Lake Ngami/Chapter 13

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Depart from Schmelen's Hope.—Meeting with Kahichenè.—Oxen Stolen.—Summary Justice.—Superstition.—Meeting an old Friend.—Singular Custom.—Gluttony of the Damaras.—How they eat Flesh by the Yard and not by the Pound.—Superstitious Custom.—A nondescript Animal.—The Author loses his Way.—Ravages of the Termites.—"Wait a bit, if you please."—Magnificent Fountain.—Remains of Damara Villages.—Horrors of War.—Meet Bushmen.—Meet Damaras.—Difficulties encountered by African Travelers.—Reach the Lake Omanbondè.—Cruel Disappointment.

On the morning of the 3d of March we left Schmelen's Hope. The alternately rugged and sandy nature of the soil, the embarrassing thorn coppices, and the stubbornness and viciousness of the oxen, rendered our progress at first very slow and tedious.

On the fifth day we arrived at a splendid vley, called Kotjiamkombè. From the branches of the trees and bushes which lined the sides of this piece of water were suspended innumerable graceful and fanciful nests of the well-known weaver-bird species. The rank grasses and reeds afforded shelter to a great variety of water-fowl, some of which were gorgeously plumaged. Here we found Kahichenè waiting to receive us; he had already announced his intention to visit us, and, in order to propitiate our favor, had a few days previously forwarded us a present of several head of cattle. The chief was accompanied by about forty of his people, who, taking them as a whole, were the finest body of men I have ever seen before or since; yet they were all arrant knaves. Kahichenè told them as much in our presence; but, strange to say, they were not in the least abashed.

This tribe had at one time been the richest, the most numerous, and the most powerful in the country; but, what with their own civil broils, and the exterminating wars with the Namaquas, they had gradually dwindled to about twenty-five villages, with perhaps ten or fifteen thousand head of horned cattle.[1]

Notwithstanding Kahichenè in former days had committed many depredations against his neighbors, we could not help liking him. In a very short time he had thoroughly ingratiated himself in our favor. Indeed, he was the only Damara, whether high or low, for whom we entertained any regard. Perhaps, also, his late misfortunes had insured our sympathy. With the missionaries, Kahichenè had always been a very great favorite, and they looked upon him as the stepping-stone to the future civilization of Damara-land; but we have already seen how far this was realized.

Kahichenè was somewhat advanced in years, but his deportment was dignified and courteous. He was, moreover, truthful and courageous—rare virtues among his countrymen. It would have been well had the rest of the nation at all resembled this chief.

Kahichenè was at this period at variance with a very warlike and powerful tribe of Damaras, under the rule of Omugundè, or rather his son, whom he represented as a man degraded by every vice, and particularly inimical toward strangers. We, of course, made due allowances, as our friend was speaking of his mortal enemy; but the account so terrified our men that three of them begged to be dismissed, and they could only be persuaded to discontinue their solicitation by our promising them not to pass through the territory of the hostile chief.

On one occasion, some cattle belonging to Mr. Hahn had been stolen by a party of Omugundè's men. Remonstrances being made, they were after a time returned, but minus their tails, which were cut off by the natives, and kept by them as "trophies."

In conflict with Omugundè, several of Kahichenè's children had been killed, and one or two had unfortunately fallen alive into the hands of the enemy. These were kept as prisoners. Only one stripling was now left to solace Kahichenè in his old age. He informed us that he had made up his mind to try to recover his offspring and his property, or to die in the attempt. At first he appeared anxious for our assistance; but, on mature consideration, he generously refused any interference on our part in his behalf. "For," said he, "when once the war begins, there is no saying when or where it will end. The whole country will be in an uproar; much blood will be shed; and it would involve you in endless difficulties and dangers." He, moreover, strongly endeavored to persuade us from proceeding northward at all, but in that matter he of course failed.

