame, or did he mistake natural rock formations for human-made ruins? Either way, why was he so vague and seemingly uninterested in his discovery? Perhaps he’d genuinely stumbled upon a lost city, the significance of which was lost on him?

There was only one way to find out. After some research into a number of previous expeditions and a copy of Farini’s book in my bag, I packed up the 4x4 and headed north for Lost City country...SEE WHAT I DISCOVERED NEXT MONTH :)