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Chapter 5 Our March Into The Desert

  • We had killed nine elephants, and it took us two days to cut out the tusks, and having brought them into camp, to bury them carefully in the sand under _arge tree, which made a conspicuous mark for miles round. It was _onderfully fine lot of ivory. I never saw a better, averaging as it di_etween forty and fifty pounds a tusk. The tusks of the great bull that kille_oor Khiva scaled one hundred and seventy pounds the pair, so nearly as w_ould judge.
  • As for Khiva himself, we buried what remained of him in an ant-bear hole, together with an assegai to protect himself with on his journey to a bette_orld. On the third day we marched again, hoping that we might live to retur_o dig up our buried ivory, and in due course, after a long and wearisom_ramp, and many adventures which I have not space to detail, we reache_itanda's Kraal, near the Lukanga River, the real starting-point of ou_xpedition. Very well do I recollect our arrival at that place. To the righ_as a scattered native settlement with a few stone cattle kraals and som_ultivated lands down by the water, where these savages grew their scant_upply of grain, and beyond it stretched great tracts of waving "veld" covere_ith tall grass, over which herds of the smaller game were wandering. To th_eft lay the vast desert. This spot appears to be the outpost of the fertil_ountry, and it would be difficult to say to what natural causes such a_brupt change in the character of the soil is due. But so it is.
  • Just below our encampment flowed a little stream, on the farther side of whic_s a stony slope, the same down which, twenty years before, I had seen poo_ilvestre creeping back after his attempt to reach Solomon's Mines, and beyon_hat slope begins the waterless desert, covered with a species of karoo shrub.
  • It was evening when we pitched our camp, and the great ball of the sun wa_inking into the desert, sending glorious rays of many-coloured light flyin_ll over its vast expanse. Leaving Good to superintend the arrangement of ou_ittle camp, I took Sir Henry with me, and walking to the top of the slop_pposite, we gazed across the desert. The air was very clear, and far, fa_way I could distinguish the faint blue outlines, here and there capped wit_hite, of the Suliman Berg.
  • "There," I said, "there is the wall round Solomon's Mines, but God knows if w_hall ever climb it."
  • "My brother should be there, and if he is, I shall reach him somehow," sai_ir Henry, in that tone of quiet confidence which marked the man.
  • "I hope so," I answered, and turned to go back to the camp, when I saw that w_ere not alone. Behind us, also gazing earnestly towards the far-of_ountains, stood the great Kafir Umbopa.
  • The Zulu spoke when he saw that I had observed him, addressing Sir Henry, t_hom he had attached himself.
  • "Is it to that land that thou wouldst journey, Incubu?" (a native wor_eaning, I believe, an elephant, and the name given to Sir Henry by th_afirs), he said, pointing towards the mountain with his broad assegai.
  • I asked him sharply what he meant by addressing his master in that familia_ay. It is very well for natives to have a name for one among themselves, bu_t is not decent that they should call a white man by their heathenis_ppellations to his face. The Zulu laughed a quiet little laugh which angere_e.
  • "How dost thou know that I am not the equal of the Inkosi whom I serve?" h_aid. "He is of a royal house, no doubt; one can see it in his size and by hi_ien; so, mayhap, am I. At least, I am as great a man. Be my mouth, _acumazahn, and say my words to the Inkoos Incubu, my master, for I woul_peak to him and to thee."
  • I was angry with the man, for I am not accustomed to be talked to in that wa_y Kafirs, but somehow he impressed me, and besides I was curious to know wha_e had to say. So I translated, expressing my opinion at the same time that h_as an impudent fellow, and that his swagger was outrageous.
  • "Yes, Umbopa," answered Sir Henry, "I would journey there."
  • "The desert is wide and there is no water in it, the mountains are high an_overed with snow, and man cannot say what lies beyond them behind the plac_here the sun sets; how shalt thou come thither, Incubu, and wherefore dos_hou go?"
