Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Lost City of the Kalahari

Leighton's wonderful post on the lost cities of the Amazon got me thinking about our neck of the woods - at least Detective Kubu's neck of the woods.  And perhaps "woods" is not the right word in the context of the Kalahari or Kalahari Desert as it is often called.  To rephrase, Leighton's article made me think of lost cities in southern Africa.

The Kalahari
For more than a century in western circles rumours have abounded as to the existence of a massive city, covered by the sands of the Kalahari.  The Kalahari has a total extent of about 850,000 square kilometres (350 000 square miles), most of it falling within Botswana.  The word Kalahari is said to come from a local word meaning “dry, waterless place”, that is a desert.

Farini the Great
The rumours all started in the late 1800's from a man by the name of Gilarmi Farini, who visited the Kalahari in 1895 to look for diamonds.  He set off in early February from Cape Town with his son Lulu and an entourage and returned six months later claiming to have found A Lost City of the Kalahari, one of many found in Bushman legends.  The Bushman apparently claim that there were many cities in the Kalahari area that were never inhabited because of a terrible drought.  The cities were in process of being built, then abandoned.  Farini's son sketched and photographed the remains of the city, and Farini published a book, Through the Kalahari on his return to London.  He also addressed the Royal Geographical Society and the Berlin Geographical Society.  He even staged a Lost City exhibition.

Farini described the city as one of colossal proportions made from massive stones stacked on to of each other.  The city was laid out in an arc and resembled the Great Wall of China after an earthquake.  Part of the city was exposed and part hidden under the sand.  Digging away some of the sand exposed a pavement six metres wide with th longer stones laid at right angles to the path.  Intersection the pavement at right angles was another pavement, making a type of cross.

There were no inscriptions or markings to be found anywhere, and Farini estimated the ruins to be thousands of years old.  He was inspired to write a poem about it.

A half-buried ruin—a huge wreck of stones 
On a lone and desolate spot;

A temple—or tomb for human bones 
Left by man to decay and rot.

Rude sculpted blocks from the red sand project, 
And shapeless uncouth stones appear, 
Some great man’s ashes designed to protect, 
Buried many a thousand year.

A relic, maybe, of a glorious past,

A city once grand and sublime, 
Destroyed by earthquake, defaced by the blast, 
Swept away by the hand of time.

So does the Lost City really exist?  Good question.

A word about Farini at this point.  He was an American whose real name was William Hunt, born in New York.  He became famous for his tightrope walk across Niagara Falls.  He changed his name to Gilarmi A. Farini and was a performer at Coney Island under the name Farini the Great.  He also put on shows in London, one of the most successful being African Pygmies, which included six live Bushman.  From them he learned of the Kalahari and also of the Bushman myth that told of great wealth of diamonds.

Since Farini, there have been about thirty expeditions to find the Lost City, but none have been successful.  Of most interest is one mounted in 1964 by Prof. A. J. Clement, his 77 year-old father, a journalist, and a photographer.  At the town of Rietfontein they were shown an extremely unusual “rock formation” known as the Eggshell Hills.  “The unmistakable outline of a large, oval-shaped amphitheater, perhaps a third of a mile in length, was the predominant feature. In numerous places there was striking resemblance to a double wall built from large, glistening black rocks, and it was obvious that many of the individual boulders could easily be confused with square building blocks," Clement wrote later.

A geologist who saw photographs of the site suggested that the “ruins” were the product of the weathering of dolerite. Magma intrusions had forced their way in the form of sills along the bedding planes of sediments (some 180-190 million years ago) forming the level planes or flat sheets of rock found at the site. As the magma cooled, it formed cracks and splits, making it seem as if the rock had been carefully cut and dressed, with pieces stacked up on top of each other.  

Clement concludes his book by saying, “Like all legends, that of the Lost City will be a long time a-dying, and doubtless there will still be some who are disinclined to let the matter rest in spite of all the contrary evidence. And possibly this is just as well, for there is something rather sad about the destruction of a legend.”

Clearly Clement was convinced that Farini’s city was a natural formation and not a Lost City. 

As the writer of an UNMYST3 blog wrote: "However the rocks are all neatly squared and the lines of “masonry” are parallel and at right angles. Some igneous formations such as basalt do indeed crystallize in regular patterns, but not like the dolerite rocks at Rietfontein. The final proof is Clement’s own photo of one of the massive blocks with a series of four parallel, horizontal grooves on it. Was it an ancient city? Was it natural? Was this what Farini had found? There seemed no clear answer to any of these questions." 

Stan - Thursday 

PS.  Apologies for the lack of photographs - after all the city is lost, and Farini's book out of print.


  1. I hope the Bushmen sold Farini a bill of goods about the Lost City in return for Farini placing them in a sideshow. Farini deserves a few years wandering in a desert.

    Given the career of William Hunt, Farini was con man and show man all in one package.

  2. That's no fair, Beth. You stole my lines. Well, at least anticipated them. Frankly, though, it sounds to me as if Prof. A. J Clement and his 77 year-old father may have been the inspiration for Indiana Jones and his ole pappy.


  3. Riveting. I love all this lost cities stuff. I may have to post about one myself...

  4. Hi, can i please ask what the name of Prof A.JClement's book?

  5. Hi, can i please ask what the name of Prof A.JClement's book?

  6. What an interesting man Farini must have been. Inventor, businessman, world traveller, author, painter, impresario, and married to Richard Wagner's cousin.