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Chapter 36

ACROSS THE THIRST.

We were off, a bright, clear day after the rains. Suswa hung grayish pink against the bluest of skies. Our way slanted across the Rift Valley to her base, turned the corner, and continued on the other side of the great peak until we had reached the rainwater "pan" on her farther side. It was a long march.

The plains were very wide and roomy. Here and there on them rose many small cones and craters, lava flows and other varied evidences of recent volcanic activity. Geologically recent, I mean. The grasses of the flowing plains were very brown, and the molehill craters very dark; the larger craters blasted and austere; the higher escarpment in the background blue with a solemn distance. The sizes of things were not originally fitted out for little tiny people like human beings. We walked hours to reach landmarks apparently only a few miles away.

In this manner we crept along industriously until noon, by which time we had nearly reached the shoulder of Suswa, around which we had to double. The sun was strong, and the men not yet hardened to the work. We had many stragglers. After lunch Memba Sasa and I strolled along on a route flanking that of the safari, looking for the first of our meat supply. Within a short time I had killed a Thompson's gazelle. Some solemn giraffes looked on at the performance, and then moved off like mechanical toys.

The day lengthened. We were in the midst of wonderful scenery. Our objection grew to be that it took so long to put any of it behind us. Insensibly, however, we made progress. Suddenly, as it seemed, we found ourselves looking at the other side of Suswa, and various brand-new little craters had moved up to take the places of our old friends. At last, about half-past four, we topped the swell of one of the numerous and interminable land billows that undulate across all plains countries here, and saw a few miles away the wagon outspanned. We reached it about sunset, to be greeted by the welcome news that there was indeed water in the pan.

We unsaddled just before dark, and I immediately started towards the game herds, many of which were grazing a half-mile away. The gazelle would supply our own larder, but meat for hard-worked man was very desirable. I shot a hartebeeste, made the prearranged signal for men to carry meat, and returned to camp.

Even yet the men were not all in. We took lanterns and returned along the road, for the long marches under a desert sun are no joke. At last we had accounted for all but two. These we had to abandon. Next day we found their loads, but never laid eyes on them again. Thus early our twenty-nine became twenty-seven.

About nine o'clock, just as we were turning, a number of lions began to roar. Usually a lion roars once or twice by way of satisfaction after leaving a kill. These, however, were engaged in driving game, and hence trying to make as much noise as possible. We distinguished plainly seven individuals, perhaps more. The air trembled with the sound as to the deepest tones of a big organ, only the organ is near and enclosed, while these vibrations were in the open air and remote. For a few moments the great salvos would boom across the veld, roll after roll of thunder; then would ensue a momentary dead silence; then a single voice would open, to be joined immediately by the others.

We awoke next day to an unexpected cold drizzle. This was a bit uncomfortable, from one point of view, and most unusual, but it robbed the thirst of its terrors. We were enabled to proceed leisurely, and to get a good sleep near water every night. The wagon had, as usual, pulled out some time during the night.

Our way led over a succession of low rolling ridges each higher than its predecessor. Game herds fed in the shallow valleys between. At about ten o'clock we came to the foot of the Mau Escarpment, and also to the unexpected sight of the wagon outspanned. N'gombe Brown explained to us that the oxen had refused to proceed farther in face of a number of lions that came around to sniff at them. Then the rain had come on, and he had been unwilling to attempt the Mau while the footing was slippery. This sounded reasonable; in fact, it was still reasonable. The grass was here fairly neck high, and we found a rain-filled water-hole. Therefore we decided to make camp. C. and I wandered out in search of game. We tramped a great deal of bold, rugged country, both in caņon bottoms and along the open ridges, but found only a rhinoceros, one bush-buck and a dozen hartebeeste. African game, as a general rule, avoids a country where the grass grows very high. We enjoyed, however, some bold and wonderful mountain scenery, and obtained glimpses through the flying murk of the vast plains and the base of Suswa. On a precipitous caņon cliff we found a hanging garden of cactus and of looped cactus-like vines that was a marvel to behold. We ran across the hartebeeste on our way home. Our men were already out of meat; the hartebeeste of yesterday had disappeared. These porters are a good deal like the old-fashioned Michigan lumberjacks--they take a good deal of feeding for the first few days. When we came upon the little herd in the neck-high grass, I took a shot. At the report the animal went down flat. We wandered over slowly. Memba Sasa whetted his knife and walked up. Thereupon Mr. Hartebeeste jumped to his feet, flirted his tail gaily, and departed. We followed him a mile or so, but he got stronger and gayer every moment, until at last he frisked out of the landscape quite strong and hearty. In all my African experience I lost only six animals hit by bullets, as I took infinite pains and any amount of time to hunt down wounded beasts. This animal was, I think, "creased" by too high a shot. Certainly he was not much injured; but certainly he got a big shock to start with.

The little herd had gone on. I got down and crawled on hands and knees in the thick grass. It was slow work, and I had to travel by landmarks. When I finally reckoned I had about reached the proper place, I stood up suddenly, my rifle at ready. So dense was the cover and so still the air that I had actually crawled right into the middle of the band! While we were cutting up the meat the sun broke through strongly.

Therefore the wagon started on up the Mau at six o'clock. Twelve hours later we followed. The fine drizzle had set in again. We were very glad the wagon had taken advantage of the brief dry time.

From the top of the sheer rise we looked back for the last time over the wonderful panorama of the Rift Valley. Before us were wide rounded hills covered with a scattered small growth that in general appearance resembled scrub oak. It sloped away gently until it was lost in mists. Later, when these cleared, we saw distant blue mountains across a tremendous shallow basin. We were nearly on a level with the summit of Suswa itself, nor did we again drop much below that altitude. After five or six miles we overtook the wagon outspanned. The projected all-night journey had again been frustrated by the lions. These beasts had proved so bold and menacing that finally the team had been forced to stop in sheer self-defence. However, the day was cool and overcast, so nothing was lost.

After topping the Mau we saw a few gazelle, zebra, and hartebeeste, but soon plunged into a bush country quite destitute of game. We were paralleling the highest ridge of the escarpment, and so alternated between the crossing of caņons and the travelling along broad ridges between them. In lack of other amusement for a long time I rode with the wagon. The country was very rough and rocky. Everybody was excited to the point of frenzy, except the wagon. It had a certain Dutch stolidity in its manner of calmly and bumpily surmounting such portions of the landscape as happened in its way.

After a very long, tiresome march we camped above a little stream. Barring our lucky rain this would have been the first water since leaving the Kedong River. Here were hundreds of big blue pigeons swooping in to their evening drink.

For two days more we repeated this sort of travel, but always with good camps at fair-sized streams. Gradually we slanted away from the main ridge, though we still continued cross-cutting the swells and ravines thrown off its flanks. Only the ravines hour by hour became shallower, and the swells lower and broader. On their tops the scrub sometimes gave way to openings of short grass. On these fed a few gazelle of both sorts, and an occasional zebra or so. We saw also four topi, a beast about the size of our wapiti, built on the general specifications of a hartebeeste, but with the most beautiful iridescent plum-coloured coat. This quartette was very wild. I made three separate stalks on them, but the best I could do was 360 paces, at which range I missed.

Finally we surmounted the last low swell to look down a wide and sloping plain to the depression in which flowed the principal river of these parts, the Southern Guaso Nyero. Beyond it stretched the immense oceanlike plains of the Loieta, from which here and there rose isolated hills, very distant, like lonesome ships at sea. A little to the left, also very distant, we could make out an unbroken blue range of mountains. These were our ultimate destination.


Stewart Edward White

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