Prester John, by John Buchan

CHAPTER IV

My Journey to the Winter–Veld

A reply came from Colles, addressed not to me but to Japp. It seemed that the old fellow had once suggested the establishment of a branch store at a place out in the plains called Umvelos’, and the firm was now prepared to take up the scheme. Japp was in high good humour, and showed me the letter. Not a word was said of what I had written about, only the bare details about starting the branch. I was to get a couple of masons, load up two wagons with bricks and timber, and go down to Umvelos’ and see the store built. The stocking of it and the appointment of a storekeeper would be matter for further correspondence. Japp was delighted, for, besides getting rid of me for several weeks, it showed that his advice was respected by his superiors. He went about bragging that the firm could not get on without him, and was inclined to be more insolent to me than usual in his new self-esteem. He also got royally drunk over the head of it.

I confess I was hurt by the manager’s silence on what seemed to me more vital matters. But I soon reflected that if he wrote at all he would write direct to me, and I eagerly watched for the post-runner. No letter came, however, and I was soon too busy with preparations to look for one. I got the bricks and timber from Pietersdorp, and hired two Dutch masons to run the job. The place was not very far from Sikitola’s kraal, so there would be no difficulty about native helpers. Having my eyes open for trade, I resolved to kill two birds with one stone. It was the fashion among the old-fashioned farmers on the high-veld to drive the cattle down into the bush-veld — which they call the winter-veld — for winter pasture. There is no fear of red-water about that season, and the grass of the plains is rich and thick compared with the uplands. I discovered that some big droves were passing on a certain day, and that the owners and their families were travelling with them in wagons. Accordingly I had a light naachtmaal fitted up as a sort of travelling store, and with my two wagons full of building material joined the caravan. I hoped to do good trade in selling little luxuries to the farmers on the road and at Umvelos’.

It was a clear cold morning when we started down the Berg. At first my hands were full with the job of getting my heavy wagons down the awesome precipice which did duty as a highway. We locked the wheels with chains, and tied great logs of wood behind to act as brakes. Happily my drivers knew their business, but one of the Boer wagons got a wheel over the edge, and it was all that ten men could do to get it back again.

After that the road was easier, winding down the side of a slowly opening glen. I rode beside the wagons, and so heavenly was the weather that I was content with my own thoughts. The sky was clear blue, the air warm, yet with a wintry tonic in it, and a thousand aromatic scents came out of the thickets. The pied birds called ‘Kaffir queens’ fluttered across the path. Below, the Klein Labongo churned and foamed in a hundred cascades. Its waters were no more the clear grey of the ‘Blue Wildebeeste’s Spring,’ but growing muddy with its approach to the richer soil of the plains.

Oxen travel slow, and we outspanned that night half a day’s march short of Umvelos’. I spent the hour before sunset lounging and smoking with the Dutch farmers. At first they had been silent and suspicious of a newcomer, but by this time I talked their taal fluently, and we were soon on good terms. I recall a discussion arising about a black thing in a tree about five hundred yards away. I thought it was an aasvogel, but another thought it was a baboon. Whereupon the oldest of the party, a farmer called Coetzee, whipped up his rifle and, apparently without sighting, fired. A dark object fell out of the branch, and when we reached it we found it a baviaan1 sure enough, shot through the head. ‘Which side are you on in the next war?’ the old man asked me, and, laughing, I told him ‘Yours.’

1 Baboon.

After supper, the ingredients of which came largely from my naachtmaal, we sat smoking and talking round the fire, the women and children being snug in the covered wagons. The Boers were honest companionable fellows, and when I had made a bowl of toddy in the Scotch fashion to keep out the evening chill, we all became excellent friends. They asked me how I got on with Japp. Old Coetzee saved me the trouble of answering, for he broke in with Skellum! Skellum!2 I asked him his objection to the storekeeper, but he would say nothing beyond that he was too thick with the natives. I fancy at some time Mr Japp had sold him a bad plough.

