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Chapter 33

OVER THE LIKIPIA ESCARPMENT.

Owing to an outbreak of bubonic plague, and consequent quarantine, we had recruited our men outside Nairobi, and had sent them, in charge of C., to a little station up the line.

Billy and I saw to the loading of our equipment on the train, and at two o'clock, in solitary state, set forth. Our only attendants were Mohammed and Memba Sasa, who had been fumigated and inoculated and generally Red-Crossed for the purpose.

The little narrow-gauge train doubled and twisted in its climb up the range overlooking Nairobi and the Athi Plains. Fields of corn grew so tall as partially to conceal villages of round, grass-thatched huts with conical roofs; we looked down into deep ravines where grew the broad-leaved bananas; the steep hillsides had all been carefully cultivated. Savages leaning on spears watched us puff heavily by. Women, richly ornamented with copper wire or beads, toiled along bent under loads carried by means of a band across the top of the head.[16] Naked children rushed out to wave at us. We were steaming quite comfortably through Africa as it had been for thousands of years before the white man came.

At Kikuyu Station we came to a halt. Kikuyu Station ordinarily embarks about two passengers a month, I suppose. Now it was utterly swamped with business, for on it had descended all our safari of thirty-nine men and three mules. Thirty of the thirty-nine yelled and shrieked and got in the wrong place, as usual. C. and the train men and the stationmaster and our responsible boys heaved and tugged and directed, ordered, commanded. At length the human element was loaded to its places and locked in. Then the mules had to be urged up a very narrow gang-lank into a dangerous-looking car. Quite sensibly they declined to take chances. We persuaded them. The process was quite simple. Two of the men holding the ends at a safe distance stretched a light strong cord across the beasts' hind legs, and sawed it back and forth.

We clanged the doors shut, climbed aboard, and the train at last steamed on. Now bits of forest came across our way, deep, shaded, with trailing curtain vines, and wide leaves as big as table tops, and high, lush, impenetrable undergrowth full of flashing birds, fathomless shadows, and inquisitive monkeys. Occasionally we emerged to the edge of a long oval meadow, set in depressions among hills, like our Sierra meadows. Indeed so like were these openings to those in our own wooded mountains that we always experienced a distinct shock of surprise as the familiar woods parted to disclose a dark solemn savage with flashing spear.

We stopped at various stations, and descended and walked about in the gathering shadows of the forest. It was getting cool. Many little things attracted our attention, to remain in our memories as isolated pictures. Thus I remember one grave savage squatted by the track playing on a sort of mandoline-shaped instrument. It had two strings, and he twanged these alternately, without the slightest effort to change their pitch by stopping with his fingers. He bent his head sidewise, and listened with the meticulous attention of a connoisseur. We stopped at that place for fully ten minutes, but not for a second did he leave off twanging his two strings, nor did he even momentarily relax his attention.

It was now near sundown. We had been climbing steadily. The train shrieked twice, and unexpectedly slid out to the edge of the Likipia Escarpment. We looked down once more into the great Rift Valley.

The Rift Valley is as though a strip of Africa--extending half the length of the continent--had in time past sunk bodily some thousands of feet, leaving a more or less sheer escarpment on either side, and preserving intact its own variegated landscape in the bottom. We were on the Likipia Escarpment. We looked across to the Mau Escarpment, where the country over which our train had been travelling continued after its interruption by the valley. And below us were mountains, streams, plains. The westering sun threw strong slants of light down and across.

The engine shut off its power, and we slid silently down the rather complicated grades and curves of the descent. A noble forest threw its shadows over us. Through the chance openings we caught glimpses of the pale country far below. Across high trestle bridges we rattled, and craned over to see the rushing white water of the mountain torrents a hundred feet down. The shriek of our engine echoed and re-echoed weirdly from the serried trunks of trees and from the great cliffs that seemed to lift themselves as we descended.

