IN THE TALL GRASS OF THE MOUNT ELGON COUNTRY. A NARROW ESCAPE FROM A LONG-HORNED RHINO. A THANKSGIVING DINNER AND A VISIT TO A NATIVE VILLAGE
Mount Elgon is one of the four great mountains of Africa. You can find it on the map of the dark continent, standing all alone, just a little bit north of Victoria Nyanza, and surrounded by names that one has never heard of before.
The mountain is distinctly out of the picture-post-card beltin fact, the only belt that one will find around Elgon is the timber belt that encircles the mountain, and perhaps also a few that the local residents wear on Sundays and national holidays.
The function of the latter class of belt is to keep up a gay appearance. It is worn for looks, not warmth.
The traveler who goes to Mount Elgon will not be distracted by sounds of civilization, except such as he takes with him. He will travel for days without seeing a sign of human life beyond his own following. The country west of the Nzoia River is uninhabited and is abandoned to the elephant and the giraffe and other animals that care not for the madding crowd. Thomas Cook and Son have not yet penetrated that district with schedules and time cards and luggage labels; so if your purpose in traveling is to get a grand assortment of stickers on your trunks and hand-bags, it is useless to include Mount Elgon in your itinerary.
There will be days of marching through high grass, often so deep as almost to bury yourself and your horse; hours of delay at marshy rivers densely choked with a tangle of riotous vegetation, and much groping about in a trackless waste for a suitable course to follow.
Owing to intertribal warfare the Elgon district has been closed for some time and it has only been during the last year or so that hunting parties have again been allowed to enter. Since that time a number of parties have been in, the Duke of Alba among the first, and later Doctor Rainsford, Frederick Selous and, Mr. McMillan, Captain Ashton, the Duke of Peñaranda, Mr. Roosevelt, and a few others. Colonel Roosevelt went only as far as the Nzoia River, but most of the others crossed and swung up along the northeastern slopes of the mountain where elephants are most frequently found.
Our party decided to take the southern slope, notwithstanding we were warned that we might find the natives troublesome and treacherous. We were also warned that we should be going through an untraveled district where there were no trails and where native guides could not be secured.
A Native Granary
A Chair Is a Sure Sign of Rank
Nevertheless we started and brilliantly blundered into some most diverting adventures.
The first day's march after crossing the Nzoia River was through scrub country and what we considered high grass. The next day we struck real high grass! It was so deep that we had to burrow through it. Only the helmets of those on horseback marked where the caravan was passing. The long line of porters carrying their burdens were buried from view. It was a terrible place to meet a rhino and perhaps for that very reason we promptly proceeded to meet one.
We were riding ahead, followed by the cook and the tent boys, and behind them was the long string of a hundred or more porters, askaris, totos, and so forth. The end of the line was some hundred yards behind the head. Suddenly there was a wild cry of "faru!" (rhino).
It was disconcerting, but after one or two hurried and flurried moments we got our heavy batteries in readiness and prepared to sell his life as cheaply as possible. But no rhino came. The grass was too deep to have seen him if he had come, but we thought it was well to have a reception committee ready just the same.
Then the rear ranks began to telescope into the front ranks. They came forward two or three jumps at a time. They were visibly perturbed, but presently they recovered enough to give expert testimony.
A huge rhino had been in the grass by the trail as we came along and had waited until the whole line had passed. Then he jumped into the trail and charged furiously after the porters. The latter, severally, collectively, and frantically, leaped for their lives, dropping packs and uttering hurried appeals to Allah.
He Estimated the Length at Four Feet
After scattering a few dozen of the rank and file from his line of march the rhino veered off and plunged out of sight in the tall grass. One of the porters whose veracity is unquestioned by those who don't know him estimated the forward horn to be four feet long. He said the rhino charged earnestly and with hostile intent.
A rhino charging a safari is always a pleasing diversionpleasing after it's all over and diverting while it lasts. The cry of "faru" is a good deal like "car coming" at an automobile race. Instantly everybody is all attention, with the attention equally divided between the rhino and the nearest tree. If there is no tree the interest in the rhino becomes more acute.
