I'm currently reading 'The diamond diggings of South Africa' by Charles Payton, a first-hand account of a visit to the diamond mines in 1871.

On page 80 it says

For the first fortnight from leaving Algoa Bay we use to "trek" chiefly by night, seldom traveling after 8 a.m. till about 4 p.m., then perhaps moving on till 9, "tying up" oxen till 12 or 1 a.m., and then going on again till daylight.

And on page 83

When at length, on the evening of the 30th May, after a rather rough crossing of the Modder River in the dark...

It seems to me that it's one thing to travel at night in a modern vehicle with headlights on modern roads which often have streetlights and enough general illumination from nearby cities to see where you're going. But in the frontier era, with no headlights, no city lights to speak of, it would be pitch dark at night; how was travel at night possible? How would you manage to stay on the road, even?

And why? I could understand if the daytime temperature were unbearably hot, but late May in the southern hemisphere is early winter, and the rest of the text confirms that the temperature in that time and place was if anything uncomfortably chilly. What benefit was gained from traveling at night?

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    You can often see and find your way reasonably well in moonlight. This depends a bit on the circumstances (moonlight + snow = great, moonlight + some hard-to-see path = bad). If the road had a light color and the area next to the road was dark (or the other way around) it is not hard to stay on the road.
    – Jan
    Sep 10, 2020 at 7:51
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    Were the local indigenous people hostile & what about the local wildlife? A moving target is always more difficult to attack that a stationary one that is sleeping in the dark of night. A wagon "train" at night would make some noise while traveling. Such noise might be enough to spook the nocturnal wildlife & keep them away from the trekkers. If wildlife is active during the night it's sleeping during the day & thus less problematic to the trekkers.
    – Fred
    Sep 10, 2020 at 10:11
  • @Fred The rest of the text repeatedly emphasized how friendly the people and country were. The one time the author had a tense confrontation with a leopard, he fully expected it to be more afraid of him than he was of it, which did not suggest a fearsome enough threat to design travel schedule around.
    – rwallace
    Sep 10, 2020 at 10:43

1 Answer 1


Bloemfontein is semi-tropical high plains (1400 metres ASL) with temperatures even in July, its mid winter, not far off what most temperate communities in North America and Western Europe might see in April or September.

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As shown, freezing temperatures are rare even in the depths of "winter".

El Paso Texas is probably the closest U.S. comparable, though slightly further from the equator and not quite as high.

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    Useful context, but not answering the question ?
    – Evargalo
    Sep 10, 2020 at 8:20
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    Those "average" temperatures are a little misleading. -5°C at 5am in midwinter is a regular occurrence in Bloemfontein, with highs around 20°C (I went to a boarding school there. See, for example the July 2020 temperatures which also shows average highs & lows). Temperatures below 0°C are less common in late May, but still not infrequent. Sep 10, 2020 at 8:43
  • @Evergalo: Travelling at night might keep you cool when it is warm outside (at noon) and warm when it is cold outside (in the mornings). Not sure if this really is the reason, though.
    – Jan
    Sep 11, 2020 at 10:29

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