Lake Ngami/Chapter 12

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Wild-fowl abundant.—The Great Bustard.—The Termites.—Wild Bees.—Mushrooms.—The Chief Zwartbooi.—Return of Mr. Galton.—He makes a Treaty with Jonker.—He visits Rehoboth.—Misdoings of John Waggoner and Gabriel.—Change of Servants.—Swarm of Caterpillars.—A reconnoitring Expedition.—Thunder-storm.—The Omatako Mountains.—Zebra-flesh a God-send.—Tropical Phenomenon.—The Damaras not remarkable for Veracity.—Encamp in an Ant-hill.—Return to Schmelen's Hope.—Preparations for visiting Omanbondè.

We never fared better than at Schmelen's Hope. Besides the larger game mentioned, our table was plentifully supplied with geese, ducks. Guinea-fowls, francolins, grouse, and so forth. The large bustard (otis kori, Burch.), the South African paauw, was, moreover, very abundant, but so shy that to kill it, even with the rifle, was considered a dexterous exploit. One that I shot weighed no less than twenty-eight pounds. I have since repeatedly killed African ards of this species, but I never saw a second bird that attained more than two thirds of the weight just specified; usually they do not exceed fourteen or fifteen pounds. The flesh is very tender and palatable; indeed, to my notion, it is the best-flavored of all the game-birds found throughout this portion of South Africa.

It being now the breeding season, the numerous flocks of Guinea-fowls in the neighborhood afforded us a constant supply of fresh eggs, which, as has been said elsewhere, are excellent.

Schmelen's Hope swarmed with termites, or white ants.[1] My ideas of ant-hills were here, for the first time, realized; for some of the abodes of this interesting though destructive insect measured as much as one hundred feet in circumference at the base, and rose to about twenty in height! Termites are seldom seen in the daytime; but it is not an unusual thing, after having passed a night on the ground, to find skins, rugs, &c., perforated by them in a hundred different places.

In constructing their nests, the termites do not add to them externally, as with the species of ant common to England, but enlarge them from within by thrusting out, so to say, the wall. Their labors are commonly carried on in the dark, and at early morn each night's addition to the building may be discovered by its moisture. "They unite," says the "English Cyclopædia," "in societies composed each of an immense number of individuals, living in the ground and in trees, and often attacking the wood-work of houses, in which they form innumerable galleries, all of which lead to a central point. In forming these galleries they avoid piercing the surface of the wood-work, and hence it appears sound, when the slightest touch is sometimes sufficient to cause it to fall to pieces." This is a clear, and, I have no doubt, a correct account. I myself have often been astonished to find huge trees, apparently sound, crumble to pieces on being touched by the hand.

Wild bees very frequently make their nests in the gigantic dwellings of the termites. In some years bees are very numerous. The disposition of these insects would appear to be unusually quiet and forbearing. Indeed, I never knew a man to be stung by them when robbing their nests. Commonly, these are smoked in the first instance, but just as often (as I myself have many times witnessed) they are fearlessly approached, and plundered by the naked savage without this precaution.

It is another interesting fact in connection with the dwellings of the termites that, during the rainy season, mushrooms grow in great abundance on their sides. In size and flavor these mushrooms are far superior to any found in Europe. Care, however, must be taken in selecting them, for other fungi of a poisonous nature are almost identical in appearance. Two of the children of one of our Damaras were very nearly killed by eating some of these instead of mushrooms.

On the 6th of February I received a visit from a great Namaqua chieftain named William Zwartbooi, and found him a very agreeable old personage. He had met Mr. Galton not far from Eikhams, who had sent him to Schmelen's Hope to wait his return.

At one time this chief had robbed and massacred the Damaras in precisely a similar way as Jonker Afrikaner; but, thanks to the exertions of the missionaries, he had been gradually weaned from his evil practices, and was now living on excellent terms with his neighbors.

Jonker and Zwartbooi associated occasionally, but they were by no means well disposed toward each other. On one occasion, when the latter had expressed displeasure at his friend's inhuman proceedings against the Damaras, Jonker told him that if he (Zwartbooi) meddled with his affairs he would pay him such a visit as would put a stop to his devotions and make him cry for quarter.