We had only been a short time at Kotjiamkombè when it was discovered that four of our best draft-oxen were stolen by some stranger Damaras. On being informed of this theft, Kahichenè became exceedingly annoyed, and even distressed, as he considered us under his special protection. He immediately dispatched men on their tracks, with strict orders to recover the oxen, and, if possible, to bring back the thieves. They succeeded in recapturing all the beasts but one, which the natives had slain and eaten. With regard to the fate of the rogues, we could never ascertain any thing with certainty. We were, however, strongly inclined to think they were all killed, the more so as Kahichenè himself told us that, in case of their capture, they ought to be punished with death, and coolly suggested hanging as the most eligible way of ridding the world of such scoundrels. We, of course, took the liberty to remonstrate with the chief upon the severity of this measure, but with little or no effect. Indeed, one man was accidentally found at a distance from our camp in a horribly mangled state, and, on being brought to us, he stated that he himself, together with several of his friends, were driving away the cattle, when they were overtaken by Kahichenè's men, who immediately attacked them with their kieries, and only left them when they thought life was extinct. He had, however, partially recovered, but was completely naked, having, as is usual on similar occasions, been stripped of every article of dress. The exterior of his body was nearly covered with blood. The head was almost double its natural size; indeed, it resembled rather a lump of mashed flesh; no particular feature could be distinguished, and his eyes were effectually hidden from view. The sight altogether was hideous.

Instead of proceeding due north, as was originally proposed, it was found necessary, in order to avoid Omugundè, to make a considerable détour to the westward. As Kahichenè, with his tribe, was encamped in that direction, he invited us to take his werft by the way, to which we cordially assented. On the day of our departure from Kotjiamkombè, the chief led the way. A branch of a particular kind of wood (having a small, red, bitter berry, not unlike that of the mountain-ash) was trailed before him—a superstitious act, thought to be essential in insuring success during the pending attack against his mortal enemy.

Before reaching the chief's kraal, we passed the foot of a very conspicuous mountain called Ombotodthu. This elevation is remarkable for its peculiar red stone, which is eagerly sought after by the natives. Having reduced it to powder, they mix it with fat, when it is used as an ointment. I was at first struck by its great resemblance to quicksilver ore, and was led to believe that we had really discovered a mine of that valuable mineral. However, on considering the harmless effect it had on the natives, and that, had it been quicksilver, its use would have produced an opposite result, I came to the conclusion that it was simply oxide of iron, which has since been confirmed by analysis.

On arriving at Kahichenè's werft we were well received by our host and his tribe, from whom we obtained by barter a few head of cattle. Indeed, we might here have sold all our articles of exchange to great advantage; but this was not thought advisable, as, in case of the cattle being lost or stolen, we should have been in a state of complete destitution. Could we, however, have foreseen the future, our tactics would have been different; for, as it afterward turned out, this was almost the last opportunity we had of providing ourselves with live-stock.

By a strange chance, I accidentally became the owner of a percussion rifle, which had at one time belonged to Hans, but who, years previously, had disposed of it to a Damara. The latter, however, finding that he could not obtain a regular supply of caps, offered to exchange it for a common flint-lock musket. The rifle was a very indifferent and clumsy-looking concern, and had, if I remember rightly, been manufactured by Powell, of London. In justice to the maker, however, I must confess that a man could not possibly wish for a better. While in my possession, many hundred head of large game, to say nothing of a host of bustards, geese, ducks. Guinea-fowl, &c., fell to this piece.

Game was abundant in the neighborhood of Kahichenè's kraal, and Hans made several successful shots. Very little, however, of what was killed reached us, for the portion not immediately appropriated by the Damaras ultimately found its way to them through the medium of our native servants. In Damara-land the carcasses of all animals, whether wild or domesticated, are considered public property; therefore, unless the natives should share their allowances with every stranger that might choose to intrude himself into their company, a withering "curse" was supposed to befall them. I have seen the flesh of four zebras, that had been shot by our party, brought to the camp in a single day, and the next morning we could not obtain a steak for our breakfast.

The Damaras are the most voracious and improvident creatures in the world. When they have flesh they gorge upon it night and day, and in the most disgusting manner, until not a particle is left; and, as a consequence, they not unfrequently starve for several days together; but they are so accustomed to this mode of living that it has no injurious effect on them.

