Sixty miles away to the north-east, but clearly visible in the rarefied mountain air, towered the mighty gates through which the Olifant River roared down to meet the Letaba. On their left the great ranges rolled away to the infinite north-west. What direction first to explore in? That was a difficult question to decide, seeing that the field for adventure was equally enticing in every direction.
Beyond the deep valley in which Mac Mac nestled arose gradually a great, shelving tract. In rough outline it resembled a plateau, but the explorer found it to be much broken up and intersected by ravines, some of which were impassable for miles of their length. This plateau was very extensive; in fact, it stretched indefinitely to the north-east, the only break in that direction being the distant gates of the Oliphant. But on the south-east it ended in an enormous precipice, occasionally several thousand feet in sheer height.
The view from the edge of this precipice was marvelous. From the lower margin of the mighty wall the broken hills, covered with virgin forest, fell away with lessening steepness to the plains. These, also, were covered with trees; here, however, the woodland had a different character, for there was little or no undergrowth. The plains stretched away, to an immense distance. It was in this tract, far below the gazer on the cliff-edge, that romance dwelt in the tents of enchantment. Over it roamed the buffalo, the koodoo, and the giraffe. In the dark hour just before dawn the dew-laden boughs shrouding it trembled to the thunder-tones of the lion as he roared over his kill. Above all, its thickets of mystery had hardly been trodden by the foot of civilized man.
Even on the plateau itself large game was occasionally to be found. Some lion, more enterprising than his fellows, would lead his mate and her brood up one of the dizzy clefts in the precipice to prey on the cattle which, in seasons of drought, the Lydenburg farmers occasionally sent here for the sake of the rich pasturage.
One morning, when brewing a billy of tea in a small rocky basin, I heard the sound of trampling. Looking round I saw nine elands descending the side of the depression and making straight for me. They came to within about eighty yards and then stood. The leader was an immense bull by far the largest I have ever seen. All looked as sleek and fat as stall-fed cattle. My only weapon was an old Colt revolver. How I cursed my bad luck in not having a rifle. After gazing at me for a few seconds the elands galloped on, changing their course slightly to the right. They passed within less than fifty yards of my fire.
Extended rambles—View from the mountain top—An unknown land—The deadly fever—Gray's fate—Lack of nursing—Temperature rises after death Pilgrim's Rest in early days—The prison—The stocks—No color line—John Cameron in trouble—The creek "lead"—Plenty of gold—Wild peaches Massacres of natives in old days—Kameel—His expressions—Life on the creek—Major Macdonald—The parson—Boulders—Bad accidents—A quaint signboard—"Reefing Charlie".
As the days lengthened out I began to extend the scope of my weekly rambles. Instead of starting on Sunday I would do so on Saturday afternoon, as soon as work in the claim had ceased. Four hours stiff walking would take me over the Divide, and almost across the plateau beyond the Mac Mac River. At some suitable spot I would camp for the night. Next morning's dawn would find me on my way to the edge of the beetling cliff. However, sunrise was rarely a striking spectacle from there, for the reason that usually and more especially in the morning the Low Country was shrouded in haze. It was later, when the sun had climbed high and the haze had somewhat dissipated, that the prospect grew most enthralling. But haze, although its density varied considerably from time to time, was rarely absent from the regions lying eastward.
This almost continuous barrier to very distant vision used to annoy me considerably, for my eyes strove greedily to gather up details of the most remote tracts within their range. Once, on an unusually clear day, I caught sight of the Lebomba about eighty miles away. The very name of this then mysterious region used to thrill me with romance. How I longed to explore its heights which, after all, turned out not to be so very high and to plunge into its seaward hollows. How I girded at the vapor that almost continually shrouded it. But I am now inclined to believe that the glamour which made the prospect seen from the cliff-edge so rich, was largely due to the diaphanous impediment to complete vision. This, by hiding or allowing only a bare hint of the details, gave full play to the imagination.
