The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in Southern Africa/Chapter V

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The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in Southern Africa by Jules Verne
Chapter V
Meridiana: The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in South Africa.

CHAPTER V.
A HOTTENTOT VILLAGE.
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The voyage along the upper course of the river was soon accomplished, and although the weather soon became rainy, the passengers, comfortably installed in the ship's cabin, suffered no inconvenience from the torrents of rain which usually fall at that season. The “Queen and Czar” shot along rapidly, for there were neither rapids nor shallows, and the current was not sufficiently strong to retard her progress.

Every aspect of the river-banks was enchanting; forest followed upon forest, and quite a world of birds dwell among the leafy branches. Here and there were groups of trees belonging to the family of the “proteaceæ,” and especially the “wagenboom” with its reddish marbled-wood forming a curious contrast with its deep blue leaves and large pale yellow flowers: then there were the “zwartebasts” with their black bark, and the “karrees” with dark evergreen foliage. The banks were shaded every where by weeping willows, while the underwood extended beyond for several miles. Every now and then vast open tracks presented themselves unexpectedly, large plains, covered with innumerable colocynths, mingled with “sugar-bushes,” out of which flew clouds of sweet-singing little birds, called “suiker-vogels” by the Cape colonists.

The winged world offered many varieties, all of which were pointed out to Sir John Murray by the bushman. Sir John was a great lover of game, both hairy and feathered, and thus a sort of intimacy arose between him and Mokoum, to whom, according to Colonel Everest's promise, he had given an excellent long-range rifle, made on the Pauly system. It would be useless to attempt a description of the bushman's delight when he found himself in possession of such a splendid weapon.

The two hunters understood each other well, for though so learned, Sir John Murray passed for one of the most brilliant fox-hunters in old Caledonia, and he listened to the bushman's stories with an interest amounting to envy. His eyes sparkled when Mokoum showed him the wild ruminants in the woods; here a herd of fifteen to twenty giraffes; there, buffaloes six feet high, with towering black horns: farther on, fierce gnus with horses' tails; and again, herds of “caamas,” a large kind of deer, with bright eyes, and horns forming a threatening-looking triangle; and every where, in the dense forests as well as in the open plains, the innumerable varieties of antelopes which abound in Southern Africa; the spurious chamois, the gems-bok, the gazelle, the duiker-bok, and the spring-bok. Was not all this something to tempt a hunter, and could the fox-hunts of the Scottish lowlands vie with the exploits of a Gumming, an Anderson, or a Baldwin?

It must be confessed that Sir John Murray's companions were less excited than himself at these magnificent specimens of wild game. William Emery was watching his colleagues attentively, and trying to discover their character under their cold exterior. Colonel Everest and Matthew Strux, men of about the same age, were equally cold, reserved, and formal; they always spoke with a measured slowness, and from morning to night it seemed as if they had never met before. That any intimacy should ever be established between two such important personages was a thing not to be hoped for; two icebergs, placed side by side would join in time, but two scientific men, each holding a high position, never.

Nicholas Palander, a man of about fifty-five years of age, was one of those who have never been young, and who will never be old. The astronomer of Helsingfors, constantly absorbed in his calculations, might be a very admirably constructed machine, but still he was nothing but a machine, a kind of abacus, or universal reckoner. He was the calculator of the Anglo-Russian Commission, and one of those prodigies who work out multiplications to five figures in their head, like a fifty-year-old Mondeux.

Michael Zorn more nearly resembled William Emery in age, enthusiasm, and good humour. His amiable qualities did not prevent his being an astronomer of great merit, having attained an early celebrity. The discoveries made by him at the Kiew Observatory concerning the nebula of Andromeda had attracted attention in scientific Europe, and yet with this undoubted merit he had a great deal of modesty, and was always in the background.

William Emery and Michael Zorn were becoming great friends, united by the same tastes and aspirations; and most generally they were talking together, while Colonel Everest and Matthew Strux were coldly watching each other, and Palander was mentally extracting cube roots without noticing the lovely scenes on the banks, and Sir John Murray and the bushman were forming plans for hunting down whole hecatombs of victims.

No incident marked the voyage along the upper course of the Orange. Sometimes the granite cliffs which shut in the winding bed of the river seemed to forbid further progress, and often the wooded islands which dotted the current seemed to render the route uncertain; but the bushman never hesitated, and the “Queen and Czar” always chose the right route, and passed round the cliffs without hindrance. The helmsman never had to repent of having followed Mokoum's directions.

In four days the steamboat had passed over the 240 miles between the cataract of Morgheda and the Kuruman, an affluent which flowed exactly past the town of Lattakoo, whither Colonel Everest's expedition was bound. About thirty leagues above the falls the river bends from its general direction, which is east and west, and flows southeast as far as the acute angle which the territory of Cape Colony makes in the north, and then turning to the northeast, it loses itself in the wooded country of the Transvaal Republic.

