Departure from Kolobeng, 1st June, 1849 — Companions — Our Route — Abundance of Grass — Serotli, a Fountain in the Desert — Mode of digging Wells — The Eland — Animals of the Desert — The Hyaena — The Chief Sekomi — Dangers — The wandering Guide — Cross Purposes — Slow Progress — Want of Water — Capture of a Bushwoman — The Salt-pan at Nchokotsa — The Mirage — Reach the River Zouga — The Quakers of Africa — Discovery of Lake Ngami, 1st August, 1849 — Its Extent — Small Depth of Water — Position as the Reservoir of a great River System — The Bamangwato and their Chief — Desire to visit Sebituane, the Chief of the Makololo — Refusal of Lechulatebe to furnish us with Guides — Resolve to return to the Cape — The Banks of the Zouga — Pitfalls — Trees of the District — Elephants — New Species of Antelope — Fish in the Zouga.
Such was the desert which we were now preparing to cross — a region formerly of terror to the Bechuanas from the numbers of serpents which infested it and fed on the different kinds of mice, and from the intense thirst which these people often endured when their water-vessels were insufficient for the distances to be traveled over before reaching the wells.
Just before the arrival of my companions, a party of the people of the lake came to Kolobeng, stating that they were sent by Lechulatebe, the chief, to ask me to visit that country. They brought such flaming accounts of the quantities of ivory to be found there (cattle-pens made of elephants’ tusks of enormous size, &c.), that the guides of the Bakwains were quite as eager to succeed in reaching the lake as any one of us could desire. This was fortunate, as we knew the way the strangers had come was impassable for wagons.
Messrs. Oswell and Murray came at the end of May, and we all made a fair start for the unknown region on the 1st of June, 1849. Proceeding northward, and passing through a range of tree-covered hills to Shokuane, formerly the residence of the Bakwains, we soon after entered on the high road to the Bamangwato, which lies generally in the bed of an ancient river or wady that must formerly have flowed N. to S. The adjacent country is perfectly flat, but covered with open forest and bush, with abundance of grass; the trees generally are a kind of acacia called “Monato”, which appears a little to the south of this region, and is common as far as Angola. A large caterpillar, called “Nato”, feeds by night on the leaves of these trees, and comes down by day to bury itself at the root in the sand, in order to escape the piercing rays of the sun. The people dig for it there, and are fond of it when roasted, on account of its pleasant vegetable taste. When about to pass into the chrysalis state, it buries itself in the soil, and is sometimes sought for as food even then. If left undisturbed, it comes forth as a beautiful butterfly: the transmutation was sometimes employed by me with good effect when speaking with the natives, as an illustration of our own great change and resurrection.
The soil is sandy, and there are here and there indications that at spots which now afford no water whatever there were formerly wells and cattle stations.
Boatlanama, our next station, is a lovely spot in the otherwise dry region. The wells from which we had to lift out the water for our cattle are deep, but they were well filled. A few villages of Bakalahari were found near them, and great numbers of pallahs, springbucks, Guinea-fowl, and small monkeys.
Lopepe came next. This place afforded another proof of the desiccation of the country. The first time I passed it, Lopepe was a large pool with a stream flowing out of it to the south; now it was with difficulty we could get our cattle watered by digging down in the bottom of a well.
At Mashue — where we found a never-failing supply of pure water in a sandstone rocky hollow — we left the road to the Bamangwato hills, and struck away to the north into the Desert. Having watered the cattle at a well called Lobotani, about N.W. of Bamangwato, we next proceeded to a real Kalahari fountain, called Serotli. The country around is covered with bushes and trees of a kind of leguminosae, with lilac flowers. The soil is soft white sand, very trying to the strength of the oxen, as the wheels sink into it over the felloes and drag heavily. At Serotli we found only a few hollows like those made by the buffalo and rhinoceros when they roll themselves in the mud. In a corner of one of these there appeared water, which would have been quickly lapped up by our dogs, had we not driven them away. And yet this was all the apparent supply for some eighty oxen, twenty horses, and about a score of men. Our guide, Ramotobi, who had spent his youth in the Desert, declared that, though appearances were against us, there was plenty of water at hand. We had our misgivings, for the spades were soon produced; but our guides, despising such new-fangled aid, began in good earnest to scrape out the sand with their hands. The only water we had any promise of for the next seventy miles — that is, for a journey of three days with the wagons — was to be got here. By the aid of both spades and fingers two of the holes were cleared out, so as to form pits six feet deep and about as many broad. Our guides were especially earnest in their injunctions to us not to break through the hard stratum of sand at the bottom, because they knew, if it were broken through, “the water would go away.” They are quite correct, for the water seems to lie on this flooring of incipient sandstone. The value of the advice was proved in the case of an Englishman whose wits were none of the brightest, who, disregarding it, dug through the sandy stratum in the wells at Mohotluani: the water immediately flowed away downward, and the well became useless. When we came to the stratum, we found that the water flowed in on all sides close to the line where the soft sand came in contact with it. Allowing it to collect, we had enough for the horses that evening; but as there was not sufficient for the oxen, we sent them back to Lobotani, where, after thirsting four full days (ninety-six hours), they got a good supply. The horses were kept by us as necessary to procure game for the sustenance of our numerous party. Next morning we found the water had flowed in faster than at first, as it invariably does in these reservoirs, owing to the passages widening by the flow. Large quantities of the sand come into the well with the water, and in the course of a few days the supply, which may be equal to the wants of a few men only, becomes sufficient for oxen as well. In these sucking-places the Bakalahari get their supplies; and as they are generally in the hollows of ancient river-beds, they are probably the deposits from rains gravitating thither; in some cases they may be the actual fountains, which, though formerly supplying the river’s flow, now no longer rise to the surface.