It must be borne in mind that in the early seventies the vast stretch of country below the mountain range was practically an unknown land. No map of it existed; its geography was but vaguely rumored of. We knew that great rivers the Crocodile and the Komati, the Olifant, the Letaba, and the lordly Limpopo, in whose depths Leviathan and Behemoth wallowed flowed through its enchanted pastures, and that wild game of infinite variety and plentiful beyond the desire of the keenest hunter nightly slaked their thirst at these mysterious streams.
And yet for more than half of the year that dream-like and translucent haze which spread like a pearl tinted veil over the romance-filled woodland tract, was a veritable shadow of death. In the earlier days men bent on sport, on prospecting or on adventure, pure and simple, climbed light-heartedly down the steep mountain stairs at all times and seasons little reckoning that it would have saved them much needless misery if they had, instead, leaped headlong from the towering cliffs. For from November to May, fever stalked abroad over the plains and among the foothills, seeking human prey, and hardly any who ventured during these months into the dominion of the fever king escaped his blighting grip. The few who managed to save their lives were doomed to months or even years of misery.
This could only be learnt by bitter experience.
In the autumn of 1873, five and thirty men descended to the Low Country; of these I think twenty seven died. During the following year we took warning, and none, with the exception of the Alexandre party, attempted exploration before June. Consequently there were not, so far as I remember, any fatalities; from June to October the Low Country was healthy enough. But the memory of other people's experience fades quickly; in 1875 some of us again undertook the trip too early. Six started, one of these happened to be my "mate," who did not go down as far as the others, and so escaped. The others were Thomas Shires, Meek, Schwiegardt, McKinnon, and myself. I started on the 5th of April, at least two months too early, the others about the same time. Of the five, the three first mentioned died where they took the infection. McKinnon and I managed to get back; we reached Mac Mac on the same day, as it happened, traveling by different paths. Poor McKinnon, who was of robust, powerful physique, died about a month afterwards. I, whose build was extremely light, had a comparatively mild attack, but I felt its effect for years. Of the men who recovered, the great majority were of the lean kind. It was, in fact, proverbial that the less flesh one had on one's bones, the better were the chances of recovery.
One extremely sad case was that of a man named Gray, whom I knew well. He went down with fever at the poisonous Mattol Marsh, about thirty miles from Delagoa Bay, in 1873. His mate went on to Lourenco Marques to get supplies and hire bearers, leaving the sick man alone in a small tent, with a limited supply of food and water. The mate got drunk and remained so whilst the money he had with him lasted, a period of about ten days. Then first he bethought him of Gray. Assistance was sent, but it arrived too late; Gray was dead of thirst and starvation. I found his grave the following year. Some pitiful Christian had made a rough cross by tying two boughs together, and had stuck it into the sand at the head. What made Gray's case sadder, if possible, was the circumstance that letters were even then awaiting him at Lourenco Marques with the news that he had inherited a fortune.
There can be no doubt that the heavy mortality among those who returned to camp ill with fever was due to the fact that no medical man was available that is, in the early days and that we knew nothing whatever of the principles of nursing. One instance I recall illustrates this very forcibly. A man had been ill with fever for upwards of two months. The case was a bad one, but at length the patient appeared to rally. One night he sat up in bed and announced that he had completely recovered and was extremely hungry. On being asked what he would like to eat he begged for bread and sardines. These were immediately provided, the bread being coarse and brown. He ate with avidity, and every one present felt the greatest satisfaction. Within a few hours he was dead.
