Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, by Richard F. Burton

Chapter 10.

To the Mbíka (Hill); the Sources of the Gaboon. —— return to the Plateau.

Not yet despairing of a shot at or of capturing a “poor relation,” I persuaded Mr. Tippet to assemble the lieges and offer them double what was proposed at Mbátá. No one, however, appeared sanguine of success, the anthropoid keeps his distance from the Fán. A trip to the interior was suggested, first up the Mbokwe, and finally arranged for the Londo River. Information about the country was, as usual, vague; one man made the stream head two days off, the other a few hours, and Mr. Tippet’s mind fluctuated between fifty and one hundred miles.

The party was easily assembled, and we set out at 7 A.M. on April 14th. I and Selim had the dignity of a “dingy” to ourselves: Mr. Tippet out of a little harem of twenty-five had chosen two wives and sundry Abigails, his canoe, laden with some fifteen souls, was nearly flush with the water. The beauties were somewhat surly, they complained, like the sluggard, of too early waking and swore that they would do nothing in the way of work, industry being essentially servile Anne Coombe (Ankombe, daughter of Qua ben), was a short, stout, good humoured lass, “‘Lizer” (Eliza), I regret to say, would not make the least exertion, and, when called, always turned her back.

After dropping three miles down the Mbokwe River, we entered the Londo influent: some three miles further on it fines down from a width of eighty feet to a mere ditch, barred with trees, which stop navigation. We landed on the left bank and walked into the palaver-house of Fakanjok or Pakanjok, the village of a Fán head man, called by Mr. Tippet “John Matoko.” It was old, dirty and tattered, showing signs of approaching removal. Out of the crowd of men and women who nearly sat upon us, I had no difficulty in hiring eight porters, thereby increasing our party to twenty-five souls. These people carry on the shoulder, not as Africans always should do, on the head: they even cross the fallen trunks which act as rickety bridges, with one side of the body thus heavier than the other.

The bush-path began by wheeling westward, as though we were returning to Anenge-nenge; thence it struck south-eastwards, a rhumb from which it rarely deviated. Though we were approaching the sub-ranges of the Sierra del Crystal, the country was very like that about Mbátá; streamlets flowing to the Mbokwe, wet yellow soil forming slippery muds, unhealthy as unpleasant in the morning sunshine; old and new clearings and plantations, mostly of bananas, mere spots in the wide expanse of bush, and deserted or half-inhabited villages. Shortly after noon we came to a battle-field, where the heroes of Tippet-town had chanced to fall in with their foes of Autá, a settlement distant eight or nine miles. Both armies at once “tree’d” themselves behind trunks, and worked at long bowls, the “bushmen,” having only one gun and two charges, lost four of their men, and the victors, who had no time to carry off the slain, contented themselves with an arm or two by way of gigot.

Probably the memory of this affair, which is still to be settled, unfavourably impressed my escort. After a total of some two hours (six miles) we arrived at a large “Oláko” or breakwind, a half-face of leafy branches, and all insisted upon a long rest. I objected, and then “palaver came up.” We were at last frankly told that the villages ahead were hostile, that we could not proceed further in this direction, and that the people of Fakanjok had thought my only object was to sight from afar a golden prairie and a blue range beyond. The latter is known to the French as “Tem,” from a hillock crowned with a huge red-trunked tree of that name.

Opposition was useless, so we turned back some twenty minutes to a junction, and took the south-eastern instead of the eastern line. Here the country was higher and drier, more hilly and gravelly, the aneroid showing some 900 feet (29.11); it would be exceptionally healthy in any but the rainy season. Before the afternoon had well set in, a camping ground had been chosen in the tall, thin forest, near the confluence of two dwarf streams, whose vitreous waters, flowing over fine sand and quartz pebbles, were no small recommendation. As the cooking proceeded, frowning brows relaxed, and huge fires put to flight ill temper and the sandfly. I had proposed lashing my hammock to one of the tree-stumps, which are here some ten feet tall, the people, who swing themselves for the purpose of felling, declare the upper wood to be softer than below. “Public opinion,” however, overruled me, and made it fast to two old trunks. The night was a succession of violent tornadoes, and during one of the most outrageous the upper half of a “triste lignum,” falling alongside of and grazing my hammock, awoke me with its crash.

Next morning, when the rain had somewhat abated, I set out, by a path whose makers were probably the ape and the squirrel-hunter, in the direction of a rise, which the people called Mbika — The hill. After a total of some two miles and a half, we found a clearing upon the summit, but, although I climbed up a tree, the bush was dense enough to conceal most of the surroundings. According to the Fán, the Nkomo rises on the seaward or western face of this Mbíká, whilst the Mbokwe, springing from its eastern counterslope, runs south-west of the Massif and joins the former. The one-tree hill known as “Tem” appeared a little to the north of west: to the north-east we could see a river-fork, but none knew its name.

