The South African donkey, which originates from North Africa, is still used as a means of transport in rural communities. Originally introduced by missionaries centuries ago, the donkey holds a special place in the Kalahari. A memorial to the working donkey stands proud in Upington.

Did you know?

The use of the North African donkey to cross the Sahara was replaced by the camel in the 3rd Century AD.

Standing – frozen in bronze – in front of the Kalahari-Oranje Museum in Upington in the Northern Cape is the figure of a donkey harnessed to a crushing mill.

This donkey memorial is dedicated to the many beasts that worked – and died – during the early days of the Lower Orange River Valley development.

The museum itself displays articles and dioramas depicting life along the Orange at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Today, the Orange River Valley is one of South Africa’s most fertile fruit-producing areas. Farmers here specialise in export-quality grapes.

Back in 1929, while South Africa was in the dual hardship grip of drought and the Great Depression, the government decided to build the Buchuberg Dam about 120km south-west of Upington to tame the lower reaches of the Orange River, South Africa's longest river, for irrigation purposes.

The 350 men employed here worked by hand, using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. Toiling in daytime temperatures of more than 40 degrees Celsius – and by oil lamp at night – they often called upon the assistance of donkeys in their efforts. One worker included them in his ode to the Buchuberg project workers:

‘Yapping dogs and donkeys bray

Troubled callers every day

Tattered clothes in bright array

Does the pay cart come this way?

The donkeys you see all over South Africa today – mostly pulling carts – originate from those tiny little asses bred in Europe, Asia and North Africa centuries ago. In many countries, the noble donkey has become a household pet. In South Africa, however, donkeys are, literally, the workhorses of rural communities.

Many city dwellers think of donkeys as dumb animals. In fact, they are thoughtful, sensitive and handsome beasts with a highly developed sense of survival. That look he’s just given you is not the 1000-yard stare of stupidity – he’s actually gazing deep into your soul…

Travel tips & Planning info

Related articles