Karoo Campfires: myths in a magical desert

04.08.23 04:03 PM Comment(s)
While wandering in the silence of the Karoo, viewing ancient hills against a vibrant sunset, wondering at the iconic rocky nubs of koppies under starlight, the mind turns to magic – all those strange myths and legends of the past, and the people who drew meaning from this same vast scenic quiet and evocative dark.

The dark-haired mermaid

While the last thing you may associate with the Karoo is a mermaid…hardly conceivable in the dry, dusty expanse of the desert…Bushman legend has it that just such a creature exists and lives in the rock pools in the Meiringspoort canyon that lies between the Klein and Groot Karoo. According to the legend, a rather unpleasant water spirit appears as a beautiful dark-haired mermaid who delights in luring people passing by, and then dragging them into a watery grave.

Interestingly enough, just outside Oudtshoorn, a number of ancient Khoi-San rock paintings still depict what could be interpreted as mermaids. These pictures of ‘fish-tailed’ humans possibly confirm that the legend of the Karoo mermaid has been around for centuries. Some 250 million years ago, the Klein Karoo was submerged underwater. When the oceans receded, they left behind a fertile valley. While the Bushmen could not have known this history, it may be that subconscious intuition of the environment has given them an instinctive perspective.

The mysterious mermaid is said to be responsible for rain, floods and droughts. During the Meiringspoort floods of 1966, the legend came to life – and the story ran that the mermaid had been swept out to sea. Luckily (or perhaps not) she was rescued and returned to her favourite haunting spot. Her story became more potent with every retelling. Local people still talk of her in hushed, fearful voices. Apparently, if you mess with the mermaid, she will come for you really quickly, and drag you away to be summarily drowned. 

The legend of the Mantis

The Mantis, a legendary hero, appears at the beginning of the world, when the face of the earth was covered with water. The Mantis was sent to find the purpose of all life, and asked a bee to guide him. The Mantis was then carried by the bee over dark and turbulent waters. The bee however, became weary, and began to sink down to the water. But luckily, at last, he saw a great white flower floating in the water. He laid Mantis in the heart of the flower, and planted within him the seed of the first human being. Then the bee died. But as the sun rose and warmed the flower, the Mantis awoke, and from the seed left by the bee, the first San was born.

Heiseb the magician

Heiseb features frequently in stories told by the Bushmen. One story concerns a drought. Heiseb and his wife and young son went hunting for food when they came upon a tree laden with ripe berries. When Heiseb’s son ran to pick the berries, his father admonished him for being greedy. The son then fell to the ground, pretending to be dead. Heiseb, furious, called his bluff and buried him alive.

But the son survived this, and rose from the grave and waited to be found. His mother duly visited the grave and found her son alive and well. She took him home, whereupon Heiseb said: ‘I thought my son was dead so I buried him. Now it seems he still lives. Nevertheless the dead shall remain dead.’ And he promptly killed his son. Since that time, the Bushmen have been careful to ensure that only the truly dead are buried, and there will be no resurrections. 

Heiseb and San humour around the campfire

Heiseb the magician, had a friendship with Ikaamaegab – an odd sort of person because he had eyes in his toes. One day, they went to look for potatoes together. Ikaamaegab had a bit of trouble with this, because he had to keep lifting his feet to see where he was going. As a result he didn’t find too many potatoes. When they sat around the campfire, Ikaamaegab was jealous of the number of potatoes Heiseb was putting around the fire to cook. His mouth watered as he looked with envy, because, as you can guess, his eyes were very close to the steaming potatoes.

Chattering to distract Heiseb, he furtively pulled the larger potatoes out with his toes. But Heiseb spotted this and threw hot coals and ashes over Ikaamaegab’s feet. With a scream, poor Ikaamaegab jumped up and ran for the stream and its cooling water. But because his eyesight was compromised, he dived into a very deep river instead, and drowned. Whereupon Heiseb laughed and ate the potatoes. One can only imagine that this curious tale may have made the San roll up with amusement.

Water and sky – the legends of life

To the Bushman, water is the ancient symbol of life. The gods and their creatures lived in the Sky, for Rain and Flame were one. Flame created earth, and his mate Rain carried the rainbow as a girdle around her waist. Other legends talk about Jupiter as Dawn’s Heart; and how the stars were made when a girl threw wood ash into the sky. These are romantic notions filled with imagination and possibility when told around a campfire in the vast night silence of the Karoo.

Karoo Heartland Tour

This exciting safari will take us through the Little Karoo but mainly concentrate around Beaufort West in the Great Karoo.

  • Formal accommodation
  • Self-drive or with guide

Duration: 7 days / 6 nights

Next tours:
  • 13 – 19 June 2022
  • 14 – 20 June 2023

Max Amount of Persons: Minimum 6 and maximum 10 guests

Heuningland: African & Karoo tours to stir the heart and lift the soul

We are proudly South African and have a fervent love of the Great Karoo, its people and its unique vegetation and animals. We are passionate conservationists of nature and would like to share our knowledge acquired through years of travel and touring experience. We are therefore able to offer custom-designed and distinctively different tour options:
  • Hiking/camping trails or guided self-driving tours through the ancient landscape of the Karoo.
  • Tailor-made safaris to any destination in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Botswana.

Find out more at: www.heuningland.com