Kalahari jaunt shows new side of Alan Paton
By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Alan Paton is dead but a new side
of the writer famed as a rare white South African voice against
apartheid has come to life in his previously unpublished
account of a madcap search for a fabled desert city.
“Lost City of the Kalahari” tells the tale of a 1956
expedition to a remote corner of the Kalahari desert in
present-day Botswana to find the ruins of a mythical lost city.
Acclaimed for the stirring anti-racist novel “Cry, the
Beloved Country,” Paton — an austere character known for his
staunch moral views — finds himself in the bush with a band of
rough adventurers, enjoying the bird life and harsh landscape.
He also displays a rarely seen humor as dry as the vast
desert he traveled across.
Commenting on the arrival of “Life” photographer Terry
Spencer, who accompanied the expedition, Paton wrote:
“He was made assistant dishwasher to me, and never once did
I get the impression that he really liked the job.”
Hermann Wittenberg, an academic at the University of the
Western Cape, stumbled across the manuscript at the Alan Paton
Center in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, during his research.
“I came across the sheaf of papers — torn from an exercise
book — that I later realized was a complete but yet
unpublished major text,” Wittenberg told Reuters.
“Finding a significant piece of writing by a well-known
author was certainly not expected, so that was quite a
surprise,” he said.
The work in Paton’s hand had been lost since the author
died aged 85 in 1988, six years before the end of the white
minority government he had had so long opposed.
The search for the ruins of an ancient Mediterranean
civilization in the sands of the Kalahari was the hare-brained
scheme of Reg “Sailor” Ibbetson, a farmer and fortune seeker.
Wittenberg said Ibbetson was obsessed with an 1886 book
entitled “Through the Kalahari Desert,” in which the author
claimed to have stumbled across the ruins of a lost city.
The expedition was almost doomed from the start as the old
5-ton Austin truck the adventurers used broke down 200 miles
into the journey — an occurrence that was to happen
“We were due to leave Nottingham Road at 3 p.m. We left on
the minute. This was the only efficient thing we did,” Paton
Wittenberg says that many people in Paton’s day believed in
a lost desert city but with European, not African, roots.
“Such myths were tied up with conservative colonial
discourses that disparaged any possibility of African cultural
or scientific achievement,” Wittenberg says.
So why did Paton go on the month-long trek, which he
himself described as “the craziest expedition ever to have gone
into the unknown?”
Wittenberg suggests it may have been an attempt to briefly
escape the racial drama of his country. In one newspaper, he
wrote that he looked forward to the desert, where he would not
expect to “see any white man” or “hear any political speech.”
A few months before the trip, Paton was elected chairman of
the non-racial Liberal Party, raising his profile at a time
when apartheid restrictions were hardening.
A subsequent falling-out with Ibbetson may explain why
Paton chose not to publish the story, which in many ways is a
ripping good travel yarn about a part of Botswana that is still
well off the beaten path.
“I do not know how many thorns there are in the Kalahari,
but it is clearly of the order of millions of millions. They
took their toll on us … the thorns tore the hats from the
heads, the shirts from the backs, the flesh from the bones.”
But he clearly relished the trip, despite the discomfort of
sleeping amid pots and pans in the back of the lumbering truck.
“… There was something compelling about those strange
nights. When the track narrowed, the thorn branches would
excoriate the canopy from end to end, and it sounded like great
waves passing alongside and struggling over a ship.”
He enthusiastically describes identifying 24 bird species
he had never seen before, bringing his regional total to over
“We would travel mile after mile and hardly see a bird;
then suddenly they would begin rising from every bush and
A leading liberal of his day, Paton may surprise readers
when he distinguishes between the “tame” and “wild” bushmen who
inhabit the Kalahari — but what counted as “liberal” 50 years
ago would not always pass the test today.
Among the gems contained in the book is a photo of film
star Zsa Zsa Gabor, holding up a copy of the Natal Witness
newspaper with a front page story about the Lost City
She had flown to South Africa to meet Ibbetson, who had
sold the film rights to a novel he had written about a diamond
treasure find in the Kalahari. Gabor was to play the female
lead but the movie was never made.
Not surprisingly, the expedition failed to find the lost
city. But are there any more lost Paton manuscripts out there
“No, I think this is it,” Wittenberg told Reuters.
“Paton did travel incessantly in his life, including a
major road trip by car up to Zambia and the Congo. He did not
write about this experience, though an interesting diary
written by his wife survives.”