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Chapter 28

DOWN THE RIVER.

Relieved now of all anxiety as to water, we had merely to make our way downstream. First, however, there remained the interesting task of determining its source.

Accordingly next day we and our gunbearers left the boys to a well-earned rest, and set out upstream. At first we followed the edge of the river jungle, tramping over hard hot earth, winding in and out of growths of thorn scrub and brilliant aloes. We saw a herd of impallas gliding like phantoms; and as we stood in need of meat, I shot at one of them but missed. The air was very hot and moist. At five o'clock in the morning the thermometer had stood at 78 degrees; and by noon it had mounted to 106 degrees. In addition the atmosphere was filled with the humidity that later in the day was to break in extraordinary deluges. We moved slowly, but even then our garments were literally dripping wet.

At the end of three miles the stream bed widened. We came upon beautiful, spacious, open lawns of from eighty to one hundred acres apiece, separated from each other by narrow strips of tall forest trees. The grass was high, and waved in the breeze like planted grain; the boundary trees resembled artificial wind-breaks of eucalyptus or Normandy poplar. One might expect a white ranch house beyond some low clump of trees, and chicken runs, and corrals.

Along these apparent boundaries of forest trees our stream divided, and divided again, so that we were actually looking upon what we had come to seek--the source of the Swanee branch of the Tsavo River. In these peaceful, protected meadows was it cradled. From them it sprang full size out into the African wilderness.

A fine impalla buck grazed in one of these fields. I crept as near him as I could behind one of the wind-break rows of trees. It was not very near, and for the second time I missed. Thereupon we decided two things: that we were not really meat hungry, and that yesterday's hard work was not conducive to to-day's good shooting.

Having thus accomplished the second object of our expedition, we returned to camp. From that time begins a regular sequence of events on which I look back with the keenest of pleasure. The two constant factors were the river and the great dry country on either side. Day after day we followed down the one, and we made brief excursions out into the other. Each night we camped near the sound of the swift running water, where the winds rustled in the palms, the acacias made lacework across the skies, and the jungle crouched in velvet blackness close to earth like a beast.

Our life in its routine was regular; in its details bizarre and full of the unexpected. Every morning we arose an hour before day, and ate by lantern light and the gleam of fires. At the first gray we were afoot and on the march. F. and I, with our gunbearers, then pushed ahead down the river, leaving the men to come along as fast or as slowly as they pleased. After about six hours or so of marching, we picked out a good camp site, and lay down to await the safari. By two o'clock in the afternoon camp was made. Also it was very hot. After a light lunch we stripped to the skin, lay on our cots underneath the mosquito canopies, and tried to doze or read. The heat at this time of day was blighting. About four o'clock, if we happened to be inspired by energy, one or the other of us strolled out at right angles to the stream to see what we could see. The evening was tepid and beautiful. Bathed and pyjama-clad we lolled in our canvas chairs, smoking, chatting or listening to the innumerable voices of the night.

Such was the simple and almost invariable routine of our days. But enriching it, varying it, disguising it even--as rain-squalls, sunshine cloud shadow, and unexpected winds modify the landscape so well known from a study window--were the incredible incidents and petty adventures of African travel.

The topography of the river itself might be divided very roughly into three: the headwater country down to its junction with the Tsavo the palm-elephant-grass stretch, and the gorge and hill district just before it crosses the rail road.

The headwater country is most beautiful The stream is not over ten feet wide, but very deep, swift, and clear. It flows between defined banks and is set in a narrow strip of jungle. In places the bed widens out to a carpet of the greenest green grass sown with flowers; at other places it offers either mysterious thickets, spacious cathedrals, or snug bowers. Immediately beyond the edge of this river jungle begins the thorn scrub, more or less dense. Distant single mountains or buttes serve as landmarks in a brush-grown, gently rising, strongly rolling country. Occasional alluvial flats draw back to low cliffs not over twenty feet high.

After the junction of the Tsavo, palms of various sorts replace to a large extent the forest trees. Naturally also the stream widens and flows more slowly. Outside the palms grow tall elephant-grass and bush. Our marching had generally to be done in the narrow, neutral space between these two growths. It was pleasant enough, with the river snatching at the trailing branches, and the birds and animals rustling away. Beyond the elephant-grass flats low ridges ran down to the river, varying in width, but carrying always with them the dense thorn. Between them ran recesses, sometimes three or four hundred acres in extent, high with elephant-grass or little trees like alders. So much for the immediate prospect on our right as we marched. Across the river to our left were huge riven mountains, with great cliffs and caņons. As we followed necessarily every twist and turn of the river, sometimes these mountains were directly ahead of us, then magically behind, so that we thought we had passed them by. But the next hour threw them again across our trail. The ideal path would, of course, have cut across all the bends and ridges; but the thorn of the ridges and the elephant-grass of the flats forbade it. So we marched ten miles to gain four.

After days of struggle and deception we passed those mountains. Then we entered a new type of country where the Tsavo ran in caņons between hills. The high cliffs often towered far above us; we had to pick our way along narrow river ledges; again the river ran like a trout stream over riffles and rapids, while we sauntered along cleared banks beneath the trees. Had we not been making a forced march under terrific heat at just that time, this last phase of the river might have been the pleasantest of all.