Within Zwartbooi's territory was a mountain called Tans, where horses might pasture throughout the year without being exposed to the "paarde ziekte," the cruel distemper to which these animals are subject. Almost all the northern Namaquas, Jonker among the rest, are in the habit of sending their horses here during the sickly season.

On one occasion, when Jonker was about to make a "raid" on the Damaras, he sent an express to Zwartbooi for his horses; but this chief, having been apprised of the cause for which the steeds were wanted, refused, under some pretext, to give them up, and, while parleying, the favorable opportunity was lost. It seems Jonker never forgave Zwartbooi this act of treachery, as he called it, and determined, let the risk be whatever it might, never again to put himself in another man's power.

Two days after Zwartbooi's arrival at Schmelen's Hope Mr. Galton returned. He had been successful beyond his most sanguine expectations, for Jonker had not alone formally apologized to Mr. Kolbé for his brutal behavior at Schmelen's Hope, but had expressed regret at his past conduct, and had faithfully promised, for the future, to live in peace and amity with the Damaras. Several important regulations had, moreover, been proposed by my friend and approved of by Jonker and his tribe, with a view of upholding order and justice in the land, but how far they were carried out the sequel will show.

Fresh messengers had also been dispatched to the respective Namaqua and Damara chiefs, with a request that they would attend a general meeting in order to secure to the country a lasting peace. We could not, however, induce them to do this. The late attacks were too fresh in their memory to inspire confidence in either party: each distrusted his neighbor.

Jonker gave Mr. Galton much interesting and valuable information regarding the country northward. He had himself made two or three expeditions in that direction, the last of which, as mentioned, was for the purpose of plundering a vessel reported to have been wrecked off Cape Cross.

In the course of his journey Mr. Galton visited Rehoboth, a Rhenish missionary station, and the residence of William Zwartbooi. The mission was here conducted by the Rev. Messrs. Kleinschmidt and Vollmer, and was at this period the most flourishing establishment of the kind in the country.

Here my friend learned with regret that John Waggoner, who, as the reader may remember, was dismissed at Barmen, had afterward acted very disgracefully and dishonestly. He began by selling the same sheep to a trader three times over; and, just as Mr. Galton arrived, John had absconded with several head of cattle, stolen from the missionaries and the natives. My friend at once started off in pursuit; but, though he followed on his track for a day and a night, he was obliged to return without being able to overtake him.

Wherever John Waggoner went he represented himself as Mr. Galton's servant, and affirmed that he was intrusted with dispatches of moment for the British government at the Cape. He added, moreover, that, under such circumstances, they were in duty bound to assist and speed him on his way. The most extravagant reports of our greatness and importance had already been circulated throughout the length and breadth of the land by the natives themselves. This, together with John's impudent and confident air, produced the desired effect. Horses, cattle, wagons, &c., were every where promptly placed at his disposal. Even the missionaries were duped, and John is said to have reached his destination, enriched with spoils, in an incredibly short time. His first act on arriving at the Cape was to engage himself to a trader, who imprudently advanced him a considerable sum of money, which he coolly pocketed and then decamped.

Our lad, Gabriel, also marked his road to the colony with many traits of violence and insolence, but he had neither the cunning nor the impudence of his associate.

Abraham Wenzel, the thief, had again behaved improperly, and Mr. Galton found it necessary to give him his dismissal.

We had thus, in a short time, lost the services of three men; but, fortunately, through the kindness of our friend Zwartbooi, we were able to replace them by two others. The first of these was his own henchman, Onesimus, who was a Damara by birth, but had been captured as a child and brought up among the Namaquas. He spoke the language of these two nations most fluently, and understood, moreover, a few words of Dutch. What with his capacity as an interpreter, his even temper and general good behavior, he became one of the. most useful men of our party.

The other man, Phillippus, was also a Damara by birth, but had forgotten his native tongue. He spoke, however, the Nam aqua and the Dutch fluently. He was appointed a wagon-driver.

One morning, to our surprise, we found the whole ground about our encampment covered with larvæ of a dark-green color. Whence, or how they came there, was to us quite a mystery. We at length conjectured that at some previous period a swarm of locusts, in passing the place, had deposited their ova in the sand, and, now that the green grass began to spring up (which provided them with suitable food), their progeny emerged in the shape of worms.