In this hot climate, unless preventives of some kind were adopted, flesh would, of course, soon become tainted; and as salt, from the difficulty of conveyance, is exceedingly scarce in Damara-land, the following expedient is adopted. As soon as the animal is killed, lumps are indiscriminately cut from the carcass; a knife is plunged into an edge of one of these lumps, and passed round in a spiral manner, till it arrives at the middle, when a string of meat, often ten to twenty feet long, is produced, which is then suspended like festoons to the branches of the surrounding trees. By cutting the flesh very thin it soon dries, and may in that state be carried about any length of time. There is considerable waste in this process, as fully one third of the meat thus jerked is lost. On such occasions, the natives take care not to forget their own stomachs. Besides large pots filled with the most delicate morsels, immense coils may be seen frizzling on the coals in every direction. When half roasted, they seize one end with their hands, and, applying it to their mouth, they tug away voraciously, not being over particular as to mastication. In this way they soon manage to get through a yard or two, the place of pepper and salt being supplied by ashes attached to the flesh, which ashes are, moreover, found to be an excellent remedy against bad digestion.

I frequently observed the daughter of Kahichenè's favorite wife sprinkling water over the large oxen as they returned to the werft about noon to quench their thirst. On such occasions she made use of a small branch of some kind of berry-tree, such as that which Kahichenè caused to be trailed after him when wishing to be successful in his attack on Omugundè. In this instance (as they somewhat poetically expressed themselves), the aspersion was supposed, should the cattle be stolen, to have the power of scattering them like drops of water, in order to confuse their pursuers, and to facilitate their return to the owners.

On the 18th of March we were again en route. It was with regret that we parted with our friendly and hospitable host. Poor Kahichenè we were doomed never to meet again! A few months after our departure he made an attack on Omugundè; but, at the very commencement of the fight, and when every thing promised success, his dastardly followers (as he always had predicted) left him. But too proud himself to fly, he fell, mortally wounded, pierced with a shower of arrows.

Being in advance of the wagons, I suddenly came upon an animal which, though considerably smaller, much resembled a lion in appearance. Under ordinary circumstances I should certainly have taken it for a young lion; but I had been formerly given to understand that in this part of Africa there exists a quadruped which, in regard to shape and color, is like a lion, but in most other respects totally distinct from it. The beast in question is said to be nocturnal in its habits, to be timid and harmless, and to prey, for the most part, on the small species of antelopes. In the native language it is called Onguirira, and would, as far as I could see, have answered the description of a puma. As it was going straight away from me, I did not think it prudent to fire.

Immense quantities of game were now observed, but the country was open and ill adapted for stalking, and, having no horses, it was difficult to get within range. A few springboks, however, were killed. I also shot a hartebeest; but, having been obliged to leave it for about an hour, I found, on my return, that it had been entirely devoured by vultures; but as they could not manage to eat the bones, our men consoled themselves by sucking them. The flesh of the hartebeest is considered extremely palatable.

The next day we rounded the cones of Omatako; but, to my great astonishment, the river of that name, although running breast-high on my visit to it about a fortnight previously, was now perfectly dry. Fortunately, a pool still remained on its left bank.

The estimate of the Damaras as to the distance between the mountains Omatako and Omuvereoom, of which mention was recently made, was now reduced from ten to three long days' journey. These men still said that the intervening country was destitute of water. We dared no longer trust to their conflicting and unsatisfactory accounts; but, in order to enable us to judge in a measure for ourselves, Galton rode to the neighboring mountain, Eshuameno, whence, from its advanced and isolated position, a good view of the country was likely to be obtained. After the absence of a day and a night, he returned with favorable news. By means of a rough triangulation, he had ascertained that Omuvereoom could not possibly be distant above twelve or fourteen hours' traveling. To the north and west of Omuvereoom the country appeared as one unbounded plain, only covered by brushwood. Eastward grass and trees were abundant. This, together with a timely fall of rain, at once determined us to make the attempt.

On the morning of our departure a bitterly cold wind swept over the dreary wastes, and suddenly reminded us of the approach of the winter season. Hitherto a shirt and a pair of trowsers had been enough to protect our bodies, but this day an addition of thick flannel and a warm pea-jacket was found to be insufficient.

