A couple of years ago I was very lucky enough to do a road trip from South Africa all the way up to Uganda and back. Together with four other intrepid explorers we bought an old Toyota Hilux – that already had 300 000km on the clock – kitted it out with a fridge and a GPS, loaded all of our bags and supplies into the back and set off into the wild blue yonder. It was the most exciting feeling leaving Durban and heading North into the interior of the continent, unsure of what adventures and stories lay ahead of us.

Bearing in mind that all of this took place in 2010 I cannot even fathom the level of excitement, nerves, anxiety and ambition that Francois Levaillant, a French explorer and naturalist, must have had when he left Cape Town on the 18th of December, 1781, with his sights set on exploring Africa and documenting his adventures and discoveries.

Francois Levaillant: French explorer, naturalist, ornithologist, painter, writer and taxidermist.

He was a young, larger than life character that by all accounts seemed to charm everyone he met on his travels. He was one of the few great explorers of that era that treated and described the African people without prejudice, and he built a great rapport with the large group of Khoikhoi camp followers that joined his expedition. This was evidenced as he traveled by how long his wagon train grew to. Who wouldn’t want to follow and observe the shenanigans of this eccentric Frenchman who adopted a rooster for his alarm clock as well as a pet baboon, called Kees, who became his source of humour, food taster, companion and security guard?

The purpose of his trip was to collect bird, animal and insect samples for a wealthy businessman from Holland and return these samples back to Europe where they could be appropriately recorded and taxonomically referenced. Fortunately for Levaillant he was well supplied and had enough trade goods to barter with, ensuring him safe passage through supposedly hostile territories, giving him the chance to marvel at the unspoilt beauty of Southern Africa and all of it’s natural wonders. On his return to France he remarked how South Africa was one of the most “fascinatingly exotic destinations in this world.”

Francois Levaillant, depicted in this painting at one of his camps he set up on his travels through South Africa.

He made a name for himself as a painter, writer, scholar and taxidermist but was probably best known for his ornithological work and that is why I am celebrating him today. On his travels around South Africa he recorded a number of bird species that had never been documented before and still to this day the names he gave them live on. However, it’s the stories behind those names that I find most fascinating, as well as his tendency towards ignoring the naming standards as prescribed by the scientific community he presented his findings to. Instead of sticking to the norm, he chose rather to use French names for his findings or to name them after someone close to him.

For example, after observing an african eagle rocking its wings back and forth, seemingly to regain balance, Levaillant likened it to a tight rope walker and named it the Bateleur (French for tight-rope walker or tumbler). There was also the case of Narina, a young Gonaqua woman, whom he became infatuated with and after whom the beautiful Narina Trogon was named. His loyal assistant and bird-trapper, Klaas, was also not forgotten and is recognized in the Klaas’s Cuckoo that we see today.

The Bateleur Eagle with it’s outstretched wings resembling a tight-rope walker as noted by Francois Levaillant. Photograph by Mike Sutherland

The exquisite Narina Trogon whose name was inspired by Levaillant’s infatuation with a Gonaqua woman bearing that name. Photograph by Adam Bannister

The Klaas’s Cuckoo who was named after Levaillant’s loyal assistant and bird-trapper. Photograph by James Souchon

Other naturalists were left to assign binomial names to his other discoveries, some of which celebrated Levaillant’s own name. People with an interest in birding may recognize Levaillant’s Barbet, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Levaillant’s Parrot, Levaillant’s Tchagra and Levaillant’s Woodpecker.

Francois Levaillant was just one of a host of colourful characters that documented their travels through Africa during the golden age of exploring. I’ve only managed to just scrape the surface of his stories and the more I read the more fascinated I become. I know I am romanticizing the time because there must have been plenty of hardships, dangers and troubles along the way but a part of me is jealous that I was not a part of it.

Levaillant carved his name, as per tradition, into the walls of the Heerenlogement Cave in the Western Cape on his travels in 1783.

As a guide at Londolozi, it’s the stories of people like Francois Levaillant that remind us of times gone by and how there is so much more to every flower, bird, animal or insect that we see here. There’s a story of discovery and adventure behind almost every one of them no matter how seemingly mundane they may appear to be. It’s up to us to keep those stories alive, especially in today’s world when looking after our wildlife and wilderness areas has never been more important.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Henry David Thoreau, who, amongst other things, was an American naturalist best known for his book Walden, which was a reflection on simple living in one’s natural surroundings.

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

Filed under Birds Wildlife

About the Author

James Souchon

Field Guide

James started his guiding career at the world-renowned Phinda Game Reserve, spending four years learning about and showing guests the wonder of the incredibly rich biodiversity that the Maputaland area of South Africa has to offer. Having always wanted to guide in the ...

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8 Comments

on Celebrating a Valiant Frenchman

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Tam
Guest

Souch – loved this. Such an interesting and different read. Walked away with some new knowledge 🙂 Thanks

Cindy Tyrrell
Guest

An excellent and fascinating article James! Indeed, LeVallant was an amazing biologist and painter, as well as ‘a man without prejudice’…..something we could all try and emulate these days! It is tragic that he apparently died in poverty, after all he richly contributed to the recordings of ornithology and more.

David Attenborough
Guest

Nice Blog, James and I’m with you in that I would have loved to have explored Southern Africa a hundred or more years ago

Lynne
Guest

Thank you for that interesting story.

Jill Larone
Guest

James, thank you for this very interesting blog and beautiful pictures!

Henk
Guest

Love it Shoeshine!

Jacqueline Mervaillie
Guest

James, you might wish to know that Levaillant’s surname translated into English means “the brave”. A well-deserved name…

James Tyrrell

Merci, Jacqueline!
Indeed, a lot of English words, like ‘valour’ and ‘valiant’ are derived from French.
Looking forward to your visit this year 🙂 There are a few cubs around at the moment that I’m sure you’re eager to see.
Please give my best regards to Yves!

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