At the same time many thousand storks appeared, and evidently much relished the rich and abundant repast.

Mr. Galton's successful remonstrances with Jonker had pacified the excited minds of our Damaras. It had inspired them with fresh confidence, and they no longer declined to accompany us. The worst of our Cape servants had been weeded out, and their places filled with useful and competent men. Our stud of draft-oxen, moreover, had been greatly increased, to say nothing of a large supply of live-stock. Matters thus once more looked bright and cheering, and we no longer hesitated to prosecute our journey. Nevertheless, before making the final arrangements, it was deemed advisable to know something of the country immediately in advance of us, and how far it was practicable for wagons, Galton having just returned from an excursion, it was thought only fair that I should undertake to ascertain this point.

Accordingly, I left Schmelen's Hope on the 24th of February, on ox-back, accompanied by Tinibo, John St. Plelena, and John Allen, perhaps the three most trustworthy and useful of our servants, as also a few Damaras, who were to serve me as guides and herdsmen.

On the first night after leaving Schmelen's Hope we were visited by a terrific thunder-storm, accompanied by a deluge of rain, which continued without intermission till four o'clock the next morning.

With my legs drawn up under my chin, and the caross well wrapped round my head, I spent this dreadful night seated on a stone, while the men, strange to say, slept soundly at my feet in a deluge of water. The next day, however, was bright and warm. The earth steamed with the sweet odors of a tropical herbage, and the landscape looked so beautiful and smiling that I felt my heart leap with joy and gratitude to the Giver of all good. The misery of the night was soon forgotten, and we proceeded cheerfully on our journey.

As we traveled on, we caught a glimpse of the beautiful cones of Omatako, which rise about two thousand feet above the level of the plain. I scarcely remember having ever been more struck or delighted with any particular feature in a landscape than when these two "Teneriffes" first broke upon my view.

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,
When a new planet swims into his ken."

We must have been fifty or sixty miles from these conical mountains, yet there they were as distinct as if we had stood at their base. The immense distance at which objects can be seen in these regions, in a clear atmosphere, is truly marvelous.

With the exception of a single kraal of impoverished Damaras, we found no inhabitants. On leaving Schmelen's Hope, we had been led to suppose that we should meet with several werfts of wealthy natives, from whom we might obtain, in barter, an unlimited number of cattle. We foolishly enough trusted to this chance, and started with only one day's provision. Game, it is true, we found very abundant; but the animals were very wild, and I was pressed for time, and could not give chase to them. One evening I fired at a zebra, but, not distinguishing the peculiar sound of the ball when striking the animal (a power of ear acquired by much practice), I supposed I had missed it, and, therefore, did not follow its tracks. On passing, however, nearly by the same place next evening, we found that the animal had been killed, and, excepting the head and part of the neck, was devoured by vultures. The conical ball I used on the occasion was found loose in the inside of the skeleton. Notwithstanding the defiled state of what was left of the carcass, we hailed it as a perfect god-send. For the two previous days we had been living on zebra-flesh in a state of decay, which our Damaras had accidentally picked up. Indeed, our guides had absconded from want of food.

One evening, when very much fatigued from the day's march, and suffering cruelly from thirst, our native servants, by way of consolation, entertained us with the following interesting account of their countrymen.

"The Damaras," they said, "are now watching us from a distance; and, as soon as we shall have gone to sleep, they will suddenly fall upon us, and assegai us."

Timbo, John St. Helena, and John Allen evidently believed them, and looked wretchedly uncomfortable. As for myself, though there certainly was nothing at all improbable in the story, I felt less apprehensive than annoyed, well knowing the bad effect it would have on the timid and superstitious minds of my men.

On the third day, about noon, we reached the northern side of Omatako, where we struck a small periodical river of the same name. To our dismay, however, we found it perfectly dry; and, as we had then already been twenty-four hours without a drop of water, I was afraid to proceed any further. Just as we were about to retrace our steps, the river, to our inexpressible delight, came down with a rush. To those of my readers who are not conversant with the mysteries of a tropical climate, it may appear almost impossible that a dry water-course should in the space of five minutes, and without any previous indication, be converted into a foaming torrent; yet, in the rainy season, this is almost an everyday occurrence. Not a cloud obscured the transparent atmosphere at the time, but on the preceding night there had been vivid lightning and heavy thunder in the direction of the source of the river, which sufficiently accounted for the phenomenon.