  • I translated again.
  • "Tell him," answered Sir Henry, "that I go because I believe that a man of m_lood, my brother, has gone there before me, and I journey to seek him."
  • "That is so, Incubu; a Hottentot I met on the road told me that a white ma_ent out into the desert two years ago towards those mountains with on_ervant, a hunter. They never came back."
  • "How do you know it was my brother?" asked Sir Henry.
  • "Nay, I know not. But the Hottentot, when I asked what the white man was like, said that he had thine eyes and a black beard. He said, too, that the name o_he hunter with him was Jim; that he was a Bechuana hunter and wore clothes."
  • "There is no doubt about it," said I; "I knew Jim well."
  • Sir Henry nodded. "I was sure of it," he said. "If George set his mind upon _hing he generally did it. It was always so from his boyhood. If he meant t_ross the Suliman Berg he has crossed it, unless some accident overtook him, and we must look for him on the other side."
  • Umbopa understood English, though he rarely spoke it.
  • "It is a far journey, Incubu," he put in, and I translated his remark.
  • "Yes," answered Sir Henry, "it is far. But there is no journey upon this eart_hat a man may not make if he sets his heart to it. There is nothing, Umbopa, that he cannot do, there are no mountains he may not climb, there are n_eserts he cannot cross, save a mountain and a desert of which you are spare_he knowledge, if love leads him and he holds his life in his hands countin_t as nothing, ready to keep it or lose it as Heaven above may order."
  • I translated.
  • "Great words, my father," answered the Zulu — I always called him a Zulu, though he was not really one — "great swelling words fit to fill the mouth o_ man. Thou art right, my father Incubu. Listen! what is life? It is _eather, it is the seed of the grass, blown hither and thither, sometime_ultiplying itself and dying in the act, sometimes carried away into th_eavens. But if that seed be good and heavy it may perchance travel a littl_ay on the road it wills. It is well to try and journey one's road and t_ight with the air. Man must die. At the worst he can but die a little sooner.
  • I will go with thee across the desert and over the mountains, unless perchanc_ fall to the ground on the way, my father."
  • He paused awhile, and then went on with one of those strange bursts o_hetorical eloquence that Zulus sometimes indulge in, which to my mind, ful_hough they are of vain repetitions, show that the race is by no means devoi_f poetic instinct and of intellectual power.
  • "What is life? Tell me, O white men, who are wise, who know the secrets of th_orld, and of the world of stars, and the world that lies above and around th_tars; who flash your words from afar without a voice; tell me, white men, th_ecret of our life — whither it goes and whence it comes!
  • "You cannot answer me; you know not. Listen, I will answer. Out of the dark w_ame, into the dark we go. Like a storm-driven bird at night we fly out of th_owhere; for a moment our wings are seen in the light of the fire, and, lo! w_re gone again into the Nowhere. Life is nothing. Life is all. It is the Han_ith which we hold off Death. It is the glow-worm that shines in the night- time and is black in the morning; it is the white breath of the oxen i_inter; it is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself a_unset."
  • "You are a strange man," said Sir Henry, when he had ceased.
  • Umbopa laughed. "It seems to me that we are much alike, Incubu. Perhaps I see_ brother over the mountains."
  • I looked at him suspiciously. "What dost thou mean?" I asked; "what dost tho_now of those mountains?"
  • "A little; a very little. There is a strange land yonder, a land of witchcraf_nd beautiful things; a land of brave people, and of trees, and streams, an_nowy peaks, and of a great white road. I have heard of it. But what is th_ood of talking? It grows dark. Those who live to see will see."
  • Again I looked at him doubtfully. The man knew too much.
  • "You need not fear me, Macumazahn," he said, interpreting my look. "I dig n_oles for you to fall in. I make no plots. If ever we cross those mountain_ehind the sun I will tell what I know. But Death sits upon them. Be wise an_urn back. Go and hunt elephants, my masters. I have spoken."
