Lake Ngami/Chapter 4

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The Gnoo and the Gemsbok.—Pursuit of a Rhinoceros.—Venomous Fly.—Fruit of the Acacia nutritious.—Sun-stroke.—Crested Parrot.—A Giraffe shot.—Tjobis Fountain.—Singular Omelet.—Nutritious Gum.—Arrival at Richterfeldt.—Mr. Rath and the Missions.—The Damaras: their Persons, Habits, &c.—Lions Troublesome.—Panic.—Horse Sickness.

The second morning after the adventure with the lions we continued our journey, alternately on the banks and in the bed of the Swakop. The road was exceedingly heavy, being for the most part composed of loose gravel and fine sand. Stewardson, who had the management of our traveling arrangements, instead of starting us at daybreak, or previously, as he ought to have done, did not put the cavalcade in motion until an hour after sunrise. The consequence was, that before we were half through the allotted stage the sun had reached its zenith, and scorched and harassed us dreadfully.

As yet, with the exception of a few zebras, &c., we had seen no wild animals, though the "spoor" or track of the gnoo and the gemsbok were frequent enough. This day, however, at a turn of the road, we came suddenly upon a few of the latter, but the sight so fascinated us that, instead of firing, as we might have done, for they were within range, we gazed at them in astonishment.

We passed the night at a fountain called Annis, situated on the side of the river. On the following morning, and at only a few hundred paces from our bivouac, we discovered the tracks of several rhinoceroses. Finding that one of these animals had been drinking in a pool hard by during the latter part of the night, Galton, Stewardson, and myself went in search of the beast, the cart following in the bed of the river. But, though we pursued the tracks of the animal at a pretty rapid pace for nearly three hours, we were unable to come up with him, and therefore discontinued the chase in despair and rejoined our caravan.

During the following day I observed several curious-looking crested parrots of a grayish color, which screamed discordantly on our approach; but as they always perched on the top of the very highest trees, and kept an excellent lookout, I could not possibly get within gunshot.

I met, besides, with a vast number of delicate and pretty butterflies, as also a wasp-looking fly of the most brilliant dark blue. Having struck one of these to the ground, I was about to secure it, when it stung me severely in the hand, and in a very few seconds the wounded part began to fester, and swelled to an enormous size, causing the most acute pain.

While following the bed of the river, our mules and cattle fared sumptuously; for, although we found but little grass, there was always an abundance of fine young reeds; but, until animals are accustomed to this diet, it only serves to weaken them. Cattle, however, that are used to this coarse food soon become fat, and when killed prove, contrary to what might be expected, capital eating. When the reeds become somewhat old and dry they are fired by the natives, and in a fortnight or three weeks they have again attained a luxuriant growth.

The pods of a species of acacia (ana), which had dropped from the trees, were also much relished by the cattle. Stewardson informed us that when the latter are able to feed on them regularly, they soon become fat. The fruit has an acrid taste, but is not altogether unpalatable.

The wood of this tree, though straight-grained, close, and weighty, is not considered good for implements of husbandry. I have been assured, however, that when the tree is burned down the quality of the wood is much improved!

Stewardson's habit of starting late had nearly proved fatal to me; for one day, while pursuing on foot some interesting birds, I had fallen considerably behind my companions, and, in order to come up with them, I was necessitated to put my best foot forward. The sun's rays (in themselves exceedingly powerful) being reflected from the surrounding barren hills and the burning sand, made the heat equal to that of an oven.

I had only just caught sight of our party, when I was seized with sudden giddiness, and the horrible idea flashed across my mind that I had received a "sun-stroke." Being fully aware of the danger, I collected all my energies, and made the most strenuous efforts to overtake my friend. But the stupor increased every moment, and my voice became so faint that for a long time I was unable to make myself heard. However, I did at last succeed, and Galton at once rode up to me and placed his horse at my disposal. It was high time, for another minute would probably have proved too late. As it was, I managed with great difficulty to reach a small clump of trees hard by, and, tumbling off the animal, remained for some time in a state of almost total unconsciousness. When at last I recovered from this stupor, the heat was less, and a gentle breeze having sprung up, I was able slowly to proceed. My head, however, ached intolerably.

The usual result of a coup de soleil is known to be either almost instantaneous death, or an affection of the brain for life. In my case I expected nothing short of the latter infliction. Happily, however, after about several months daily suffering I was thoroughly restored, and in time I could brave heat and fatigue as well as any native.

