The Vee-Boers Part 8

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When well dried the wood is even lighter than cork.

Note 3. The "Macobas" are the boatmen of Lake Ngami. They have affinity with the Bechuanas; but are of a race and cla.s.s apart. They are also of darker complexion.

Note 4. Both Indian corn (_maize_) and Caffre-corn (_Sorghum Caffrorum_) are cultivated in Southern Africa, and the meal of both is in common use among the Boers of the Transvaal. The Caffres also grow large quant.i.ties of another species of Sorghum (_S. Saccharatum_) for the sake of its stem; which they chew, as the negroes of America do sugar-cane, its juice being equally as sweet.

Note 5. The "Baavian-touw" (_Anglice_, "_baboon-rope_") is a species of climbing plant, or liana, with long stems and heart-shaped leaves. By the Boers it is employed as cordage, and for many purposes, this primitive sort of rope being often convenient, where no other is obtainable.



The stream on which the Vee-Boers had embarked was unknown to all of them. Even their guide was unacquainted with it, though he had once accompanied a party of English hunters to a point farther north than where they now where. By its general direction it should run into the Limpopo, which river they had crossed some days before, on their trek northward. But where it joined the latter, and how far below, as also the character of the stream itself, were questions undetermined.

Nor knew they much more of the Limpopo. Van Dorn had been on it farther down, at the place where s.m.u.tz and the hunting party pa.s.sed over; but neither he nor the Hottentot had followed its course for any great distance. They were acquainted with but ten or fifteen miles of its course, beyond which all was _terra incognita_ to them, or, as the baas in his Dutch vernacular expressed it, "verder onbekend."

Thus they had entered on a voyage, whose termination hinged on many uncertainties, and might be prolonged by many delays, to say nought of the dangers.

For the first day, however, all went well. The buoyant koker-booms acted admirably, keeping the decks, with all lading on them, high and dry. The current, too, while smooth, was sufficiently rapid to give them good way, without requiring the use of either pole or paddle. All that needed doing was to keep in mid-stream, on account of its narrowness, and that was of easy accomplishment with the powerful stern oars working on their pivots. Large as were the rafts, and heavily laden, so light were their timbers, that when swirl or side current threatened to bring them against the bank, the weakest man on board might be safely entrusted with the steering. Craft of no kind could have been more obedient to the rudder, a matter of much pride and boast to the Macobas, who had the credit of their construction.

But, indeed, all the people were in the most exuberant of spirits.

Moving on without any physical exertion--a smooth gliding motion, as on skates or in a sleigh--was of itself a pleasure, which the continuous changing of the scenery, with many sights new to them, intensified to very delight. It was as though they were out on a holiday excursion, or yachting trip, and for the time they thought not of dangers that might be before them, while alike oblivious of the perils they had late pa.s.sed through.

The enjoyment was general throughout all the day; the water-cavalry skirmishing around with much shouting and laughter. There was racing also, with bets made by the young Boers, each laying on his favourite.

In these aquatic contests the Caffres were mostly victorious, though s.m.u.tz ably upheld the honour of the Hottentot race. The Macobas took no part in them, being on board the rafts, and occupied with their navigation.

As evening approached the "horse play" came to an end, for now there was work to be done: the rafts to be brought up to the bank, and made fast to moorings. To keep drifting on in the dark would be madness itself, as who could tell what was below? There might be rapids, or worse danger still--a waterfall. Jan Van Dorn was too cautious to run any such risk; so, as the twilight began to fling its purple mantle over stream and bordering woodlands, he called out the command to draw in, pointing to the spot that appeared best for a landing-place. This was in a bend where the current was sluggish, and the banks of slight elevation; for to beach such unwieldy craft in a swift-running stream is not only a difficulty but a danger. In the present case it was accomplished without accident; and the three soon lay alongside the bank, each cabled to a tree, with a gangway plank run out, over which all swarmed ash.o.r.e, women, children, and men. Water-travelling was a novelty to them; and, though not yet irksome, the return to land was welcome by way of relaxation.

Supper was eaten on sh.o.r.e, though not there cooked, as the culinary arrangement on the rafts was of a superior order, better than any improvised affair of the gipsy kind. But what mattered it where the repast was prepared, so long as it was enjoyable, and enjoyed? which it was by our voyagers, one and all of them. For one and all were now hungry, having that day eaten the morgen-maal at a much earlier hour than usual. It was the last cooked in the ant-hill kitchen-range; since when long time had pa.s.sed, and with the fresh, breezy air of the river their appet.i.tes were sharpened to keenness.