Here, though the water was perfectly inaccessible to elands, large numbers of these fine animals fed around us; and, when killed, they were not only in good condition, but their stomachs actually contained considerable quantities of water.
I examined carefully the whole alimentary canal, in order to see if there were any peculiarity which might account for the fact that this animal can subsist for months together without drinking, but found nothing. Other animals, such as the duiker (‘Cephalopus mergens’) or puti (of the Bechuanas), the steinbuck (‘Tragulus rupestris’) or puruhuru, the gemsbuck (‘Oryx capensis’) or kukama, and the porcupine (‘Hystrix cristata’), are all able to subsist without water for many months at a time by living on bulbs and tubers containing moisture. They have sharp-pointed hoofs well adapted for digging, and there is little difficulty in comprehending their mode of subsistence. Some animals, on the other hand, are never seen but in the vicinity of water. The presence of the rhinoceros, of the buffalo and gnu (‘Catoblepas gnu’), of the giraffe, the zebra, and pallah (‘Antilope melampus’), is always a certain indication of water being within a distance of seven or eight miles; but one may see hundreds of elands (‘Boselaphus oreas’), gemsbuck, the tolo or koodoo (‘Strepsiceros capensis’), also springbucks (‘Gazella euchore’) and ostriches, without being warranted thereby in inferring the presence of water within thirty or forty miles. Indeed, the sleek, fat condition of the eland in such circumstances would not remove the apprehension of perishing by thirst from the mind of even a native. I believe, however, that these animals can subsist only where there is some moisture in the vegetation on which they feed; for in one year of unusual drought we saw herds of elands and flocks of ostriches crowding to the Zouga from the Desert, and very many of the latter were killed in pitfalls on the banks. As long as there is any sap in the pasturage they seldom need water. But should a traveler see the “spoor” of a rhinoceros, or buffalo, or zebra, he would at once follow it up, well assured that before he had gone many miles he would certainly reach water.
In the evening of our second day at Serotli, a hyaena, appearing suddenly among the grass, succeeded in raising a panic among our cattle. This false mode of attack is the plan which this cowardly animal always adopts. His courage resembles closely that of a turkey-cock. He will bite, if an animal is running away; but if the animal stand still, so does he. Seventeen of our draught oxen ran away, and in their flight went right into the hands of Sekomi, whom, from his being unfriendly to our success, we had no particular wish to see. Cattle-stealing, such as in the circumstances might have occurred in Caffraria, is here unknown; so Sekomi sent back our oxen, and a message strongly dissuading us against attempting the Desert. “Where are you going? You will be killed by the sun and thirst, and then all the white men will blame me for not saving you.” This was backed by a private message from his mother. “Why do you pass me? I always made the people collect to hear the word that you have got. What guilt have I, that you pass without looking at me?” We replied by assuring the messengers that the white men would attribute our deaths to our own stupidity and “hard-headedness” (tlogo, e thata), “as we did not intend to allow our companions and guides to return till they had put us into our graves.” We sent a handsome present to Sekomi, and a promise that, if he allowed the Bakalahari to keep the wells open for us, we would repeat the gift on our return.
After exhausting all his eloquence in fruitless attempts to persuade us to return, the under-chief, who headed the party of Sekomi’s messengers, inquired, “Who is taking them?” Looking round, he exclaimed, with a face expressive of the most unfeigned disgust, “It is Ramotobi!” Our guide belonged to Sekomi’s tribe, but had fled to Sechele; as fugitives in this country are always well received, and may even afterward visit the tribe from which they had escaped, Ramotobi was in no danger, though doing that which he knew to be directly opposed to the interests of his own chief and tribe.