  • And without another word he lifted his spear in salutation, and returne_owards the camp, where shortly afterwards we found him cleaning a gun lik_ny other Kafir.
  • "That is an odd man," said Sir Henry.
  • "Yes," answered I, "too odd by half. I don't like his little ways. He know_omething, and will not speak out. But I suppose it is no use quarrelling wit_im. We are in for a curious trip, and a mysterious Zulu won't make muc_ifference one way or another."
  • Next day we made our arrangements for starting. Of course it was impossible t_rag our heavy elephant rifles and other kit with us across the desert, so, dismissing our bearers, we made an arrangement with an old native who had _raal close by to take care of them till we returned. It went to my heart t_eave such things as those sweet tools to the tender mercies of an old thie_f a savage whose greedy eyes I could see gloating over them. But I took som_recautions.
  • First of all I loaded all the rifles, placing them at full cock, and informe_im that if he touched them they would go off. He tried the experimen_nstantly with my eight-bore, and it did go off, and blew a hole right throug_ne of his oxen, which were just then being driven up to the kraal, to sa_othing of knocking him head over heels with the recoil. He got u_onsiderably startled, and not at all pleased at the loss of the ox, which h_ad the impudence to ask me to pay for, and nothing would induce him to touc_he guns again.
  • "Put the live devils out of the way up there in the thatch," he said, "or the_ill murder us all."
  • Then I told him that, when we came back, if one of those things was missing _ould kill him and his people by witchcraft; and if we died and he tried t_teal the rifles I would come and haunt him and turn his cattle mad and hi_ilk sour till life was a weariness, and would make the devils in the gun_ome out and talk to him in a way he did not like, and generally gave him _ood idea of judgment to come. After that he promised to look after them a_hough they were his father's spirit. He was a very superstitious old Kafi_nd a great villain.
  • Having thus disposed of our superfluous gear we arranged the kit we five — Si_enry, Good, myself, Umbopa, and the Hottentot Ventvoegel — were to take wit_s on our journey. It was small enough, but do what we would we could not ge_ts weight down under about forty pounds a man. This is what it consisted of: —
  • The three express rifles and two hundred rounds of ammunition.
  • The two Winchester repeating rifles (for Umbopa and Ventvoegel), with tw_undred rounds of cartridge.
  • Five Cochrane's water-bottles, each holding four pints.
  • Five blankets.
  • Twenty-five pounds' weight of biltong — i.e. sun-dried game flesh.
  • Ten pounds' weight of best mixed beads for gifts.
  • A selection of medicine, including an ounce of quinine, and one or two smal_urgical instruments.
  • Our knives, a few sundries, such as a compass, matches, a pocket filter, tobacco, a trowel, a bottle of brandy, and the clothes we stood in.
  • This was our total equipment, a small one indeed for such a venture, but w_ared not attempt to carry more. Indeed, that load was a heavy one per ma_ith which to travel across the burning desert, for in such places ever_dditional ounce tells. But we could not see our way to reducing the weight.
  • There was nothing taken but what was absolutely necessary.
  • With great difficulty, and by the promise of a present of a good hunting-knif_ach, I succeeded in persuading three wretched natives from the village t_ome with us for the first stage, twenty miles, and to carry a large gour_olding a gallon of water apiece. My object was to enable us to refill ou_ater-bottles after the first night's march, for we determined to start in th_ool of the evening. I gave out to these natives that we were going to shoo_striches, with which the desert abounded. They jabbered and shrugged thei_houlders, saying that we were mad and should perish of thirst, which I mus_ay seemed probable; but being desirous of obtaining the knives, which wer_lmost unknown treasures up there, they consented to come, having probabl_eflected that, after all, our subsequent extinction would be no affair o_heirs.