The thought of being impaled en brochette on the horn of a rhino is one of the least attractive forms of mental exertion that I know of. It is a close second to the thought of being stepped on by a herd of elephants marching single file.
Well, we survived the charge of the heavy brigade, and then moved onward, ever and anon casting an alert glance at the deep clumps of thicket along the way. Fortunately no more rhinos appeared and the next thing we struck was Thanksgiving Day.
The proper way to celebrate that deservedly popular holiday is not by sitting in tall grass with a can of beans and a bottle of pickles in the foreground. This is said with all respect to the manufacturers of beans and pickles who may advertise in the papers.
For a time, however, beans and pickles seemed to be the nearest outlook for us, but after a while the cook, whose nerves had been shaken by the impetuous advance of the rhino, arose to the demands of the occasion and set up a table upon which soon appeared some hot tea, some bread and honey, some beans and deviled ham, and a few knickknacks in the line of jam and cheese. That was luncheon, and we resolved to do better for dinner.
We told the cook all about Thanksgiving Day and what its chief purpose was. We also told him of the beautiful significance of the occasion, what happy thoughts it inspired, and how much sentiment was attached to it. Then we told him to get busy. We were in a Thanksgiving mood, being grateful that we were not riding around on the bowsprit of the rhino, and also because our relatives and friends at home were well at last reports, two months old.
True, our guide, who had never been over the trail before and who was trying to guess the way by instinct, had got us hopelessly becalmed in a sea of high grass so that we didn't know where we were. But we knew what we were. We were hungry!
In the meantime we planned and carried into brilliant execution a grouse hunt. There were lots of grouse in the country through which we had come and all day long coveys of them had been whirring away from our advancing outposts. It seemed a simple thing to go out and get a few for our Thanksgiving dinner, so we gave orders to make camp and consecrated the afternoon to a grouse quest.
I'll never forget what a formidable looking party it was. When we had spread out to comb the grass by the river side we looked like a skirmish line of an army. There were four of us, supported by seventeen gunbearers and porters. Our battery consisted of four elephant guns, four heavy rifles, three light rifles, and four shotguns. The latter were for grouse and the others were for incidental big game which one must always be prepared for, whether one goes out to shoot grouse or take snapshots with one's camera.
The Grouse Hunt
We spread out and beat two miles of perfect cover. Then we beat it back again and finally, after all our Herculean efforts, one lonely bird flew up and was knocked over. That was the astounding total of our slaughter and when the army marched back into camp with its one little grouse the effect was laughable in the extreme. I took a photograph of the entire group and by good luck the grouse is faintly seen suspended in the middle.
That night, with the camp-fires burning and with our tents almost buried in the tall grass, we celebrated Thanksgiving in a way that must have made old Lucullus fidget in his mausoleum. The wealth of the plains was compelled to yield tribute to our table; eland, grouse and Uganda cob appeared and disappeared as if by magic; the vast storehouses of Europe and America poured their treasures upon our groaning board, and one by one we safely put away succulent lengths of asparagus, cakes and chocolate, wine and olives, pickles and honey, nuts and cheese, plum pudding and coffee, and soup and salad, all in their proper sequence and in sufficient quantities to go round and round.
A soft moon shone down from the velvet sky and the trees of the river bed were bathed in white moonlight as we sat by the great camp-fire and smoked and talked and dreamed of the folk at home.
It was an unusual occasion, one that called for a special dispensation in the way of late hours, so it was almost nine when we turned in and dreamed of armies of rhinos playing battledore and shuttlecock with our bulging forms. It was a great dinner, and to be on the safe side we complimented the cook before we went to bed.
A Group of Ketosh Ladies
Nearly Buried in Grass
Building a Grass House
A day or two later, after blindly floundering about in a sea of waving grass for miles and miles, and getting more and more hopelessly lost, we stumbled upon signs of human habitation. The first sign was a great stretch of valley in which a number of smoke columns were ascending. Where there's smoke there's folk, we thought, patting ourselves on the back for cleverness. We knew we were approaching fresh eggs and chickens.