All around Serotli the country is perfectly flat, and composed of soft white sand. There is a peculiar glare of bright sunlight from a cloudless sky over the whole scene; and one clump of trees and bushes, with open spaces between, looks so exactly like another, that if you leave the wells, and walk a quarter of a mile in any direction, it is difficult to return. Oswell and Murray went out on one occasion to get an eland, and were accompanied by one of the Bakalahari. The perfect sameness of the country caused even this son of the Desert to lose his way; a most puzzling conversation forthwith ensued between them and their guide. One of the most common phrases of the people is “Kia itumela”, I thank you, or I am pleased; and the gentlemen were both quite familiar with it, and with the word “metse”, water. But there is a word very similar in sound, “Kia timela”, I am wandering; its perfect is “Ki timetse”, I have wandered. The party had been roaming about, perfectly lost, till the sun went down; and, through their mistaking the verb “wander” for “to be pleased”, and “water”, the colloquy went on at intervals during the whole bitterly cold night in somewhat the following style:
“Where are the wagons?”
REAL ANSWER. “I don’t know. I have wandered. I never wandered before. I am quite lost.”
SUPPOSED ANSWER. “I don’t know. I want water. I am glad, I am quite pleased. I am thankful to you.”
“Take us to the wagons, and you will get plenty of water.”
REAL ANSWER (looking vacantly around). “How did I wander? Perhaps the well is there, perhaps not. I don’t know. I have wandered.”
SUPPOSED ANSWER. “Something about thanks; he says he is pleased, and mentions water again.” The guide’s vacant stare while trying to remember is thought to indicate mental imbecility, and the repeated thanks were supposed to indicate a wish to deprecate their wrath.
“Well, Livingstone HAS played us a pretty trick, giving us in charge of an idiot. Catch us trusting him again. What can this fellow mean by his thanks and talk about water? Oh, you born fool! take us to the wagons, and you will get both meat and water. Wouldn’t a thrashing bring him to his senses again?” “No, no, for then he will run away, and we shall be worse off than we are now.”
The hunters regained the wagons next day by their own sagacity, which becomes wonderfully quickened by a sojourn in the Desert; and we enjoyed a hearty laugh on the explanation of their midnight colloquies. Frequent mistakes of this kind occur. A man may tell his interpreter to say that he is a member of the family of the chief of the white men; “YES, YOU SPEAK LIKE A CHIEF,” is the reply, meaning, as they explain it, that a chief may talk nonsense without any one daring to contradict him. They probably have ascertained, from that same interpreter, that this relative of the white chief is very poor, having scarcely any thing in his wagon.
I sometimes felt annoyed at the low estimation in which some of my hunting friends were held; for, believing that the chase is eminently conducive to the formation of a brave and noble character, and that the contest with wild beasts is well adapted for fostering that coolness in emergencies, and active presence of mind, which we all admire, I was naturally anxious that a higher estimate of my countrymen should be formed in the native mind. “Have these hunters, who come so far and work so hard, no meat at home?” — “Why, these men are rich, and could slaughter oxen every day of their lives.” — “And yet they come here, and endure so much thirst for the sake of this dry meat, none of which is equal to beef?” — “Yes, it is for the sake of play besides” (the idea of sport not being in the language). This produces a laugh, as much as to say, “Ah! you know better;” or, “Your friends are fools.” When they can get a man to kill large quantities of game for them, whatever HE may think of himself or of his achievements, THEY pride themselves in having adroitly turned to good account the folly of an itinerant butcher.
The water having at last flowed into the wells we had dug in sufficient quantity to allow a good drink to all our cattle, we departed from Serotli in the afternoon; but as the sun, even in winter, which it now was, is always very powerful by day, the wagons were dragged but slowly through the deep, heavy sand, and we advanced only six miles before sunset. We could only travel in the mornings and evenings, as a single day in the hot sun and heavy sand would have knocked up the oxen. Next day we passed Pepacheu (white tufa), a hollow lined with tufa, in which water sometimes stands, but it was now dry; and at night our trocheamer10 showed that we had made but twenty-five miles from Serotli.
10 This is an instrument which, when fastened on the wagon-wheel, records the number of revolutions made. By multiplying this number by the circumference of the wheel, the actual distance traveled over is at once ascertained.
Ramotobi was angry at the slowness of our progress, and told us that, as the next water was three days in front, if we traveled so slowly we should never get there at all. The utmost endeavors of the servants, cracking their whips, screaming and beating, got only nineteen miles out of the poor beasts. We had thus proceeded forty-four miles from Serotli; and the oxen were more exhausted by the soft nature of the country, and the thirst, than if they had traveled double the distance over a hard road containing supplies of water: we had, as far as we could judge, still thirty miles more of the same dry work before us. At this season the grass becomes so dry as to crumble to powder in the hands; so the poor beasts stood wearily chewing, without taking a single fresh mouthful, and lowing painfully at the smell of water in our vessels in the wagons. We were all determined to succeed; so we endeavored to save the horses by sending them forward with the guide, as a means of making a desperate effort in case the oxen should fail. Murray went forward with them, while Oswell and I remained to bring the wagons on their trail as far as the cattle could drag them, intending then to send the oxen forward too.