2 Schelm: Rascal.

We spoke of hunting, and I heard long tales of exploits — away on the Limpopo, in Mashonaland, on the Sabi and in the Lebombo. Then we verged on politics, and I listened to violent denunciations of the new land tax. These were old residenters, I reflected, and I might learn perhaps something of value. So very carefully I repeated a tale I said I had heard at Durban of a great wizard somewhere in the Berg, and asked if any one knew of it. They shook their heads. The natives had given up witchcraft and big medicine, they said, and were more afraid of a parson or a policeman than any witch-doctor. Then they were starting on reminiscences, when old Coetzee, who was deaf, broke in and asked to have my question repeated.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I know. It is in the Rooirand. There is a devil dwells there.’

I could get no more out of him beyond the fact that there was certainly a great devil there. His grandfather and father had seen it, and he himself had heard it roaring when he had gone there as a boy to hunt. He would explain no further, and went to bed.

Next morning, close to Sikitola’s kraal, I bade the farmers good-bye, after telling them that there would be a store in my wagon for three weeks at Umvelos’ if they wanted supplies. We then struck more to the north towards our destination. As soon as they had gone I had out my map and searched it for the name old Coetzee had mentioned. It was a very bad map, for there had been no surveying east of the Berg, and most of the names were mere guesses. But I found the word ‘Rooirand’ marking an eastern continuation of the northern wall, and probably set down from some hunter’s report. I had better explain here the chief features of the country, for they bulk largely in my story. The Berg runs north and south, and from it run the chief streams which water the plain. They are, beginning from the south, the Olifants, the Groot Letaba, the Letsitela, the Klein Letaba, and the Klein Labongo, on which stands Blaauwildebeestefontein. But the greatest river of the plain, into which the others ultimately flow, is the Groot Labongo, which appears full-born from some subterranean source close to the place called Umvelos’. North from Blaauwildebeestefontein the Berg runs for some twenty miles, and then makes a sharp turn eastward, becoming, according to my map, the Rooirand.

I pored over these details, and was particularly curious about the Great Labongo. It seemed to me unlikely that a spring in the bush could produce so great a river, and I decided that its source must lie in the mountains to the north. As well as I could guess, the Rooirand, the nearest part of the Berg, was about thirty miles distant. Old Coetzee had said that there was a devil in the place, but I thought that if it were explored the first thing found would be a fine stream of water.

We got to Umvelos’ after midday, and outspanned for our three weeks’ work. I set the Dutchmen to unload and clear the ground for foundations, while I went off to Sikitola to ask for labourers. I got a dozen lusty blacks, and soon we had a business-like encampment, and the work went on merrily. It was rough architecture and rougher masonry. All we aimed at was a two-roomed shop with a kind of outhouse for stores. I was architect, and watched the marking out of the foundations and the first few feet of the walls. Sikitola’s people proved themselves good helpers, and most of the building was left to them, while the Dutchmen worked at the carpentry. Bricks ran short before we got very far, and we had to set to brick-making on the bank of the Labongo, and finish off the walls with green bricks, which gave the place a queer piebald look.

I was not much of a carpenter, and there were plenty of builders without me, so I found a considerable amount of time on my hands. At first I acted as shopkeeper in the naachtmaal, but I soon cleared out my stores to the Dutch farmers and the natives. I had thought of going back for more, and then it occurred to me that I might profitably give some of my leisure to the Rooirand. I could see the wall of the mountains quite clear to the north, within an easy day’s ride. So one morning I packed enough food for a day or two, tied my sleeping-bag on my saddle, and set off to explore, after appointing the elder of the Dutchmen foreman of the job in my absence.

It was very hot jogging along the native path with the eternal olive-green bush around me. Happily there was no fear of losing the way, for the Rooirand stood very clear in front, and slowly, as I advanced, I began to make out the details of the cliffs. At luncheon-time, when I was about half-way, I sat down with my Zeiss glass — my mother’s farewell gift — to look for the valley. But valley I saw none. The wall — reddish purple it looked, and, I thought, of porphyry — was continuous and unbroken. There were chimneys and fissures, but none great enough to hold a river. The top was sheer cliff; then came loose kranzes in tiers, like the seats in a gallery, and, below, a dense thicket of trees. I raked the whole line for a break, but there seemed none. ‘It’s a bad job for me,’ I thought, ‘if there is no water, for I must pass the night there.’ The night was spent in a sheltered nook at the foot of the rocks, but my horse and I went to bed without a drink. My supper was some raisins and biscuits, for I did not dare to run the risk of increasing my thirst. I had found a great bank of debris sloping up to the kranzes, and thick wood clothing all the slope. The grass seemed wonderfully fresh, but of water there was no sign. There was not even the sandy channel of a stream to dig in.

