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The Mysterious Lost City of the Kalahari

Sprawled out over approximately 350,000 square miles of the African countries of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa is a vast expanse of arid, sandy savanna wilderness known as the Kalahari Desert. The word “Kalahari” comes from the local Tswana word Kgala, meaning “the great thirst”, or Kgalagadi, meaning “a waterless place,” and the Kalahari Desert certainly looks the part, with immense swaths of land that look like something from some inhospitable alien planet, all twisted scrub, gnarled dead trees and contorted rocks, and shifting red sands devoid of any source of water. This is for the most part a forbidding moonscape of a place, and it was long a domain that may as well have been on another world for outsiders, yet in 1885 one of the first Westerners to ever set foot within these badlands ventured out into an uncharted area of the Kalahari Desert and would lay eyes upon a great mystery that still remains unexplained.

The expedition was carried out by a American explorer and entertainer from New York by the name of William Leonard Hunt, who in his native land made a living performing death defying stunts such as tightrope walks over the Niagara Falls, as well as exhibiting African bushmen like a human zoo, and usually went by his alias Guillermo Farini or “The Great Farini.” In February of 1885, he set out from Cape Town South Africa, along with a contingent of fellow adventurers, some native guides, and his son, Lulu. The goal of the trip was not particularly noble, they were not there to map out a new realm of the planet or catalogue its new plants, animals, and people, but rather they were there to get rich by seeking out diamonds, which Farini had heard the region was brimming with. The adventurers penetrated out into an area of the desert never before seen by the outside world, and when they returned they did so with quite the tale to tell.

The Kalahari Desert

Upon his return to civilization, Farini immediately went about compiling a report of his findings, which he presented to the Berlin Geographical Society in 1885 and the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain in 1886, shortly after followed by a book on what he had seen and experienced out in those sun scorched wilds, titled Through the Kalahari Desert. One of the main events of these reports and the book was an account of coming across the ruins of some what looked to have been a once great city out there half-buried in the blood reds sands, and which he estimated to have been thousands of years old. Farini would write of this enigmatic lost city:

We camped at the foot of the mountain – near a rocky ridge, which looked like a Chinese wall after an earthquake – it was the ruins of a huge structure, sometimes sanded in. We carefully inspected the ruins almost a mile long, they were a pile of huge hewn stones, and Here and there, the traces of cement were clearly visible between them … In general, the wall had the shape of a semicircle, inside of which, approximately forty feet apart, were piles of masonry in the shape of an oval or a blunt ellly The height of a foot and a half … As all of them were to some extent sanded, we ordered all our people to dig out the largest of them (and this work clearly did not suit them) and found that the sand had protected the junction from destruction.

 

Excavations took almost the whole day, which caused a lot of indignation in Jan. He could not understand why it was necessary to dig out the old stones, for him this activity seemed a waste of time … We began to dig up sand in the middle of the semicircle and discovered the footwall of the twentieth wide, lined with large stones. The top layer was composed of oblong stones placed at right angles to the bottom layer. This bridge was crossed by another one, forming as it were a Maltese cross. Apparently, in the center of it was once some altar, a column or a monument, as evidenced by the preserved foundation – dilapidated masonry. My son tried to find some hieroglyphics or inscriptions, but did not find anything. Then he took a few photographs and sketches. Let the people who know better than me judge them by when and by whom this city was built.

In general, the ancient city was described as being quite extensive and immense, and Farini would speculate that some great catastrophe had wiped it and its people out, whoever they may have been. Considering that there was not known to have ever been any great civilization to have ever inhabited that region, and that it seemed to match stories the bushman of the area had long told of lost cities hiding out in the sands, the account grew a great amount of interest at the time, and the allure of some ancient lost people hidden away within the remote Kalahari proved to be romantic and irresistible.

A sketch of the Lost City

Fueled by the reports, the sketches, and the photographic evidence provided by Farini, there have been numerous follow-up expeditions to try and find the Lost City of the Kalahari, and to date there have been about 30 such expeditions launched over the years, none which have managed to find anything quite so spectacular as what Farini described, and some have come back doubtful of the truth of the story. One such prominent expedition was launched in 1964 by a professor named A. J. Clement, who followed what he believed to have been Farini’s original route and came across a very odd rock formation out in the desert that he believed was the very same one Farini had encountered and which could have been mistaken for something manmade, but which he concluded was merely an anomalous natural formation, most likely caused by the erosion of a particular type of igneous rock called dolerite. Indeed, Clement expressed doubt that the region could have ever supported such a legendary city at all, and would say of the Lost City of the Kalahari:

The climatological history of the Kalahari does not appear to have undergone any marked change for several thousand years, and it is obvious that no settlement of the size indicated by Farini could exist without perennial rivers or lakes in the vicinity. And, suitable conditions for the establishment of a city cannot have existed along any of the river courses for tens of thousands of years. Furthermore, if the age of the Lost City is assessed in relation to Zimbabwe and the ancient ruins of Persia, it is impossible to conceive of any in the Kalahari having been built more than 15,000 years ago.

 

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.

Clement was right in the sense that there are many who have not let the legend die, and are still convinced the legendary city really does exist, with expeditions continuing all the way up the present and using new technology to help them. One recent search was carried out in 2013 by a crowd-sourced research project using Google Maps, called the Marcahuasi Project, which found anomalies in the desert that could be indicative of walls of the lost city, but it is still unknown if the images are of an ancient city, more recent abandoned irrigation circles for crops formed by the native tribes, or merely a natural formation.

Farini’s expedition in the Kalahari

Even more recently still was an expedition in 2016 by the Travel Channel series Destination Unknown, headed by explorer and host Josh Gates and equipped with state of the art technology such as aerial scans and radar. They managed to find some unusual rock formations that resemble walls and ruins, but again it is unknown if they are artificial or if they were really what Farini wrote of. One of the problems with locating the Lost City is that the area is just so remote and inhospitable, and this coupled with its sheer size makes it a formidable task to try and locate these alleged ancient ruins among the endless sands and desert scrub. Not helping matters is that Farini did not give very detailed descriptions of the actual location, and this is further exacerbated by the fact that the ruins are supposedly half buried. One member of one of the many expeditions that have tried and failed to find the city once lamented:

It’s all very vague. When you see this desert, you will understand that you can wander among the sand dunes for months and not even come close to the places where the lost city is located.

The Lost City of the Kalahari described by Farini has gone on to become a legendary, almost mythical place in the same realm as places like Atlantis, and there have been many theories as to its existence. Some think it is a real place, perhaps a city once built and abandoned by its creators due to a great drought or even that of a thriving lost civilization. Others, like Clement, think it is likely just misidentified natural rock formations. Still others point to Farini’s showman background, and claim that the whole report, the sketches, and even the photographs were likely faked, that it was all a big hoax. Considering that Farini is the only one to have documented the city in any appreciable way, and the vast stretches of harsh terrain involved, if there really is a city out there then it is very possible that it will remain buried and hidden, as it has for thousands of years and just might for thousands more yet to come.