Lake Ngami/Chapter 25

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CHAPTER XXV.

The Author's Tent takes Fire.—He loses every thing but his Papers.—He is laid on a bed of Sickness.—Want of Medicine, &c.—Reflections.—Whole Villages infected with Fever.—Abundance of Game.—Extraordinary Shot at an Ostrich.—A Lion breakfasts on his Wife.—Wonderful shooting Star.—Remarkable Mirage.—Game and Lions plentiful.—The Ebony-tree.—Arrival at Bethany, a Missionary Station.—The Trouble of a large Herd of Cattle.—A thirsty Man's Cogitation.—Curious Superstition.—The Damara Cattle described.—People who live entirely without Water.—Cross the Orange River.—Sterile Country.

The old adage, "Misfortunes never come singly," was exemplified in my case. The wound in my leg being now nearly healed, we were preparing to leave Rehoboth, when one evening my hut accidentally caught fire, and, being entirely constructed of dry grass and sticks, it was burnt to the ground before any thing of moment could be saved. By rushing through the flames, however, I fortunately succeeded in preserving the greater part of my papers and memoranda, which to me were invaluable. I also rescued my saddle; but, in so doing, my clothes took fire, and I had a very narrow escape from being burnt to death. A shirt, a pair of trowsers, a cap, and a pair of under-done shoes, which had not been long enough at the fire to be thoroughly roasted, were all that was left me. My situation, consequently, was not very enviable. Through the kindness of Messrs. Kleinschmidt and Vollmer, however, I was once more able to appear decently appareled.

But I was soon destined to experience a greater calamity. A few stages south of Rehoboth, which we left on the 22d of April, en route to the Cape, and while camped on the banks of the Hountop, I was attacked by intermittent fever, which quickly carried me to the verge of the grave. My sufferings and privations during this period were indeed severe. Regularly every morning at eleven o'clock I was seized with a violent shivering fit, which lasted three hours. Then came the fever, of almost as long duration, accompanied by racking headache and profuse perspiration. After this my head was tolerably free from pain, but I was so completely exhausted that to turn in my bed was a laborious effort. The climate, moreover, at this season was very trying; for, while the days were moderately warm (the thermometer averaging 65° at noon), the nights were piercingly cold and frosty. At sunrise the ice was from an eighth part of an inch to one inch thick. I became very sensitive to these changes, inasmuch as during the greater part of the illness I was compelled to sleep in the open air, having previously disposed of our wagons to the natives. What little medicine I once possessed was consumed in the recent conflagration, and the missionaries—owing to the fever having broken out most alarmingly among themselves and the natives—were unable to spare me any. To add to my misfortunes, no suitable food was procurable. Milk and meat were my only diet. The latter I could not digest, and the former soon became insipid to my taste. The men, it is true, had once the good fortune to surprise an ostrich in its nest, but the eggs were too rich and heavy for my weak stomach.

Up to this period my busy and roving life had left me but little time for serious reflection. Now, however, that the cares of the world no longer occupied my thoughts, I felt the full force of my lonely situation, During the long and sleepless nights I was often seized with an indescribable sensation of sadness and melancholy. Death itself I did not fear; but to perish in a foreign land, in the midst of strangers, far away from all I loved, was an idea to which I could hardly reconcile myself. What hand would close my eyes? what mourner would follow my coffin? or what friend would shed a tear on my lonely and distant grave?

I was alone! Oh, may the reader never experience the full meaning of that melancholy word!

After upward of two months of no ordinary sufferings, my strong constitution prevailed, and I was convalescent; but several weeks elapsed before I recovered my usual health and vigor.

John Allen was also seriously ill from the same malady, which had the character of an epidemic, for in a very short time it spread like wildfire throughout the length and breadth of Great Namaqua-land, and vast numbers of people succumbed under it. The disease, indeed, was of so destructive a nature that it swept off whole villages. In one kraal in particular, all the inhabitants perished, and the cattle were left to take care of themselves.

Fever (the cause of which is unknown) is not common in these parts, and makes its appearance only occasionally.

We had pitched our tent, as already said, near the Hountop River. The country thereabout was a succession of vleys or gulleys, then filled with excellent clear water, teeming with water-fowl. Quails, birds of the grouse tribe, and wood-pigeons, were also numerous. Of the larger animals we had the zebra, the springbok, the ostrich, and an occasional oryx and hartebeest; but, from their being much persecuted by the natives, combined with nakedness of the country, they were extremely wary and difficult of approach.

Game of many kinds being thus abundant, it may well be supposed that, as soon as my strength permitted me to carry a gun, I at once took the field, as well for amusement as for the purpose of replenishing our larder, which was but very ill supplied.

One day I made a capital shot at an ostrich, which, when running at full speed, I brought down at the long distance of two hundred and thirty paces. On a previous occasion I killed one of these splendid birds when upward of three hundred paces from me.

