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Chapter 11

A MARCH ALONG THE COAST.

With a most comfortable feeling that my task was done, that suddenly the threatening clouds of killing work had been cleared up, I was now privileged to loaf and invite my soul on this tropical green hilltop while poor F. put in the days trying to find another sable. Every morning he started out before daylight. I could see the light of his lantern outside the tent; and I stretched myself in the luxurious consciousness that I should hear no deprecating but insistent "hodie" from my boy until I pleased to invite it. In the afternoon or evening F. would return, quite exhausted and dripping, with only the report of new country traversed. No sable; no tracks of sable; no old signs, even, of sable. Gradually it was borne in on me how lucky I was to have come upon my magnificent specimen so promptly and in such favourable circumstances.

A leisurely breakfast alone, with the sun climbing; then the writing of notes, a little reading, and perhaps a stroll to the village or along the top of the ridge. At the heat of noon a siesta with a cool cocoanut at my elbow. The view was beautiful on all sides; our great tree full of birds; the rising and dying winds in the palms like the gathering oncoming rush of the rains. From mountain to mountain sounded the wild, far-carrying ululations of the natives, conveying news or messages across the wide jungle. Towards sunset I wandered out in the groves, enjoying the many bright flowers, the tall, sweet grasses, and the cocoa-palms against the sky. Piles of cocoanuts lay on the ground, covered each with a leaf plaited in a peculiarly individual manner to indicate ownership. Small boys, like little black imps, clung naked half-way up the slim trunks of the palms, watching me bright-eyed above the undergrowth. In all directions, crossing and recrossing, ran a maze of beaten paths. Each led somewhere, but it would require the memory of--well, of a native, to keep all their destinations in mind.

I used to follow some of them to their ending in little cocoa-leaf houses on the tops of knolls or beneath mangoes; and would talk with the people. They were very grave and very polite, and seemed to be living out their lives quite correctly according to their conceptions. Again, it was borne in on me that these people are not stumbling along the course of evolution in our footsteps, but have gone as far in their path as we have in ours; that they have reached at least as complete a correspondence with their environment as we with our own.[4]

If F. had not returned by the time I reached camp, I would seat myself in my canvas chair, and thence dispense justice, advice, or medical treatment. If none of these things seemed demanded, I smoked my pipe. To me one afternoon came a big-framed, old, dignified man, with the heavy beard, the noble features, the high forehead, and the blank statue eyes of the blind Homer. He was led by a very small, very bright-eyed naked boy. At some twenty feet distance he squatted down cross-legged before me. For quite five minutes he sat there silent, while I sat in my camp chair, smoked and waited. At last he spoke in a rolling deep bass voice rich and vibrating--a delight to hear.

"Jambo (greeting)!" said he.

"Jambo!" I replied mildly.

Again a five-minute silence. I had begun reading, and had all but forgotten his presence.

"Jambo bwana (greeting, master)!" he rolled out.

"Jambo!" I repeated.

The same dignified, unhasting pause.

"Jambo bwana m'kubwa (greeting, great master)!"

"Jambo!" quoth I, and went on reading. The sun was dropping, but the old man seemed in no hurry.

"Jambo bwana m'kubwa sana (greeting, most mighty master)!" he boomed at last.

"Jambo!" said I.

This would seem to strike the superlative, and I expected now that he would state his business, but the old man had one more shot in his locker.

"Jambo bwana m'kubwa kabeesa sana (greeting, mightiest possible master)!" it came.

Then in due course he delicately hinted that a gift of tobacco would not come amiss.

F. returned a trifle earlier than usual, to admit that his quest was hopeless, that his physical forces were for the time being at an end, and that he was willing to go home.

Accordingly very early next morning we set out by the glimmer of a lantern, hoping to get a good start on our journey before the heat of the day became too severe. We did gain something, but performed several unnecessary loops and semicircles in the maze of beaten paths before we finally struck into one that led down the slope towards the sea. Shortly after the dawn came up "like thunder" in its swiftness, followed almost immediately by the sun.

