Lake Ngami/Chapter 9

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Barmen.—Thunder-storm in the Tropics.—A Man killed by Lightning.—Warm Spring.—Mr. Hahn: his Missionary Labor; Seed sown in exceeding stony Ground.—The Lake Omanbondè.—Mr. Galton's Mission of Peace.—The Author meets a Lion by the way; the Beast bolts.—Singular Chase of a Gnoo.—"Killing two Birds with one Stone."—A Lion Hunt.—The Author escapes Death by a Miracle.—Consequences of shooting on a Sunday.

At a first glance, Barmen has a rather dreary aspect. Hans thought it resembled many of the most desolate parts of Iceland; but, when more closely examined, it is found to be by no means devoid either of interest or beauty. It is situated about three quarters of a mile from the Swakop, and on its right bank. Toward the west, and immediately behind the station, rise irregular masses of low, broken rocks, ending abruptly on one side in a bluff, about one thousand feet high. The whole are covered with a profusion of shrubs, and several species of thorn-trees of the genus acacia, which, during the greater part of the year, assume every shade of green. To the eastward it faces the Swakop, the course of which is conspicuously marked by the handsome black-stemmed mimosa. Beyond this, the view is limited by a noble range of picturesque mountains, rising between six and seven thousand feet above the level of the sea. These receive additional interest from being more or less a continuation of those mighty chains which take their rise a very few miles from Cape-Town, thus extending, in a direct line, about one thousand miles.

Within a stone's-throw of the missionary house, a turbulent mountain stream winds its tortuous course. It flows, however, only during heavy rains, when its great fall and violence prove very destructive to the native gardens.

About two years from the period of which I am now writing, I happened to be on a visit to Barmen, on which occasion I witnessed one of those extraordinary phenomena only to be seen to perfection in tropical climes. One afternoon, heavy and threatening clouds suddenly gathered in the eastern horizon, the thunder rolled ominously in the distance, and the sky was rent by vivid lightnings. Knowing, from long experience, its imports, we instantly set about placing every thing under shelter that could be injured by the wet. This was hardly accomplished when large drops of rain began to descend, and in a few seconds the sluice-gates of heaven appeared to have opened. The storm did not last above half an hour, but this short time was sufficient to convert the whole country into one sheet of water. The noise, moreover, caused by the river and a number of minor mountain streams, as they rolled down their dark, muddy torrents in waves rising often as high as ten feet, was perfectly deafening. Gigantic trees, recently uprooted, and others in a state of decay, were carried away with irresistible fury, and tossed about on the foaming billows like so many straws. Every vestige of many gardens was swept away; and some of the native huts, which had been imprudently erected too close to the river, shared a similar fate. Indeed, it must have been a miniature deluge.

Wonderful, however, as is the sudden creation of these floods, the very short time they require to disappear is no less striking. An hour's sunshine is sometimes sufficient to transform flooded fields into a smiling landscape. These commotions of the elements are of frequent occurrence in the tropics during the rainy season. Soon after Mr. Galton's arrival at Barmen there was a very heavy thunder-storm. One evening, as he and Mr. Hahn were conversing, they saw a Damara struck dead by lightning within a hundred yards of where they stood.

Water was abundant at Barmen, and very good. Mr. Hahn had dug a large well in his own garden, which was of very great convenience and comfort, as the water thus obtained was always clean and wholesome. Within a couple of hundred paces of the dwelling-house there were, moreover, two copious fountains. One of these was a warm spring, the temperature being 157 degrees of Fahrenheit. By means of small channels, this spring was made to irrigate a considerable portion of garden land, and was also of great use in seasoning timber. To the laundress, besides, it was invaluable. During our stay at Barmen we indulged freely in the unusual and uncommon luxury of a bath, but it proved somewhat relaxing.

Mr. Hahn was a Russian by birth, but had, for a number of years, devoted himself to the service of the German Rhenish Missionary Society, and was now using his best endeavors to convert the natives of this benighted land. At first he had settled among a tribe of Namaquas, under the powerful robber-chief Jonker Afrikaner, of whom presently. Finding, however, that these people infinitely preferred to cut the throats of their fellow-creatures than to listen to his exhortations, and knowing, moreover, that several missionaries had already established themselves throughout various parts of Great Namaqua-land, he thought that he might use his influence to more advantage with the Damaras, among whom, therefore, he had pitched his tent. Messrs. Rath and Kolbé were his coadjutors in the good cause.