Another day I had the good fortune to shoot a rhinoceros. He was probably a straggler, for these animals have long since disappeared from the part of the country where we were then encamped, and, indeed, are now very rarely to be met with south of the Kuisip River.

Early one morning one of our herdsmen came running up to us in great fright, and announced that a lion was devouring a lioness! We thought at first that the man must be mistaken; but his story was perfectly true, and only her skull, the larger bones, and the skin were left. On examining the ground more closely, the fresh remains of a young springbok were also discovered. We therefore conjectured that the lion and lioness being very hungry, and the antelope not proving a sufficient meal for both, they had quarreled; and he, after killing his wife, had coolly eaten her also. A most substantial breakfast it must have been!

On only one other occasion have I known lions to prey on each other. This was when on my way to Lake Ngami. On a certain night we had badly wounded a lion. He retreated growlingly into the bush, and immediately afterward a whole troop of lions rushed upon their disabled brother and tore him to pieces.

A singular and interesting atmospheric phenomenon occurred at Hountop. Between seven and eight o'clock in the evening of the 24th of June, when reading by the side of my bivouac fire, I was suddenly startled by the whole atmosphere becoming brilliantly, nay, almost painfully illuminated. On turning to the quarter of the heavens whence this radiance proceeded, I discovered a most magnificent shooting star, passing slowly in an oblique direction through space, with an immense tail attached to it, and emitting sparks of dazzling light. The fire by which I sat was exceedingly bright, and the moon clear and brilliant, yet they were both totally eclipsed by this immense body of light. Its great beauty and brilliancy might perhaps be best realized by saying that it was like a star of the second or third order when compared to the moon at full.

After a time, the pasturage being nearly exhausted in the neighborhood of the Hountop, we removed our camp a few miles southward to another periodical river called the Aamhoup. During our stay here we observed some very striking and singular horizontal refractions of the air. Once I saw an ostrich walking on the horizon line, while its double—clear and well defined—appeared immediately above it. Both the ostrich and its double, moreover, were divided into three different portions by as many dijfferent strata of air.

Again: regularly every morning, for nearly a month, the projecting ledge of a rock was converted into the semblance of a splendid and embattled castle. As the atmosphere became uniformly heated, the mirage melted away into a soft, watery haze.

In usual refractions the inverted image of an object generally appears above the object itself, but occasionally the effect is reversed. Captain Scoresby, the well-known Arctic navigator, once by these means discovered his father's vessel the day before it actually came in sight.

It has long puzzled the learned to account for the mirage. I believe, however, it is now pretty well known to arise from the unequal density and temperature of the lower strata of air.

The abundance of good water and pasturage had enabled our cattle to get into excellent condition; and as the season was now far advanced, and I was sufficiently well to travel, we deemed it necessary to move slowly on toward the Cape Colony. Accordingly, on the 9th of July we left our camp on the Aamhoup, a place where we had experienced both misery and happiness.

Our course lay along and at the foot of a very picturesque range of table hills, averaging about one thousand feet in height. To the westward were also mountains of a similar nature, but less regular. They were of the trap formation, and consisted chiefly of limestone.

Water continued for a time to be tolerably abundant, but pasturage began soon to fail us. Two causes were to be assigned for this, namely, the devastation of the locusts, and the inferior quality of the soil, which became stony, interspersed here and there with ridges of sand.

Among the latter we encountered herds of gemsboks, and troops of lions following on their scent. The mere sight of the tracks of the latter frightened a friend with whom I was traveling almost out of his wits. We were riding in advance of our cattle at the time, and it was with difficulty that I could prevent him from returning with precipitation.

On the 4th of August we arrived in the neighborhood of another Rhenish missionary station, called Bethany. Here we met with the ebony-tree, of which I had only before seen a few stragglers in the Swakop River, near the Usab gorge. Hence on to the Orange River this tree became more or less abundant, but it was stunted and gnarled. Our bivouac fires usually consisted of its wood.

While Hans and the men were busy preparing our food and camp for the night, I strolled on to the station, which I found deserted by every living creature. Only a short time previously the Rev. Mr. Knudsen officiated here, but had been obliged to leave on account of some disagreement with the native tribe and its chief, David Christian. It had always been considered as inferior to most of the other missionary stations in this part of Africa; but, what with the absence of the inhabitants, the devastation of the locust—which had destroyed every particle of vegetation—and the black and parched appearance of the soil, it now looked wild and dreary in the extreme. The lengthened shadows of evening threw an additional gloom over this once busy scene of cheerful industry. Oh, changes, mysterious and incomprehensible! Surely God, in his infinite wisdom, will not permit the handiwork of his servants, raised only by years of perseverance, toil, and privations, to perish without some recompense!

