Lake Ngami/Chapter 8

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A hearty Welcome.—We remove the Encampment.—An Apparition.—Audacity of wild Beasts.—Depriving Lions of their Prey.—Excessive Heat.—Singular effects of great Heat.—Depart for Barmen.—Meet a troop of Zebras.—Their flesh not equal to Venison.—The Missionary's Wall.—A sad Catastrophe.—The "Kameel-Doorn."—Buxton Fountain.—The Scorpion.—Arrival at Barmen.

Immediately on our arrival at Richterfeldt we were surrounded by scores of natives, who, with yells, vociferations, clapping of hands, grotesque dances, and so forth, testified their joy at our return. Mr. Rath, moreover, highly mented us on the dispatch with which we had broken-in the oxen and performed the journey.

Mr. Galton, I ascertained, had lately departed for Barmen, Mr. Hahn's station. I determined to follow him as soon as I had taken sufficient rest after my fatiguing journey. In the mean time, the wagons were to remain at Richterfeldt till our return to that place.

At first we pitched our camp in the same spot we had occupied previously to our departure for Scheppmansdorf; but the high palisades that protected it had been destroyed in our absence by the natives, who had carried away the wood for fuel. This, however, was of little consequence, as the old inclosure would now have been too small to contain both the cattle and our cumbersome conveyances. Moreover, as the place was situated in the bed of a periodical stream, a tributary of the Swakop, and as the rainy season was fast approaching, it would have been imprudent to remain here any length of time. Accordingly, we brought our wagons, &c., to Hans' own kraal, which was near at hand on the bank of the river, as there we should be perfectly secure in case of any sudden inundation.

The day before our removal, the men had asked and obtained permission to spend the evening with Hans at his encampment. Even the dogs had absented themselves, and I was thus left altogether alone. This night, though somewhat warm, was delightfully bright and still. To enjoy the beautiful weather, I had taken my bedding out of the wagon, and placed it on the ground alongside the wheels, facing a small clump of low tamarisk-trees, distant not above twenty paces. Being a bad sleeper, I lay awake until a very late hour. All nature was hushed and silent, and the night so calm that I might have heard the falling of a leaf. Suddenly my attention was drawn to the tamarisk grove, whence proceeded a low, rustling noise like that of some animal cautiously making its way through it. Thinking it probable that a hyaena or a jackal was about to pay me a visit, I sat up in my bed, and seizing my gun, which I invariably kept within reach, I prepared to give the intruder a warm reception. Imagine my surprise, however, when, instead of one or other of these skulking animals, a stately lion stood suddenly before me! In an instant my gun was pointed at his breast; but, hoping he would presently turn his broadside toward me, which would have given me a much better chance of destroying him, I refrained from firing. In this expectation, however, I was disappointed; for, on perceiving the wagons, he retreated a step or two, and uttering a low growl, vanished the next moment among the bushes.

There is something so grand and imposing in the appearance of the king of beasts in his native wilds, more especially when he assumes an attitude of surprise or defiance, that it is impossible not to feel more or less awed in his presence.

On mentioning to Mr. Rath, the following morning, my adventure of the preceding night, he expressed no kind of surprise, for the tamarisk grove in question was often known, he said, to harbor lions and other beasts of prey. He added, moreover, that lions not unfrequently penetrated thence into his garden, and even approached within a few paces of the dwelling-house itself.

Returning somewhat late one very dark night from Mr. Rath's house to our encampment, I was suddenly startled by sounds of the most painful description, not unlike the stifled groanings of a person who is on the point of drowning. It at once struck me that the lions had surprised some unfortunate native while lying in ambush near the water for wild animals that came there to drink. While listening in anxious suspense to the wailings in question—which gradually became more and more faint—there reached me from another quarter a confused sound of human voices and of hurried footsteps. This only tended to confirm my first impression; but, from the impenetrable darkness, I could not ascertain any thing with certainty. Being unable, however, to endure the suspense any longer, and regardless of the danger to which I exposed myself, I caught up my fowling-piece, which happened to be loaded with ball, and set out in the direction whence the wailings, now fast dying away, proceeded.