The horses walked quickly away from us; but, on the morning of the third day, when we imagined the steeds must be near the water, we discovered them just alongside the wagons. The guide, having come across the fresh footprints of some Bushmen who had gone in an opposite direction to that which we wished to go, turned aside to follow them. An antelope had been ensnared in one of the Bushmen’s pitfalls. Murray followed Ramotobi most trustingly along the Bushmen’s spoor, though that led them away from the water we were in search of; witnessed the operation of slaughtering, skinning, and cutting up the antelope; and then, after a hard day’s toil, found himself close upon the wagons! The knowledge still retained by Ramotobi of the trackless waste of scrub, through which we were now passing, seemed admirable. For sixty or seventy miles beyond Serotli, one clump of bushes and trees seemed exactly like another; but, as we walked together this morning, he remarked, “When we come to that hollow we shall light upon the highway of Sekomi; and beyond that again lies the River Mokoko;” which, though we passed along it, I could not perceive to be a river-bed at all.
After breakfast, some of the men, who had gone forward on a little path with some footprints of water-loving animals upon it, returned with the joyful tidings of “metse”, water, exhibiting the mud on their knees in confirmation of the news being true. It does one’s heart good to see the thirsty oxen rush into a pool of delicious rain-water, as this was. In they dash until the water is deep enough to be nearly level with their throat, and then they stand drawing slowly in the long, refreshing mouthfuls, until their formerly collapsed sides distend as if they would burst. So much do they imbibe, that a sudden jerk, when they come out on the bank, makes some of the water run out again from their mouths; but, as they have been days without food too, they very soon commence to graze, and of grass there is always abundance every where. This pool was called Mathuluani; and thankful we were to have obtained so welcome a supply of water.
After giving the cattle a rest at this spot, we proceeded down the dry bed of the River Mokoko. The name refers to the water-bearing stratum before alluded to; and in this ancient bed it bears enough of water to admit of permanent wells in several parts of it. We had now the assurance from Ramotobi that we should suffer no more from thirst. Twice we found rain-water in the Mokoko before we reached Mokokonyani, where the water, generally below ground elsewhere, comes to the surface in a bed of tufa. The adjacent country is all covered with low, thorny scrub, with grass, and here and there clumps of the “wait-a-bit thorn”, or ‘Acacia detinens’. At Lotlakani (a little reed), another spring three miles farther down, we met with the first Palmyra trees which we had seen in South Africa; they were twenty-six in number.
The ancient Mokoko must have been joined by other rivers below this, for it becomes very broad, and spreads out into a large lake, of which the lake we were now in search of formed but a very small part. We observed that, wherever an ant-eater had made his hole, shells were thrown out with the earth, identical with those now alive in the lake.
When we left the Mokoko, Ramotobi seemed, for the first time, to be at a loss as to which direction to take. He had passed only once away to the west of the Mokoko, the scenes of his boyhood. Mr. Oswell, while riding in front of the wagons, happened to spy a Bushwoman running away in a bent position, in order to escape observation. Thinking it to be a lion, he galloped up to her. She thought herself captured, and began to deliver up her poor little property, consisting of a few traps made of cords; but, when I explained that we only wanted water, and would pay her if she led us to it, she consented to conduct us to a spring. It was then late in the afternoon, but she walked briskly before our horses for eight miles, and showed us the water of Nchokotsa. After leading us to the water, she wished to go away home, if indeed she had any — she had fled from a party of her countrymen, and was now living far from all others with her husband — but as it was now dark, we wished her to remain. As she believed herself still a captive, we thought she might slip away by night; so, in order that she should not go away with the impression that we were dishonest, we gave her a piece of meat and a good large bunch of beads; at the sight of the latter she burst into a merry laugh, and remained without suspicion.
At Nchokotsa we came upon the first of a great number of salt-pans, covered with an efflorescence of lime, probably the nitrate. A thick belt of mopane-trees (a ‘Bauhinia’) hides this salt-pan, which is twenty miles in circumference, entirely from the view of a person coming from the southeast; and, at the time the pan burst upon our view, the setting sun was casting a beautiful blue haze over the white incrustations, making the whole look exactly like a lake. Oswell threw his hat up in the air at the sight, and shouted out a huzza which made the poor Bushwoman and the Bakwains think him mad. I was a little behind him, and was as completely deceived by it as he; but, as we had agreed to allow each other to behold the lake at the same instant, I felt a little chagrined that he had, unintentionally, got the first glance. We had no idea that the long-looked-for lake was still more than three hundred miles distant. One reason of our mistake was, that the River Zouga was often spoken of by the same name as the lake, viz., Noka ea Batletli (“River of the Batletli”).
