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Chapter 9


Many months later, and after adventures elsewhere described,[3] besides others not relevant for the moment, F., an Englishman, and I returned to Mombasa. We came from some hundred odd miles in the interior where we had been exploring the sources and the course of the Tsavo River. Now our purpose was to penetrate into the low, hot, wooded country along the coast known as the Shimba Hills in quest of a rare beast called the sable antelope.

These hills could be approached in one of two ways--by crossing the harbour, and then marching two days afoot; or by voyaging up to the very end of one of the long arms of the sea that extend many miles inland. The latter involved dhows, dependence on uncertain winds, favourable tides, and a heap of good luck. It was less laborious but most uncertain. At this stage of the plan the hotel manager came forward with the offer of a gasoline launch, which we gladly accepted.

We embarked about noon, storing our native carriers and effects aboard a dhow hired for the occasion. This we purposed towing. A very neatly uniformed Swahili bearing on his stomach a highly-polished brass label as big as a door plate--"Harbour Police"--threw duck fists over what he called overloading the boat. He knew very little about boats, but threw very competent duck fists. As we did know something about boats, we braved unknown consequences by disregarding him utterly. No consequences ensued--unless perhaps to his own health. When everything was aboard, that dhow was pretty well down, but still well afloat. Then we white men took our places in the launch.

This was a long narrow affair with a four-cylinder thirty-horsepower engine. As she possessed no speed gears, she had either to plunge ahead full speed or come to a stop; there were no compromises. Her steering was managed by a tiller instead of a wheel, so that a mere touch sufficed to swerve her ten feet from her course. As the dhow was in no respects built on such nervous lines, she did occasionally some fancy and splashing curves.

The pilot of the launch turned out to be a sandy-haired Yankee who had been catching wild animals for Barnum and Bailey's circus. While waiting for his ship, he, being a proverbial handy Yankee, had taken on this job. He became quite interested in telling us this, and at times forgot his duties at the tiller. Then that racing-launch would take a wild swoop; the clumsy old dhow astern would try vainly, with much spray and dangerous careening, to follow; the compromise course would all but upset her; the spray would fly; the safari boys would take their ducking; the boat boys would yell and dance and lean frantically against the two long sweeps with which they tried to steer. In this wild and untrammelled fashion we careered up the bay, too interested in our own performances to pay much attention to the scenery. The low shores, with their cocoanut groves gracefully rising above the mangrove tangle, slipped by, and the distant blue Shimba Hills came nearer.

After a while we turned into a narrower channel with a good many curves and a quite unknown depth of water. Down this we whooped at the full speed of our thirty-horsepower engine. Occasional natives, waist deep and fishing, stared after us open-eyed. The Yankee ventured a guess as to how hard she would hit on a mudbank. She promptly proved his guess a rank underestimate by doing so. We fell in a heap on the bottom. The dhow bore down on us with majestic momentum. The boat boys leaned frantically on their sweeps, and managed just to avoid us. The dhow also rammed the mudbank. A dozen reluctant boys hopped overboard and pushed us off. We pursued our merry way again. On either hand now appeared fish weirs of plaited coco fibre; which, being planted in the shallows, helped us materially to guess at the channel. Naked men, up to their shoulders in the water, attended to some mysterious need of the nets, or emerged dripping and sparkling from the water with baskets of fish atop their heads. The channel grew even narrower, and the mudbanks more frequent. We dodged a dozen in our headlong course. Our local guide, a Swahili in tarboosh and a beautiful saffron robe, showed signs of strong excitement. We were to stop, he said, around the next bend; and at this rate we never could stop. The Yankee remarked, superfluously, that it would be handy if this dod-blistered engine had a clutch; adding, as an afterthought, that no matter how long he stayed in the tropics his nose peeled. We asked what we should do if we over-carried our prospective landing-place. He replied that the dod-blistered thing did have a reverse. While thus conversing we shot around a corner into a complete cul-de-sac! Everything was shut off hastily, and an instant later we and the dhow smashed up high and dry on a cozy mud beach! We drew a deep breath and looked around us.