I had not gone very far, however, before I fell in with a number of the natives, who were hastening in the same direction as myself

My road, for the most part, lay through a dense tamarisk coppice, and it was surprising to me how I ever managed to thread the labyrinth. The hope of saving human life, however, enabled me to overcome all obstacles. I might have been three or four minutes in the brake when, on coming to a small opening, I suddenly encountered, and all but stumbled over, a large black mass lying at my feet, while close to my ear I heard the twang of a bow-string and the whizzing of an arrow. At the same moment, and within a very few paces of where I stood, I was startled by the terrific roar of a lion, which seemed to shake the ground beneath me. This was immediately followed by a savage and exulting cry of triumph from a number of the natives.

Having recovered from my surprise, I found that the dark object that had nearly upset me was one of the natives stooping over a dead zebra, which the lion had just killed, and then learned, for the first time, to my great astonishment as well as relief, that the wailings which had caused me so much uneasiness, and which I imagined were those of a dying man, proceeded from this poor animal.[1]

The design of the natives, who, from the first, I take it, well knew what they were about, was simply to possess themselves of the zebra, in which they had fully succeeded. "While some busied themselves in lighting a fire, the rest joined in a sort of war-dance round the carcass, accompanied by the most wild and fantastic gestures, totally disregarding the proximity of the lion, who had only retreated a few paces. As the fire began to blaze, indeed, we could distinctly see him pacing to and fro among the bushes on the edge of the river's bank.

He, moreover, forcibly reminded us of his presence by cruelly lacerating a small dog belonging to one of the party which had incautiously approached him too closely. By a slight touch of his murderous paw he ripped up its body from head to foot; but, notwithstanding its entrails dragged on the ground, the poor creature managed to crawl to our fire, where it breathed its last in the course of a few seconds. It was a most touching sight to see the faithful animal wagging its tail in recognition of its master, who was trying to replace the intestines and to stop the flow of the blood. The savage features of the natives, which received an unnaturally wild character as the glare of the half-blazing fire fell upon them; the dying dog, with his wild master stooping despondingly over him the mutilated carcass of the zebra, and the presence of the lion within a few paces of us, presented one of the most striking scenes it was ever my fortune to witness.

Expecting every moment that the lion would make a dash at us, I stood prepared to receive him. More than once, indeed, I leveled my gun at him, and was on the point of pulling the trigger; but, being now sufficiently acquainted with the character of the animal to know that, if I did not shoot him on the spot, the attempt would probably prove the death-signal to one or other of us, I refrained from firing.

Contrary to my expectation, however, he allowed us to cut up and to carry away the entire zebra without molesting us in any way. During the process, the natives occasionally hurled huge burning brands at the beast; but these, instead of driving him to a distance, had only the effect of making him the more savage.[2]

Similar attempts to deprive the lion of his prey are of frequent occurrence in the interior of Africa. Indeed, it is no unusual thing to find a number of natives residing near such pools of water as are frequented by antelopes, other wild animals, and their constant attendant, the lion, subsisting almost altogether in this way, or on carcasses which the lion has not had time to devour before the return of day, when it is his habit to retire to his lair.

But it is not always that the attempt to deprive the lion of his prey succeeds as well as in the instance just mentioned. Generally speaking, indeed, if he is famishing with hunger, he turns upon his assailants, and many a man has thus lost his life. One often meets with individuals, either mutilated or bearing dreadful scars, the result of wounds received in such encounters.

The heat had, by this time, become almost insupportable, and it was only with great inconvenience that a person could move about after the sun was a few hours above the horizon. Even the cattle were dreadfully distressed. As early as eight o'clock in the morning they would leave off grazing, in order to seek shelter under some tree or bush against the scorching rays of the sun.

Every afternoon, regularly at two o'clock, we had a strong breeze from the westward. Strange to say, however, this, though coming from the sea, instead of cooling the atmosphere, only tended to increase its oppressiveness. We experienced precisely the same sensation as when standing before the mouth of a heated oven. The quicksilver rose to such a height as almost to make us doubt our own eyes. Even at Scheppmansdorf, which is situated less than twenty miles as the crow flies from the sea, and where there is almost always a refreshing breeze, the thermometer, at noon, in an airy situation, and in the shade, rises, for many days together, to 110 degrees of Fahrenheit!

In consequence of the fiery state of the atmosphere, every article of horn or wood shrank and contracted most surprisingly. Even the gun-stocks, made of the best English walnut, lost an eighth of an inch of their original solidity. The ink dried in the pen almost the instant it left the stand.[3]

Our wagons, moreover, which on leaving Scheppmansdorf were in excellent order, were now quite infirm. The spokes and the tires became loose, and the felloes and naves exhibited large gaps and fissures. To save them, however, as much as possible, we set about making a shed of reeds and rushes, strongly bound together by cords and light wooden sticks.

