Why Joburg’s roads kink and other interesting stories of our history

Review: Adelle Horler

The Game Ranger, the Knife, the Lion and the Sheep: 20 Tales about Curious Characters from Southern Africa, by David Bristow (Jacana)

game ranger bristowHave you ever wondered why all the roads running north to south in Johannesburg’s CBD have a kink in them? Did you know that former prime minister JB Hertzog was named after Dr James Barry, a woman who spent her life posing as a man?

Those are just some of the intriguing nuggets in this brilliant collection of curious stories from David Bristow – which will make an excellent Christmas gift for that hard-to-buy-for person in your life, whether they’re local or a visitor.

This eclectic selection meanders from early European history in Southern Africa to the present day, with some fascinating detours into the ancient geology of the Karoo Basin and the back story to australopithecus africanus, or Taung Child.

Some stories are more well known, such as the title tale of Harry Wolhuter who dispatched a lion as it was carrying him off for dinner – but it’s beautifully and dramatically retold. Or Krotoa, the Khoi woman who worked for Jan van Riebeeck and whose life bravely bridged two cultures, ultimately ending on the fringes of both.

But other characters, as Bristow notes, are just footnotes in history, given in these pages their rightful due as having good stories that demand to be told. George Mossop’s tale evokes the blood, smells and frenzied horrors of the Anglo-Zulu frontier wars, in a way history was never taught in schools. Another is Claude Finch-Davies, a flawed and tragic figure whose uncredited bird sketches were quite possibly copied for Austin Robert’s The Birds of South Africa.

In this story and in several others, Bristow weaves himself into the tale, but only where he adds meaningful drama or research – it’s never self-indulgent. In fact one of my favourites is his own account of visiting the glittering Owl House in Nieu Bethesda while it was still as Helen Martins and Koos Malgas had left it, before it was turned into the tourist attraction it is today. Equally, his Addo story of Anthony Hall-Martin introducing his human baby to an elephant baby made me cry.

I particularly enjoy the authenticity of his quotes from historical documents. An omission I think worth noting concerns explorer David Livingstone being buried in northern Zambia. What’s not mentioned is the rest of that tale: his body was exhumed, embalmed and then carried back to London, to his final resting place in Westminster Abbey. Another quibble is a few proof-reading errors.

David Bristow, raconteur, has done a brilliant job of breathing life into these characters. His gentle storytelling style tugs you along through 10 pages when you were only intending to read two before bedtime. I kept saying: “Well I’ll just read one more chapter.”

Bristow is a story magpie who’s been collecting shiny tales over a varied career as a journalist, Getaway magazine editor and life-long nature lover. His mind must have a pretty interesting filing system!

  • If you’re intrigued by the JHB street discrepancy: two surveyors were tasked with laying out the road network, each starting from different sides. But, they were using different measures – Cape feet were not the same as English feet – so none of their roads met in the middle. Rather than do it all again, they simply introduced the kink.


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