UP AND DOWN THE MOUNTAIN SIDE FROM THE KETOSH VILLAGE TO THE GREAT CAVE OF BATS. A DRAMATIC EPISODE WITH THE FINDING OF A BLACK BABY AS A CLIMAX
For days we had heard of wonderful places higher up in the mountain. The information had been so vague and uncertain we hardly knew whether to credit the reports or simply put them down as native folk lore or superstition. One night we interviewed Askar, one of the Somali gunbearers.
He said he had been up the mountain a year or two before with a Frenchman who wanted to see the mysterious natural wonders of Mount Elgon. The Frenchman had to threaten to kill his native guides before they would consent to lead him up in the cold heights of the mountain to show him the places that filled the native imagination with such fear and superstitious dread.
There was one place, Askar said, where the water boiled out of the ground far, far up in the mountain heights, and any native who looked at it fell dead. Askar said he went up and looked at it through the glasses, and then ran away.
All this queer information came out at one of our evening camp-fire shauris. The great central camp-fire of a safari is usually in front of the tents of the msungu, or white people, and around it in the evening the msungu discuss the adventures of the day and the plans for the morrow. Each night Abdi, the neapara or head-man, comes up to get his instructions for the next morning, and soon afterward Abdullah, the cook, appears and waits for his orders for the breakfast hour.
Abdullah is the color of night, and no one ever sees him approach or go away. He simply appears and often stands only a few feet away before any one is aware of his presence. And even after he speaks, one sees only a row of white teeth looming up five feet above the ground. If any important matters are to be adjusted it is usually at the camp-fire that the things are settled. If punishment is to be meted out to a transgressor, it is there that the trial is held and judgment rendered.
Well, on, this night as we sat talking by the camp-fire, Abdi, our head-man, suddenly appeared and squatted down. Soon after up came Askar, who also squatted down, and we knew that we were in for some unusual sort of a shauri. It was then that Askar told of the strange mystery of the mountain.
Curious as to Our Home Life
On the Rim of the Crater
A Birthday Dinner
"Askar says," spoke Abdi, interpreting Askar's imperfect English, "that up in the mountain there is a big door and a great cave. He went up with a Frenchman, and the guides refused to go. Then the Frenchman threatened to kill them if they would not go. They were frightened, because all the natives die who go to the big door and see the boiling fountain through the door. Askar say all the natives ran away, but the Frenchman go on."
"Did Askar see the door?"
"Askar says he see the door and he see the fountain through some glasses. Then he ran away."
Camp in the Forest
"Can Askar take us up to the cave and the big door?"
There was then a long discussion in Somali between Askar and Abdi, which finally was briefly rendered into English. Askar would show us the way.
We then sent for the sultan of the Ketosh tribe and interviewed him. He was singularly reticent about the subject, and both he and the other natives called in used all their crude intelligence to discourage any attempt to go up into those districts that were so full of strange, forbidding influences. They said there were no trails, and when we said we would go anyway, they said there was a trail, but that it was so tangled with undergrowth and vines that one had to creep through it, like an animal. We still said we would go, and told the sultan to get us guides, for which we would pay well.
All this happened while we were in the Ketosh village that lies on the slope of the mountain just beneath the great rock wall, a thousand feet high, whose upper rim is honeycombed with the ancient caves of the aborigines. For days we had stopped there, endeavoring to get food and guides, and for days the sultan and his people had placed every obstacle in the way of our ascending higher the mysterious and comparatively unknown mountain. The great rock escarpment shut off the view of the peaks beyond, but we felt that if once we could scale the first precipitous slope we would find traveling much easier on the gentle slope of the mountain.
At last, after persuasion, threats, money, and pleading had in turn been tried, the sultan brought his son and said that his son would guide us.
The son was the craftiest and crookedest looking native I had seen in Africa. After one look at him, you were filled with such distrust and suspicion that you would hardly believe him if he said he thought it was going to rain, or that crops were looking up.
With this man as a guide, and with four more who were tempted by the bright red blankets we gave, our caravan started on one of the strangest and perhaps most foolhardy trips that presumably sane people ever made. In the first place, probably fewer than half a dozen white men had ever ascended Mount Elgon. There were no adequate maps of the region, and the one we had was woefully inaccurate. It was made as if from telegraphic description, and the only thing in which it proved trustworthy was that there was a mountain there and that it was about fourteen thousand two hundred feet high, and that the line separating British East Africa from Uganda ran through the crater at the top.