  • All next day we rested and slept, and at sunset ate a hearty meal of fres_eef washed down with tea, the last, as Good remarked sadly, we were likely t_rink for many a long day. Then, having made our final preparations, we la_own and waited for the moon to rise. At last, about nine o'clock, up she cam_n all her glory, flooding the wild country with light, and throwing a silve_heen on the expanse of rolling desert before us, which looked as solemn an_uiet and as alien to man as the star-studded firmament above. We rose up, an_n a few minutes were ready, and yet we hesitated a little, as human nature i_rone to hesitate on the threshold of an irrevocable step. We three white me_tood by ourselves. Umbopa, assegai in hand and a rifle across his shoulders, looked out fixedly across the desert a few paces ahead of us; while the hire_atives, with the gourds of water, and Ventvoegel, were gathered in a littl_not behind.
  • "Gentlemen," said Sir Henry presently, in his deep voice, "we are going o_bout as strange a journey as men can make in this world. It is very doubtfu_f we can succeed in it. But we are three men who will stand together for goo_r for evil to the last. Now before we start let us for a moment pray to th_ower who shapes the destinies of men, and who ages since has marked out ou_aths, that it may please Him to direct our steps in accordance with Hi_ill."
  • Taking off his hat, for the space of a minute or so, he covered his face wit_is hands, and Good and I did likewise.
  • I do not say that I am a first-rate praying man, few hunters are, and as fo_ir Henry, I never heard him speak like that before, and only once since, though deep down in his heart I believe that he is very religious. Good too i_ious, though apt to swear. Anyhow I do not remember, excepting on one singl_ccasion, ever putting up a better prayer in my life than I did during tha_inute, and somehow I felt the happier for it. Our future was so completel_nknown, and I think that the unknown and the awful always bring a man neare_o his Maker.
  • "And now," said Sir Henry, "trek!"
  • So we started.
  • We had nothing to guide ourselves by except the distant mountains and old Jos_a Silvestre's chart, which, considering that it was drawn by a dying an_alf-distraught man on a fragment of linen three centuries ago, was not a ver_atisfactory sort of thing with work with. Still, our sole hope of succes_epended upon it, such as it was. If we failed in finding that pool of ba_ater which the old Dom marked as being situated in the middle of the desert, about sixty miles from our starting-point, and as far from the mountains, i_ll probability we must perish miserably of thirst. But to my mind the chance_f our finding it in that great sea of sand and karoo scrub seemed almos_nfinitesimal. Even supposing that da Silvestra had marked the pool correctly, what was there to prevent its having been dried up by the sun generations ago, or trampled in by game, or filled with the drifting sand?
  • On we tramped silently as shades through the night and in the heavy sand. Th_aroo bushes caught our feet and retarded us, and the sand worked into ou_eldtschoons and Good's shooting-boots, so that every few miles we had to sto_nd empty them; but still the night kept fairly cool, though the atmospher_as thick and heavy, giving a sort of creamy feel to the air, and we made fai_rogress. It was very silent and lonely there in the desert, oppressively s_ndeed. Good felt this, and once began to whistle "The Girl I left behind me,"
  • but the notes sounded lugubrious in that vast place, and he gave it up.
  • Shortly afterwards a little incident occurred which, though it startled us a_he time, gave rise to a laugh. Good was leading, as the holder of th_ompass, which, being a sailor, of course he understood thoroughly, and w_ere toiling along in single file behind him, when suddenly we heard the soun_f an exclamation, and he vanished. Next second there arose all around us _ost extraordinary hubbub, snorts, groans, and wild sounds of rushing feet. I_he faint light, too, we could descry dim galloping forms half hidden b_reaths of sand. The natives threw down their loads and prepared to bolt, bu_emembering that there was nowhere to run to, they cast themselves upon th_round and howled out that it was ghosts. As for Sir Henry and myself, w_tood amazed; nor was our amazement lessened when we perceived the form o_ood careering off in the direction of the mountains, apparently mounted o_he back of a horse and halloaing wildly. In another second he threw up hi_rms, and we heard him come to the earth with a thud.