The mirage on these salinas was marvelous. It is never, I believe, seen in perfection, except over such saline incrustations. Here not a particle of imagination was necessary for realizing the exact picture of large collections of water; the waves danced along above, and the shadows of the trees were vividly reflected beneath the surface in such an admirable manner, that the loose cattle, whose thirst had not been slaked sufficiently by the very brackish water of Nchokotsa, with the horses, dogs, and even the Hottentots ran off toward the deceitful pools. A herd of zebras in the mirage looked so exactly like elephants that Oswell began to saddle a horse in order to hunt them; but a sort of break in the haze dispelled the illusion. Looking to the west and northwest from Nchokotsa, we could see columns of black smoke, exactly like those from a steam-engine, rising to the clouds, and were assured that these arose from the burning reeds of the Noka ea Batletli.
On the 4th of July we went forward on horseback toward what we supposed to be the lake, and again and again did we seem to see it; but at last we came to the veritable water of the Zouga, and found it to be a river running to the N.E. A village of Bakurutse lay on the opposite bank; these live among Batletli, a tribe having a click in their language, and who were found by Sebituane to possess large herds of the great horned cattle. They seem allied to the Hottentot family. Mr. Oswell, in trying to cross the river, got his horse bogged in the swampy bank. Two Bakwains and I managed to get over by wading beside a fishing-weir. The people were friendly, and informed us that this water came out of the Ngami. This news gladdened all our hearts, for we now felt certain of reaching our goal. We might, they said, be a moon on the way; but we had the River Zouga at our feet, and by following it we should at last reach the broad water.
Next day, when we were quite disposed to be friendly with every one, two of the Bamangwato, who had been sent on before us by Sekomi to drive away all the Bushmen and Bakalahari from our path, so that they should not assist or guide us, came and sat down by our fire. We had seen their footsteps fresh in the way, and they had watched our slow movements forward, and wondered to see how we, without any Bushmen, found our way to the waters. This was the first time they had seen Ramotobi. “You have reached the river now,” said they; and we, quite disposed to laugh at having won the game, felt no ill-will to any one. They seemed to feel no enmity to us either; but, after an apparently friendly conversation, proceeded to fulfill to the last the instructions of their chief. Ascending the Zouga in our front, they circulated the report that our object was to plunder all the tribes living on the river and lake; but when they had got half way up the river, the principal man sickened of fever, turned back some distance, and died. His death had a good effect, for the villagers connected it with the injury he was attempting to do to us. They all saw through Sekomi’s reasons for wishing us to fail in our attempt; and though they came to us at first armed, kind and fair treatment soon produced perfect confidence.
When we had gone up the bank of this beautiful river about ninety-six miles from the point where we first struck it, and understood that we were still a considerable distance from the Ngami, we left all the oxen and wagons, except Mr. Oswell’s, which was the smallest, and one team, at Ngabisane, in the hope that they would be recruited for the home journey, while we made a push for the lake. The Bechuana chief of the Lake region, who had sent men to Sechele, now sent orders to all the people on the river to assist us, and we were received by the Bakoba, whose language clearly shows that they bear an affinity to the tribes in the north. They call themselves Bayeiye, i.e., men; but the Bechuanas call them Bakoba, which contains somewhat of the idea of slaves. They have never been known to fight, and, indeed, have a tradition that their forefathers, in their first essays at war, made their bows of the Palma Christi, and, when these broke, they gave up fighting altogether. They have invariably submitted to the rule of every horde which has overrun the countries adjacent to the rivers on which they specially love to dwell. They are thus the Quakers of the body politic in Africa.
A long time after the period of our visit, the chief of the Lake, thinking to make soldiers of them, took the trouble to furnish them with shields. “Ah! we never had these before; that is the reason we have always succumbed. Now we will fight.” But a marauding party came from the Makololo, and our “Friends” at once paddled quickly, night and day, down the Zouga, never daring to look behind them till they reached the end of the river, at the point where we first saw it.
The canoes of these inland sailors are truly primitive craft: they are hollowed out of the trunks of single trees by means of iron adzes; and if the tree has a bend, so has the canoe. I liked the frank and manly bearing of these men, and, instead of sitting in the wagon, preferred a seat in one of the canoes. I found they regarded their rude vessels as the Arab does his camel. They have always fires in them, and prefer sleeping in them while on a journey to spending the night on shore. “On land you have lions,” say they, “serpents, hyaenas, and your enemies; but in your canoe, behind a bank of reed, nothing can harm you.” Their submissive disposition leads to their villages being frequently visited by hungry strangers. We had a pot on the fire in the canoe by the way, and when we drew near the villages devoured the contents. When fully satisfied ourselves, I found we could all look upon any intruders with perfect complacency, and show the pot in proof of having devoured the last morsel.