Our delay at the Ketosh village had greatly reduced our food supplies for the porters, and there was only enough left to last six days. In that time we should have to ascend the mountain and descend to some place where food supplies could be procured. It all looked quite quixotic. We bought two bullocks, a sheep, and a goat, and, with our guides ahead, our entire safari of over a hundred souls turned toward the grim heights that shot up before us.
Up to the Rim of the Crater
The trail for the first thousand feet of ascent was steep and hard to climb. The rocks high above us were specked with natives, who gazed down in wonder at the strange spectacle. These were the cave-dwellers. After an hour or more we reached the crest of the rim and then continued through elephant grass ten feet high, then dense forest, and finally through miles of clean, cool, shadowy bamboosalways steadily climbing. The trail was fairly good and our progress was encouraging.
In the Belt of Bamboo
Giant Cactus Growth In the Crater
Up Twelve Thousand Feet in the Crater
There were many elephant pits in the bamboo forest, but they were all ancient ones, half-filled with decayed leaves and obviously unused for half a century or more. From some of them fairly large-sized trees had grown. Sometimes in the midst of these great, silent, light-green forests we came upon giant trees, tangled and gnarled, with trunks twenty or thirty feet in circumference. In vain we looked for the impassable trail the natives had warned us to expect.
Late in the afternoon we came to a wonderful cave, over the mouth of which a wonderful fan-shaped waterfall dropped seventy feet or more. My aneroid barometer indicated an elevation of eighty-two hundred feet, showing that we had climbed twenty-seven hundred feet since morning. We found a little clearing in the bamboo forest and pitched our tents on ground that sloped down like the roof of a house. The clearing was barely fifty yards long, yet our twenty or more tents were pitched, our horses tethered in the middle, and the camp-fires crackled merrily as the chill air of night came down upon us. From the forest came the multitude of sounds that told of strange birds and animals that were out on their nocturnal hunt for food.
Early in the morning the safari was sent on with the guides while we remained to explore the cave. It was an immense cavern, with an entrance hall, or foyer, about thirty feet high and a hundred feet in length. Along the inner edge were the crumbling remains of little mud and wattle huts that had been occupied by people a long time before. Beyond this great entrance hall were passages that led into other vast, echoing caverns with domes like those of a cathedral.
Countless thousands of bats darted about us as our voices broke the silence of ages, and in places the deposits of bats were two or three feet deep. It staggered one's senses to think how long these creatures had dwelt within the labyrinth of caverns and passageways.
We explored the cave for a quarter of a mile or so, stumbling, stooping, climbing, and sliding down precipitous slopes. Far off in the darkness sounded the steady drip, drip, drip of water, and several times our progress was stopped by black lakes into which a tossed stone would tell of depths that might be almost bottomless. We fired our shotguns and the loosened dirt and rocks and the thunder of thousands of bats' wings were enough to terrify the senses.
There is no telling how many centuries or ages these caverns have stood as they stand to-day. Doubtless the wild tribes of the mountain have occupied them for thousands of years, and doubtless a thousand years from now the descendants of these tribes of people and bats will still be there in the cisternlike caverns with the broad fan of sparkling water spreading like a beautiful curtain across the great archway of an entrance.
That night, after hours of climbing through great forests and across grassy slopes gay with countless varieties of beautiful and strange flowers, we pitched our camp on a wind-swept height eleven thousand feet up. The peaks of the mountain rose high above us only a mile or so farther on.
When the night fell the cold was intense, and we huddled about the camp-fire for warmth. Around each of the porters' camp-fires the humped-up natives crouched and dreamed of the warm valleys far below in the darkness. I suppose the cold made them irritable, for just as we were preparing to turn in there suddenly came a succession of screams from one of the groupsscreams of a boy in mortal terror. The sounds breaking out so unexpectedly in the silent night were enough to freeze the blood in one's veins. I never heard such frantic screamslike those that might come from a torture-chamber.
One of the porters had become infuriated by one of the totossmall boys who go along to help the portersand had started in to beat him. The boy was probably more frightened than hurt, but the matter was one demanding instant punitive action. So Abdi immediately inflicted it in a most satisfying manner.
Once more the silence of the mountain fell upon the camp, but it was hours before the shock to one's senses could be forgotten. I never before, nor never again expect to hear screams more harrowing or terrifying.
The next day a Martian sitting upon his planet with a powerful glass might have seen the amazing sight of three horses, one mule, two bullocks, a goat, and a sheep, preceded and followed by over a hundred human beings, painfully creep over the rim of the crater and breathlessly pause before the great panorama of Africa that lay stretched out for hundreds of miles on all sides. It was as though an army had ascended Mont Blanc, and thus Hannibal crossing the Alps was repeated on a small scale.