A little later we came upon another sign of human agitation. Over a rise in a hill we saw a large spear, and in a few minutes we overhauled a native guarding a herd of cattle. He carried a spear and a shield, and over his shoulders he wore a loose dressing sack that hung down nearly to his armpits. Civilization had touched him lightly, in fact it had barely waved at him as it brushed by.
We tried him with several languagesSwahili, Kikuyu, the language of flowers, American, Masai, and the sign language, none of which he was conversant with. Then we tried a relay system of dialects which established a vague, syncopated kind of intellectual contact. One of our porters spoke Kavirondo, so he held converse with the far from handsome stranger, translated it into Swahili, and this was retranslated into English for our benefit.
The stranger was a Ketosh. We didn't know what a Ketosh was, but it sounded more like something in the imperative mood than anything ethnological. It developed later in the day, however, that a Ketosh is a member of the tribe of that name, and their habitat is on the southern slopes of Elgon.
Lady and Gentleman Ketosh
The Ketoshites, or Ketoshians, as the case may be, are a cattle- and sheep-raising tribe. In other words, a tribe in which the women do all the manual labor while the men folk sit on a hillside with a shield and spear and watch the herds partake of nourishment. They are the standing army.
The Standing Army Sat Around All Day
We followed the man with the spear to a little village hard by. The village, like all the numerous other ones that we came to in the next few days, was inclosed in a zareba, or wall of tangled thorn branches that encircled the village. Within the wall were a number of low houses, six feet high, built of mud and wattle; and within the houses, spilling over plentifully, were large numbers of children and babies and a few women. A gateway of tangled boughs led into the inclosure, while in one part of the village were the curious woven wickerwork granaries in which the community store of kaffir corn is kept. There were no street signs on the lamp posts, probably because there were no streets and no lamp posts.
In the first village all the men were away, evidently waiting to see whether our visit was a hostile or a peaceful one.
We soon established ourselves on a peace footing and after that the warriors began to appear out of the tall grass in large numbers from all points of the compass. They all carried spears and shields, neither of which they would sell for love or money. At least they wouldn't for money. We resolved not to try the other unless the worst came to the worst and we had to fall back on it as a last desperate measure. I suppose they didn't know how soon they might need their weapons, and we heard that the sultan had just sent out a positive order forbidding them to sell their means of defense.
The Ketosh Are Gracefully Nonchalant
Little Shelters of Mud and Sticks
A Family Party
The first procedure when entering a district where the natives may be unfriendly is to send out for the chief, or sultan, as he is known in Africa. There is always a sultan to preside over the destinies of his tribe and to take any money that happens along. So we sent for the sultan, who was off in a neighboring village, so they said. After a long wait, during which we pitched our camp and offered a golden reward for eggs and chickens, a sultan drifted in.
Slowly Being Cremated
We knew he was sultan because he carried a chairan unfailing sign of rank among a nation of expert sitters. He also wore an old woolen dressing gown that had worked its way from civilization many years before. It was built for arctic regions, but the sultan of all the Ketoshians wore it right straight through the ardent hours when the sun kisses one with the fiery passion of a mustard plaster. He was slowly being cremated and it was fascinating to watch him sizzle.
After the sultan came and seated himself with his retinue of spearmen (dressed in the altogether save for the futile cloth around their shoulders) grouped around him we took our seats and began a shauri.
Shauri (rhyming with Bow'ry) is a native word meaning a powwow or a parley and is a word that works overtime. Everything that you do in Africa has to be preceded by a shauri. You have a shauri if you ask a native which road to take. Other natives hurry up, and then you stand around and talk about it for an hour or so.
If you want to buy a chicken or a cluster of eggs there must first be a prolonged shauri with much interchange of views and conversation and aërated persiflage. The native loves his shauri, and if he asks you a certain price for a chicken and you give the price without haggling he is greatly disappointed. In fact I have often seen them offer an article for a certain price and then refuse to accept the money if it is at once tendered. Later the native will accept much less if the shauri goes with it.
