The First Safari

Ian Glenn

Jacana Media, October 2018

264 pages


François Levaillant was the first and greatest South African birder, the first major figure of modern ornithology, the creator of the first safari, the first anthropologist of the Cape and our first investigative reporter criticising colonial brutality. He predicted the rebellion of the frontier Boers and was the first to portray the dilemmas of coloured identity. His work in creating beautifully illustrated bird books of his time inspired a map for King Louis XVI that has become the most valuable African map ever produced. His Travels into the Interior of Africa was a best seller across Europe and the most widely translated text on South Africa until Nelson Mandela’s autobiography two centuries later.

This book tells how, for a quarter of a century, a South African researcher searched for Levaillant’s travel notebooks and the fate of his collection and tried to solve the puzzles and mysteries of Levaillant’s life and times. Glen’s search took him from the banks of the Orange River to the vaults of the Paris Museum where no Dan Brown hero ever went, facing 30 000 dead birds alone in search of Levaillant’s legacy; from tracing Levaillant’s travels to Theefontein and Pampoenkraal and Kokskraal to the Bloubok exhibit in the hall of extinct animals in Paris’s Natural History Museum; from encounters with billionaires to interactions with French archivists. Glenn’s experiences show that research means searching.

This book is intended for would-be researchers, for people wondering why writers as various as Nicolas Chamfort, Karel Schoeman, JM Coetzee and Michel Leiris admired Levaillant, for teachers looking for a new start for South African literature and for people interested in the bush or birding who want to know why Levaillant was our greatest naturalist.


Ian Glenn has edited and co-translated an English translation of Levaillant’s Voyage into the Interior of Africa for the Van Riebeeck Society and co-authored the Brenthurst Press edition of François Levaillant and the Birds of Africa. He has written or co-authored many scholarly articles on Levaillant and curated the King’s Map exhibition at the Iziko Museum in 2012–2013. Ian Glenn studied at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, the University of York, England and the University of Pennsylvania from which he graduated. He taught in and was head of the Department of English at the University of Cape Town and then helped found a new Centre for Film and Media Studies of which he was director and first professor of Media Studies. He is Emeritus Professor of Media Studies at UCT and a research associate at the University of the Free State. His current research interests include rhino poaching and the history of wildlife.

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