Mangrove thicket to the edge of the slimy ooze; trees behind--that was all we could see. We gave our attention to the business of getting our men, our effects, and ourselves ashore. The ooze proved to be just above knee deep. The porters had a fearful and floundering time, and received much obvious comment from us perched in the bow of the launch. Finally everything was debarked. F. and I took off our boots; but our gunbearers expressed such horror at the mere thought of our plunging into the mud, that we dutifully climbed them pick-a-back and were carried. The hard shell beach was a hundred feet away, occupying a little recess where the persistent tough mangroves drew back. From it led a narrow path through the thicket. We waved and shouted a farewell to the crews of the launch and the dhow.

The path for a hundred feet was walled in by the mangroves through which scuttled and rattled the big land crabs. Then suddenly we found ourselves in a story-book tropical paradise. The tall coco palms rose tufted above everything; the fans of the younger palms waved below; bananas thrust the banners of their broad leaves wherever they could find space; creepers and vines flung the lush luxuriance of their greenery over all the earth and into the depths of all the half-guessed shadows. In no direction could one see unobstructed farther than twenty feet, except straight up; and there one could see just as far as the tops of the palms. It was like being in a room--a green, hot, steamy, lovely room. Very bright-coloured birds that ought really to have been at home in their cages fluttered about.

We had much vigorous clearing to do to make room for our tents. By the time the job was finished we were all pretty hot. Several of the boys made vain attempts to climb for nuts, but without success. We had brought them with us from the interior, where cocoanuts do not grow; and they did not understand the method. They could swarm up the tall slim stems all right, but could not manage to get through the downward-pointing spikes of the dead leaves. F. tried and failed, to the great amusement of the men, but to the greater amusement of myself. I was a wise person, and lay on my back on a canvas cot, so it was not much bother to look up and enjoy life. Not to earn absolutely the stigma of laziness, I tried to shoot some nuts down. This did not work either, for the soft, spongy stems closed around the bullet holes. Then a little wizened monkey of a Swahili porter, having watched our futile performances with interest, nonchalantly swarmed up; in some mysterious manner he wriggled through the defences, and perched in the top, whence he dropped to us a dozen big green nuts. Our men may not have been much of a success at climbing for nuts; but they were passed masters at the art of opening them. Three or four clips from their awkward swordlike pangas, and we were each presented with a clean, beautiful, natural goblet brimming full of a refreshing drink.

About this time a fine figure of a man drifted into camp. He was very smooth-skinned, very dignified, very venerable. He was pure Swahili, though of the savage branch of that race, and had none of the negro type of countenance. In fact, so like was he in face, hair, short square beard and genial dignity to a certain great-uncle of mine that it was very hard to remember that he had on only a small strip of cloth, that he was cherishing as a great treasure a piece of soap box he had salvaged from the shore, and that his skin was red chocolate. I felt inclined to talk to him as to an intellectual equal, especially as he had a fine resonant bass voice that in itself lent his remarks some importance. However, I gave him two ordinary wood screws, showed him how they screwed in and out, and left him happy.

After supper the moon rose, casting shadows of new and unknown shapes through this strangely new and unknown forest. A thin white mist ascending everywhere from the soil tempered but could not obscure the white brilliance. The thermometer stood now only at 82, but the dripping tropical sweat-bath in which our camp was pitched considerably raised the sensible heat. A bird with a most diabolical shrieking note cursed in the shadows. Another, a pigeon-like creature, began softly, and continued to repeat in diminishing energy until it seemed to have run down, like a piece of clockwork.

Our way next morning led for some time through this lovely but damp jungle. Then we angled up the side of a hill to emerge into the comparatively open country atop what we Westerners would call a "hog's back"--a long narrow spurlike ridge mounting slowly to the general elevation of the main hills. Here were high green bushes, with little free open passages between them, and occasionally meadow-like openings running down the slopes on one side or the other. Before us, some miles distant, were the rounded blue hills.