One weird circumstance connected with these fatalities was this; in some instances the temperature of the bodies would rise after death and continue to rise for several hours. This, I have been told, was due to the fever ferment in the blood and tissues developing unchecked, and its products setting up strong chemical action. It was hard, in these instances, to believe that death had actually taken place, so attempts at resuscitation used to be resorted to. I was afterwards told by a medical man from Barberton that a similar phenomenon was noticed there in fever cases the temperature sometimes rising after death to 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pilgrim's Rest, during the first few years after gold had been discovered there, was an interesting and delightful place. Those whose experience of mining camps is limited to ones in which the syndicate or the company holds sway, can form no idea of the life of a community where the individual digger is dominant. I am prepared to maintain that life was healthier, saner, and on the whole more generally satisfactory at Pilgrim's Rest in the early seventies than it is in any South African community today. There was, of course, the inevitable percentage of loafers, idlers, and scoundrels, but these were kept in their proper place. Public opinion was a very effective force; in matters affecting the general welfare of the community, opinion quickly translated itself into action when the occasion demanded it. Thus the blackguards knew perfectly well that if official justice occasionally halted, its unofficial equivalent was apt to be short, sharp, and decisive in its operation. The prison was a bell-tent containing two sets of stocks. Under ordinary circumstances a prisoner was accommodated by having both his legs secured. However, occasionally, when an unusually large number of culprits were run in, they had to be content with only one wooden anklet apiece. No color line was drawn, except, to a certain extent, in the matter of the application of the "cat." Natives and colored men were flogged for whatever offence they happened to be found guilty of. Europeans were fined, with the alternative of imprisonment, except in the case of a serious offence such as tent-robbing, for instance. For such a crime, an almost unpardonable one in a scattered r mining camp, where tents had very often to be left unprotected the white man got his five and twenty as a matter of course. I only knew of one case of tent-robbing by a native. This was in the early days. The culprit was shot on the spot and thrown down a disused shaft. No questions on the subject were asked.
I will illustrate what I mean by saying that no color line was drawn. I once had a mate, John Cameron, a Highlander from Skye. John usually became inebriated on Saturday night, but would turn up very early on Sunday morning. One such morning he did not appear. While I was at breakfast a passing digger told me that my mate was in gaol for assaulting a policeman.
I started off to see what could be done. The gaol was about four miles from where I lived. I arrived there in due course. There was no one to prevent my entering, for the prisoners were secured so well in the heavy, iron-bound stocks that escape was an impossibility. I found poor John secured by one foot and lying on the ground between two similarly secured Kaffirs. He was in a horrid condition, as, being a powerful man, it had been found necessary to stun him with a club before his arrest could be effected.
It was a fortunate circumstance that I knew Major Macdonald, the Gold Commissioner, fairly well, and that he was owing to a successful game of poker the previous night in an unusually good temper. He penciled an order for John's release. After some difficulty I found the gaoler and got him although with a bad grace, for John had acted in a really outrageous manner to obey the order.
All nationalities were represented among the diggers, but English South Africans predominated. Soon, however, an increasing population of Australian, New Zealand, and Californian miners poured in. The "field" was a rich one. The "lead," which zigzagged perplexingly down between the valley terraces, carried plenty of gold. It was, of course, uneven, some parts of it being much richer than others but I do not think that there was any portion of the lead which it did not pay to work. But the lead and the bed of the creek in which the water actually ran zigzagged quite independently of each other. That is to say, at the time when the gold was carried down and distributed by water along the bottom of the valley countless ages ago, the stream then flowing although it followed the same general direction took in detail a course quite different from the one it followed when the busy gold seekers defaced its banks in the days I write of.
Much more gold was found than is generally supposed. I remember four very quiet, reticent men who worked out three and a half rather shallow claims just in front of what was known as the Middle Camp. They never spoke of what they were finding and it would have been a most serious breach of local etiquette to make any inquiry upon such a subject but upon leaving they authorized the manager of the bank to make public the fact that they had divided, on dissolution of the partnership, gold to the value of 35,000. Many others also did well, but none to the same extent as the partnership referred to. Some very large nuggets were found. I personally handled one which weighed 10 lb. It was unearthed by the late John Barrington, afterwards of Knysna.
The wild peaches which grew so plentifully in the vicinity of the Blyde River Valley were a godsend to indigent "Pilgrims." How the trees originated is a mystery. But there they were, on the "flats" of Pilgrim's Creek, along the Blyde River terraces and in many of the surrounding Valleys, groves of trees bearing luscious peaches of the yellow clingstone variety. Although the trees were ungrafted, unpruned, and, in fact, had not been interfered with by meddling man since the germination of the stones that gave them auspicious birth, the size and flavor of the fruit were ail that could be desired.