Soon as the meal was over all retired to rest, some on board, others preferring to seek repose on sh.o.r.e, under the trees. It was warm enough anywhere, and more than enough, the heat not only being a discomfort of itself, but subjecting them to torture from mosquitoes.

These troublesome insects were in swarms--myriads--and made it all but a sleepless night to many. Even the Caffres, notwithstanding their greased and ochre-coated skins, suffered the same, every now and then one or other taking a plunge into the river by way of soothing the irritation.

Joyously all hailed the return of daylight, which chased the persecutors away. And they were merry again over the morgen-maal, which they ate before leaving the landing-place. Nor was their hilarity less, after they had parted from moorings, and were once more in mid-stream, moving onwards. The delight of yesterday's downward glide, with its many pleasant incidents, led them to antic.i.p.ate the same all along.

A disappointment it proved, as with most other matters of too sanguine expectation. For a few miles farther the current carried them smoothly as on the day before, and they made good way. But then things began to change, the stream becoming wider with a slower flow. This, they could see, was constantly decreasing, and at length ended in complete stagnation, as though the water were dammed up below.

Now, for the first time, had they to take to oars and poling, the poles serving best in such shallow water. For they found it to be less than a fathom's depth, and still getting shallower as they pushed onward. But they had not much farther onward to go, nor could they. Another mile or so and the rafts, all three, became grounded. Just what Jan Van Dorn had been for some time apprehending--_the river was run out_!



Yes; the river had run out, or, to speak more correctly, run in, underground. Its channel was there extending on ahead of them, a belt of silver-white sand, hollow in the centre, and with a bordering of brown, withered reeds. But no water in it; not a drop, nor the sign of such, far as they could see, though commanding a view of it to more than a mile's distance. For they were looking down an Omaramba, a river's bed, in which water flows only in the season of inundation, at other times sinking into the earth, to filter away underneath. To the Vee-Boers the thing was neither strange nor new. In their migrations they had met the like before, and ofttimes; for a stream periodically dried up is no rare phenomenon in Southern Africa, nor indeed in other parts of the world. The same occurs in Asia, notably in Australia, as also in both divisions of the American continent. Nor is it unknown in the eastern countries of Europe, by the Black and Caspian Seas.

To our voyagers, then, it was less a surprise than vexation--indeed, bitter disappointment. All the time spent in the construction of the rafts, all their labour lost, to say nought of the helpless, hopeless situation they were now placed in!

But was it so helpless or hopeless? That remained to be seen; fortunately so, else they might have despaired indeed. They did not yet, nor could they, till the question had answer--

"How far does the dried-up channel extend?"

To determine this was, of course, the next step, with little else thought of, till it was determined. An exploring party, with s.m.u.tz to conduct it, was at once landed from the rafts, and set off down the sandy strip. Going in all haste they were soon lost to view among the reeds and bushes at its lower end. Then their reappearance was looked for with eagerness, gradually becoming anxiety as time pa.s.sed. For the longer they were out of sight, the greater should be the distance to running water again, if such were to be found at all.

They were gone above two hours, which looked bad. But on return, as they drew near, an expression was visible on their faces, which betokened the contrary. The report they brought was that the stream, with abundance of water, issued forth again about five miles below.

This was as favourable as Jan Van Dorn had expected, and, in concert with the other baases, he had conceived a plan, now to be acted on. The rafts were to be taken apart, and, with their lading, transported overland piecemeal. Their lading had been already put ash.o.r.e, as river, or no river, they could be of no further service there. But they would be below, as much as ever, and it was only a question of portage.

The work was at once set about, the huge structures dismembered, beam by beam, and dragged out on the dry strand. Then a stream of carriers commenced moving along the track where water had once streamed, each with a koker-boom log on his shoulders, that seemed as though it would crush him under its weight. With their naked, bronzed bodies, they looked like so many Atlases bearing worlds, though, in reality, their loads were of the lightest.

Down the omaramba went they, and up again, to and fro, till the last beam had been transported from water to water, with oars, poles, ropes, and all the other paraphernalia, the cargoes being conveyed in like manner. It took time though; all the remainder of that day, and the forenoon of the following, while another day and a half were consumed in the reconstruction of the rafts. An easy task it was, compared with the original building of them, the place of everything being now known, deck-timbers with their attachments, steering gear, the fixing of the cabins and sheds, even to the stowage of the goods and chattels.

On the morning of the fourth day, all was ready for re-embarking, which commenced as soon as breakfast had been eaten. Then off again started the flotilla, water-horses, and everything as before. But not as before carried along by the current, since there was none.