One evening, as Hans and myself were giving chase to a troop of giraffes, we were overtaken by darkness, and, in the heat of pursuit, had completely lost our way. Hans being the most experienced of the two, I blindly abandoned myself to his instinct and guidance. After a while, however, it struck me we were actually retracing our steps to Omatako, and I told him so, but he only laughed at my apprehensions. Still, the more I considered the matter, the more I became convinced that we were pursuing a wrong course. In order, therefore, to split the difference, I proposed to Hans that if in about an hour he did not find any indications of our whereabouts, he should permit me to act as "pilot" for the same space of time, and that if I were equally unsuccessful as himself, we should quietly wait for the return of daylight. Hans was skeptical, and, shaking his head, grudgingly gave his consent. His hour having elapsed without gaining the object of our search, I wheeled right round, to his great disapproval, and walked as hard as I could in an exactly opposite direction. Singularly enough, only two or three minutes were wanting in completing my hour when I was suddenly and agreeably surprised to find my foot in the deep track made by the wheels of the wagons. Nothing could have been more fortunate, for I struck it precisely at a right angle. Another half an hour's walk brought us safe back to our bivouac, where, over a substantial dinner, we joked Hans on his singular obstinacy. His pride as a skillful woodsman had received a severe blow, and he would at intervals shrug his shoulders and repeat broken sentences of, "Well, I am sure! It's too bad!" and so forth.

The day after this little adventure we continued our journey, and in the afternoon found ourselves safe at the foot of the southern extremity of Omuvereoom, and its sister hill, Ia Kabaka, from which it is only separated by a narrow valley. We "outspanned" at a small vley, where, for the first time, I observed the willow-tree—an agreeable reminiscence of our native land. The water, however, was of the most abominable quality, being apparently much frequented by wild animals, who had converted the pool into something like what we see in a farm-yard.

At this place we had a striking instance of the fearful ravages which termites are capable of committing in an incredibly short time. In the early part of the day after our arrival, Mr. Galton and Hans started on foot, with the intention of ascending Omuvereoom. In consequence of a sudden and distressing pain in my side, I was unable to accompany them, and, in the hope of obtaining a little ease, made a sort of extempore couch on the ground, covering it with a plaid. On rising after a while, I discovered, to my dismay and astonishment, that my bedding had been completely cut to pieces by the destructive insects, and yet, when I first laid down, not one was visible.

Early the next morning we pushed on to a large vley, upward of a mile in length, the finest sheet of standing water we had yet seen in Damara-land. It was swarming with geese and ducks. The vegetation had a very tropical appearance; several—to us—new trees and plants, without thorns, presented themselves, and we began to flatter ourselves that we had at last passed the boundary-line of those thorny woods which had so long and pertinaciously harassed us. In this, however, we were disappointed. The very next day we entered a region far worse than any we had yet seen, which, indeed, bade fair to stop us altogether. Our poor cattle were cruelly lacerated, and it was with the utmost difficulty we succeeded in getting the wagons through. I counted no less than seven distinct species of thorny trees and bushes, each of which was a perfect "Wacht-een-bigte," or "Wait a little," as the Dutch colonists very properly call these tormentors. Few individuals have ever traveled in the more northerly parts of Southern Africa without being greeted with a friendly salutation of 'Stop a little, if you please;' and fewer still, who have disregarded this gentle hint, ever came away without first paying a forfeit of some part or other of their dress. Indeed, the fish-hook principle on which most of the thorns are shaped, and the strength of each, make them most formidable enemies. At an average, each prickle will sustain a weight of seven pounds. Now, if the reader will be pleased to conceive a few scores of these to lay hold of a man at once, I think it will not be difficult to imagine the consequences. Indeed, on our return to Barmen, after a few months' absence, I possessed hardly a decent article of clothing; and, had not Mr. Hahn kindly taken pity on my forlorn condition, I am afraid there would soon have been little difference between me and the savages.

In the course of the day we arrived at a magnificent fountain, called Otjironjuba—the Calabash—on the side of Omuvereoom. Its source was situated fully two hundred feet above the base of the mountain, and took its rise from different spots; but, soon uniting, the stream danced merrily down the cliffs. These cascades, falling to the plain below, flowed over a bed of red gravel. A gigantic fig-tree had entwined its roots round the scattered blocks of stone by the side of Otjironjuba fountain, its wide and shady branches affording a delicious retreat during the heat of the noonday sun. It bore an abundance of fruit; but it was not yet the season for figs. Several half-ripe ones that I opened contained a large quantity of small ants, and even wasps. Great caution, therefore, is necessary in eating them.