Throughout the whole course of our journey the rhinoceros was the most abundant of the larger animals. The indications of old tracks proved that at some time of the year, or under some different conditions, great herds of the more gregarious plains antelope and zebra visited the river, but at the time of our visit they were absent. The rhinoceroses, however, in incredible numbers came regularly to water. Paradoxically, we saw very few of them, and enjoyed comparative immunity from their charges. This was due to the fact that their habits and ours swung in different orbits. The rhinoceros, after drinking, took to the hot, dry thorn scrub in the low hills; and as he drank at night, we rarely encountered him in the river bottoms where we were marching. This was very lucky, for the cover was so dense that a meeting must necessarily be at close quarters. Indeed these large and truculent beasts were rather a help than a hindrance, for we often made use of their wide, clear paths to penetrate some particularly distressing jungle. However, we had several small adventures with them: just enough to keep us alert in rounding corners or approaching bushes--and nine-tenths of our travel was bushes and corners. The big, flat footsteps, absolutely fresh in the dust, padded methodically ahead of us down the only way until it seemed that we could not fail to plump upon their maker around the next bend. We crept forward foot by foot, every sense alert, finger on trigger. Then after a time the spoor turned off to the right, towards the hills. We straightened our backs and breathed a sigh of relief. This happened over and over again. At certain times of year also elephants frequent the banks of the Tsavo in considerable numbers We saw many old signs, and once came upon the fresh path of a small herd. The great beasts had passed by that very morning. We gazed with considerable awe on limbs snatched bodily from trees; on flat-topped acacias a foot in diameter pulled up by the roots and stood up side down; on tree trunks twisted like ropes.

Of the game by far the most abundant were the beautiful red impalla. We caught glimpses of their graceful bodies gliding in and out of sight through the bushes; or came upon them standing in small openings, their delicate ears pointed to us. They and the tiny dikdik furnished our table; and an occasional water-buck satisfied the men. One day we came on one of the latter beasts sound asleep in a tiny open space. He was lying down, and his nose rested against the earth just like a very old family horse in a paddock.

Besides these common species were bush-buck wart-hog, lesser kudu, giraffe, and leopard. The bush-buck we jumped occasionally quite near at hand. They ducked their heads low and rushed tearingly to the next cover. The leopard was heard sighing every night, and saw their pad marks next day; but only twice did we catch glimpses of them. One morning we came upon the fresh-killed carcass of a female lesser kudu from which, evidently, we had driven the slayer.

These few species practically completed the game list. They were sufficient for our needs; and the lesser kudu was a prize much desired for our collection. But by far the most interesting to me were the smaller animals, the birds, and the strange, innumerable insects.

We saw no natives in the whole course of our journey.

The valley of the river harboured many monkeys. They seemed to be of two species, blue and brown, but were equally noisy and amusing. They retired ahead of our advance with many remarks, or slipped past us to the rear without any comments whatever. When we made camp they retired with indignant protests, and when we had quite settled down they returned as near as they dared.

One very hot afternoon I lay on my canvas cot in the open, staring straight upward into the overarching greenery of the trees. This is a very pleasant thing to do. The beautiful up-spreading, outstretching of the tree branches and twigs intrigue the eye; the leaves make fascinating, hypnotically waving patterns against a very blue sky; and in the chambers and galleries of the upper world the birds and insects carry on varied businesses of their own. After a time the corner of my eye caught a quick movement far to the left and in a shadow. At once I turned my attention that way. After minute scrutiny I at length made out a monkey. Evidently considering himself quite unobserved, he was slowly and with great care stalking our camp. Inch by inch he moved, taking skilful advantage of every bit of cover, flattening himself along the limbs, hunching himself up behind bunches of leaves, until he had gained a big limb directly overhead. There he stretched flat, staring down at the scene that had so strongly aroused his curiosity. I lay there for over two hours reading and dozing. My friend aloft never stirred. When dusk fell he was still there. Some time after dark he must have regained his band, for in the morning the limb was vacant.

Now comes the part of this story that really needs a witness, not to veracity perhaps, but to accuracy of observations. Fortunately I have F. About noon next day the monkey returned to his point of observation. He used the same precautions as to concealment; he followed his route of the day before; he proceeded directly to his old conning tower on the big limb. It did not take him quite so long to get there, for he had already scouted out the trail. And close at his heels followed two other monkeys! They crawled where he crawled; they crouched where he crouched; they hid where he hid; they flattened themselves out by him on the big limb, and all three of them passed the afternoon gazing down on the strange and fascinating things below. Whether these newcomers were part of the first one's family out for a treat, or whether they were Cook's Tourists of the Jungle in charge of my friend's competence as a guide, I do not know.

Farther down the river F. and I stopped for some time to watch the crossing of forty-odd of the little blue monkeys. The whole band clambered to near the top of a tall tree growing by the water's edge. There, one by one, they ran out on a straight overhanging limb and cast themselves into space. On the opposite bank of the river, and leaning well out, grew a small springy bush. Each monkey landed smash in the middle of this, clasped it with all four hands, swayed alarmingly, recovered, and scampered ashore. It was rather a nice problem in ballistics this, for a mistake in calculation of a foot in distance or a pound in push would land Mr. Monkey in the water. And the joke of it was that directly beneath that bush lay two hungry-looking crocodiles! As each tiny body hurtled through the air I'll swear a look of hope came into the eyes of those crocs. We watched until the last had made his leap. There were no mistakes. The joke was against the crocodiles.

We encountered quite a number of dog-faced baboons. These big apes always retreated very slowly and noisily. Scouts in the rearguard were continually ascending small trees or bushes for a better look at us, then leaping down to make disparaging remarks. One lot seemed to show such variation in colour from the usual that we shot one. The distance was about two hundred and fifty yards. Immediately the whole band--a hundred or so strong--dropped on all fours and started in our direction. This was rather terrifying. However, as we stood firm, they slowly came to a halt at about seventy yards, barked and chattered for a moment, then hopped away to right and left.


Stewart Edward White

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