We climbed steadily. It was still very early morning, but already the day was hot. Pretty soon we saw over the jungle to the gleaming waters of the inlet, and then to the sea. Our "hog's back" led us past a ridge of the hills, and before we knew it we had been deposited in a shallow valley three or four miles wide between parallel ridges; the said valley being at a considerable elevation, and itself diversified with rolling hills, ravines, meadow land, and wide flats. On many of the ridges were scattered cocoanut palms, and occasional mango groves, while many smokes attested the presence of natives.

These we found in shambas or groups of little farms, huddled all together, with wilderness and brush and trees, or the wide open green grass lawn between. The houses were very large and neat-looking. They were constructed quite ingeniously from coco branches. Each branch made one mat. The leaves were all brought over to the same side of the stem, and then plaited. The resulting mat was then six or seven feet long by from twelve to sixteen inches broad, and could be used for a variety of purposes. Indeed, we found Melville's chapter in "Typhee" as to the various uses of the cocoanut palm by no means exaggerated. The nuts, leaves, and fibre supplied every conceivable human want.

The natives were a pleasant, friendly, good-looking lot. In fact, so like was their cast of countenance to that of the white-skinned people we were accustomed to see that we had great difficulty in realizing that they were mere savages, costume--or lack of it--to the contrary notwithstanding. Under a huge mango tree two were engaged in dividing a sheep. Sixty or seventy others stood solemnly around watching. It may have been a religious ceremony, for all I know; but the affair looked to be about two parts business to sixty of idle and cheerful curiosity. We stopped and talked to them a little, chaffed the pretty girls--they were really pretty--and marched on.

About noon our elegant guide stopped, struck an attitude, and pointed with his silver-headed rattan cane.

"This," said he, "is where we must camp."

We marched through a little village. A family party sat beneath the veranda of a fine building--a very old wrinkled couple; two stalwart beautiful youths; a young mother suckling her baby; two young girls; and eight or ten miscellaneous and naked youngsters. As the rest of the village appeared to be empty, I imagined this to be the caretaker's family, and the youngsters to belong to others. We stopped and spoke, were answered cheerfully, suggested that we might like to buy chickens, and offered a price. Instantly with a whoop of joy the lot of them were afoot. The fowl waited for no further intimations of troublous times, but fled squawking. They had been there before. So had our hosts; for inside a minute they had returned, each with a chicken--and a broad grin.

After due payment we proceeded on a few hundred yards, and pitched camp beneath two huge mango trees.

Besides furnishing one of the most delicious of the tropical fruits, the mango is also one of the most beautiful of trees. It is tall, spreads very wide, and its branches sweep to within ten feet of the ground. Its perfect symmetry combined with the size and deep green of its leaves causes it to resemble, from a short distance, a beautiful green hill. Beneath its umbrella one finds dense shade, unmottled by a single ray of sunlight, so that one can lie under it in full confidence. For, parenthetically, even a single ray of this tropical sunlight is to the unprotected a very dangerous thing. But the leaves of the mango have this peculiarity, which distinguishes it from all other trees--namely, that they grow only at the very ends of the small twigs and branches. As these, of course, grow only at the ends of the big limbs, it follows that from beneath the mango looks like a lofty green dome, a veritable pantheon of the forest.

We made our camp under one of these trees; gave ourselves all the space we could use; and had plenty left over--five tents and a cook camp, with no crowding. It was one of the pleasantest camps I ever saw. Our green dome overhead protected us absolutely from the sun; high sweet grass grew all about us; the breeze wandered lazily up from the distant Indian Ocean. Directly before our tent door the slope fell gently away through a sparse cocoanut grove whose straight stems panelled our view, then rose again to the clear-cut outline of a straight ridge opposite. The crest of this was sentinelled by tall scattered cocoanut trees, the "bursting star" pyrotechnic effect of their tops being particularly fine against the sky.

After a five hours' tropical march uphill we were glad to sit under our green dome, to look at our view, to enjoy the little breeze, and to drink some of the cocoanuts our friends the villagers brought in.


[3] "The Land of Footprints."

Stewart Edward White

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