  • Then I saw what had happened; we had stumbled upon a herd of sleeping quagga, on to the back of one of which Good actually had fallen, and the brut_aturally enough got up and made off with him. Calling out to the others tha_t was all right, I ran towards Good, much afraid lest he should be hurt, bu_o my great relief I found him sitting in the sand, his eye-glass still fixe_irmly in his eye, rather shaken and very much frightened, but not in any wa_njured.
  • After this we travelled on without any further misadventure till about on_'clock, when we called a halt, and having drunk a little water, not much, fo_ater was precious, and rested for half an hour, we started again.
  • On, on we went, till at last the east began to blush like the cheek of a girl.
  • Then there came faint rays of primrose light, that changed presently to golde_ars, through which the dawn glided out across the desert. The stars grew pal_nd paler still, till at last they vanished; the golden moon waxed wan, an_er mountain ridges stood out against her sickly face like the bones on th_heek of a dying man. Then came spear upon spear of light flashing far awa_cross the boundless wilderness, piercing and firing the veils of mist, til_he desert was draped in a tremulous golden glow, and it was day.
  • Still we did not halt, though by this time we should have been glad enough t_o so, for we knew that when once the sun was fully up it would be almos_mpossible for us to travel. At length, about an hour later, we spied a littl_ile of boulders rising out of the plain, and to this we dragged ourselves. A_uck would have it, here we found an overhanging slab of rock carpeted beneat_ith smooth sand, which afforded a most grateful shelter from the heat.
  • Underneath this we crept, and each of us having drunk some water and eaten _it of biltong, we lay down and soon were sound asleep.
  • It was three o'clock in the afternoon before we woke, to find our bearer_reparing to return. They had seen enough of the desert already, and no numbe_f knives would have tempted them to come a step farther. So we took a heart_rink, and having emptied our water- bottles, filled them up again from th_ourds that they had brought with them, and then watched them depart on thei_wenty miles' tramp home.
  • At half-past four we also started. It was lonely and desolate work, for wit_he exception of a few ostriches there was not a single living creature to b_een on all the vast expanse of sandy plain. Evidently it was too dry fo_ame, and with the exception of a deadly- looking cobra or two we saw n_eptiles. One insect, however, we found abundant, and that was the common o_ouse fly. There they came, "not as single spies, but in battalions," as _hink the Old Testament[*] says somewhere. He is an extraordinary insect i_he house fly. Go where you will you find him, and so it must have bee_lways. I have seen him enclosed in amber, which is, I was told, quite half _illion years old, looking exactly like his descendant of to-day, and I hav_ittle doubt but that when the last man lies dying on the earth he will b_uzzing round — if this event happens to occur in summer — watching for a_pportunity to settle on his nose.
  • [*] Readers must beware of accepting Mr. Quatermain's references as accurate, as, it has been found, some are prone to do. Although his reading evidentl_as limited, the impression produced by it upon his mind was mixed. Thus t_im the Old Testament and Shakespeare were interchangeable authorities. — Editor.
  • At sunset we halted, waiting for the moon to rise. At last she came up, beautiful and serene as ever, and, with one halt about two o'clock in th_orning, we trudged on wearily through the night, till at last the welcome su_ut a period to our labours. We drank a little and flung ourselves down on th_and, thoroughly tired out, and soon were all asleep. There was no need to se_ watch, for we had nothing to fear from anybody or anything in that vas_ntenanted plain. Our only enemies were heat, thirst, and flies, but fa_ather would I have faced any danger from man or beast than that awfu_rinity. This time we were not so lucky as to find a sheltering rock to guar_s from the glare of the sun, with the result that about seven o'clock we wok_p experiencing the exact sensations one would attribute to a beefsteak on _ridiron. We were literally being baked through and through. The burning su_eemed to be sucking our very blood out of us. We sat up and gasped.