It was early in the morning of the 5th of February, in a driving rain, that the “Queen and Czar” arrived at Klaarwater, a Hottentot village, close to the meeting of the Orange and Kuruman. Colonel Everest, unwilling to lose a moment, passed quickly by the few Bochjesmen cabins that form the village, and under the pressure of her screw, the vessel began to ascend the affluent. The rapid current was to be attributed, as the passengers remarked, to a peculiarity in the river, for the Kuruman being wide at its source, was lessened as it descended by the influence of the sun's rays; but at this season, swollen by the rains, and further increased by the waters of a sub-affluent, the Moschona, it became very deep and rapid. The fires were therefore made up, and the vessel ascended the Kuruman at the rate of three miles an hour.

During the voyage the bushman pointed out a good many hippopotami in the water; but these great pachyderms, clumsy, thickset beasts, from eight to ten feet long, which the Dutch at the Cape call “sea-cows,” were by no means of an aggressive nature, and the hissing of the steam and the panting of the screw quite frightened them, the boat appearing to them like some great monster which they ought to distrust, and in fact, the arsenal on board would have rendered approach very difficult. Sir John Murray would have very much liked to try his explosive bullets on the fleshy masses, but the bushman assured him that there would be no lack of hippopotami in the more northerly rivers, so he determined to wait for a more favourable opportunity.

The 150 miles which separated the mouth of the Kuruman from the station of Lattakoo were traversed in fifty hours, and on the 7th of February the travellers had reached the end of their journey.

As soon as the steamboat was moored to the bank which served as a quay, a man of fifty years of age, with a grave air but kind countenance, stepped on board, and offered his hand to William Emery, The astronomer introduced the new-comer to his travelling companions, as—

“The Rev. Thomas Dale, of the London Missionary Society, Governor of the station of Lattakoo.”

The Europeans bowed to Mr. Dale, who gave them welcome, and put himself at their service.

The town of Lattakoo, or rather the village of that name is the most northerly of the Cape Missionary stations, and is divided into Old and New. The first, which the “Queen and Czar” now reached, had 12,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the century, but they have since emigrated to the north-east, and the town, now fallen into decay, has been replaced by New Lattakoo, which is built close by, on a plain which was formerly covered with acacias, and thither Mr. Dale conducted the Europeans. It consisted of about forty groups of houses, and contained 5000 or 6000 inhabitants of the tribe of the Bechuanas.

Dr. Livingstone stayed in this town for three months before his first voyage up the Zambesi in 1840, previously to crossing the whole of Central Africa, from the bay of Loanda to the port of Kilmana on the coast of Mozambique.

When they reached New Lattakoo, Colonel Everest presented a letter from Dr. Livingstone, which commended the Anglo-Russian Commission to his friends in South Africa. Mr. Dale read it with much pleasure, and returned it to the Colonel, saying that he might find it useful on his journey, as the name of David Livingstone was known and honoured throughout that part of Africa.

The members of the Commission were lodged in the missionary establishment, a large house built on an eminence and surrounded by an impenetrable hedge like a fortification. The Europeans could be more comfortably lodged here than with the Bechuanas; not that their dwellings were not kept properly in order; on the contrary, the smooth clay floors did not show a particle of dust, and the long-thatched roofs were quite rain-proof; but at best, their houses were little better than huts with a round hole for a door, hardly large enough to admit a man; moreover, they all lived in common, and close contact with the Bechuanas would scarcely have been agreeable.

The chief of the tribe, one Moulibahan, lived at Lattakoo, and thought it right to come and pay his respects to the Europeans. He was rather a fine man, without the thick lips and flat nose of the negro, with a round face not so shrunken in its lower part as that of the other Hottentots. He was dressed in a cloak of skins, sewn together with considerable art, and an apron called a “pujoke.” He wore a leather skull-cap, and sandals of ox-hide: ivory rings were wound round his arms, and from his ears hung brass plates about four inches long—a kind of ear-ring—which is also a charm; an antelope's tail stood up in his skull-cap, and his hunting-stick was surmounted by a tuft of small black ostrich feathers. The natural colour of his body was quite invisible through the thick coating of ochre with which he was besmeared from head to foot, while some ineffaceable incisions in his legs denoted the number of enemies he had slain.

The chief, as grave as Matthew Strux himself, stepped up to the Europeans, and took them in turn by the nose. The Russians permitted this to be done quite gravely, the English rather more reluctantly, but still it had to be done, for according to African custom, it denoted a solemn engagement to fulfil the duties of hospitality to the Europeans.

When the ceremony was over, Moulibahan retired without having uttered a word.

“And now that we are naturalized Bechuanas,” said Colonel Everest, “let us begin our operations without losing a day or an hour.”

And indeed no time was lost; still, such is the variety of detail required in the organization of an expedition of this character, the Commission was not ready to start until the beginning of March. That, however, was the time appointed by Colonel Everest; because then the rainy season just being over, the water, preserved in the fissures of the earth, would furnish a valuable resource to travellers in the desert.

On the 2nd of March, then, the whole caravan, under Mokoum's command, was ready. The Europeans took farewell of the missionaries at Lattakoo, and left the village at seven o'clock in the morning.

“Where are we going, Colonel?” asked William Emery, as the caravan passed the last house in the town.

“Straight on, Mr. Emery,” answered the Colonel, “until we reach a suitable place for establishing a base.”

At eight o'clock the caravan had passed over the low shrubby hills which skirt the town, and soon the desert, with its dangers, fatigues, and risks, lay unfolded before the travellers.