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Chapter 35


The wagon is one evolved in South Africa--a long, heavily-constructed affair, with ingenious braces and timbers so arranged as to furnish the maximum clearance with the greatest facility for substitution in case the necessity for repairs might arise. The whole vehicle can be dismounted and reassembled in a few hours; so that unfordable streams or impossible bits of country can be crossed piecemeal. Its enormous wheels are set wide apart. The brake is worked by a crank at the rear, like a reversal of the starting mechanism of a motor car. Bolted to the frame on either side between the front and rear wheels are capacious cupboards, and two stout water kegs swing to and fro when the craft is under way. The net carrying capacity of such a wagon is from three to four thousand pounds.

This formidable vehicle, in our own case, was drawn by a team of eighteen oxen. The biggest brutes, the wheelers, were attached to a tongue, all the others pulled on a long chain. The only harness was the pronged yoke that fitted just forward of the hump. Over rough country the wheelers were banged and jerked about savagely by the tongue; they did not seem to mind it but exhibited a certain amount of intelligence in manipulation.

To drive these oxen we had one white man named Brown, and two small Kikuyu savages. One of these worked the brake crank in the rear while the other preceded the lead cattle. Brown exercised general supervision, a long-lashed whip and Boer-Dutch expletives and admonitions.

In transport riding, as this game is called, there is required a great amount of especial skill though not necessarily a high degree of intelligence. Along the flats all goes well enough, but once in the unbelievable rough country of a hill trek the situation alters. A man must know cattle and their symptoms. It is no light feat to wake up eighteen sluggish bovine minds to the necessity for effort, and then to throw so much dynamic energy into the situation that the whole eighteen will begin to pull at once. That is the secret, unanimity; an ox is the most easily discouraged working animal on earth. If the first three couples begin to haul before the others have aroused to their effort, they will not succeed in budging the wagon an inch, but after a moment's struggle will give up completely. By that time the leaders respond to the command and throw themselves forward in the yoke. In vain. They cannot pull the wagon and their wheel comrades too. Therefore they give up. By this time, perhaps, the lash has aroused the first lot to another effort. And so they go, pulling and hauling against each other, getting nowhere, until the end is an exhausted team, a driver half insane, and a great necessity for unloading.

A good driver, on the other hand, shrieks a few premonitory Dutch words--and then! I suppose inside those bovine heads the effect is somewhat that of a violent electric explosion. At any rate it hits them all at once, and all together, in response, they surge against their yokes. The heavily laden wagon creaks, groans, moves forward. The hurricane of Dutch and the volleys of whip crackings rise to a crescendo. We are off!

To perform just this little simple trick of getting the thing started requires not only a peculiar skill or gift, but also lungs of brass and a throat of iron. A transport rider without a voice is as a tenor in the same fix. He may--and does--get so hoarse that it is a pain to hear him; but as long as he can croak in good volume he is all right. Mere shouting will not do. He must shriek, until to the sympathetic bystander it seems that his throat must split wide open. Furthermore, he must shriek the proper things. It all sounds alike to every one but transport riders and oxen; but as a matter of fact it is Boer-Dutch, nicely assorted to suit different occasions. It is incredible that oxen should distinguish; but, then, it is also incredible that trout should distinguish the nice differences in artificial flies.

After the start has been made successfully, the craft must be kept under way. To an unbiassed bystander the whole affair looks insane. The wagon creaks and sways and groans and cries aloud as it bumps over great boulders in the way; the leading Kikuyu dances nimbly and shrills remarks at the nearest cattle; the tail Kikuyu winds energetically back and forth on his little handle, and tries to keep his feet. And Brown! he is magnificent! His long lash sends out a volley of rifle reports, down, up, ahead, back; his cracked voice roars out an unending stream of apparent gibberish. Back and forth along the line of the team he skips nimbly, the sweat streaming from his face. And the oxen plod along, unhasting, unexcited, their eyes dreamy, chewing the cud of yesterday's philosophic reflections. The situation conveys the general impression of a peevish little stream breaking against great calm cliffs. All this frantic excitement and expenditure of energy is so apparently purposeless and futile, the calm cattle seem so aloof and superior to it all, so absolutely unaffected by it. They are going slowly, to be sure; their gait may be maddeningly deliberate, but evidently they do not intend to be hurried. Why not let them take their own speed?

But all this hullabaloo means something after all. It does its business, and the top of the boulder-strewn hill is gained. Without it the whole concern would have stopped, and then the wagon would have to be unloaded before a fresh start could have been made. Results with cattle are not shown by facial expression nor by increased speed, but simply by continuance. They will plod up steep hills or along the level at the same placid gait. Only in the former case they require especial treatment.

In case the wagon gets stuck on a hill, as will occasionally happen, so that all the oxen are discouraged at once, we would see one of the Kikuyus leading the team back and forth, back and forth, on the side hill just ahead of the wagon. This is to confuse their minds, cause them to forget their failure, and thus to make another attempt.

At one stretch we had three days of real mountains. N'gombe[21] Brown shrieked like a steam calliope all the way through. He lasted the distance, but had little camp-fire conversation even with his beloved Kikuyus.

When the team is outspanned, which in the waterless country of forced marches is likely to be almost any time of the day or night, N'gombe Brown sought a little rest. For this purpose he had a sort of bunk that let down underneath the wagon. If it were daytime, the cattle were allowed to graze under supervision of one of the Kikuyus. If it was night time they were tethered to the long chain, where they lay in a somnolent double row. A lantern at the head of the file and one at the wagon's tail were supposed to discourage lions. In a bad lion country fires were added to these defences.

N'gombe Brown thus worked hard through varied and long hours in strict intimacy with stupid and exasperating beasts. After working hours he liked to wander out to watch those same beasts grazing! His mind was as full of cattle as that! Although we offered him reading matter, he never seemed to care for it, nor for long-continued conversation with white people not of his trade. In fact the only gleam of interest I could get out of him was by commenting on the qualities or peculiarities of the oxen. He had a small mouth-organ on which he occasionally performed, and would hold forth for hours with his childlike Kikuyus. In the intelligence to follow ordinary directions he was an infant. We had to iterate and reiterate in words of one syllable our directions as to routes and meeting-points, and then he was quite as apt to go wrong as right. Yet, I must repeat, he knew thoroughly all the ins and outs of a very difficult trade, and understood, as well, how to keep his cattle always fit and in good condition. In fact he was a little hipped on what the "dear n'gombes" should or should not be called upon to do.

One incident will illustrate all this better than I could explain it. When we reached the Narossara River we left the wagon and pushed on afoot. We were to be gone an indefinite time, and we left N'gombe Brown and his outfit very well fixed. Along the Narossara ran a pleasant shady strip of high jungle; the country about was clear and open; but most important of all, a white man of education and personal charm occupied a trading boma, or enclosure, near at hand. An accident changed our plans and brought us back unexpectedly at the end of a few weeks. We found that N'gombe Brown had trekked back a long day's journey, and was encamped alone at the end of a spur of mountains. We sent native runners after him. He explained his change of base by saying that the cattle feed was a little better at his new camp! Mind you this: at the Narossara the feed was quite good enough, the oxen were doing no work, there was companionship, books, papers, and even a phonograph to while away the long weeks until our return. N'gombe Brown quite cheerfully deserted all this to live in solitude where he imagined the feed to be microscopically better!


[21] N'gombe = oxen.

Stewart Edward White

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