One gold-bearing creek was called "Peach Tree," on account of the number of trees there growing. Near the upper end of the worked portion of Pilgrim's Creek was a dense orchard that bore splendidly. But, alas! they grew over "pay dirt," and in consequence were ruthlessly uprooted. I am positive that the occurrence of these trees was quite adventitious; they did not appear to have been planted with any regard to order, nor as a rule were they found in localities suitable for homesteads.
I have often speculated as to the origin of these peach-trees. Did some thoughtful old voortrekker carry peach stones in his pocket, and, as Admiral Rodney was wont to do with acorns, plant them here and there for the benefit of posterity? Or did some small boy voortrekker, munching, from the pocket of his blesbuck-skin jacket, dried fruit sent up by some kind tante from the far south, carelessly throw aside a stone which had been accidentally included, and was that the ancestor of those trees which used to afford us so many delightful feasts?
About half a century before the days I write of, the then thickly populated region surrounding these goldfields was turned into a shambles and a solitude by, the horde of the terrible Ma 'Ntatisi, chieftainess of the Bathlokua. This tribe was driven from its territory at and around the sources of the Vaal River by the Amahlubi, at the beginning of the upheaval caused by Tshaka, the Zulu king. On many a level mountain terrace can still be seen the circular stone walls indicating where populous villages once stood. Many clans, some large and some small, had inhabited the fertile valleys of the Drakensberg between what is now Wakkerstroom and the Olifant River. They lived in comparative peace with one another. Occasional tribal fights took place, but the victors never attempted to ruin the vanquished or to take their territory.
Ma 'Ntatisi's horde literally obliterated these communities. Probably the number of people who escaped the slaughter did not amount to five per cent of the whole.
Old "Kameel" was one of the survivors. He was a native who, with his family and a few goats, lived at a kraal on a ledge to the right of the creek, about half a mile above the Lower Camp.
Kameel showed me the cave, overlooking the Blyde River Valley, in which he and his mother had hidden themselves while spear and firebrand were erasing his tribe from the face of the surrounding country. This cave could only be entered by climbing up the trunk of a white ironwood-tree and stepping on to a ledge from one of its branches. Other fugitives, Kameel told me, sought the hiding-place during the night, but his mother, fearing that their tracks would be followed, escaped with her children to another refuge during the darkness. It was fortunate that they did this, for the spoilers found the tracks leading to the cavern and massacred every soul it contained. Probably today it still conceals the gruesome pile of bones principally of women and children which I saw in it in 1874.
Kameel was a character in his way. He had spent his life a law unto himself and his family on the little ledge where the kraal he inhabited stood. Being, in spite of his years, a strong active man and a skilled hunter, Kameel was in great demand among those who, like myself, endeavored to combine sport with prospecting on their trips. He accompanied me on several of the longer expeditions which I undertook.
Through listening to the conversation of his employers, whose language was apt to be "painful and frequent and free" on slight provocation, Kameel had picked up some stock expressions which were very amusing. I cannot, unfortunately, bowdlerize the best of these without spoiling them, so I will endeavor to give a few examples of the less forceful. If, for instance, Kameel wanted to indicate size, importance, force, or greatness as an attribute of anything whatever from a flash of lightning to a hippopotamus or an attack of fever he would say "Helovabigwaan," using that term as an adjective. To express disapproval or disgust, he would exclaim "Toodamaach," and shake his head emphatically. The first time I heard the latter expression was when, after a long, painful, and really clever stalk against a heavy wind, I missed a splendid koodoo bull at a distance of about ten yards. The miss was due to a bad cartridge fired from an unspeakable rifle, but Kameel held it to be my fault and despised me accordingly.