Seeing that their best endeavors were of little avail without a proper knowledge of the Damara language, they worked hard in order to master it, but the difficulty was immense. At last, by the merest chance, they discovered the key to it, and from that moment they made rapid progress; so much so that, in the course of a few years, Mr. Hahn was able to return to Germany, where he has compiled and published a grammar and dictionary.

On the first appearance of the missionaries in Damara-land, the natives were very reserved, and retired with their cattle into the interior. Being wholly dependent on them for supplies of live-stock, the settlers suffered great hardships and privations. Indeed, on more than one occasion starvation stared them in the face, and they lived for a long time in a precarious way on such wild animals as their Hottentot servants managed to kill. The Damaras, moreover, probably judging others by themselves, conceived the idea that the missionaries had come into the country with some sinister object, and that it would be advisable to frustrate it. Accordingly, they assembled in great numbers within a few miles of Barmen for the purpose of exterminating the new settlers. Their diabolical intentions were, however, frustrated by the counsel of one of their tribe. At the time of which I am now writing, Mr. Hahn and his coadjutors had completely succeeded in pacifying and conciliating the Damaras, and a great number of the poorer classes were now living at the station, where, by a little industry and perseverance, many managed to live in tolerable comfort. The great source of their wealth consisted in the cultivation of tobacco, which here grew to perfection, the leaves of this plant often attaining the size of three feet by two. What they did not consume themselves was bartered for cattle to their wealthier countrymen.

Here, however, their civilization seemed to be at a standstill. The missionaries were laudably and strenuously exerting themselves in their behalf, but as yet they had met with little or no encouragement. To the mind of a Damara, the idea of men visiting them solely from love and charity is utterly inconceivable. They can not banish a suspicion that the motives of the stranger must be interested; and they not unfrequently require a bribe in return for any services they may render to the missionary cause. As an instance of the utter failure of religious zeal in these parts, I may mention that Mr. Hahn, who is liked and respected by the natives, never succeeded, as he himself told me, in converting a single individual! In one instance, however, he imagined that he had made a convert; but, before the individual in question could be finally admitted as a member of the Christian Church, it was necessary that he should give satisfactory answers to certain questions. One of these was, whether, according to the usages of Christianity, he would be contented with one wife. To this the man replied that though he was very anxious to oblige Mr. Hahn and his friends personally, and to further the objects of the mission in every way possible, yet his conscience would not permit him to make so great a sacrifice as that required.

The wealthy Damaras were even more indifferent to spiritual matters than their poorer brethren; and if they happened to visit any of the stations, it was not for the purpose of hearing the Gospel preached, but either in the hope of protection against their enemies, or with a view to business by bartering tobacco, iron-ware, and so forth. One exception to this rule was found in the case of the chief Kahichené, who had settled with part of his tribe at Schmelen's Hope.

Mr. Gallon had not been idle during my absence. Besides collecting much interesting information with regard to the Damaras and the Namaquas, he had ascertained the existence of a fresh-water lake called Omanbondè. This had the effect of raising our spirits considerably. We had landed at Walfisch Bay with a vague idea as to our route, and had hitherto felt quite at a loss how to act.

To enable us to reach Omanbondè it was necessary to pass through Damara-land, which was totally unknown to Europeans. Even the missionaries who had resided several years on the frontiers were ignorant of the country beyond a very few miles of their own stations. The Damaras themselves entertained the most extravagant notions of its extent, population, and fertility. The people, however, were known to be inhospitable, treacherous, suspicious, and inimical to strangers. It had always been considered insecure to travel among them, but more particularly so at this time, since their southern neighbors, the Kamaquas, attracted by their vast herds, had lately made several extensive raids upon them, killing the people, and carrying off large numbers of cattle, sheep, &c. They believed, and with some show of reason, that every individual of a light complexion was leagued against them. They well knew that the cattle stolen from them by their enemies, the Namaquas, were sold to European traders; and they knew, also, that if, by accident or design, the cattle belonging to the missionaries, or other white men, were stolen by the thievish people in question, they were always restored on application. This, together with the fact than a European could pass unmolested through the Namaqua territory, strengthened them in the conviction that we were enemies in disguise.

In order, therefore, to calm their excited feelings, to assure them of our friendly and peaceable intentions, and to explain to them the real motive of our journey, Mr. Galton had dispatched messengers to the principal Damara chiefs. He also wrote to Jonker Afrikaner (having previously sent messengers to him while at Richterfeldt), remonstrating with him on the barbarity and injustice of his conduct. Jonker is a leading chieftain among the Namaqua-Hottentots. He headed in person the greater part of the marauding expeditions into Damara-land.