Having followed the course of the Swakop for some days, we struck into one of its tributaries called Tjobis. At the mouth of this stream we met, for the first time, with a vast number of Guinea-fowls, which we afterward found very common throughout the country. We also made acquaintance with one or two species of toucans; and I succeeded, at last, in obtaining several specimens of the parrot-looking birds of which mention has lately been made. They were the chizoerhis concolor of Doctor Smith.

After many hours of fatiguing travel we met Galton, who had ridden on in advance. His face beamed with delight while announcing to us that he had just killed a fine giraffe. The news was most welcome to every one; for, to say nothing of the prospect of a feast, the heat of the sun and the heavy nature of the ground made us all feel exceedingly weary, and we were, therefore, extremely glad of a pretext to take some repose.

The mules were forthwith unharnessed, and all hands were put in requisition to cut up our prize and to "jerk" the meat; but this proved lean and tough.

The bones, however, of the giraffe contain a great deal of marrow, which, when properly prepared, is eaten with gusto by every one, and even when in a raw state is sometimes greedily devoured by the natives.

As there was no water where we had "outspanned," we were obliged toward evening to continue our journey; and when we arrived at "Tjobis Fountain," situated in the bed of the Tjobis River, it was already dark.

Here we were at once visited by several Hill-Damaras, of whom more hereafter. On finding that a giraffe had been killed and that they were at liberty to take what flesh we had left, their joy knew no bounds, and some of them actually returned that same night to the carcass. These men kindly brought us some sweet gum, a kind of coarse stir-about made from the seeds of a species of grass, and a few ostrich eggs.

Our cook soon made us an excellent omelet from one of the last, and that by a very simple process. A hole is made at one end of the egg, through which is introduced some salt, pepper, &c. The egg is then well shaken, so as thoroughly to mix the white, the yolk, and the several ingredients mentioned. It is then placed in the hot ashes, where it is baked to perfection. An egg thus prepared, although supposed to contain as much as twenty-four of the common fowl egg, is not considered too much for a single hungry individual!

We remained nearly two days at "Tjobis Fountain," which gave our animals time to recover a little from their late exhaustion; but as it was reported to be another favorite resort of lions, and recollecting that we had lately been taught a severe lesson, we took the precaution—as may well be imagined—to secure the horse and the mules during the night. Many zebras came off in the dark to drink, but always absented themselves during the day, and the heat was too intense and harassing for pursuing them at a distance.

The soil continued sandy as before, but the vegetation had, notwithstanding, vastly improved; for, instead of naked and desolate plains, the ground was now covered with a profusion of thin grass, dwarfish shrubs, isolated aloes, and one or two species of thorn trees. The latter produced at this season an abundance of excellent and nutritious gum, which, though almost as sweet as sugar, might be partaken of in any quantity without the least inconvenience or disagreeable consequence.

In the afternoon of the third day we took our departure from "Tjobis Fountain," and at an early hour on the following morning found ourselves once more in the bed of the Swakop; but here, unfortunately, our mules came to a dead stand-still, and nothing could induce them to proceed any further. Indeed, they were completely knocked up, and we had entirely to thank Stewardson for this misfortune; for had we traveled by night, as we ought to have done, instead of during the hottest part of the day, the poor creatures might have been as fresh as when they left Scheppmansdorf, and we ourselves spared much suffering. It stands to reason that no animal, however hardy, will bear much work or fatigue in the day at this terribly hot season of the year. Fortunately, the missionary station of Kichterfeldt was now within two hours' ride, and Galton at once pushed on for the purpose of obtaining assistance. In a short time, six oxen, with attendants, yokes, &c., arrived, and we were able to prosecute our journey without further delay. On reaching the station, we were most kindly and hospitably received by the Rev. Mr. Rath, of the Rhenish Society.

Richterfeldt is prettily situated on the bank of the River Swakop, and at the junction of one of its tributaries, the Ommutenna. It is well supplied with fresh water, which is either obtained from a prolific mineral spring, or by digging a few inches in the bed of the rivers. There is an abundance of garden ground, which, when properly cultivated and irrigated, is exceedingly productive. Nearly all European vegetables thrive well; wheat grows to perfection, and is of excellent quality; but here, as at Scheppmansdorf, floods at times cause sad havoc. The pasturages are extensive and excellent.