As soon as this was finished, I began my preparations for visiting Galton at Barmen; and as Mr. Schöneberg was also anxious to make the acquaintance of Mr. Hahn, his intended colleague, it was agreed that we should travel together. On the day appointed we set out, mounted on oxen, and accompanied by a Hottentot as guide and interpreter. Besides his native tongue, this man spoke Dutch and Damara fluently. One or two natives were also engaged to drive and to assist in packing the oxen.

As usual, I rode "Spring," and Mr. Schoneberg an ox lent to him by Mr. Rath; but, unfortunately, the latter animal turned very vicious, and before we had proceeded many hundred yards I saw my friend pitched head foremost into the moist bed of the Swakop. On rising from his uncomfortable berth, the reverend gentleman looked very blank and crestfallen, and nothing could again induce him to remount the brute. Being, however, anxious to prosecute the journey, I made him an offer of my own ox, which was gratefully accepted.

After this little mishap, all went on well for a while. Unfortunately, however, in an unguarded moment, I too was doomed to be "un-oxed," to the great delight and amusement of my companion. Confiding in his superior skill in managing a refractory ox, our guide now generously exchanged with me. Notwithstanding his boasting, he was as unfortunate as ourselves, for in the course of half an hour he had twice bitten the dust. Nothing daunted, however, he mounted a third time, and ultimately succeeded in convincing the animal that he was determined to be master.

In the course of the day we suddenly came upon a troop of zebras. Quickly dismounting, I took a running shot at them as they were disappearing in the brushwood, and had the good fortune to bring a fine male dead to the ground. Immediately "off-saddling," we helped ourselves to the best parts of the meat, leaving the rest to one of our Damaras, who thought a "tuck-out" of flesh—as Hans would have called it—preferable to a wearisome journey to Barmen.

The flesh of the zebra, or "wild horse," as the Dutch call it, is eatable, but by no means good; for, besides possessing a very strong odor and peculiar flavor, it has a very oily taste. With plenty of pepper and salt, however, a steak is not to be despised by the hungry traveler.

The heat throughout the day had been terrific. Before the sun had well disappeared behind the mountains between which we traveled, Mr. Schöneberg was completely knocked up, and we were obliged to encamp for the night. Each of us carried a small tin water-can; but, instead of having it filled, as I did, with the pure liquid, Mrs. Rath had kindly, but unwisely, provided her friend with a mixture of water, sugar, and cinnamon. This, as may be supposed, only served to increase his thirst.

We had hardly finished removing the packs and saddles from our tired steeds before the poor missionary threw himself despondingly on the ground, exclaiming, "Ah! Mr. Andersson, if we were to tell people in Europe what we suffer here, none would believe us." I could not help smiling at this burst of despair; for, though from the heat the day had been distressing enough, we had by no means suffered either from want of water or food. Poor Mr. Schöneberg! he was totally unfit for the hardships he must necessarily encounter in the African deserts. Indeed, not many weeks afterward he all but perished from his inability to endure thirst for a short period.

The next morning at daybreak we were again in the saddle. Our course was northerly, and a little by east; and the greater part of the road lay some distance from the Swakop, which at one point forced its way through a narrow, picturesque, and bold gorge.

In one place we passed at the foot of "Scheppman's Mountain," so called from a melancholy event which occurred here a few years ago. A missionary named Scheppman had made the ascent to obtain a view of the surrounding country, but in descending the cock of his gun was caught by a bough, and the contents were lodged in one of his legs. After having suffered agonies for a few days, he expired, and the hill has ever since gone by his name.

The vegetation was more rank than in the parts we had previously traversed. In the course of the day we crossed the dry beds of several large, sandy, and periodical streams, which were all tributaries to the Swakop. The country near these streams was thickly studded with splendid forests of the gigantic and park-like acacia, known to the Dutch as the "kameel-doorn," or giraffe thorn (acacia giraffæ). This tree derives its name from its constituting the favorite and principal food of the beautiful camelopard. On account of its immense size and peculiar growth, having the foliage disposed from the top downward in umbrella-shaped masses, it is a great ornament to the country; but, strange to say, it is invariably found only in arid districts.