Well, we had shauris to burn for a couple of days. As soon as the first sultan had departed with presents and words of good cheer there was a flock of other sultans that hurried in to receive presents and to assist in shauris. They came from far and near, and they all carried chairs, thus proving that they were not impostors; and the worst of it was that we couldn't find out exactly which was the real, most exalted sultan of the bunch. Hence we had to give presents to many who perhaps were only amateur or 'prentice sultans, sultans whose domains were only a little village of half a dozen families.
The Camp Was Clogged with Sultans
For two days our camp was clogged with shauris and sultans sitting around. We couldn't step out of our tents without stumbling over a sultan or two. When we would take our baths in our tents there would be sultans and warriors peeping in modestly from all sides. There was not a secret of our inner life that remained intact. Even the ladies, from the banana-bellied little girls of five and six up to the leathery-limbed old matrons, inclusive, were not above a feminine curiosity in things which doubtless interested them, but didn't concern them. The standing army of the Ketoshians sat around all day wearing out the grass and being frequently stumbled over.
If we asked a sultan if there were any elephants in the neighborhood it meant at least fifteen minutes of loose conversation through a relay of interpreters, with the final answer boiled down to a "no" in English. For a language that has only a few words like shauri, backsheesh, apana, and chukula the native lingo is a most elastic one.
There were two or three things that we had come to Mount Elgon for and about which we desired information. The first was "elephants," and we found, after hours of talk, that there was none in the vicinity. Secondly, we wanted to get food for our men, and thirdly, we wanted guides to take us up to the ancient cave-dwellings in the mountain and more guides to take us up to the top of the mountain itself.
It seemed almost impossible to get satisfactory information upon either of the last two subjects. The natives didn't want to part with their grain, while for their cattle they asked outrageous prices. We were almost tempted to boycott them by stopping eating meat for two months. They also seemed reluctant to let us have guides to take us up to the caves and none of them seemed to know the trails that led up into the forests and the heights of the mountain. It was evident that only a few ever had been up the mountain upon the slopes of which they had spent their lives.
At the Entrance of the Great Cave
There Were Granaries in the Cave
In One of the Elgon Caves
We began to think that they wanted us to stay in their village just so they could have the pleasure of their daily shauris.
Finally one sultan promised to get us guides and accepted a generous present on the strength of it; but when the time came he failed to produce them. It was at precisely this point, to be strictly accurate, that we abandoned the polite phraseology of the court and told him with many exclamation points that he would have to guide us himself or we would take steps to dethrone him. Of course, all of this had to be strained through two interpreters, but even then I think he caught the gist of it. He said that he himself would guide us to the nearest and largest cave.
We told him that we would be ready to start immediately after luncheon. Only ourselves and a few men to carry cameras and guns were to constitute our party, the rest of the safari remaining in camp, from which certain embassies were sent out to buy grain for the porters' food.
Soon after lunch the sultan arrived and we marched away. Little by little groups of his janissaries, mamelukes, and other members of his official entourage joined us and by the time we reached the slope leading up to the great cave-dwelling we had quite an imposing procession. Most of the natives were armed with spears and knives, and some of them had painted their bodies with red dirt and mutton grease, and when this coating had partly dried they had traced with their fingers many designs in stripes down their arms and legs. Some were a light mauve in color, but most were of a rich chocolate brown. The effect of these designs was rather pretty, but the dripping red oil from their hair was not pretty and on a hot day exuded a strong, overpowering odor.
Above us, nearly a thousand feet from where we stood, boldly visible in the face of the great cliff, was the broad ledge and black opening of the cave. A short distance to the right of it was a bright waterfall, looking like a ribbon, but in reality quite broad and dropping in three stages several hundred feet. An incline of forty-five degrees led up to the cave, while up beyond that was the great stratum of solid rock that extends for miles along the south of Mount Elgon and which is honey-combed with hundreds of prehistoric cave-dwellings. A determined foe stationed at the mouth of any one of the caves could defend it against an enormous attacking force.
