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Chapter 27


We arrived in camp about noon, almost exhausted with the fierce heat and a six hours' tramp, to find our German friend awaiting us. By an irony of fate the drums of water he had brought back with him were now unnecessary; we had our oryx. However, we wearily gave him lunch and listened to his prattle, and finally sped him on his way, hoping never to see him again.

About three o'clock our men came in. We doled out water rations, and told them to rest in preparation for the morrow.

Late that night we were awakened by a creaking and snorting and the flash of torches passing. We looked out, to see a donkey transport toiling slowly along, travelling thus at night to avoid the terrific day heats. The two-wheeled carts with their wild and savage drivers looked very picturesque in the flickering lights. We envied them vaguely their defined route that permitted night travel, and sank to sleep.

In the morning, however, we found they had left with us new responsibilities in the shape of an elderly Somali, very sick, and down with the fever. This was indeed a responsibility. It was manifestly impossible for us to remain there with him; we should all die of thirst. It was equally impossible to take him with us, for he was quite unfit to travel under the sun. Finally, as the best solution of a bad business, we left him five gallons of water, some food, and some quinine, together with the advice to rest until night, and then to follow his companions along the beaten track. What between illness and wild beasts his chances did not look very good, but it was the best we could do for him. This incident exemplifies well the cruelty of this singular people. They probably abandoned the old man because his groans annoyed them, or because one of them wanted to ride in his place on the donkey cart.[12]

We struck off as early as possible through the thorn scrub on a compass bearing that we hoped would bring us to a reported swamp at the head of the Swanee River. The Swanee River was one of the sources of the Tsavo. Of course this was guesswork. We did not know certainly the location of the swamp, its distance from us, nor what lay between us and it. However, we loaded all our transportable vessels with water, and set forth.

The scrub was all alike; sometimes thinner, sometimes thicker. We marched by compass until we had raised a conical hill above the horizon, and then we bore just to the left of that. The surface of the ground was cut by thousands of game tracks. They were all very old, however, made after a rain; and it was evident the game herds venture into this country only when it contains rainwater. After two hours, however, we did see one solitary hartebeeste, whom we greeted as an old friend in desolation. Shortly afterwards we ran across one oribi, which I shot for our own table.

At the end of two hours we sat down. The safari of twenty men was a very miscellaneous lot, consisting of the rag-tag-and-bobtail of the bazaars picked up in a hurry. They were soft and weak, and they straggled badly. The last weakling--prodded along by one of our two askaris--limped in only at the end of half an hour. Then we took a new start.

The sun was by now up and hot. The work was difficult enough at best, but the weight of the tropics was now cast in the scale. Twice more within the next two hours we stopped to let every one catch up. Each time this required a longer interval. In the thorn it was absolutely essential to keep in touch with every member of the party. A man once lost would likely remain so, for we could not afford to endanger all for the sake of one.

Time wore on until noon. Had it not been for a thin film of haze that now overspread the sky, I think the sun would have proved too much for some of the men. Four or five straggled so very badly that we finally left them in charge of one of our two askaris, with instructions to follow on as fast as they could. In order to make this possible, we were at pains to leave a well-marked trail.

After this fashion, slowly, and with growing anxiety for some of the men, we drew up on our landmark hill. There our difficulties increased; the thorn brush thickened. Only by a series of short zigzags, and by taking advantage of every rhino trail going in our direction, could we make our way through it at all; while to men carrying burdens on their heads the tangle aloft must have been fairly maddening. So slow did our progress necessarily become, and so difficult was it to keep in touch with everybody, that F. and I finally halted for consultation. It was decided that I should push on ahead with Memba Sasa to make certain that we were not on the wrong line, while F. and the askaris struggled with the safari.

Therefore I took my compass bearing afresh, and plunged into the scrub. The sensation was of hitting solid ground after a long walk through sand. We seemed fairly to shoot ahead and out of sight. Whenever we came upon earth we marked it deeply with our heels; we broke twigs downwards, and laid hastily-snatched bunches of grass to help the trail we were leaving for the others to follow. This, in spite of our compass, was a very devious track. Besides, the thorn bushes were patches of spiky aloe coming into red flower, and the spears of sisal.

After an hour's steady, swift walking the general trend of the country began to slope downwards. This argued a watercourse between us and the hills around Kilimanjaro. There could be no doubt that we would cut it; the only question was whether it, like so many desert watercourses, might not prove empty. We pushed on the more rapidly. Then we caught a glimpse through a chance opening, of the tops of trees below us. After another hour we suddenly burst from the scrub to a strip of green grass beyond which were the great trees, the palms, and the festooned vines of a watercourse. Two bush bucks plunged into the thicket as we approached, and fifteen or twenty mongooses sat up as straight and stiff as so many picket pins the better to see us.

For a moment my heart sank. The low undergrowth beneath the trees apparently swept unbroken from where we stood to the low bank opposite. It was exactly like the shallow, damp but waterless ravines at home, filled with black berry vines. We pushed forward, however, and found ourselves looking down on a smooth, swift flowing stream.

It was not over six feet wide, grown close with vines and grasses, but so very deep and swift and quiet that an extraordinary volume of water passed, as through an artificial aqueduct. Furthermore, unlike most African streams, it was crystal clear. We plunged our faces and wrists in it, and took long, thankful draughts. It was all most grateful after the scorching desert. The fresh trees meeting in canopy overhead were full of monkeys and bright birds; festooned vines swung their great ropes here and there; long heavy grass carpeted underfoot.

After we had rested a few minutes we filled our empty canteens, and prepared to start back for our companions. But while I stood there, Memba Sasa--good, faithful Memba Sasa--seized both canteens and darted away.

"Lie down!" he shouted back at me, "I will go back."

Without protest--which would have been futile anyway--I sank down on the grass. I was very tired. A little breeze followed the watercourse; the grass was soft; I would have given anything for a nap. But in wild Africa a nap is not healthy; so I drowsily watched the mongooses that had again come out of seclusion, and the monkeys, and the birds. At the end of a long time, and close to sundown, I heard voices. A moment later F., Memba Sasa, and about three-quarters of the men came in. We all, white and black, set to work to make camp. Then we built smudges and fired guns in the faint hope of guiding in the stragglers. As a matter of fact we had not the slightest faith in these expedients. Unless the men were hopelessly lost they should be able to follow our trail. They might be almost anywhere out in that awful scrub. The only course open to them would be to climb thorn trees for the night. Next day we would organize a formal search for them.

In the meantime, almost dead from exhaustion, we sprawled about everywhere. The men, too dispirited even to start their own camp-fires, sat around resting as do boxers between rounds. Then to us came Memba Sasa, who had already that day made a double journey, and who should have been the most tired of all.

"Bwana," said he, "if you will lend me Winchi,[13] and a lantern, I will bring in the men."

We lent him his requirements, and he departed. Hours later he returned, carefully leaned "Winchi" in the corner of the tent, deposited the lantern, and stood erect at attention.

"Well, Memba Sasa," I inquired.

"The men are here."

"They were far?"

"Very far."

"Verna, Memba Sasa, assanti sana."[14]

That was his sole--and sufficient--reward.


[12] I have just heard that this old man survived, and has been singing our praises in Nairobi as the saviour of his life.

[13] His name for the.405 Winchester.

[14] "Very good, Memba Sasa, thanks very much."

Stewart Edward White

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