Having spent a few days agreeably and usefully at Barmen, we prepared to return to our camp at Richterfeldt; but when the day of departure had arrived, I felt very feverish, and Galton was obliged to prosecute his journey without me. In a short time, however, I was able to follow.

On riding briskly along early one morning, I observed, as I thought, a solitary zebra a few hundred yards in advance. Instantly alighting, and leaving "Spring" to take care of himself, I made toward the quarry, gun in hand, under cover of a few small trees. Having proceeded for some distance, I peeped cautiously from behind a bush, when I found, to my astonishment, that the animal which I had taken for a zebra was nothing less than a noble lion. He was quietly gazing at me. I must confess I felt a little startled at the unexpected apparition; but, recovering quickly from my surprise, I advanced to meet him. He, however, did not think fit to wait till I was within proper range, but turned tail, and fled toward the Swakop. Hoping to be able to come to close quarters with him, I followed at the top of my speed, and was rapidly gaining ground on the brute, when suddenly, with two or three immense bounds, he cleared an open space, and was the next moment hidden from view among the thick reeds that here lined the banks of the river. Having no dogs with me, all my efforts to dislodge him from his stronghold proved unavailing. While still lingering about the place, I came upon the carcass of a gnoo, on which a troop of lions had apparently been feasting not many minutes previously. Undoubtedly my somewhat dastardly friend had been one of the party.

In the afternoon of the same day that I reached Richterfeldt a very exciting and animating chase took place. A gnoo had been slightly wounded by a Hottentot servant of Mr. Rath. The natives, who had watched the whole affair from the station, immediately gave chase to the animal. Finding itself hard pressed, the gnoo, in its fright, took refuge in the village, where it was quickly hemmed in on all sides. Every woman and child had turned out to witness its destruction, while the men were vociferously contending about the right to the carcass. Assegais and arrows, moreover, were whizzing thick round our ears, and I had considerable difficulty in making my way through this scene of confusion to the poor gnoo, which I found at bay in the middle of Mr. Rath's sheep-kraal, not twenty feet from his own dwelling. It was pierced with two assegais, and the blood flowed in streams down its panting and foaming sides.

Though the gnoo is but a comparatively small animal, its high fore quarters, its coarse and shaggy mane, and its buffalo head, gives it a very imposing and formidable appearance. It was impatiently stamping and striking the ground with its fore feet, and its looks seemed to bid defiance to us all.

At some risk, on account of the immense concourse of people assembled, I put a ball through the animal's shoulders, which at once ended its sufferings. A few minutes more—nay, rather seconds—there was not a vestige to be seen of it. Indeed, it was literally torn to pieces by the natives.

On paying my respects, later in the evening, to Mr. and Mrs. Rath, I was politely informed that the penalty for shooting the gnoo was a goat. This being explained, I found, to my surprise, that the ball had passed clean through the antelope, and had struck dead a goat belonging to these worthy people.

The day previously to my reaching the encampment, Mr. Galton had started on an excursion to the westward. His object was chiefly to procure cattle from the natives, for we had not yet succeeded in obtaining a sufficiency of animals. He was also anxious to see and explore Erongo, a mountain famous at once for its peculiar formation, and as a stronghold of that curious race, the Hill-Damaras. Mr. Galton was accompanied by Hans, who had already visited the place, and a few other servants. On his return from Erongo, we were to start, with the wagons, up the country.

One day, when eating my humble dinner, I was interrupted by the arrival of several natives, who, in breathless haste, related that an ongeama, or lion, had just killed one of their goats close to the mission station (Richterfeldt), and begged of me to lend them a hand in destroying the beast. They had so often cried "wolf" that I did not give much heed to their statements; but, as they persisted in their story, I at last determined to ascertain its truth. Having strapped to my waist a shooting-belt, containing the several requisites of a hunter, such as bullets, caps, knife, &c., I shouldered my trusty double-barreled gun (after loading it with steel-pointed balls), and followed the men.

In a short time we reached the spot where the lion was believed to have taken refuge. This was in a dense tamarisk brake of some considerable extent, situated partially on and below the sloping banks of the Swakop, near to its junction with the Ommutenna, one of its tributaries.

On the rising ground above the brake in question were drawn up, in battle array, a number of Damaras and Namaquas, some armed with assegais, and a few with guns. Others of the party were in the brake itself, endeavoring to oust the lion.