Our return was enlivened by the inspection of an elephant-kraal, where a herd had been trapped, drugged, and shot during the last season. As the walls were very flimsy, I asked why the animals did not break loose; the answer was that the Ngán (Mganga or Fetishman) ran a line of poison vine along its crest, and that the beasts, however wild, would not attempt to pass through it. The natives showed me the liana which they described, still lying on the poles of the broken corral. Mr. Preston, of the Gaboon Mission, who first noticed it, and Mr. Wilson, who gives an illustration of the scene (p. 363), declares that the creeper is drawn around the herd when browsing; that as long as the animals are unmolested they will not dash through the magic circle, and that the fence of uprights is constructed outside it. The same tale is told of all the wild elephant-hunters in the interior, the Báti the Okáná, the Yefá, and the Sensobá.

Arrived at Tippet-town, I gave my “dashes,” chiefly brass and copper rods, bade an affectionate farewell, and then dropped down stream without further ceremony. I had been disappointed a second time in re gorilla, and nothing now remained but a retreat, which time rendered necessary. The down-stream voyage was an easy matter, and it need hardly be said far less unpleasant than the painful toil up. From the Sanjika village on the Gaboon, the “Tem” hill was seen bearing due east (Mag.) and the Mbíká 92°. Behind them were glimpses of blue highland, rising in lumpy and detached masses to the east; these are evidently sub-ranges of the western Ghats, the Sierra del Crystal, which native travellers described to me as a serrated broken line of rocky and barren acicular mountains; tall, gravelly, waterless, and lying about three days’ journey beyond the screen of wooded hill. It is probably sheltered to some extent from the damp sea-breeze, and thus to the east there would be a “lee-land,” dry, healthy and elevated, which, corresponding with Ugogo on the Zanzibar–Tanganyika line, would account for the light complexions of the people. Early on the morning of Thursday, April 17th, the “Eliza” was lying off Mr. R. B. N. Walker’s factory, and I was again received with customary hospitality by Mr. Hogg.

These two short trips gave me a just measure of the comparative difficulties in travelling through Eastern and Western Africa, and to a certain extent accounted for the huge vacuum which disfigures the latter, a few miles behind the seaboard. The road to Unyamwezi, for instance, has been trodden for centuries; the people have become trained porters; they look forward annually to visiting the coast, and they are accustomed to the sight of strangers, Arabs and others. If war or blood-feud chance to close one line, the general interests of the interior open another. But in this section of Africa there is no way except from village to village, and a blood-feud may shut it for months. The people have not the habit of dealing with the foreigner, whom they look upon as a portent, a walking ghost, an ill-omened apparition. Porterage is in embryo, no scale of payment exists; and no dread of cutting off a communication profitable to both importer and exporter prevents the greedy barbarian plundering the stranger. Captain Speke and I were fortunate in being the first whites who seriously attempted the Lake Region; our only obstacles were the European merchants at Zanzibar; the murder of M. Maizan, although a bad example to the people, had been so punished as to render an immediate repetition of the outrage improbable. I say immediate, for, shortly after our return, the unfortunate Herr Roscher was killed at the Hisonguni village, near the Rufuma River, without apparent reason. 1

But M. du Chaillu had a very different task, and as far as he went he did it well. His second expedition, in which an accidental death raised the country against him, was fortunately undertaken by a man in the prime of youth and strength; otherwise he must have succumbed to a nine hours’ run, wounded withal. In East Africa when one of Lieutenant Cameron’s “pagazis” happened to kill a native, the white man was mulcted only in half his cloth.

On the other hand, I see no reason why these untrodden lines should be pronounced impossible, as a writer in the “Pall Mall” has lately done, deterring the explorer from work which every day would cover new ground. The Gaboon is by no means a bad point de départ, whence the resolute traveller, with perseverance (Anglicè time), a knowledge of the coast language, and good luck might penetrate into the heart (proper) of Africa, and abolish the white blot which still affronts us. His main difficulty would be the heavy outlay; “impecuniosity” to him would represent the scurvy and potted cat of the old Arctic voyager. But if he can afford to travel regardless of delays and expense, and to place depots of cloth, beads, and other “country-money” at every hundred miles, Mpongwe-land would be one of the gateways to the unknown regions of the Dark Continent. Moreover, every year we hear some new account of travellers coming from the East. Unfortunately men with £5,000 to £20,000 a year do not “plant the lance in Africa,” the old heroic days of the Spanish and Portuguese exploring hidalgos have yet to dawn anew. We must now look forward to subsidies from economical governments, and whilst the Germans and Italians, especially the former, are so liberally supported and adequately rewarded, Englishmen, as in the case of the gallant Lieutenant Cameron, run the risk of being repudiated, left penniless in the depths of Negro-land.

1 “Zanzibar City, Island, and Coast,” vol. ii. chap. ii.

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