Bethany, if I am not mistaken, became a scene of missionary labor as early as 1820. The enterprising and venerable Mr. Schmelen then officiated here, but he found it necessary, after a time, to abandon the place. Subsequently to his departure it remained deserted for upward of twenty years, when, in 1843, it was once more tenanted, and this time by Mr. Knudsen, who, in his turn, as seen above, was obliged to move off elsewhere.

After leaving Bethany, water and pasturage became every day more scarce. All the vleys and pools of rain-water were dried up. The Koanquip River, however, long befriended us, as in its bed we generally managed to obtain a supply of grass and water for our cattle, which now amounted to several hundred head.

But the labor and fatigue of watering the latter was immense. No person who has not been circumstanced as we were can form the least conception of the trouble, care, and anxiety that a large drove of cattle occasions. Perhaps, after having dug for twenty consecutive hours—and this I have done more than once—the water is found insufficient in quantity, or (which is almost as bad) the ground falls in, or the cattle themselves spoil it by their wallowing and excrement.

These native cattle are the most troublesome and disgusting brutes possible; for, after having spoiled the water by their own wildness and wantonness, they rush furiously about, bellowing and moaning. It is enough to discourage the stoutest heart.

When arriving at a place where we supposed water was to be found, the plan usually adopted, in order to guard against the cattle destroying our work, was to send them away to pasture. In the mean time, every available man went speedily to work with such implements as were procurable: spades, wooden troughs, pieces of wood or of bark, were indifferently put in requisition; and even our hands were used with great effect, though not without sustaining injury. Having worked the aperture of sufficient depth and width, it was fenced in by thorn-bushes, leaving only a single entrance. The oxen were then sent for, and allowed to approach singly or in greater number, according to the extent of the water. Sometimes, however, if the nature of the ground did not permit the cattle to have access to the water, a hollow was scooped in the earth near the edge of the pit, into which (or into a piece of sail-cloth, if at hand) the water was poured by means of small wooden pails, usually denominated "bamboos."

Owing to this tedious process, coupled with the slowness with which water filters through sand, and the immense quantity (usually five or six bucketsful) that a thirsty ox will drink, and the quarrelsome disposition of the animals themselves, watering four hundred head of cattle will often occupy a whole day or night; and, since a person is in a great degree dependent on his cattle, whether for food, draft, &c., he himself must never think of refreshment or rest until their wants have been provided for.

The scarcity of water, and the uncertainty of finding it in these parched regions is so great, that when, after a long day's journey, the anxiously-looked-for pool is found to be dry, it is almost enough to drive a man mad, especially if he be a stranger to the country, and unaccustomed to traversing the African wilds. One's cogitations at such times are apt to be something to the following effect. "If I advance and do not find water within a certain period, it will be inevitable destruction. To retrace my steps to the last watering-place is not to be thought of, as, from the distance and the exhausted state of the cattle, it would never be reached. What remains for me but to lie down and die?"

The common people at the Cape entertain a notion that cattle refrain from feeding only once within the year, namely, on Christmas eve. Then, it is affirmed, they fall on their knees, and with closed mouths and half-shut eyes (a sign of placidity), silently thank the Giver of all good things for the grass and water they have enjoyed during the past twelve months. They say, moreover, that a person may witness this act of devotion by keeping well to leeward and out of sight of the animals.[1]

Our cattle consisted chiefly of the Damara breed, which, so far as I am aware, differs widely from any found in Europe. They are big-boned, but not particularly weighty; their legs are slender, and they have small, hard, and durable feet. The hair on the body is short, smooth, and glossy, and the extremity of the tail is adorned with a tuft of long, bushy hair, nearly touching the ground. This tuft constitutes the chief ornament of the Damara assegai.

But the horns are the most remarkable feature of the Damara cattle. They are usually placed on the head at an angle of from forty-five to ninety degrees, and are at times beautifully arched and twisted, but rarely bent inward. They are of an incredible length, and one often meets with oxen the tips of whose horns are from seven to eight feet apart. The Bechuana cattle (of greater bulk and stouter proportions) seem to surpass the Damara cattle in this respect. Among many other curious and interesting objects, there is now in the collection of Colonel Thomas Steel, of Upper Brook Street, a perfect cranium of a young Bechuana ox,[2]

Lake Ngami-p308.png

SKULL OF A BECHUANA OX.

of which the wood-cut is a fair representation. The following are its dimensions:

Entire length of horns from tip to tip along the curve 13 ft. 5 in.
Distance (straight) between the tips of the horns 8
Circumference of horns at the root 1
Breadth of cranium between the eyes 0
Length""" 2 2

But I have been told on good authority that in some parts of Africa horns of cattle are found greatly to exceed the above dimensions. The horns, indeed, are of so enormous a size as seriously to inconvenience the animal. Their length and weight have been known to be so great as to twist the head to one side, one of the horns dragging on the ground, while the other pointed upward.