We debarked at Kijabe[17] well after dark. It is situated on a ledge in the escarpment, is perhaps a quarter-mile wide, and includes nothing more elaborate than the station, a row of Indian dukkas, and two houses of South Africans set back towards the rise in the cliffs. A mile or so away, and on a little higher level, stand the extensive buildings of an American mission. It is, I believe, educational as well as sectarian, is situated in one of the most healthful climates of East Africa, and is prosperous.

At the moment we saw none of these things. We were too busy getting men, mules, and equipment out of the train. Our lanterns flared in the great wind that swept down the defile; and across the track little fires flared too. Shortly we made the acquaintance of the South Africander who furnished us our ox teams and wagon; and of a lank, drawling youth who was to be our "rider." The latter was very anxious to get started, so we piled all our stores and equipment but those immediately necessary for the night aboard the great wagon. Then we returned to the dak-bungalow for a very belated supper. While eating this we discussed our plans.

These were in essence very simple. Somewhere south of the Great Thirst of the Sotik a river called the Narossara. Back of the river were high mountains, and down the river were benches dropping off by thousands of feet to the barren country of Lake Magahdi. Over some of this country ranged the Greater Kudu, easily the prize buck of East Africa. We intended to try for a Greater Kudu.

People laughed at us. The beast is extremely rare; it ranges over a wide area; it inhabits the thickest sort of cover in a sheer mountainous country; its senses are wonderfully acute; and it is very wary. A man might, once in a blue moon, get one by happening upon it accidentally, but deliberately to go after it was sheer lunacy. So we were told. As a matter of fact, we thought so ourselves, but Greater Kudu was as good an excuse as another.

The most immediate of our physical difficulties was the Thirst. Six miles from Kijabe we would leave the Kedong River. After that was no more water for two days and nights. During that time we should be forced to travel and rest in alternation day and night, with a great deal of travel and very little rest. We should be able to carry for the men a limited amount of water on the ox wagon, but the cattle could not drink. It was a hard, anxious grind. A day's journey beyond the first water after the Thirst we should cross the Southern Guaso Nyero River.[18] Then two days should land us at the Narossara. There we must leave our ox wagon and push on with our tiny safari. We planned to relay back for porters from our different camps.

That was our whole plan. Our transport rider's object in starting this night was to reach the Kedong River, and there to outspan until our arrival next day. The cattle would thus get a good feed and rest. Then at four in the afternoon we would set out to conquer the Thirst. After that it would be a question of travelling to suit the oxen.

Next morning, when we arose, we found one of the wagon Kikuyus awaiting us. His tale ran that after going four miles, the oxen had been stampeded by lions. In the mix-up the dusselboom had been broken. He demanded a new dusselboom. I looked as wise as though I knew just what that meant; and told him largely, to help himself. Shortly he departed carrying what looked to be the greater part of a forest tree.

We were in no hurry, so we did not try to get our safari under way before eight o'clock. It consisted of twenty-nine porters, the gunbearers, three personal boys, three syces, and the cook. Of this lot some few stand out from the rest, and deserve particular attention.

Of course I had my veterans, Memba Sasa and Mohammed. There was also Kongoni, gunbearer, elsewhere described. The third gunbearer was Marrouki, a Wakamba. He was the personal gunbearer of a Mr. Twigg, who very courteously loaned him for this trip as possessing some knowledge of the country. He was a small person, with stripes about his eyes; dressed in a Scotch highland cap, khaki breeches, and a shooting coat miles too big for him. His soul was earnest, his courage great, his training good, his intelligence none too brilliant. Timothy, our cook, was pure Swahili. He was a thin, elderly individual, with a wrinkled brow of care. This represented a conscientious soul. He tried hard to please, but he never could quite forget that he had cooked for the Governor's safari. His air was always one of silent disapproval of our modest outfit. So well did he do, however, often under trying circumstances, that at the close of the expedition Billy presented him with a very fancy knife. To her vast astonishment he burst into violent sobs.

"Why, what is it?" she asked.

"Oh, memsahib," he wailed, "I wanted a watch!"

As personal boy Billy had a Masai named Geyeye.[19] The members of this proud and aristocratic tribe rarely condescend to work for the white man; but when they do, they are very fine servants, for they are highly intelligent. Geyeye was short and very, very ugly. Perhaps this may partly explain his leaving tribal life, for the Masai generally are over six feet.