But as it seemed to me that the "beaters" were timid, and, moreover, somewhat slow in their movements, I called them back, and, accompanied by only one or two persons, as also a few worthless dogs, entered the brake myself. It was rather a dangerous proceeding; for, in places, the cover was so thick and tangled as to oblige me to creep on my hands and knees, and the lion, in consequence, might easily have pounced upon me without a moment's warning. At that time, however, I had not obtained any experimental knowledge of the old saying, "A burnt child dreads the fire," and therefore felt little or no apprehension.

Thus I had proceeded for some time, when suddenly, and within a few paces of where I stood, I heard a low, angry growl, which caused the dogs, with hair erect in the manner of hogs' bristles, and with their tails between their legs, to slink behind my heels. Immediately afterward a tremendous shout of "Ongeama! Ongeama!" was raised by the natives on the bank above, followed by a discharge of fire-arms. Presently, however, all was still again, for the lion, as I subsequently learned, after showing himself on the outskirts of the brake, had retreated into it.

Once more I attempted to dislodge the beast; but, finding the enemy awaiting him in the more open country, he was very loth to leave his stronghold. Again, however, I succeeded in driving him to the edge of the brake, where, as in the first instance, he was received with a volley; but a broomstick would have been equally efficacious as a gun in the hands of these people, for out of a great number of shot that were fired, not one seemed to have taken effect.

Worn out at length by my exertions, and disgusted beyond measure at the way in which the natives bungled the affair, I left the tamarisk brake, and, rejoining them on the bank above, offered to change places with them; but my proposal, as I expected, was forthwith declined.

As the day, however, was now fast drawing to a close, I determined to make one other effort to destroy the lion, and, should that prove unsuccessful, to give up the chase. Accordingly, accompanied by only a single native, I again entered the brake in question, which I examined for some time without seeing any thing; but on arriving at that part of the cover we had first searched, and when in a spot comparatively free from bushes, up suddenly sprung the beast within a few paces of me. It was a black-maned lion, and one of the largest I ever remember to have encountered in Africa. But his movements were so rapid, so silent and smooth withal, that it was not until he had partially entered the thick cover (at which time he might have been about thirty paces distant) that I could fire. On receiving the ball, he wheeled short about, and with a terrific roar bounded toward me. When within a few paces, he couched, as if about to spring, having his head imbedded, so to say, between his fore-paws.

Drawing a large hunting-knife and slipping it over the wrist of my right hand, I dropped on one knee, and, thus prepared, awaited his onset. It was an awful moment of suspense, and my situation was critical in the extreme. Still, my presence of mind never for a moment forsook me—indeed, I felt that nothing but the most perfect coolness and absolute self-command would be of any avail.

I would now have become the assailant; but, as—owing to the intervening bushes, and clouds of dust raised by the lion's lashing his tail against the ground—I was unable to see his head, while to aim at any other part would have been madness, I refrained from firing. While intently watching his every motion, he suddenly bounded toward me; but, whether it was owing to his not perceiving me, partially concealed as I was in the long grass, or to my instinctively throwing my body on one side, or to his miscalculating the distance, in making his last spring he went clear over me, and alighted on the ground three or four paces beyond. Instantly, and without rising, I wheeled round on my knee and discharged my second barrel; and as his broadside was then toward me, lodged a ball in his shoulder, which it completely smashed. On receiving my second fire, he made another and more determined rush at me, but, owing to his disabled state, I happily avoided him. It was, however, only by a hair's breadth, for he passed me within arm's length. He
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afterward scrambled into the thick cover beyond, where, as night was then approaching, I did not deem it prudent to pursue him.

At an early hour on the next morning, however, we followed his "spoor," and soon came to the spot where he had passed the night. The sand here was one patch of blood, and the bushes immediately about were broken, and beaten down by his weight as he had staggered to and fro in his effort to get on his legs again. Strange to say, however, we here lost all clew to the beast. A large troop of lions, that had been feasting on a giraffe in the early morning, had obliterated his tracks, and it was not until some days afterward, and when the carcass was in a state of decomposition, that his death was ascertained. He breathed his last very near to where we were "at fault;" but, in prosecuting the search, we had unfortunately taken exactly the opposite direction.

On our homeward path from the pursuit of the lion we fell in with a herd of zebras, and, while discharging my gun at them, I accidentally pulled both triggers at once. The piece being very light, and loaded with double charges, the barrel flew out of the stock, the cocks burying themselves deep in the flesh on either side of my nose, just under the eyes, and left scars visible to this day. Mr. Rath, on seeing me in this plight, was good enough to say, by way of consolation, that it was undoubtedly a just punishment of Heaven in consequence of my having carried a gun on a Sunday!