Ricliterfeldt was founded in 1848, and Mr. Rath had consequently not been very long settled there. He had taken up his quarters in a temporary hut, consisting of a mud wall four feet high, covered over by mat-work and canvas. At the back of his house were three small native villages, composed of about fifty or sixty wretched hovels, and numbering—children included—about two hundred inhabitants. They were all very poor; but a few possessed a small drove of sheep or goats, which they obtained in barter for goods given them by the missionary as recompense for labor, errands, and other services. The currency is ironware: the regular price for an ox, at this time, was an iron assegai, without the handle; that of a sheep or goat, a certain quantity of iron or copper wire, or two pieces of iron hoop, each five or six inches in length. The Damaras have a perfect mania for copper and iron, but more especially for the latter; and it is strange to see how well a few pieces of polished iron become them, when worn as ornaments.

The Damaras, speaking generally, are an exceedingly fine race of men. Indeed, it is by no means unusual to meet with individuals six feet and some inches in height, and symmetrically proportioned withal. Their features are, besides, good and regular; and many might serve as perfect models of the human figure. Their air and carriage, moreover, is very graceful and expressive. But, though their outward appearance denotes great strength, they can by no means compare, in this respect, with even moderately strong Europeans.

The complexion of these people is dark, though not entirely black; but great difference is observable in this respect. Hence, in their own language, they distinguish between the Ovathorondu—the black individuals—and Ovatherandu, or red ones. Their eyes are black, but the expression is rather soft.

I never saw any albinos in Damara-land, though such are said to occur among the Caffres.

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The women are often of the most delicate and symmetrical shape, with full and rounded forms, and very small hands and feet. Nevertheless, from their precarious mode of life, and constant exposure to the sun, &c., any beauty they possess is soon lost; and, in a more advanced age, many become the most hideous of human beings.

Both sexes are exceedingly filthy in their habits. Dirt often accumulates to such a degree on their persons as to make the color of their skin totally indistinguishable; while, to complete the disguise, they smear themselves with a profusion of red ochre and grease. Hence the exhalation hovering about them is disgusting in the extreme.

Neither men nor women wear much clothing. Their habiliments consist merely of a skin or two of sheep or goats, with the hair on or off, which they wrap loosely round the waist, or throw across the shoulders. These skins, as with their own limbs, are besmeared with large quantities of red ochre and grease, and with the wealthier classes are ornamented with coarse iron and copper beads, of various size.

The men usually go bareheaded; but, in case of cold or rain, they wear a sort of cap, or rather piece of skin, which they can convert into any shape or size that fancy may dictate.

Independently of the skins, the women wear a kind of bodice, made from thousands of little rounded pieces of ostrich egg-shells strung on threads, seven or eight such strings being fastened together; but I am not sure that it is not more for ornament than real utility. The head-dress of the married women is curious and highly picturesque, being not unlike a helmet in shape and general appearance.

Boys are usually seen in a state of almost absolute nudity. The girls, however, wear a kind of apron, cut up into a number of fine strings, which are sometimes ornamented with iron and copper beads.

Few ornaments are worn by the men, who prefer seeing them on the persons of their wives and daughters. They delight, however, in an amazing quantity of thin leathern "riems" (forming also part of their dress), which they wind around their loins in a negligent and graceful manner. These "riems"—which are often many hundred feet in length—serve as a receptacle for their knobsticks or kieries, their arrows, &c., but become, at the same time, a refuge for the most obnoxious insects.

The women, when they can afford it, wear a profusion of iron and copper rings—those of gold or brass are held in little estimation—round their waists and ankles.

The weapons of the Damaras are the assegai, the kierie, and the bow and arrow; they have also a few guns.

The head of the assegai consists of iron, and is usually kept well polished; being, moreover, of a soft texture, it is easily sharpened, or repaired, if out of order. The shaft, though, at times, also made of iron, is commonly of wood, the end being usually ornamented with a bushy ox-tail. On account of its great breadth, the assegai is not well adapted for stabbing, and its weight is such that it can not be thrown to any considerable distance. This weapon, in short, is chiefly used instead of a knife, and, though rather an awkward substitute, it answers the purpose tolerably well.

The kierie is a favorite weapon with the Damaras. They handle it with much adroitness, and kill birds and small quadrupeds with surprising dexterity. Most savage tribes in Southern Africa use this instrument with great advantage and effect. Thus, in speaking of the Matabili, Harris says, "They rarely miss a partridge or a Guinea-fowl on the wing." In an experienced hand, the kierie becomes a most dangerous and effective weapon, as a single well-directed blow is sufficient to lay low the strongest man.