Otjironjuba was to us a perfect paradise. We enjoyed it the more on account of the marked contrast it presented to the country we had previously traversed.

At the foot of the mountain we discovered the remains of a large Hill-Damara kraal. A considerable extent of land had at one time been carefully cultivated, and a few young calabashes and pumpkins were still seen springing up from the parent stock of the preceding season. The day after our arrival one or two natives came to visit us, and no doubt, also, for the purpose of ascertaining who and what we were. We of course entertained them well, and at parting gave them a few trifling presents, with a request that they would soon return with the remainder of their tribe, in order that we might buy from them some goats, which, from the surrounding evidences, they must have possessed in great numbers. The fresh tracks of a few horned cattle were also to be seen. However, our friends never came back, nor did we encounter any more of the natives.

While sauntering about the place we stumbled upon several deserted Damara villages, and our native servants now told us that, after the late attack on Schmelen's Hope by Jonker, Kahichenè and his tribe had fled with the remainder of their cattle to this secluded spot; and yet, a short time previously, they had positively asserted that the country was impassable for man and beast! They, moreover, informed us that several bloody fights, or rather massacres, had at that time taken place between the contending parties; and that whenever a man, woman, or child was met, and the deed could be perpetrated with impunity, they were cruelly murdered. These sanguinary outrages were sometimes inflicted, they said, by the Damaras, and at others by the Hill-Damaras.

I climbed to the top of the Omuvereoom, whence I had a very extensive view of the country to the eastward; but, excepting a few periodical water-courses which originated in the sides of the mountain, nothing but an immense unbroken bush was to be seen. It was in vain that I strained my eyes to catch a glimpse of Omanbondè, which we were told lay only about five days' journey hence, and at the northern extremity of Omuvereoom.

Elephants occasionally visited this neighborhood, and even breed near a fountain somewhat farther to the northward.

After having spent a couple of days very pleasantly at Otjironjuba fountain, we for a short time followed the course of the rivulet which has its rise there; but it was soon lost in a marsh.

On the second day of our departure we came, unobserved, upon a few Bushmen, engaged in digging for wild roots, and succeeded in capturing a man and woman, whom, with some difficulty, we persuaded to show us the water. The dialect of these people was so different to any we had yet heard, that, notwithstanding our two excellent interpreters, we could with difficulty understand them. However, by a good deal of cross-questioning, we managed to make out that they had both been to Omanbondè, which they called Saresab; that the "water was as large as the sky," and that hippopotami existed there. The man, moreover, said that he would conduct us to the lake; but this was only a ruse, for in the course of the night both he and his wife absconded.

Our doubts and anxiety increased as we approached nearer and nearer the inland sea, and all our thoughts were concentrated in the single idea of the lake. The Bushman's story of the water being "as large as the sky" wrought greatly on our expectation.

"Well, Andersson, what should you suppose this lake's greatest length to be, eh?" said Galton. "Surely it can not cover less than fifteen miles anyhow; and as for its breadth, it is, no doubt, very considerable, for the Hottentots declare that if you look at a man from the opposite shore he appears no bigger than a crow."

It would have been well for us had we been less sanguine.

As we journeyed on a course somewhat parallel with Omuvereoom, we fell in with a sort of vley river—if river it could be called, since it consisted alternately of dry, open spaces and deep gulleys. Both banks of this peculiar water-course were hemmed in by one vast thorn-jungle, which seemed to defy the passage of man or beast. It was doubly fortunate, therefore, that we met this river, as its sides served as a good and open road, while a plentiful supply of water was afforded by the occasional pools. It was here, at last, that we arrived at some Damara villages, on the fifth day after leaving Otjironjuba. At first the natives tried to run away; but we captured a few women, which soon induced the men to return. These people had never before seen a white man; and our sudden appearance, therefore, created no small astonishment, not to say consternation. But of all our property, nothing amused them more than the sight of a looking-glass. On finding that the mirror faithfully reflected the smallest of their motions or gesticulations, they became convulsed with laughter; and some of them were so excited as to throw themselves on the ground, pressing their hands against their stomachs. Others would approach with their faces to the glass as close as they could, then suddenly turn it round, fully expecting somebody at its back. It is a great pity that the Damaras are such unmitigated scoundrels, for they are full of fun and merriment. Give them a "yard of meat" and a bucket of water, and they are the happiest creatures on the face of the earth.

