Lake Ngami/Chapter 10

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A Christmas in the Desert.—Mr. Galton's Return from the Erongo Mountain.—He passes numerous Villages.—Great Drought; the Natives have a Choice of two Evils.—The Hill-Damaras.—The Damaras a Pastoral People.—The whole country Public Property.—Enormous herds of Cattle.—They are as destructive as Locusts to the Vegetation.—Departure from Richterfeldt.—The Author kills an Oryx.—The Oxen refractory.—Danger of traversing dry Watercourses on the approach of the Rainy Season.—Message from the Robber-chief Jonker.—Emeute among the Servants.—Depart for Schmelen's Hope.

We had now been rather more than four months in the country, and Christmas had imperceptibly stolen upon us. Singularly enough, though I kept a journal, I was not aware of the fact until one morning the men came to wish me a "merry Christmas." A merry Christmas! alas! there were no merry children—no joyous feast—no Christmas trees or other indication of "the hallowed and gracious time." One day was of the same importance to us as another. Moreover, our store of grocery, &c., was too scant to enable our cook to produce us a plum-pudding, or any of those dainty dishes that even the working-man in civilized countries would be sorry to be without at this season. Fortunately, we had now so accustomed ourselves to "bush-diet," that we did not even feel the want of what others might deem to be the necessaries of life. Constant exposure to the fresh air and perpetual exercise had so greatly increased our appetites, and improved our digestive powers, that, though we might not, like the natives, demolish a "yard" or so of flesh at a meal, we could, nevertheless, play our part at meals as well as any London alderman; in fact, we could eat at all times, and scarcely any thing ever came amiss. A draft of water from the pure spring, and a piece of dried meat just warmed in the hot ashes, was as much relished by us as a glass of sparkling pale ale and a slice of Yorkshire ham would have been in Europe.

In this way we managed to live on cheerfully and agreeably; yet thoughts of home, with all its comforts, and friends dear to memory, would now and then flash across our minds. Such reflections, however, we tried to avoid, as they only served to sadden us.

On the morning of the 26th of December Galton returned from his excursion to Erongo. He had been suffering from fever, and was right glad to find himself safe back at the encampment. The trip had been rather satisfactory. The chief result of it was an addition of about twenty oxen, and double that number of sheep and goats, to our live-stock. We were now pretty well provided against all emergences, at least for some time to come. Galton had, moreover, ascended the mountain, with which he expressed himself much struck and pleased. He fully corroborated the story of the natives as to its impregnability, for it was accessible only in one or two places, and these could easily be defended against a whole army by a mere handful of men.

In round numbers, it was about three thousand feet above the level of the plain, and extended in a straight line upward of fifteen miles. The vegetation appeared very much the same as elsewhere in Damara-land, but perhaps more rank. The wild fig-tree grew rather plentifully among the crevices of the rocks, and the travelers obtained an abundance of the fruit, which was very palatable.

Erongo was only inhabited by Hill-Damaras, under the rule of different petty chiefs. From all accounts, they were possessed of numerous herds of cattle; but my friend only saw their tracks, as the natives were unwilling to sell or to exhibit any of the animals. They waged an exterminating war with the Damaras, who lived in the plains below, and, having seen the party pass unmolested through the territory of their mortal enemies, they were naturally suspicious as to their motive. They probably thought that Mr. Galton had come with a view to spy out and reconnoitre their stronghold, and then to return with re-enforcements in order to carry off their cattle.

Both in going and coming Galton had passed through several large villages of Damaras, who complained bitterly of the severe drought, which was daily carrying off numbers of their stock. The only place that still afforded grass and water in tolerable abundance was the country bordering on the River Swakop; but there they feared the Namaquas. However, they had only two alternatives—either to risk being plundered by these unscrupulous people, or to perish, with their cattle, from hunger and thirst. The first of these was thought the least of the two, and they were, therefore, gradually approaching the dangerous district. Indeed, several kraals had already been established at Richterfeldt.

Being entirely a pastoral people, the Damaras have no notions of permanent habitations. The whole country is considered public property. As soon as the grass is eaten off or the water exhausted in one place, they move away to another. Notwithstanding this, and the loose notions generally entertained by them as to meum and tuum, there is an understanding that he who arrives first at any given locality is the master of it as long as he chooses to remain there, and no one will intrude upon him without having previously asked and obtained his permission. The same is observed even with regard to strangers. Thus the once powerful chief Kahichenè was anxious to take up his quarters at Richterfeldt; but, acting on the understanding described, he first dispatched some of his head men to Mr. Rath, to ascertain from him how far he was agreeable to his proposal. The reverend gentleman replied that their master could do as he liked in this matter, as he himself was but a stranger, and quently could not lay any claim to the soil. However, the messengers would not listen to this, and told him that their chief would never think of intruding without having obtained special permission to do so.

At this period Kahichenè was supposed to be the richest and most potent chieftain throughout the country. His wealth, of course, consisted solely in oxen and sheep. To give some idea of the number he then possessed, I will state that, early on the day after the interview just mentioned had taken place, the first droves began to make their appearance, and continued to arrive, without intermission, till late in the evening of the second day. Moreover, they did not come in files of one or two, but the whole bed and banks of the Swakop were actually covered with one living mass of oxen; and, after all, this was but a small portion of what he really owned. In the space of three short weeks not a blade of grass or green thing was to be met with for many miles on either side of Richterfeldt. Indeed, a person unacquainted with the real cause of this desolation would have been likely to attribute it to the devastating influence of that scourge of Africa, the locust.