Leaving our horses on the rim of the crater, a few of us climbed the highest peak, fourteen thousand three hundred and seventy-five feet high, as registered by my aneroid barometer, and stood where very few had stood before. Even the official height of the mountain, as given on the maps, was found to be inaccurate, and illustrated how vaguely the geographers knew the mountain.
That night we camped in the crater, twelve thousand feet up, and washed in a boiling sulphur spring that sprang from the rocks on the Uganda side. Perhaps this was the boiling fountain the superstitious natives feared, for it was the only one we saw. And perhaps the great gorge through which the river Turkwel, or Suam, flowed on its long journey north was the door that Askar had told us about. It was the only door we saw, but Askar said the door he meant was away off somewhere else, and he was so vague and confused in his bearings that we felt his information was unreliable.
The crater of Mount Elgon has long since lost any resemblance to a volcanic crater. It is a great valley, or bowl, surrounded by a lofty rim that in reality is a considerable chain of mountains. The bowl is two or three miles long and as much wide, with tall grass growing on the small hills inside and thousands upon thousands of curious cactus-like trees. Several mountain streams tumble down from the gorges between the peaks and, uniting, flow out of the big gap in one stream, the river Turkwel, which separates Uganda from British East Africa.
In the Crater of Mount Elgon
Mount Elgon is not an imposing mountain and on most occasions there is no snow on its peaks. Only one time during the several weeks that we were in sight of it was its summit capped with snow. A few species of small animals live in the crater, but no human beings. At night ice formed in the little pools where we camped and a furious wind, biting cold, swept down from the peaks and eddied out of the great gap where the Turkwel flows.
To all of our safari it was a welcome hour when we struck camp, preparatory to leaving the crater for the lower levels. The guides said there were only two ways outone by the Turkwel gorge and the other by the route up which we came. The former might lead us far from any sources of food supplies, which by that time were becoming imperatively necessary, and the latter was undesirable unless as a last resort. After some deliberation we resolved to climb over the eastern rim and strike for the Nzoia River. No one had ever been known to take this course, but we felt that we could cut our way out and make trails sufficient to follow.
The guides refused to go, because by doing so they would enter a district where they might encounter tribes that were hostile to their own. On one side of this mountain there was a bitter tribal war even then under way. So we cheerfully said good-by to the Elgonyi guides and slowly climbed the rock rim and started for the unknown.
A Deserted Wanderobo Village
Where We Had Our Thanksgiving Day Lunch
For two days we climbed downward, sometimes along ancient elephant trails and sometimes along the sheep trails made by the flocks of mountain tribes. Several times we came upon deserted Wanderobo villages, and it was evident the natives who occupied them were abandoning their homes in terror before our descending column. Sometimes we groped our way through great forests in which there was no trail to follow, and sometimes we cut our way through dense jungle thickets like a solid wall of vegetation.
Upon several occasions we came to impassable places where an abrupt cliff would necessitate a tiresome return and a new attempt. Once we came to a little clearing in the vast forest where the grass was like a lawn and where towering trees rose like the arches of a great cathedral a hundred feet above. It was the most beautiful, serene and majestic spot I have ever seen. Even the religious grandeur of Nikko's cryptomeria aisles was incomparable to this.
One afternoon our column found itself hopelessly lost in a jungle growth so dense that one could penetrate it only by cutting a tunnel through, and for hours we hacked and hacked and made microscopic progress. At last the head of the column came to an abrupt drop of a couple of hundred feet which seemed an effectual bar to all further progress. The cliff fell off at an angle of sixty degrees, with the slope densely matted with heavy scrub and underbrush. It was necessary either to retrace our steps through that long and heart-breaking jungle or else find a way down the cliff. The water was gone and the horses must be got to water before night.
Then, followed the most dramatic episode of our trip. We simply fell over the cliff, plunging, caroming, and ricocheting down through the masses of vegetation. How the horses got down I shall never know and shall always consider as a miracle. And how the burden-bearing porters managed to get their loads down is even more of a mystery.
Somewhere down below we heard the cry of a baby!
That meant that there must be human habitation near and, of course, a mountain stream, and perhaps guides to lead us out of the mountain fastness. A few moments more of falling and sliding and plunging, and the advance guard came into a tiny clearing where a fire was burning. A rude Wanderobo shack, built around the base of a towering tree from which fell great festoons of giant creepers, stood in the center of the clearing. Some food, still hot, was found in the vessels in which it had been cooking. The people had fled and had been swallowed up in the silent depths of the forest.