After some parleying, a man agreed to guide us to the lake. An afternoon's farther traveling brought us to a second werft, the captain of which was the jolliest and the most amusing Damara that we ever saw before or since. He mimicked the figure and the actions of the hippopotamus so admirably that we should never have mistaken the animal, even had we not known a word of the language. He also gave us an amusing and laughable account of the people to the north.

One day more, and the goal of our hopes and anxieties would be realized! We carefully examined our Mackintosh punt to see that it was sound, as we fully purposed to spend a few weeks on the shores of Omanbonde, in order to enjoy some fishing and shooting.

By this time we had lost sight of Omuvereoom, which gradually dwindled into a mere sand-ridge, and was now identified with the plain. The vley river just mentioned, which had so long befriended us, we also left behind, and were now traveling across a very sandy tract of country. Fortunately, though the bushes were very thick, only a few were thorny. Moreover, their wood, which was quite new to us, was of so brittle a nature that, although trees from five to six inches in diameter repeatedly obstructed our path, our ponderous vehicles crushed them to the ground like so many rotten sticks. A European can form no conception of the impracticable country one has to travel over in these parts, and the immense difficulties that must be surmounted. To give a faint idea of the obstructions of this kind of traveling, we will suppose a person suddenly placed at the entrance of a primeval forest of unknown extent, never trodden by the foot of man, the haunt of savage beasts, and with soil as yielding as that of an English sand-down; to this must be added a couple of ponderous vehicles, as large as the coal-vans met with in the streets of London, only a great deal stouter, to each of which are yoked sixteen or twenty refractory, half-trained oxen. Let him then be told, "Through yonder wood lies your road; nothing is known of it. Make your way as well as you can; but remember, your cattle will perish if they do not get water in the course of two or three days."

No greater calamity could possibly befall us than the breaking of an axle-tree at a distance from water. Therefore, every time the wagons struck against a tree, or when the wheels mounted on a stone several feet in height, from which they descended with a crash like thunder, I would pull up abruptly, and hold my breath till all danger was over, when a weight like that of the nightmare fell from my mind. However, in the course of time, we became tolerably accustomed to the hazards that beset us, and looked almost with indifference on the dangers which constantly threatened destruction to our conveyances.

About noon on the 5th of April we were rapidly approaching Omanbondè, but oh, how were we disappointed! My heart beat violently with excitement. The sleepy motion of the oxen, as they toiled through the heavy sand, being far too slow for my eagerness and excited imagination, I proceeded considerably in advance of the wagons, with about half a dozen Damaras, when all at once the country became open, and I found myself on some rising ground, gently sloping toward the bed of what I thought to be a dry water-course.

"There," suddenly exclaimed one of the natives—"there is Omanbondè!"

"Omanbondè!" I echoed, almost in despair; "but where, in the name of heaven, is the water?"

I could say no more, for my heart failed me, and I sat down till the wagons came up; when, pointing to the dry river-bed, I told Galton that he saw the lake before him. "Nonsense!" he replied; "it is only the end or tail of it which you see there."

After having descended into the bed, we continued to travel, at a rapid pace, about a mile in a westerly direction, when, at a bend, we discovered a large patch of green reeds. At this sight a momentary ray of hope brightened up every countenance; but the next instant it vanished, for we found that the natives were actually searching for water among the rushes!

The truth at last dawned upon us. We were indeed at Omanbondè—the lake of hippopotami! We all felt utter prostration of heart. For a long while we were unable to give utterance to our feelings. We first looked at the reeds before us, then at each other in mute dismay and astonishment. A dried-up vley, very little more than a mile in extent, and a patch of reeds, was the only reward for months of toil and anxiety!

  1. Previously to my leaving Africa, I learned that the entire tribe had been broken up.