The bow and arrow, on the other hand, though a constant companion, is not, with the Damaras, as effective as it ought to be. They never attain perfection in archery. At ten or a dozen yards they will shoot tolerably well, but beyond that distance they are wretched marksmen.

The Damaras are divided into two large tribes, the Ovaherero and the Ovapantiereu, of which the former lives nearest to the sea; still, with the exception of a slight difference in the language, they appear to be one and the same people. They may again be divided into rich and poor Damaras,[1] or those who subsist on the produce of their herds, and those who have no cattle, or at least very few, and who live chiefly by the chase, and what wild fruit and roots they can pick up abroad. These are called Ovatjimba, and are looked upon with the utmost contempt by the prosperous classes, who reduce them to a state of slavery, and do not even scruple to take their lives.

But, as the Damaras are little known to Europeans, much is to be said of them, and they will require a chapter to themselves. I shall, therefore, reserve a more detailed account of their peculiarities, customs, manners, &c., to a later period, when I became better acquainted with them and their country.

In consequence of an unusually severe drought this year, most of the rain-pools in the neighborhood of Richterfeldt were dried up; but as spring-water was still to be found at that place, a great number of wild animals nightly congregated there. As usual under such circumstances, the game was followed by troops of lions, who were a constant annoyance to us. To guard against their attacks, we had on our first arrival made a strong fence or inclosure round the camp, but even then we did not feel very secure.

One evening these beasts were more than usually troublesome. The sun had hardly sunk below the horizon when they began their terror-striking music, and kept it up without intermission till a late hour, when all became silent. Believing that they had taken themselves off, I sent the men who had been watching to sleep. I was, however, deceived; for two hours had hardly elapsed when within a short distance of our encampment, there arose a most horrible roaring, intermingled with the rushing to and fro, the kicking, plunging, and neighing of a troop of zebras, which instantly brought every man to his feet, and the consternation and confusion became indescribable. Some of them rushed about like maniacs, lamenting most piteously that they ever left the Cape. Others convulsively grasped their blankets in their arms, and cried like children; while a few stood motionless, with fear and anguish depicted in their countenances. It was in vain that I tried to calm their agitation. They seemed fully convinced that their last hour had come, and that they should perish miserably by the fangs of wild beasts.

On going just outside the inclosure, I could distinctly see the glimmering of lions’ eyes, as our small, well-kept bivouac-fire fell full upon them. I sent a ball or two after the intruders, but, as it appeared afterward, without effect.

The next morning we found that the zebras had escaped unscathed, and we attributed the unusual anger and ferocity of their pursuers to the disappointment they had experienced in losing their favorite prey.

We had only been a short time at Richterfeldt when three of our mules, and the remaining horse, were seized with a mortal disease, and in the course of a few hours they all died. Though the loss of the animals was great to us, their death was a god-send to the poor Damaras, who devoured the carcasses bodily, and without the least disagreeable result.

The distemper in question is usually known by the vague name of "paarde-sikte" (the horse—sickness); and, as the cause is totally unknown, no remedy has yet been found efficient to stop it. Throughout Great Namaqua-land it is particularly fatal. Some people attribute this singular disease to poisonous herbs, of which the animals have inadvertently partaken; others, to the dew; and others, again, to the eating the young grass;[2] but all these suppositions are highly improbable, for reasons which it would be unnecessary to enter into here.

Fatal as the disease is to horses, yet, happily, there are places (even in districts where it commits the greatest ravages) that are always exempt from it. And, as these localities are well known to the natives, if one's horse be sent to them prior to the commencement of the sickly season—usually the months of November and December—the animals invariably escape the malady. The attack of our animals was an unusual exception to this rule, for they fell victims to the disease fully a month prior to the rainy season.

From the Orange River on the south, and as far north as Europeans have penetrated from the Cape side, this deadly disease is known to prevail, and is one of the greatest drawbacks to successful traveling in South Africa.

  1. To prevent confusion, when speaking hereafter of these people, I shall simply call them Damaras, in contradistinction to the Hill-Damaras, who are a totally different race of natives.
  2. A similar notion prevails with regard to that most curious little animal, the lemming (lemmus norvegicus, Worm.), on whose mysterious appearance and disappearance so many hypotheses have been unsatisfactorily expended. See Lloyd's "Scandinavian Adventures," vol. ii., chap. v.