While ascending in this way the beautifully-wooded river, we came to a large stream flowing into it. This was the River Tamunak’le. I inquired whence it came. “Oh, from a country full of rivers — so many no one can tell their number — and full of large trees.” This was the first confirmation of statements I had heard from the Bakwains who had been with Sebituane, that the country beyond was not “the large sandy plateau” of the philosophers. The prospect of a highway capable of being traversed by boats to an entirely unexplored and very populous region, grew from that time forward stronger and stronger in my mind; so much so that, when we actually came to the lake, this idea occupied such a large portion of my mental vision that the actual discovery seemed of but little importance. I find I wrote, when the emotions caused by the magnificent prospects of the new country were first awakened in my breast, that they “might subject me to the charge of enthusiasm, a charge which I wished I deserved, as nothing good or great had ever been accomplished in the world without it.”11
11 Letters published by the Royal Geographical Society. Read 11th February and 8th April, 1850.
Twelve days after our departure from the wagons at Ngabisane we came to the northeast end of Lake Ngami; and on the 1st of August, 1849, we went down together to the broad part, and, for the first time, this fine-looking sheet of water was beheld by Europeans. The direction of the lake seemed to be N.N.E. and S.S.W. by compass. The southern portion is said to bend round to the west, and to receive the Teoughe from the north at its northwest extremity. We could detect no horizon where we stood looking S.S.W., nor could we form any idea of the extent of the lake, except from the reports of the inhabitants of the district; and, as they professed to go round it in three days, allowing twenty-five miles a day would make it seventy-five, or less than seventy geographical miles in circumference. Other guesses have been made since as to its circumference, ranging between seventy and one hundred miles. It is shallow, for I subsequently saw a native punting his canoe over seven or eight miles of the northeast end; it can never, therefore, be of much value as a commercial highway. In fact, during the months preceding the annual supply of water from the north, the lake is so shallow that it is with difficulty cattle can approach the water through the boggy, reedy banks. These are low on all sides, but on the west there is a space devoid of trees, showing that the waters have retired thence at no very ancient date. This is another of the proofs of desiccation met with so abundantly throughout the whole country. A number of dead trees lie on this space, some of them imbedded in the mud, right in the water. We were informed by the Bayeiye, who live on the lake, that when the annual inundation begins, not only trees of great size, but antelopes, as the springbuck and tsessebe (‘Acronotus lunata’), are swept down by its rushing waters; the trees are gradually driven by the winds to the opposite side, and become imbedded in mud.
The water of the lake is perfectly fresh when full, but brackish when low; and that coming down the Tamunak’le we found to be so clear, cold, and soft, the higher we ascended, that the idea of melting snow was suggested to our minds. We found this region, with regard to that from which we had come, to be clearly a hollow, the lowest point being Lake Kumadau; the point of the ebullition of water, as shown by one of Newman’s barometric thermometers, was only between 207–1/2° and 206°, giving an elevation of not much more than two thousand feet above the level of the sea. We had descended above two thousand feet in coming to it from Kolobeng. It is the southern and lowest part of the great river system beyond, in which large tracts of country are inundated annually by tropical rains, hereafter to be described. A little of that water, which in the countries farther north produces inundation, comes as far south as 20° 20’, the latitude of the upper end of the lake, and instead of flooding the country, falls into the lake as into a reservoir. It begins to flow down the Embarrah, which divides into the rivers Tzo and Teoughe. The Tzo divides into the Tamunak’le and Mababe; the Tamunak’le discharges itself into the Zouga, and the Teoughe into the lake. The flow begins either in March or April, and the descending waters find the channels of all these rivers dried out, except in certain pools in their beds, which have long dry spaces between them. The lake itself is very low. The Zouga is but a prolongation of the Tamunak’le, and an arm of the lake reaches up to the point where the one ends and the other begins. The last is narrow and shallow, while the Zouga is broad and deep. The narrow arm of the lake, which on the map looks like a continuation of the Zouga, has never been observed to flow either way. It is as stagnant as the lake itself.
The Teoughe and Tamunak’le, being essentially the same river, and receiving their supplies from the same source (the Embarrah or Varra), can never outrun each other. If either could, or if the Teoughe could fill the lake — a thing which has never happened in modern times — then this little arm would prove a convenient escapement to prevent inundation. If the lake ever becomes lower than the bed of the Zouga, a little of the water of the Tamunak’le might flow into it instead of down the Zouga; we should then have the phenomenon of a river flowing two ways; but this has never been observed to take place here, and it is doubtful if it ever can occur in this locality. The Zouga is broad and deep when it leaves the Tamunak’le, but becomes gradually narrower as you descend about two hundred miles; there it flows into Kumadau, a small lake about three or four miles broad and twelve long. The water, which higher up begins to flow in April, does not make much progress in filling this lake till the end of June. In September the rivers cease to flow. When the supply has been more than usually abundant, a little water flows beyond Kumadau, in the bed first seen by us on the 4th of July; if the quantity were larger, it might go further in the dry rocky bed of the Zouga, since seen still further to the east. The water supply of this part of the river system, as will be more fully explained further on, takes place in channels prepared for a much more copious flow. It resembles a deserted Eastern garden, where all the embankments and canals for irrigation can be traced, but where, the main dam and sluices having been allowed to get out of repair, only a small portion can be laid under water. In the case of the Zouga the channel is perfect, but water enough to fill the whole channel never comes down; and before it finds its way much beyond Kumadau, the upper supply ceases to run and the rest becomes evaporated. The higher parts of its bed even are much broader and more capacious than the lower toward Kumadau. The water is not absorbed so much as lost in filling up an empty channel, from which it is to be removed by the air and sun. There is, I am convinced, no such thing in the country as a river running into sand and becoming lost. The phenomenon, so convenient for geographers, haunted my fancy for years; but I have failed in discovering any thing except a most insignificant approach to it.
