Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

On the face of it, there is no connection between the Swiss town of Clarens (on the north shore of Lake Geneva) and the South African town of Clarens in the Free State. But the South African town took its name from the eponymous Swiss community. It was in Clarens, Switzerland, that Boer leader Paul Kruger lived in exile.

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Any journey through southern Africa reveals a feast of European-style toponyms. From Blantyre in Malawi (named after the Scottish town where explorer David Livingstone was born) to Worcester in the Western Cape there are echoes of empire on maps and signposts.

The names are not only English in origin. Many toponymns in southern Africa reflect the early role of Portuguese mariners in exploring and mapping the region. Vasco da Gama sailed along the Pondoland coast around Christmas 1497, naming the territory Terra do Natal, after the Portuguese word for Christmas. The name Natal has stuck. Some modern South African toponyms are simply English translations of earlier Portuguese renderings: thus Cape of Good Hope was shown on early maps as Cabo da Boa Esperança.

The Dutch and Germans of course also had their colonial adventures in southern Africa, and both countries left their imprint on the region’s maps. From the unmistakably German town of Lüderitz in Namibia (named in 1883 after a tobacco merchant from Bremen) to Dutch-styled Amersfoort and Amsterdam (both in Mpumalanga province, formerly Eastern Transvaal, in South Africa), maps recall the dreams of settlers from Europe.

These imported place names create very dissonant cartographies. Last year we drove through South Africa’s Free State province, following a highway from Westminster to Kilmarnock, en route passing close to Marseilles. Last Christmas Eve, we stopped briefly in the small South African town of Bethlehem, where there really is a River Jordaan (note the extra ‘a’). And on New Year’s Day this year, we stood in midsummer heat on an abandoned railway platform in Free State where a barely legible sign revealed that this forgotten railway station was called Bolivia. Quite why we shall never know!

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About the authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.

This article was published in hidden europe 49.