In the morning I had a difficult problem to face. Water I must find at all costs, or I must go home. There was time enough for me to get back without suffering much, but if so I must give up my explorations. This I was determined not to do. The more I looked at these red cliffs the more eager I was to find out their secret. There must be water somewhere; otherwise how account for the lushness of the vegetation?

My horse was a veld pony, so I set him loose to see what he would do. He strayed back on the path to Umvelos’. This looked bad, for it meant that he did not smell water along the cliff front. If I was to find a stream it must be on the top, and I must try a little mountaineering.

Then, taking my courage in both my hands, I decided. I gave my pony a cut, and set him off on the homeward road. I knew he was safe to get back in four or five hours, and in broad day there was little fear of wild beasts attacking him. I had tied my sleeping bag on to the saddle, and had with me but two pocketfuls of food. I had also fastened on the saddle a letter to my Dutch foreman, bidding him send a native with a spare horse to fetch me by the evening. Then I started off to look for a chimney.

A boyhood spent on the cliffs at Kirkcaple had made me a bold cragsman, and the porphyry of the Rooirand clearly gave excellent holds. But I walked many weary miles along the cliff-foot before I found a feasible road. To begin with, it was no light task to fight one’s way through the dense undergrowth of the lower slopes. Every kind of thorn-bush lay in wait for my skin, creepers tripped me up, high trees shut out the light, and I was in constant fear lest a black mamba might appear out of the tangle. It grew very hot, and the screes above the thicket were blistering to the touch. My tongue, too, stuck to the roof of my mouth with thirst.

The first chimney I tried ran out on the face into nothingness, and I had to make a dangerous descent. The second was a deep gully, but so choked with rubble that after nearly braining myself I desisted. Still going eastwards, I found a sloping ledge which took me to a platform from which ran a crack with a little tree growing in it. My glass showed me that beyond this tree the crack broadened into a clearly defined chimney which led to the top. If I can once reach that tree, I thought, the battle is won. The crack was only a few inches wide, large enough to let in an arm and a foot, and it ran slantwise up a perpendicular rock. I do not think I realized how bad it was till I had gone too far to return. Then my foot jammed, and I paused for breath with my legs and arms cramping rapidly. I remember that I looked to the west, and saw through the sweat which kept dropping into my eyes that about half a mile off a piece of cliff which looked unbroken from the foot had a fold in it to the right. The darkness of the fold showed me that it was a deep, narrow gully. However, I had no time to think of this, for I was fast in the middle of my confounded crack. With immense labour I found a chockstone above my head, and managed to force my foot free. The next few yards were not so difficult, and then I stuck once more.

For the crack suddenly grew shallow as the cliff bulged out above me. I had almost given up hope, when I saw that about three feet above my head grew the tree. If I could reach it and swing out I might hope to pull myself up to the ledge on which it grew. I confess it needed all my courage, for I did not know but that the tree might be loose, and that it and I might go rattling down four hundred feet. It was my only hope, however, so I set my teeth, and wriggling up a few inches, made a grab at it. Thank God it held, and with a great effort I pulled my shoulder over the ledge, and breathed freely.

My difficulties were not ended, but the worst was past. The rest of the gully gave me good and safe climbing, and presently a very limp and weary figure lay on the cliff-top. It took me many minutes to get back my breath and to conquer the faintness which seized me as soon as the need for exertion was over.

When I scrambled to my feet and looked round, I saw a wonderful prospect. It was a plateau like the high-veld, only covered with bracken and little bushes like hazels. Three or four miles off the ground rose, and a shallow vale opened. But in the foreground, half a mile or so distant, a lake lay gleaming in the sun.

I could scarcely believe my eyes as I ran towards it, and doubts of a mirage haunted me. But it was no mirage, but a real lake, perhaps three miles in circumference, with bracken-fringed banks, a shore of white pebbles, and clear deep blue water. I drank my fill, and then stripped and swam in the blessed coolness. After that I ate some luncheon, and sunned myself on a flat rock. ‘I have discovered the source of the Labongo,’ I said to myself. ‘I will write to the Royal Geographical Society, and they will give me a medal.’