It was nearly an hour's climb to the ledge where the cave entrance appeared. Several naked men armed with spears stood upon the rocks, outlined in bold and striking relief against the velvety blackness of the cave entrance. They appeared curious but not unfriendly as we breathlessly panted our way on to the ledge where they stood waiting, spears in hand.
Like a Great Stage
Our first impression was one of gasping wonderment. We seemed to stand upon a great stage of an immensity which words can not describe. It was a stage proportioned for giants. The rock prosscenium arched above us seventy feet and the stage was nearly two hundred feet wide. As an audience chamber one could look out over twenty-five thousand square miles of Central Africa.
The dimensions and the imposing magnitude of the place almost took one's breath away. Two regiments of soldiers could have marched upon that stage. There was even room for a squadron of cavalry to manuver. Upon the well-beaten floor were the tracks of cattle, showing that from time immemorial the cave people had driven in their herds for shelter or for safety in times of tribal warfare; and in places the solid rock was worn smooth and deep by the bare feet of centuries of naked people.
And yet, in spite of the titanic proportions of the cave, there was something quite homelike about it. It almost suggested a prosperous farm-yard. There were chickens walking about, with little chickens trotting alongside. There were wickerwork graneries standing here and there, while around the inner edge of the great entrance hall were little mud and stick woven houses five feet high, which gave the effect of a small village street.
From the front of the stage back to the row of little houses was a distance of about one hundred feet. By stooping down one could enter one of the little openings, to be surprised to find himself in another little farm-yard where cattle had been housed and where there were many evidences of the thrift and industry of the occupants. Gourds of milk were present in generous numbers, and as one's eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness all sorts of domestic paraphernalia were revealed.
Little separate inclosures were fenced off for human tenantry, and the glow of embers gave a pleasant, homelike look to the place. Cavern after cavern extended back into the cliff, a network of them, but how far they went would be hard to tell. Perhaps the cave in all its subterranean ramifications has never been entirely explored.
We wandered back through some of the caverns, sometimes stooping to get through and sometimes standing beneath domes thirty and forty feet high. And always that queer, mystical light, with exaggerated shadows and sometimes black darkness ahead, where could be heard the drip, drip, drip of water in invisible lakes. In time of siege the holders of this cave, with granaries filled and with herds of cattle and lakes of water, could hold the place for ever.
The tenants of the place soon became pleasant and hospitable. Perhaps many of them had never seen white people before, but they sat down and watched us with friendly interest. There were many babies and they were all bright-eyed and rugged looking.
While we were there the cattle were out on the open hills grazing, but in the evening the long herds are driven up to their airy stronghold and made snug for the night. And who knows but that a great herd of cattle would add much to the heat of the cave and make its nearly naked tenants forget that they were high on the chilly slopes of one of Africa's greatest mountains?
They certainly do not dress warm. Around their arms and legs are all sorts of brass and nickel wire wound in scores of circles. Chains of wire and necklaces of beads encircle the women's throats and elephant ivory armlets are often clasped about the arms so tight that it would seem that the natural circulation would be hopelessly retarded. But they must be healthy, these people who go about with only a thin sheet of dyed cotton thrown about them, while we northerners shivered with sweaters and warm woolen things about us.
It's all a case of getting used to it, just as it is a case of getting used to seeing people frankly and unconsciously naked, as many of these people are. But after a while one even gets used to seeing them so and regards their nakedness as one would regard the nakedness of animals.
CHAPTER ONE | CHAPTER TWO | CHAPTER THREE | CHAPTER FOUR | CHAPTER FIVE | CHAPTER SIX | CHAPTER SEVEN | CHAPTER EIGHT | CHAPTER NINE| CHAPTER TEN | CHAPTER ELEVEN | CHAPTER TWELVE | CHAPTER THIRTEEN | CHAPTER FOURTEEN | CHAPTER FIFTEEN | CHAPTER SIXTEEN | CHAPTER SEVENTEEN | CHAPTER EIGHTEEN | CHAPTER NINETEEN | CHAPTER TWENTY | CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE | CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
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