The "kameel-doorn" is evidently of very slow growth, and requires, probably, many hundred years to arrive at maturity. The grain is therefore very close; and the wood is so heavy that, after being dried for years, it will sink when thrown into the water. Our northern oak can in no wise be compared with it as regards hardness and solidity. The grain is, however, rather short, and the wood consequently brittle. Notwithstanding this defect, it is very strong, and is extensively used for building purposes and implements of husbandry. It is, moreover, almost the only wood strong enough for the axle-trees of wagons. Tools of the best materials, however, are indispensable in working it. I have seen many a well-tempered axe and adze blunted and spoiled when brought in contact with it. The outer part of the tree is of a whitish color, but the heart is reddish-brown, not unlike mahogany, and capable of a high polish.

It is in the branches of this acacia, mentioned by several South African travelers, that the social grossbeak (loxia socia) chiefly constructs its interesting and singular nest.

Through the stupidity and mismanagement of our guide, who apparently knew but little of the road, we missed a watering-place where we were to have halted, and, in consequence, suffered extremely from thirst. Mr. Schöneberg, moreover, had been very unwell during the day, and when we arrived at the end of the stage, which was not until seven o'clock at night, he was even more fatigued and exhausted than on the preceding evening.

We bivouacked by the side of "Buxton Fountain," so called in honor of the late Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, from whom and his family, if I am rightly informed, Mrs. Hahn had experienced much kindness. It is a hot spring, and the water, which flows out of a granite rock, is nearly of a boiling temperature, and has a brackish and disagreeable taste.

The soil, moreover, all round this fountain is impregnated with saline substances. A considerable number of wild animals congregate here nightly in order to quench their thirst. Lions, also, are at times numerous, but on this occasion they did not molest us.

Having partaken of some supper, I was about to resign my weary limbs to repose, when suddenly there issued from a small hole, close to my head, a swarm of scorpions. Their appearance brought me to my feet in an instant; for, though not a particularly nervous man, I am free to confess to a great horror of all crawling things.

During the hot months these animals lie dormant, but on the approach of the rainy season they come forth in great numbers. On removing stones, decayed pieces of wood, &c., it is necessary to be very cautious. The instant the scorpion feels himself in contact with any part of the body of a man or beast, he lifts his tail, and with his horny sting inflicts a wound which, though rarely fatal, is still of a very painful nature.[4]

Like the snake, the scorpion is fond of warmth, and it is not uncommon, on awakening in the morning, to find one or two of these horrid creatures snugly ensconced in the folds of the blanket or under the pillow. On one occasion I killed a scorpion measuring nearly seven and a half inches in length, that had thus unceremoniously introduced itself into my bed.

The following morning our guide declared it to be only a few hours' further traveling to Barmen. We therefore did not hurry our departure, but took ample time to prepare, and to partake of, a substantial breakfast, consisting of some strong coffee, and steaks of zebra-flesh, simply prepared on the hot embers of our bivouac fire.

We arrived at Barmen just as the family was sitting down to dinner, and Mr. Hahn kindly invited us to join in the ample repast. I was happy to find Mr. Galton in the enjoyment of health and excellent spirits, and he seemed delighted at our safe and speedy return.

  1. I have since had frequent opportunities of hearing the dying groans of the zebra, which in reality greatly resemble the faint gasps and ejaculations of a drowning man. Even the subdued neighings of this animal, when heard from a distance, are of a very melancholy nature.
  2. I have been told that on a similar occasion to the present, a lion was so injured by the flaming missiles thrown at him, that he was found shortly afterward dead of his wounds.
  3. Captain Sturt, who in his explorations in Australia seems to have experienced the same heat in even a greater degree, says,

    "The mean of the thermometer for the months of December, January, and February had been 101, 104, and 105 degrees respectively, in the shade. Under its effects, every screw in our boxes had been drawn, and the horn handles of our instruments, as well as our combs, were split into fine laminae. The lead dropped out of our pencils, and our signal rockets were entirely spoiled; our hair, as well as the wool on the sheep, ceased to grow, and our nails had become brittle as glass. The flour lost more than eight per cent. of its original weight, and the other provisions in still greater proportion." In another part of his narrative, this enterprising explorer mentions the quicksilver once to have risen to 132 degrees in the shade, the thermometer being placed in the fork of a tree, five feet from the ground!

  4. "The black, or rock scorpion," says Lieutenant Patterson, "is nearly as venomous as any of the serpent tribe. A farmer, who resided at a place called the Paarle, near the Cape, was stung by one in the foot during my stay in the country, and died in a few hours."