  • "Phew," said I, grabbing at the halo of flies which buzzed cheerfully round m_ead. The heat did not affect them.
  • "My word!" said Sir Henry.
  • "It is hot!" echoed Good.
  • It was hot, indeed, and there was not a bit of shelter to be found. Look wher_e would there was no rock or tree, nothing but an unending glare, rendere_azzling by the heated air that danced over the surface of the desert as i_ances over a red-hot stove.
  • "What is to be done?" asked Sir Henry; "we can't stand this for long."
  • We looked at each other blankly.
  • "I have it," said Good, "we must dig a hole, get in it, and cover ourselve_ith the karoo bushes."
  • It did not seem a very promising suggestion, but at least it was better tha_othing, so we set to work, and, with the trowel we had brought with us an_he help of our hands, in about an hour we succeeded in delving out a patch o_round some ten feet long by twelve wide to the depth of two feet. Then we cu_ quantity of low scrub with our hunting-knives, and creeping into the hole, pulled it over us all, with the exception of Ventvoegel, on whom, being _ottentot, the heat had no particular effect. This gave us some slight shelte_rom the burning rays of the sun, but the atmosphere in that amateur grave ca_e better imagined than described. The Black Hole of Calcutta must have been _ool to it; indeed, to this moment I do not know how we lived through the day.
  • There we lay panting, and every now and again moistening our lips from ou_canty supply of water. Had we followed our inclinations we should hav_inished all we possessed in the first two hours, but we were forced t_xercise the most rigid care, for if our water failed us we knew that ver_oon we must perish miserably.
  • But everything has an end, if only you live long enough to see it, and someho_hat miserable day wore on towards evening. About three o'clock in th_fternoon we determined that we could bear it no longer. It would be better t_ie walking that to be killed slowly by heat and thirst in this dreadful hole.
  • So taking each of us a little drink from our fast diminishing supply of water, now warmed to about the same temperature as a man's blood, we staggere_orward.
  • We had then covered some fifty miles of wilderness. If the reader will refe_o the rough copy and translation of old da Silvestra's map, he will see tha_he desert is marked as measuring forty leagues across, and the "pan ba_ater" is set down as being about in the middle of it. Now forty leagues i_ne hundred and twenty miles, consequently we ought at the most to be withi_welve or fifteen miles of the water if any should really exist.
  • Through the afternoon we crept slowly and painfully along, scarcely doing mor_han a mile and a half in an hour. At sunset we rested again, waiting for th_oon, and after drinking a little managed to get some sleep.
  • Before we lay down, Umbopa pointed out to us a slight and indistinct hilloc_n the flat surface of the plain about eight miles away. At the distance i_ooked like an ant-hill, and as I was dropping off to sleep I fell t_ondering what it could be.
  • With the moon we marched again, feeling dreadfully exhausted, and sufferin_ortures from thirst and prickly heat. Nobody who has not felt it can kno_hat we went through. We walked no longer, we staggered, now and again fallin_rom exhaustion, and being obliged to call a halt every hour or so. We ha_carcely energy left in us to speak. Up to this Good had chatted and joked, for he is a merry fellow; but now he had not a joke in him.
  • At last, about two o'clock, utterly worn out in body and mind, we came to th_oot of the queer hill, or sand koppie, which at first sight resembled _igantic ant-heap about a hundred feet high, and covering at the base nearl_wo acres of ground.
  • Here we halted, and driven to it by our desperate thirst, sucked down our las_rops of water. We had but half a pint a head, and each of us could have drun_ gallon.
  • Then we lay down. Just as I was dropping off to sleep I heard Umbopa remark t_imself in Zulu—
  • "If we cannot find water we shall all be dead before the moon rises to- morrow."
  • I shuddered, hot as it was. The near prospect of such an awful death is no_leasant, but even the thought of it could not keep me from sleeping.