I walked round the lake to look for an outlet. A fine mountain stream came in at the north end, and at the south end, sure enough, a considerable river debauched. My exploring zeal redoubled, and I followed its course in a delirium of expectation. It was a noble stream, clear as crystal, and very unlike the muddy tropical Labongo at Umvelos’. Suddenly, about a quarter of a mile from the lake, the land seemed to grow over it, and with a swirl and a hollow roar, it disappeared into a mighty pot-hole. I walked a few steps on, and from below my feet came the most uncanny rumbling and groaning. Then I knew what old Coetzee’s devil was that howled in the Rooirand.

Had I continued my walk to the edge of the cliff, I might have learned a secret which would have stood me in good stead later. But the descent began to make me anxious, and I retraced my steps to the top of the chimney whence I had come. I was resolved that nothing would make me descend by that awesome crack, so I kept on eastward along the top to look for a better way. I found one about a mile farther on, which, though far from easy, had no special risks save from the appalling looseness of the debris. When I got down at length, I found that it was near sunset. I went to the place I had bidden my native look for me at, but, as I had feared, there was no sign of him. So, making the best of a bad job, I had supper and a pipe, and spent a very chilly night in a hole among the boulders.

I got up at dawn stiff and cold, and ate a few raisins for breakfast. There was no sign of horses, so I resolved to fill up the time in looking for the fold of the cliff which, as I had seen from the horrible crack of yesterday, contained a gully. It was a difficult job, for to get the sidelong view of the cliff I had to scramble through the undergrowth of the slopes again, and even a certain way up the kranzes. At length I got my bearings, and fixed the place by some tall trees in the bush. Then I descended and walked westwards.

Suddenly, as I neared the place, I heard the strangest sound coming from the rocks. It was a deep muffled groaning, so eerie and unearthly that for the moment I stood and shivered. Then I remembered my river of yesterday. It must be above this place that it descended into the earth, and in the hush of dawn the sound was naturally louder. No wonder old Coetzee had been afraid of devils. It reminded me of the lines in Marmion —

‘Diving as if condemned to lave

Some demon’s subterranean cave,

Who, prisoned by enchanter’s spell,

Shakes the dark rock with groan and yell.’

While I was standing awestruck at the sound, I observed a figure moving towards the cliffs. I was well in cover, so I could not have been noticed. It was a very old man, very tall, but bowed in the shoulders, who was walking slowly with bent head. He could not have been thirty yards from me, so I had a clear view of his face. He was a native, but of a type I had never seen before. A long white beard fell on his breast, and a magnificent kaross of leopard skin covered his shoulders. His face was seamed and lined and shrunken, so that he seemed as old as Time itself.

Very carefully I crept after him, and found myself opposite the fold where the gully was. There was a clear path through the jungle, a path worn smooth by many feet. I followed it through the undergrowth and over the screes till it turned inside the fold of the gully. And then it stopped short. I was in a deep cleft, but in front was a slab of sheer rock. Above, the gully looked darker and deeper, but there was this great slab to pass. I examined the sides, but they were sheer rock with no openings.

Had I had my wits about me, I would have gone back and followed the spoor, noting where it stopped. But the whole thing looked black magic to me; my stomach was empty and my enterprise small. Besides, there was the terrible moaning of the imprisoned river in my ears. I am ashamed to confess it, but I ran from that gully as if the devil and all his angels had been following me. Indeed, I did not slacken till I had put a good mile between me and those uncanny cliffs. After that I set out to foot it back. If the horses would not come to me I must go to them.

I walked twenty-five miles in a vile temper, enraged at my Dutchmen, my natives, and everybody. The truth is, I had been frightened, and my pride was sore about it. It grew very hot, the sand rose and choked me, the mopani trees with their dull green wearied me, the ‘Kaffir queens’ and jays and rollers which flew about the path seemed to be there to mock me. About half-way home I found a boy and two horses, and roundly I cursed him. It seemed that my pony had returned right enough, and the boy had been sent to fetch me. He had got half-way before sunset the night before, and there he had stayed. I discovered from him that he was scared to death, and did not dare go any nearer the Rooirand. It was accursed, he said, for it was an abode of devils, and only wizards went near it. I was bound to admit to myself that I could not blame him. At last I had got on the track of something certain about this mysterious country, and all the way back I wondered if I should have the courage to follow it up.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32