Coming Down the Mountain
We called and shouted, but no answer came. Some of our porters proceeded to rob the shack of its store of wild honey, but were apprehended in time and were threatened with violent punishment if it continued. Then we prepared to make camp. There was no space for our tents, and trees had to be cut down and a little clearing made. Here the tents were huddled together, clinging to the sloping mountain side. Darkness fell, and then a most wonderful thing happened.
One of the tent boys who was searching for firewood in the darkening forest found a little naked baby, barely three months old. It had been thrown away as its mother, as she thought, fled for her life. The baby was brought into camp, wrapped up, and cared for, and it will never know how near it came to being devoured by a leopard or a forest hog. It was the crying of this baby that we heard, and we assumed that its mother had cast it aside so that its wailing would not betray the hiding-place of the remainder of her family. One can only imagine what her terror must have been to make this sacrifice in the common interest.
Now, a three-months-old baby is a good deal of a problem for a safari to handle. In our equipment we had made no provision for the care of infants. We could wrap it up and keep it warm, and feed it canned milk, but I imagine the proper care of a little babe requires even more than that. It was imperative that we find the mother before the baby died.
A Tent Boy Found It
So we first enjoined our mob of porters, who are chronically noisy, to be quiet under penalty of a severe kiboko punishment. We then sent out Kavirondo, the big, good-natured porter who always acted as our interpreter when dealing with the natives of the mountain district. He spoke the dialects of the Wanderobo tribes. He was a messenger of peace, and he was told to shout out through the forest that we were friendly, that we had the baby, and that the mother should come and get it. We felt absolutely certain that the sound of his voice would carry to where the mother was hidden.
For an hour or more we heard the strong voice of Kavirondo crying out his message of peace, and yet no answering cry came from the black depths of the forest. It began to look as if we were one little black baby ahead. In the meantime the baby was behaving beautifully. It was wrapped warmly in a bath towel and seemed to enjoy the attention it was receiving. Some one suggested that we leave it in the shack and then all retire so that the mother could creep in and recover it. But this had one objectiona leopard might creep in first.
We cooked our dinner and away off in the forest came the echoing shouts of Kavirondo. The camp settled down to quiet and the camp-fires twinkled among the towering trees. Then some one rushed in to say that the father and mother had come in.
Outlined Against the Sky
A Reception Committee
Kavirondo had restored the baby! There was an instant impulse to rush down to see the glad reunion, but better counsel prevailed. Such a charge, en masse, even though friendly, might frighten the natives away. So Akeley alone went down and assured the father and mother that we were friendly and that nothing would harm them. And when he came back it was to report that the parents and the little baby were peacefully installed in their forest home again.
She Threw Her Baby Away
Early in the morning we went down to see our strange friends. They had greatly increased in number during the night. There were now one man, two of his wives, an old woman, and eight children, and the tiny baby. All fear had vanished, and they seemed certain that no harm was likely to come to them.
The man was a good-looking, strongly built native with fine honest eyes. The women were comely and the children positively handsome. I have never seen such a healthy, fine-eyed, well-built assortment of childhood, ranging all the way from three months up to eight or nine years of age. He was the president of the Anti-Race Suicide Club. We gave them all presentsbeads to the children and brass wire to the women. We also made up a little fund of rupees for the baby, although money seemed to mean nothing to any of them. They had never seen white men before and probably knew nothing of metal money. Beads and brass wire were the only currency they knew. We tried to photograph them, but the shades in the forest were deep and the light too was bad for successful pictures.
Little by little we got their story.
There was warfare between the forest people and the savage Kara Mojas to the north. Neither side could ever tell when a band of the foe would swoop down upon them, killing the men, stealing the sheep and seizing the women. Only a few months before one of the Kara Mojas had come in and stolen some sheep and in return our Wanderobo friend had sallied forth, killed the Kara Moja, and captured his wife. It was the latter who was now the mother of the little baby, and she seemed quite reconciled to the change.
The Wanderobos' Home
When, the night before, the little family around the camp-fire heard the crashing of brushes and the hacking of underbrush and the shouts of our porters they thought a great force of the Kara Mojas was upon them. So they fled in terror. The baby cried, and, fearful that its wails would betray their hiding-place, they had cast it away in the bushes. Then they had fled into the depths of the forest and, huddled together in silent fear, waited in the hope that the Kara Mojas would leave. Finally they heard Kavirondo's shouts and then after hours of indecision they decided to come in.
That is the end of the story. The Wanderobo, grateful to us, led us by secret trails out of the wilderness, or as far as he dared to go. He led us to the edge of the enemy's country and then returned to his forest home.
In a couple of days of hard marching, one of which was through soaking torrents of rain, without food for ten hours, we reached the Nzoia River. Our mountain troubles were overs.
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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