The Kalahari Desert extends for 900,000 square kilometres, across three countries: Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. Its name, which comes from the Tswana for “great thirst”, gives a taste of just how inhospitable it can be.
And yet in 1885, a former entertainer and impresario – the Great Farini – claimed not just to have become the first white man to cross the Kalahari on foot, but also to have discovered the remains of a lost civilisation. What is more, he had the photos to prove it!
Farini, the stage name of William Leonard Hunt (1838-1929), first came to prominence in 1860, for his high wire acrobatics at Niagara Falls. The Canadian moved to Europe in 1866, where he teamed up with a young orphan boy, Samuel Wasgatt (1855?-1939), who Farini dubbed El Nino. Together they were known as the Flying Wonders.
By 1870, in search of a new twist, Farini hit upon the idea of passing Sam off as a girl. Lulu Farini went on to become one of the most celebrated “female” acrobats of the age. It was only after a serious accident in 1878, that Lulu’s true sex became known to the general public. All of which came as somewhat of a shock to “her” many male admirers.
Even through Sam/Lulu went on performing, he cut off his hair, and stopped dressing up as a woman. When Farini proposed an exploration of the Kalahari Desert in 1885, the younger man overcame his initial reluctance, and agreed to photograph the expedition.
Sam/Lulu proved to have a superb eye, especially given the testing conditions he was working under. As well as pictures of the Kalahari and its native peoples, he also captured amazing images of other parts of southern Africa, such as the diamond mines in Kimberley, and the mighty Orange River. As far as we know, he saw no need to take any selfies.
After returning from Africa, Lulu’s photos were displayed in London, and then published in 1886, in Farini’s book: Through the Kalahari Desert. Many of these stunning pictures have recently been digitised by the UK National Archives, and put onto its Flickr feed. In its attached commentary, the curator notes that:
“Many of these photographs seem to have been taken from difficult vantage points and appear to demonstrate Lulu’s physical as well as artistic skill.“
Below are some of our favourites, but for the full selection, see this link. The original captions are included for historical veracity, not to cause offence!
Lulu Farini’s photos of the 1885 Kalahari expedition
Original caption: Going over sand dunes with oxen & waggon, Kalahari.
Original caption: Group of half breeds & bushgirls, Kalahari.
Original caption: Cattle drinking at A’beam Pool, Kalahari.
Original caption: Tree with grosbeaks nest, Kalahari, South Africa.
Original caption: Hunting giraffe, Kalahari.
Original caption: The death, giraffe hunting on the Kalahari, South Africa.
Original caption: Drying giraffe meat on Kalahari.
Original caption: Encamped Griqua Land.
Original caption: Waggon & riding oxen, Kalahari.
Original caption: Market Square, Kimberley.
Original caption: Diamond washing & sorting, Kimberley.
Original caption: Cape cart & native quarters, Kimberley.
Original caption: Schernbrueker Gorge of The Hundred Falls, Orange River, South Africa.
Original caption: Gorilla Rock & Hercules Falls of The Hundred Falls, Orange River.
Original caption: Ki Ki Rapids of The Hundred Falls, Orange River.
Original caption: Right Angle Abyss of the Hundred Falls, Orange River.
Original caption: Hercules Falls & Canyon of The Hundred Falls, Orange River.
Original caption: Wire pont ferry, Vaal River.
Original caption: Table Mountain, Lions Head & Rump and Capetown.
The story of the Lost City
After his return to London, Farini made the extraordinary claim that he had discovered the remains of a long-lost civilisation during the expedition. In his book, he describes the alleged discovery in lyrical language:
A half-buried ruin – a huge wreck of stones,
On a lone and desolate spot,
A temple – or a tomb for human bones,
Left by men to decay and rot.
Rude sculptured 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, may be, of a glorious past,
A city once grand and sublime,
Destroyed by earthquake, defaced by the blast,
Swept away by the hand of time.
(Through the Kalahari Desert, GA Farini, 1886.)
The legend of the Lost City gathered strength over subsequent decades, despite dozens of subsequent expeditions searching in vain for the remains. Eventually, in 1964, a Professor AJ Clement, worked out from Farini’s description that he never went to the heart of the Kalahari. And on this revised route, Clement found natural rock formations, which did indeed resemble man-made structures.
We prefer to think that both Farini and Lulu genuinely believed in the success of their expedition, as well as their discovery of a lost civilisation. But even if it was all a deliberate hoax – and they did have form after all – there is no doubting the quality of the photographs which emerged from the expedition.
If you enjoyed this piece, you may well like Introducing Malaya and Borneo (1948-1950); Rudyard Kipling’s Burma: three days of wonder; Burmese days: the extraordinary photos of Philip Adolphe Klier; and Cecil Beaton in wartime China.