On this river I saw for the first time the gigantic footprints of elephants. The natives told me that these animals come here in great numbers in the winter-time, and when the water begins to diminish they return slowly northward. Hans assured me that their tracks are still to be seen as far south as the River Swakop, close to its embouchure.

From this point we had a very good prospect of the country. Several interesting mountains presented themselves to the view. To the north, the Konyati, Eshuameno, Ia Kabaka, and Omuvereoom, stood out in bold relief. Some of these were similar to that of Erongo, and, like it, inhabited by Hill-Damaras, as also a few Bushmen.

I was particularly anxious to learn something of the country toward the north, in which direction—as before said—our route to Omanbondè lay; but it was in vain that I endeavored to get any thing like correct information from the natives, notwithstanding some had actually been living there. I was excessively annoyed, and imagined that their conflicting accounts were purposely invented to deceive and frighten me; but, as I became more intimate with the Damara character, I found that they lied more from habit than for the mere sake of lying. Indeed, a Damara would believe his own lies, however glaring and startling they might be. Thus, for instance, they informed me that the mountain Omuvereoom, which was distinctly visible, lay ten long days' journey off, and was inhabited by Hill-Damaras and Bushmen, whom they represented as perfect devils; moreover, that the intervening space was entirely destitute of water, and that any one attempting to traverse it would be sure to perish. At a subsequent period, we not only reached this mountain after fourteen hours' traveling, but found an abundance of water; and the natives, instead of being monsters, were the most timid and harmless of human beings.

This, however, is only one of the hundred instances that might be mentioned of the difficulty of eliciting truth from the Damaras. The missionaries had been living for several years at Barmen and Schmelen's Hope before they were aware of the existence of either "Buxton" or Okandu fountain, and yet these places were within a very short distance of the stations, and they had made repeated inquiries after springs.

With regard to the distance and situation of Omanbondè, the chief object of our journey, they could not say whether one or ten weeks would be required in order to reach it. One man told Galton that if he started at once for this place, and traveled as fast as he could, he would be an old man by the time he returned.[2]

Returning homeward, we pursued a somewhat different course. The first night, the men, for the sake of variety it is presumed, thought fit to encamp in the middle of an anthill! I was absent at the time, and on returning, all the arrangements had been made for the night. Tired as we were, I could not well think of moving. The result may easily be imagined.

The next day, in the more open parts of the country, we met with a very great abundance of a kind of sweet berry, about the size of peas, which afforded us a most delicious feast.

Early in the morning of the sixth day we found ourselves back at Schmelen's Hope, having been sixty hours on the move, or, at an average, twelve hours daily. Allowing three miles per hour at the lowest estimation, we had gone over a tract of country fully one hundred and eighty miles in extent, the greater part of which, moreover, had been performed on foot. Under ordinary circumstances, we should, perhaps, have thought nothing of the performance; but, what with bad living, previous long rest, and so forth, we were in poor condition for such sudden and severe exertions. Indeed, before we were at the journey's end, both man and beast were completely knocked up.

The object, however, had been gained. We had ascertained that the country, for several days' journey, was tolerably open and traversable for wagons; that grass abounded; and that (the most important point of all) we should be sure of water for ourselves and cattle.

No time was now lost in making ready for a final start. An American, who had long been in Mr. Hahn's service, was about to travel to the Cape by land. Although the journey was supposed to last at least six or seven months, communication was so rare in these parts that we deemed it advisable to benefit by it. Letters were accordingly written to friends and acquaintances, as also dispatches for the British government at the Cape.

  1. For a detailed account of this curious and interesting insect, see Mr. Westwood (British Cyclopædia); Mr. Savage (Annals of Natural History, vol. v., p. 92), &c.
  2. This surpasses the graphic answer given to Björn Jernsida (the bear ironside), a famous Swedish sea-king. When on his way to plunder Rome, he inquired of a wayfaring man what the distance might be. "Look at these shoes!" said the traveler, holding up a pair of worn-out iron-shod sandals; "when I left the place you inquire for, they were new; judge, then, for yourself!"