Nor in its absence did the rafters see anything amiss. The place of their re-embarkation was at the inner and upper end of a narrow leit, which widened abruptly below. Once down there, they would find the stream flowing, and get into its current. So supposed they, while pulling and poling on.

Soon, however, to be undeceived, and sadly. After pa.s.sing the point where the leit terminated, they still found no flow; instead, the water stagnant as in a tan-pit. It stretched before them in a sheet of smooth, unrippled surface, nearly a mile in length, with a width of two or three hundred yards, again narrowing at the lower end, where it entered among trees. On each side it was bordered by a ribbon of sandy beach, which would have been white, but for an array of dark forms that lay thickly over it, giving it a mottled or striated appearance. The sun had not yet dissipated the film which hung over the water, and, seen through this, they might have been mistaken for trunks of trees, stranded when the stream was in flood.

But the Vee-Boers knew better; knew them to be living creatures--the most repulsive of all in the world of animated nature--for they were crocodiles. Of different sizes were they: from ten or twelve feet in length to twice as long; the larger ones having bodies thick as an ordinary barrel; their bulk, too, exaggerated by the magnifying effect of the mist.

There would have been nothing in that, nor their presence there, to cause surprise, but for their numbers. All along the stream, crocodiles had been observed at intervals, basking on the banks, sometimes three or four together. But here were so many hundreds, the strip of beach on both sh.o.r.es literally black with them. They were in all att.i.tudes, some lying flat and at full stretch, others with heads erect and jaws wide apart; still others holding the tail high in air with a turn back towards the body, or laid in crescent curve along the surface of the sand. But all motionless, the only movement observable among them being made by birds of the insect--eating species, a number of which sate perched on their shoulders, every now and then flittering off to catch flies that swarmed around the reptiles, alighting on their foul, ill-odoured skins.

Although an astounding and fear-inspiring spectacle, they upon the rafts were, in a manner, prepared for it. On the nights preceding they had heard loud noises below, as the bellowing of a hundred bulls, knowing them to be caused by crocodiles, and only wondering that there were so many in one place. Now seeing the reptiles themselves their wonder was undiminished, with no clearer comprehension of why they were thus congregated.

Nor learnt they the reason till later on, no time being then allowed them to think of it; for scarce had the rafts emerged from the narrow leit when the birds, sighting them, rose up into the air, uttering shrill cries of alarm.

On the saurians the effect was instantaneous. Hitherto motionless, and many of them asleep, all became at once active; their activity displayed by a quick uprising on their short, thick legs, and a hurried crawl for the water. It was their place of safety, as instinct admonished them, and the rafters supposed they were but retreating from an enemy yet unknown to them. Soon to be undeceived, and find it was no retreat, but an intended attack, themselves the object of it! For although the crocodiles on plunging in, went under, and were for a time out of sight, they came to the surface again, now nearer the rafts, a line on either side of them. In threatening att.i.tude too, heads raised on high, jaws opening and closing with a snap, grunting and roaring, while, with their powerful muscular tails in violent vibration, they whipped the water into foam.

There was consternation, with quick scampering among the riders of the water-horses, who had been gaily skirmishing about, as was usual with them at the start off. Never did sailors bathing beside a becalmed ship make quicker on board at the cry "Shark!" than made they to get upon the rafts.

With loud cries of alarm, one and all together darted towards these, and swarmed up, leaving the koker-logs to bob about below, or drift away wherever the surge might carry them. Nor were the rafters themselves without fear, but rushed affrightedly about, the women and children shrieking in chorus. Even some of the men felt dismay at the fierce bearing of the crocodiles, an incident altogether unexpected and new to them. Its very novelty made it the more alarming, from its cause being a mystery. But there was no time to speculate upon causes; the reptiles were still advancing in menace, and steps needed taking to repel them.

Fire was at once opened on them, broadsides from both beams, and the firing kept up, hot and fast as the guns could be loaded again. Shot after shot, and volley after volley was poured upon them, till the rafts became shrouded in smoke, and the water around red with the blood of the dead and wounded reptiles, that for a time seemed insensible to fear.

But at length it got the better of them; and, seeing nigh a dozen of their number writhing in death throes, at last all turned tail, going down to the bottom and staying there.

Continuing to ply poles and oars, the rafters reached the lower end of the water sheet without encountering another crocodile, or even seeing one. There to get explanation of what had so puzzled them, by _finding the river again run out_!



So was it; the water, once more gone underground, sank into the sand, just as above. Even worse than above, as regarded navigation, for an exploring party sent forward, returned to report the channel dry to a distance of at least ten miles, twice as far as before.

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The Vee-Boers Part 8 summary

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