Our way now led along the wide flat between the seashore and the Shimba Hills, in which we had been hunting. A road ten feet wide and innocent of wheels ran with obstinate directness up and down the slight contours and through the bushes and cocoanut groves that lay in its path. So mathematically straight was it that only when perspective closed it in, or when it dropped over the summit of a little rise, did the eye lose the effect of its interminability. The country through which this road led was various--open bushy veld with sparse trees, dense jungle, cocoanut groves, tall and cool. In the shadows of the latter were the thatched native villages. To the left always ran the blue Shimba Hills; and far away to the right somewhere we heard the grumbling of the sea.

Every hundred yards or so we met somebody. Even thus early the road was thronged. By far the majority were the almost naked natives of the district, pleasant, brown-skinned people with good features. They carried things. These things varied from great loads balanced atop to dainty impromptu baskets woven of cocoa-leaves and containing each a single cocoanut. They smiled on us, returned our greeting, and stood completely aside to let us pass. Other wayfarers were of more importance. Small groups of bearded dignitaries, either upper-class Swahili or pure Arabs, strolled slowly along, apparently with limitless leisure, but evidently bound somewhere, nevertheless. They replied to our greetings with great dignity. Once, also, we overtook a small detachment of Sudanese troops moving. They were scattered over several miles of road. A soldier, most impressive and neat in khaki and red tarboosh and sash; then two or three of his laughing, sleek women, clad in the thin, patterned "'Mericani," glittering with gold ornaments; then a half dozen ragged porters carrying official but battered painted wooden kit boxes, or bags, or miscellaneous curious plunder; then more troopers; and so on for miles. They all drew aside for us most respectfully; and the soldiers saluted, very smart and military.

Under the broad-spreading mangoes near the villages we came upon many open markets in full swing. Each vendor squatted on his heels behind his wares, while the purchasers or traders wandered here and there making offers. The actual commerce compared with the amount of laughing, joking, shrieking joy of the occasion as one to a thousand.

Generally three or four degenerate looking dirty East Indians slunk about, very crafty, very insinuating, very ready and skilful to take what advantages they could. I felt a strong desire to kick every one of them out from these joyful concourses of happy people. Generally we sat down for a while in these markets, and talked to the people a little, and perhaps purchased some of the delicious fruit. They had a small delicate variety of banana, most wonderful, the like of which I have seen nowhere else. We bought forty of these for a coin worth about eight cents. Besides fruit they offered cocoanuts in all forms, grain, woven baskets, small articles of handicraft--and fish. The latter were farther from the sea than they should have been! These occasional halts greatly refreshed us for more of that endless road.

For all this time we were very hot. As the sun mounted, the country fairly steamed. From the end of my rifle barrel, which I carried across my forearm, a steady trickle of water dripped into the road. We neither of us had a dry stitch on us, and our light garments clung to us thoroughly wet through. At first we tried the military method, and marched fifty minutes to rest ten, but soon discovered that twenty-five minutes' work to five minutes off was more practical. The sheer weight of the sun was terrific; after we had been exposed to it for any great length of time--as across several wide open spaces--we entered the steaming shade of the jungle with gratitude. At the end of seven hours, however, we most unexpectedly came through a dense cocoanut grove plump on the banks of the harbour at Kilindini.

Here, after making arrangements for the transport of our safari, when it should arrive, we entrusted ourselves to a small boy and a cranky boat. An hour later, clad in tropical white, with cool drinks at our elbows, we sat in easy-chairs on the veranda of the Mombasa Club.

The clubhouse is built on a low cliff at the water's edge. It looks across the blue waters of the bay to a headland crowned with cocoa-palms, and beyond the headland to the Indian Ocean. The cool trades sweep across that veranda. We idly watched a lone white oarsman pulling strongly against the wind through the tide rips, evidently bent on exercise. We speculated on the incredible folly of wanting exercise; and forgot him. An hour later a huge saffron yellow squall rose from China 'cross the way, filled the world with an unholy light, lashed the reluctant sea to white-caps, and swooped screaming on the cocoa-palms. Police boats to rescue the idiot oarsman! Much minor excitement! Great rushing to and fro! We continued to sit in our lounging chairs, one hand on our cool long drinks.

FOOTNOTES:

[4] For a fuller discussion, see "The Land of Footprints."


Stewart Edward White

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