Much valuable time had hitherto been lost in obtaining information of the country and the inhabitants, in buying and breaking-in of cattle, and so forth, and this without our having accomplished any considerable distance. We were now in hopes, however, of being able to prosecute our journey in earnest, and no time was lost in making the final arrangements for our departure. Our intended route lay to the north of Richterfeldt; but as the country was said to be very hilly and densely wooded, we deemed it advisable to proceed viâ Barmen. As hardly mules enough were left to draw the cart, it was thought best to leave it behind in charge of Mr. Rath, who kindly promised to look after it in our absence. The two wagons were thought sufficiently large to contain ourselves and baggage.

The oxen, which from the beginning had been only partially broken-in, were now, from their long rest, wild, refractory, and unmanageable in the extreme. Before we could effectually secure the two spans (teams) necessary for the wagons, several hours had elapsed, and it was not till late in the afternoon of the 30th of December, 1850, that we were able to bid a final farewell to Richterfeldt and its obliging inhabitants.

We made but little progress the first day; and when we bivouacked for the night, which was on the right bank of the Swakop, we were only three hours' journey from the missionary station. Indeed, we were obliged to come to an early halt in consequence of the mules and some of the oxen having taken themselves off.

During the night we were serenaded by whole troops of lions and hyænas. One of the latter had the boldness to come within the encampment, and only retreated after an obstinate combat with the dogs. In the bed of the river, moreover, and where our cattle had been drinking during the night, we discovered a spot where a lion had made a dash at a zebra, but his prey had evidently disappointed him.

Next morning, without waiting for the return of the men who had been sent in search of the missing animals, I shouldered my gun and went in advance, in the hope of procuring a few specimens of natural history, as also of meeting with game of some kind or other; nor was I disappointed. At a bend of the river I suddenly encountered a fine herd of oryxes or gemsboks, the supposed South African unicorn. As they dashed across my path at double-quick time, and at least one hundred and fifty yards in advance, I fired at the leading animal (which proved a full-grown female), and had the satisfaction to see it drop to the shot. On going up to my prize, I found that the ball—a conical one—had passed clean through both shoulders, and this was, perhaps, somewhat remarkable, as the gun-barrel was smooth in the bore. Having carefully removed the skin, with the head attached to it, I set to work to quarter the flesh, which was rather a laborious task.

Though it was winter (January), the day was oppressively hot, and the leafless thorn-trees afforded no shelter against the burning rays of the sun. I suffered excessively from thirst, and, unfortunately, the wagons did not overtake me till after sunset. The Damaras yelled with delight at the sight of the oryx. They had a glorious gorge that night, and the return of daylight found them still at their feast!

With the exception of a heavy thunder-storm, accompanied by a deluge of rain, our journey to Barmen was marked by no farther incident worth recording. We reached it in safety on the 9th of January, 1851, after seven days' travel, half of which would have been sufficient under ordinary circumstances; but we had experienced very considerable difficulties in getting our wagons forward. The oxen pulled well enough so long as the country was level, but the moment they had to face a hill they came to a stand, and no amount of flogging would induce them to move. When the whip was applied, it only produced a furious bellowing, kicking, tossing of heads, switching of tails, and so forth. On such occasions they would not unfrequently twist themselves entirely round in the yoke, and it often took a whole hour to put them to rights again.

On account of the thick wood and general ruggedness of the country, the dry beds of periodical water-courses afford the only really practicable road. On the approach of the rainy season, however, these are not always safe; for, when in imagined security, the traveler may perhaps all at once find himself in the midst of a foaming torrent. If the oxen are not well trained, most serious results are to be dreaded. There are many instances of wagons with their teams having been thus surprised and swept away. Our fears on this head, therefore, were not quieted until we were in full view of the missionary-house at Barmen. Indeed, it was high time, for on the third day of our arrival there the Swakop sent down its mighty flood.

The first showers of rain, it should be remarked, usually fall as early as September and October, but the rainy season does not fairly set in until December and January.

A letter from Jonker Afrikaner was awaiting our arrival, expressing a wish that Mr. Galton, in person, would pay him an early visit, that they might confer together on the affairs of the country. My friend was at first a little undecided how to act, as it might only have been a ruse of the crafty chief to entrap him. However, as, under 'every circumstance, it would be better to know his real intentions than to be kept in constant uncertainty and suspense, he determined, as soon as circumstances permitted, to comply with Jonker's desire.

When we bade farewell to Richterfeldt, it was in the firm conviction that the principal obstacles to the expedition had been removed; but we were sadly mistaken. Under different pretexts, the natives whom we had engaged suddenly refused to proceed any further. Even the man who had first drawn our attention to the Lake Omanbonde, and who seemed to be the only one acquainted with it, threatened to leave us. Our Cape servants also became somewhat sulky and discontented. Indeed, two of them, Gabriel and John Waggoner, whom the reader will remember as having already given us some trouble, demanded and obtained their dismissal. Thus circumstanced, it was out of the question to think of immediately carrying our plan into execution. We felt excessively annoyed, and our stock of patience was well-nigh exhausted. Still, we did not give up all hope of ultimate success.

Barmen, however, was ill suited as an encampment; for, though agreeable enough as a residence for ourselves, grass for the cattle was scarce and distant. Mr. Hahn advised us to push on to Schmelen's Hope, situated at about fifteen miles to the northward, where, inasmuch as there had not been any natives dwelling of late, we should find abundance of pasturage. Accordingly, we acted on his suggestion, and in the afternoon of the 13th of January were established at that place.