C.'s man was an educated Coast Swahili named Abba Ali. This individual was very smart. He wore a neatly-trimmed Vandyke beard, a flannel boating hat, smart tailored khakis, and carried a rattan cane. He was alert, quick, and intelligent. His position was midway between that of personal boy and headman.

Of the rank and file we began with twenty-nine. Two changed their minds before we were fairly started, and departed in the night. There was no time to get regular porters; but fortunately a Kikuyu chief detailed two wild savages from his tribe to act as carriers. These two children of nature drifted in with pleasant smiles and little else save knick-knacks. From our supplies we gave them two thin jerseys, reaching nearly to the knees. Next day they appeared with broad tucks sewed around the middle! They looked like "My Mama didn't use wool soap." We then gave it up, and left them free and untrammelled.

They differed radically. One was past the first enthusiasms and vanities of youth. He was small, unobtrusive, unornamented. He had no possessions save the jersey, the water-bottle, and the blanket we ourselves supplied. The blanket he crossed bandolier fashion on one shoulder. It hung down behind like a tasselled sash. His face was little and wizened and old. He was quiet and uncomplaining, and the "easy mark" for all the rest. We had constantly to be interfering to save him from imposition as to too heavy loads, too many jobs, and the like. Nearing the close of the long expedition, when our loads were lighter and fewer, one day C. spoke up.

"I'm going to give the old man a good time," said he. "I doubt if he's ever had one before, or if he ever will again. He's that sort of a meek damnfool."

So it was decreed that Kimau[20] should carry nothing for the rest of the trip, was to do no more work, was to have all he wanted to eat. It was a treat to see him. He accepted these things without surprise, without spoken thanks; just as he would have accepted an increased supply of work and kicks. Before his little fire he squatted all day, gazing vacantly off into space, or gnawing on a piece of the meat he always kept roasting on sticks. He spoke to no one; he never smiled or displayed any obvious signs of enjoyment; but from him radiated a feeling of deep content.

His companion savage was a young blood, and still affected by the vanities of life. His hair he wore in short tight curls, resembling the rope hair of a French poodle, liberally anointed with castor-oil and coloured with red-paint clay. His body, too, was turned to bronze by the same method, so that he looked like a beautiful smooth metal statue come to life. To set this quality off he wore glittering collars, bracelets, and ear ornaments of polished copper and brass. When he joined us his sole costume was a negligent two-foot strip of cotton cloth. After he had received his official jersey, he carefully tied the cloth over his wonderful head; nor as far as we knew did he again remove it until the end of the expedition. All his movements were inexpressibly graceful. They reminded one somehow of Flaxman's drawings of the Greek gods. His face, too, was good-natured and likeable. A certain half feminine, wild grace, combined with the queer effect of his headgear, caused us to name him Daphne. At home he was called Kingangui. At first he carried his burden after the fashion of savages--on the back; and kept to the rear of the procession; and at evening consorted only with old Lightfoot. As soon as opportunity offered, he built himself a marvellous iridescent ball of marabout feathers. Each of these he split along the quill, so that they curled and writhed in the wind. This picturesque charm he suspended from a short pole in front of his tent. Also, he belonged to the Kikuyu tribe; he ate no game meat, but confined his diet to cornmeal porridge. We were much interested in watching Daphne's gradual conversion from savage ways to those of the regular porter. Within two weeks he was carrying his load on his head or shoulder, and trying to keep up near the head of the safari. The charm of feathers disappeared shortly after, I am sorry to say. He took his share of the meat. Within two months Daphne was imitating as closely as possible the manners and customs of his safari mates. But he never really succeeded in looking anything but the wild and graceful savage he was.

FOOTNOTES:

[16] After the fashion of the Canadian tump line.

[17] Pronounce all the syllables.

[18] An entirely different stream from that flowing north of Mt. Kenia.

[19] Pronounce every syllable.

[20] His official name was Lightfoot, Queen of the Fairies, because of his ballet-like costume.


Stewart Edward White

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