It was a quaint little cosmos, this community of gold seekers in one form or another whose tents made white the broken slopes of the winding Pilgrim's Valley. We were exceedingly unconventional in most respects, but the essential decencies of life were observed among us as well as they were in any other community of which I have been a member. As time went on many of the diggers brought their families to the creek. I can remember several pretty girls whose dwellings were so many shrines for respectful worship. A disrespectful word towards a woman would have entailed serious consequences to the user. One lady, a Miss Russell, worked a claim very successfully. She eventually married the owner of the claim adjoining hers, a Mr. Cameron. He, if memory does not play me false, represented Pilgrim's Rest in the Transvaal Volksraad. There were no franchise troubles in those days.
As memory dwells on this period, the people with whom I foregathered become very real and very human. I suppose that, in the natural order of things, most of my fellow-pilgrims have reached the end of their pilgrimage. Those mighty limbs and strong thews which held crowbar and pick to be mere playthings, are dust; those feet which scaled, untired, the highest and steepest ranges are at rest for ever. Yet my recollection of these people is as clear as though it were yesterday, and not five and thirty years ago when I saw them last.
The head of the community was the Gold Commissioner, Major Macdonald. He was at once fountain of justice, dispenser of such patronage as existed, and collector of taxes. "Mac" was an American, and had fought in the War of Secession on the Confederate side. He was not an ideal administrator, but his hands were clean, and he would always do one a good turn if it lay in his power. A tall, thin man with a stooping figure, a goatee beard and iron-grey ringlets showing under the brim of his slouch hat, Major Macdonald's appearance exactly suggested the conventional Yankee of the period of Sam Slick. He played a good game of poker, and was never, so far as I know, seen without a cigar in his mouth. I believe he died a few years since at Uitenhage, where he held the railway cartage contract.
There were several ministers of religion on the creek, but it is nevertheless to be feared that we were a rather irreligious lot. All old Pilgrims will remember the Rev. G B, whose church stood in the lower left-hand corner of the Market Square. Mr. B belonged to the Church of England, and was, for those comparatively unenlightened days, an advanced ritualist. He furnished his church with those symbols which used to fill all good Protestants with horror, but to which they have recently become more or less accustomed. In the matter of vestments and altar observances he flew absolutely in the face of the Court of Arches.
Mr. B was a gentleman and a good fellow, but was sadly weak in the matter of drink. This weakness was a source of general amusement, in fact, it rather tended to increase the parson's popularity with the diggers. Whenever he went up the creek on pastoral visitation bent, every one would be on the qui uive, and as he returned men would lie in wait for him with proffers of alcoholic refreshment. By the time he reached home Mr. B would be more or less intoxicated, and several of the perpetrators of this sorry conspiracy would assist him to bed.
However, I must try and avoid the tendency to set down a mere catalogue of abnormal human specimens; I had rather ramble with the reader through the now shadowy thickets of a vivid and virile past, following a payable memory "lead," and examining such nuggets of interesting experience as we may pick up on the way. For the period I write of has passed, leaving scarcely a recognizable sign. The individual digger, the hardy, hearty, independent man who took toll of the riches of the earth by the might of his own arm and for his own proper benefit without intermediary has gone for ever, and the soulless corporation, the boomster, and the politician have taken his place. I, for one, think that South Africa is poorer for the change.
Pilgrim's Creek was not what is known as "a poor man's diggings." Here and there, especially on the terraces or beds of wash lying above the water flow, lay a few claims which were comparatively easy to work. But most of the alluvium in and about the bed of the creek ran deep, often from ten to twenty feet. The most serious difficulties were presented by the boulders, which were thickly distributed through the wash. It would, indeed, be more correct to say that the wash was sparsely distributed between the boulders.
Any stone which could not be lifted out by two men without tackle came within the definition of a boulder. Thirty, or even forty, tons was no very unusual weight for these blocks of smooth, water worn quartzite. Every one, no matter how large, had to be shifted, the reason being that whatever gold there was lay on the bedrock, and thus beneath all the wash. The bedrock was granite, but was so decomposed and friable that one could dig it out like so much cheese.