My chief object in coming to the lake was to visit Sebituane, the great chief of the Makololo, who was reported to live some two hundred miles beyond. We had now come to a half-tribe of the Bamangwato, called Batauana. Their chief was a young man named Lechulatebe. Sebituane had conquered his father Moremi, and Lechulatebe received part of his education while a captive among the Bayeiye. His uncle, a sensible man, ransomed him; and, having collected a number of families together, abdicated the chieftainship in favor of his nephew. As Lechulatebe had just come into power, he imagined that the proper way of showing his abilities was to act directly contrary to every thing that his uncle advised. When we came, the uncle recommended him to treat us handsomely, therefore the hopeful youth presented us with a goat only. It ought to have been an ox. So I proposed to my companions to loose the animal and let him go, as a hint to his master. They, however, did not wish to insult him. I, being more of a native, and familiar with their customs, knew that this shabby present was an insult to us. We wished to purchase some goats or oxen; Lechulatebe offered us elephants’ tusks. “No, we can not eat these; we want something to fill our stomachs.” “Neither can I; but I hear you white men are all very fond of these bones, so I offer them; I want to put the goats into my own stomach.” A trader, who accompanied us, was then purchasing ivory at the rate of ten good large tusks for a musket worth thirteen shillings. They were called “bones”; and I myself saw eight instances in which the tusks had been left to rot with the other bones where the elephant fell. The Batauana never had a chance of a market before; but, in less than two years after our discovery, not a man of them could be found who was not keenly alive to the great value of the article.
On the day after our arrival at the lake, I applied to Lechulatebe for guides to Sebituane. As he was much afraid of that chief, he objected, fearing lest other white men should go thither also, and give Sebituane guns; whereas, if the traders came to him alone, the possession of fire-arms would give him such a superiority that Sebituane would be afraid of him. It was in vain to explain that I would inculcate peace between them — that Sebituane had been a father to him and Sechele, and was as anxious to see me as he, Lechulatebe, had been. He offered to give me as much ivory as I needed without going to that chief; but when I refused to take any, he unwillingly consented to give me guides. Next day, however, when Oswell and I were prepared to start, with the horses only, we received a senseless refusal; and like Sekomi, who had thrown obstacles in our way, he sent men to the Bayeiye with orders to refuse us a passage across the river. Trying hard to form a raft at a narrow part, I worked many hours in the water; but the dry wood was so worm-eaten it would not bear the weight of a single person. I was not then aware of the number of alligators which exist in the Zouga, and never think of my labor in the water without feeling thankful that I escaped their jaws. The season was now far advanced; and as Mr. Oswell, with his wonted generous feelings, volunteered, on the spot, to go down to the Cape and bring up a boat, we resolved to make our way south again.
Coming down the Zouga, we had now time to look at its banks. These are very beautiful, resembling closely many parts of the River Clyde above Glasgow. The formation is soft calcareous tufa, such as forms the bottom of all this basin. The banks are perpendicular on the side to which the water swings, and sloping and grassy on the other. The slopes are selected for the pitfalls designed by the Bayeiye to entrap the animals as they come to drink. These are about seven or eight feet deep, three or four feet wide at the mouth, and gradually decrease till they are only about a foot wide at the bottom. The mouth is an oblong square (the only square thing made by the Bechuanas, for every thing else is round), and the long diameter at the surface is about equal to the depth. The decreasing width toward the bottom is intended to make the animal wedge himself more firmly in by his weight and struggles. The pitfalls are usually in pairs, with a wall a foot thick left uncut between the ends of each, so that if the beast, when it feels its fore legs descending, should try to save itself from going in altogether by striding the hind legs, he would spring forward and leap into the second with a force which insures the fall of his whole body into the trap. They are covered with great care. All the excavated earth is removed to a distance, so as not to excite suspicion in the minds of the animals. Reeds and grass are laid across the top; above this the sand is thrown, and watered so as to appear exactly like the rest of the spot. Some of our party plumped into these pitfalls more than once, even when in search of them, in order to open them to prevent the loss of our cattle. If an ox sees a hole, he carefully avoids it; and old elephants have been known to precede the herd and whisk off the coverings of the pitfalls on each side all the way down to the water. We have known instances in which the old among these sagacious animals have actually lifted the young out of the trap.