The Damaras prize their oxen in proportion to the size of their horns. Some African tribes take much pains in forming them of a certain shape. This is effected either by sawing off the tips, splitting them, bending them forcibly when yet tender, and so forth.

The Damara cow is of slender proportions and very wild. Before she can be milked, it is always needful to lash her head to a tree, in like manner as the Laplanders treat their reindeer, or to tie her hind legs together. The best cow rarely gives more than two or three pints of milk daily, and, should her calf die or be taken from her, she absolutely refuses to give any at all, in which case it is necessary to resort to artificial means. One plan is to stuff a calf-skin with hay or grass, and afterward to place it on the ground for the cow to slobber over. Sometimes the adoption of the latter expedient gives rise to ludicrous scenes; for the cow, when tenderly caressing her supposed offspring, has all at once got scent of the hay or grass, when, thrusting her snout into the skin, she has greedily devoured its contents!

The Damaras, as well as other nations, take great delight in having whole droves of cattle of the same color. The Namaquas have a perfect mania for a uniform team. Bright brown is the favorite color; and I myself have always found beasts of this hue to be the strongest and most generally serviceable. Dark brown oxen with a yellowish streak along the back—by the Dutch designated "geel-bak"—are also usually stout and enduring. Yellow, and more especially white, oxen are considered weak, and unable to bear much fatigue or hardship.

The Damaras, as with almost every other people of Southern Africa, value their cattle next to their women, and take a pride in possessing animals that look high bred. The ox, in fact, forms the chief theme of the songs of the Damaras. They, moreover, rarely or never make use of a handsome animal as a beast of burden, but employ quiet, ugly bulls for such purposes. These have a buffalo look about them, and their horns, moreover, rarely attain to any size.

From their quick step, good feet, and enduring powers, the Damara cattle are much prized by the farmers of the Cape Colony. The only drawback is their wildness and immense size of their horns, which they sometimes use with fatal effect.

The day before we reached the Orange River we fell in with a kraal of Hottentots, whom, to our great surprise, we found living in a locality altogether destitute of water! The milk of their cows and goats supplied its place. Their cattle, moreover, never obtained water, but found a substitute in a kind of ice-plant (mesembryanthemum), of an exceedingly succulent nature, which abounds in these regions. But our own oxen, not accustomed to such diet, would rarely or never touch it. Until I had actually convinced myself—as I had often the opportunity of doing at an after period—that men and beasts could live entirely without water, I should, perhaps, have had some difficulty in realizing this singular fact.

On the 21st of August we effected the passage of the Orange River in safety at what is called the Zendlings Drift, or the missionary ford. We had no boat, and those of the men who could not swim were obliged to lay hold of the tails of the cattle, to which they pertinaciously clung. On gaining the opposite bank, which was very steep, the oxen, in climbing it, entirely submerged their charge, to the great delight and amusement of such of their companions as had landed at a more convenient point.

The Orange River was at this season almost at its lowest, yet it was a noble and highly picturesque stream. Looking eastward, its aspect was particularly imposing. Its breadth at this point might have been from two to three hundred yards. The banks were on both sides lined with evergreen thorns, drooping willows, ebony-trees, &c.; and the water forced its passage through a bold and striking gorge, overhung by precipices from two to three thousand feet high. But the country all round was desolate. The hills, which at some distant period had evidently been subject to volcanic eruptions, had a sunburnt and crumbling appearance, and were almost wholly destitute of vegetation. The soil in the neighborhood of the mountains consisted of pure sand, and was covered with low and succulent shrubs, from which our cattle, hitherto accustomed to revel in the almost boundless savannas of Damara-land, turned with disgust. The country for several weeks' journey in advance of us was represented as of a similar nature.

We began now seriously to tremble for the poor beasts, which had already lost flesh. Upward of two months' traveling had to be performed before we could reach our destination.

With the exception of that portion of Namaqua-land and Damara-land bordering on the coast, the part of the country I speak of has the most inauspicious appearance I ever saw. Its sterility arises probably from being situated near the limit, not only of the "thunder-rains," but of the regular rains ("mist-rains," as they are called in the colony), and the consequent frequency of great droughts. Indeed, scarcely any rain falls here in some years.


  1. This superstition is common in Devonshire, in the western parts of which it used, till lately, to be affirmed, "that at twelve o'clock at night on Christmas eve, the oxen in their stalls are always found on their knees in an attitude of devotion; and that, since the alteration of the style, they continue to do this only on the eve of old Christmas day." Bravo, oxen!—(See Brand's "Popular Antiquities.")
  2. This remarkable beast was a long time in the possession of Mr. Oswell, who, I believe, intended to bring it alive to England, but unavoidable circumstances prevented this distinguished traveler from carrying his plan into execution.