The trees which adorn the banks are magnificent. Two enormous baobabs (‘Adansonia digitata’), or mowanas, grow near its confluence with the lake where we took the observations for the latitude (20° 20’ S.). We were unable to ascertain the longitude of the lake, as our watches were useless; it may be between 22° and 23° E. The largest of the two baobabs was 76 feet in girth. The palmyra appears here and there among trees not met with in the south. The mokuchong, or moshoma, bears an edible fruit of indifferent quality, but the tree itself would be a fine specimen of arboreal beauty in any part of the world. The trunk is often converted into canoes. The motsouri, which bears a pink plum containing a pleasant acid juice, resembles an orange-tree in its dark evergreen foliage, and a cypress in its form. It was now winter-time, and we saw nothing of the flora. The plants and bushes were dry; but wild indigo abounded, as indeed it does over large tracts of Africa. It is called mohetolo, or the “changer”, by the boys, who dye their ornaments of straw with the juice. There are two kinds of cotton in the country, and the Mashona, who convert it into cloth, dye it blue with this plant.
We found the elephants in prodigious numbers on the southern bank. They come to drink by night, and after having slaked their thirst — in doing which they throw large quantities of water over themselves, and are heard, while enjoying the refreshment, screaming with delight — they evince their horror of pitfalls by setting off in a straight line to the desert, and never diverge till they are eight or ten miles off. They are smaller here than in the countries farther south. At the Limpopo, for instance, they are upward of twelve feet high; here, only eleven: farther north we shall find them nine feet only. The koodoo, or tolo, seemed smaller, too, than those we had been accustomed to see. We saw specimens of the kuabaoba, or straight-horned rhinoceros (‘R. Oswellii’), which is a variety of the white (‘R. simus’); and we found that, from the horn being projected downward, it did not obstruct the line of vision, so that this species is able to be much more wary than its neighbors.
We discovered an entirely new species of antelope, called leche or lechwi. It is a beautiful water-antelope of a light brownish-yellow color. Its horns — exactly like those of the ‘Aigoceros ellipsiprimnus’, the waterbuck, or tumogo, of the Bechuanas — rise from the head with a slight bend backward, then curve forward at the points. The chest, belly, and orbits are nearly white, the front of the legs and ankles deep brown. From the horns, along the nape to the withers, the male has a small mane of the same yellowish color with the rest of the skin, and the tail has a tuft of black hair. It is never found a mile from water; islets in marshes and rivers are its favorite haunts, and it is quite unknown except in the central humid basin of Africa. Having a good deal of curiosity, it presents a noble appearance as it stands gazing, with head erect, at the approaching stranger. When it resolves to decamp, it lowers its head, and lays its horns down to a level with the withers; it then begins with a waddling trot, which ends in its galloping and springing over bushes like the pallahs. It invariably runs to the water, and crosses it by a succession of bounds, each of which appears to be from the bottom. We thought the flesh good at first, but soon got tired of it.
Great shoals of excellent fish come down annually with the access of waters. The mullet (‘Mugil Africanus’) is the most abundant. They are caught in nets.
The ‘Glanis siluris’, a large, broad-headed fish, without scales, and barbed — called by the natives “mosala” — attains an enormous size and fatness. They are caught so large that when a man carries one over his shoulder the tail reaches the ground. It is a vegetable feeder, and in many of its habits resembles the eel. Like most lophoid fishes, it has the power of retaining a large quantity of water in a part of its great head, so that it can leave the river, and even be buried in the mud of dried-up pools, without being destroyed. Another fish closely resembling this, and named ‘Clarias capensis’ by Dr. Smith, is widely diffused throughout the interior, and often leaves the rivers for the sake of feeding in pools. As these dry up, large numbers of them are entrapped by the people. A water-snake, yellow-spotted and dark brown, is often seen swimming along with its head above the water: it is quite harmless, and is relished as food by the Bayeiye.
They mention ten kinds of fish in their river; and, in their songs of praise to the Zouga, say, “The messenger sent in haste is always forced to spend the night on the way by the abundance of food you place before him.” The Bayeiye live much on fish, which is quite an abomination to the Bechuanas of the south; and they catch them in large numbers by means of nets made of the fine, strong fibres of the hibiscus, which grows abundantly in all moist places. Their float-ropes are made of the ife, or, as it is now called, the ‘Sanseviere Angolensis’, a flag-looking plant, having a very strong fibre, that abounds from Kolobeng to Angola; and the floats themselves are pieces of a water-plant containing valves at each joint, which retain the air in cells about an inch long. The mode of knotting the nets is identical with our own.
They also spear the fish with javelins having a light handle, which readily floats on the surface. They show great dexterity in harpooning the hippopotamus; and, the barbed blade of the spear being attached to a rope made of the young leaves of the palmyra, the animal can not rid himself of the canoe, attached to him in whale fashion, except by smashing it, which he not unfrequently does by his teeth or by a stroke of his hind foot.
On returning to the Bakurutse, we found that their canoes for fishing were simply large bundles of reeds tied together. Such a canoe would be a ready extemporaneous pontoon for crossing any river that had reedy banks.
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