One way of getting rid of a mammoth boulder was by excavating a pit in the bedrock, sending the stuff dug out away through the sluice-box, and then rolling the monster into the excavation. But this was always dangerous work; the pit had to be sunk close to the boulder one wanted to bury, and the latter was apt to break down the soft edge and roll in, smashing the workers into jelly. Some terrible accidents of this kind took place.
The lack of a surgeon occasioned the loss of many a good life and limb, for accidents were frequent. There was an unqualified practitioner in the Lower Camp. His signboard, mounted on a pole outside his tent, bore the legend: "Surgeon, Barber, and Tentmaker."
Despite his quaint advertisement, which carried a suggestion of the Middle Ages, A was no quack. He was, I think, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and had undergone a certain amount of medical training. He saved many a life, perhaps mine included, for he pulled me through my bout of fever. But several of his serious operations went wrong. This may have been due to lack of proper appliances, and to our rough but by no means ready methods of nursing. I remember the case of a friend of mine whose leg got horribly crushed at Waterfall Creek and had to be amputated. Mortification set in and he died.
One of my mates was the celebrated Charlie Durnan. "Reefing Charlie" was the name he was usually known by. He was a most active and occasionally a successful prospector. It was he, I fancy, who years afterwards discovered the Pigg's Peak Mine in Swaziland. Charlie's weakness was drink. He and I ate the mealie-meal porridge of poverty among the Blyde River terraces for a couple of months. During this time we never earned enough to pay for the salt which seasoned our insipid repasts.
Work on "the Reef"—Shaft-sinking in a swamp—Wolff and McGrath—A case of snake-bite—Tunneling—Humping green timber—John Mulcahy—His Gargantuan breakfast—His peculiar habits—His end—The rush to "the Reef" Cunningham's lead—My bad luck—Peter and his appetite—"Mr. William Bogis" Fabayne, the cave-dweller—A bellicose bridegroom—Knox and his revolver practice—A senseless toast and its sequel—A terrible accident Alick Dempster and the Police News.
In 1874 a certain corporation, I think it was called "The Gold Fields Exploration Company," had an office at Pilgrim's Rest. Edward Simpson, formerly of Port Elizabeth, was the manager. Simpson died at Pretoria about fifteen years ago. He was a good friend to me, but was, unwittingly, the occasion of my failing to make a very rich "strike." The company was carrying on prospecting operations in the vicinity of a high saddle on one of the subsidiary ranges north of the Mac Mac Divide. I was engaged at the usual remuneration of an ounce of gold per week, and instructed to join two men, Wolff and McGrath, who were already on the spot.
The scene of our work was called "The Reef." [Years afterwards known as the Jubilee Mine.] No reef had been discovered there, but it was believed that one existed. The saddle was steep and narrow, especially on the northern side, where the rocky gully that scored its flank fell into a more or less swampy basin. Our first work was the sinking of a shaft in this swamp. Several nuggets had been found in the interstices of the bedrock in the gully, so it was believed that the basin contained a rich deposit.
One nugget which I found was the most beautiful thing of the kind I have ever seen. It was shaped like a curved ostrich feather, and was as bright as though it had just been turned out of a jeweler's shop. Simpson had this nugget mounted as a brooch for the lady to whom he was engaged to be married.
The sinking of the shaft was both difficult and dangerous. We struck water at about six feet, and then had to make frames from green timber cut in the vicinity and sink them, backed by slabs, as we took the shaft down. The water flow was very strong, so we had to bale continuously, night and day, for we dared not let it rise. We worked in four-hour shifts, with relays of native laborers. After sinking sixty feet, and nearly losing our lives in trying to save the shaft from buckling, the water drove us out and the work had to be abandoned. I still believe that there is gold, and plenty of it, at the bottom of that swamp.
Wolff was a Dane of gigantic thews. He had been a sailor. McGrath was an Australian gold-digger. One night the latter stepped barefoot out of the tent and was bitten on the instep by a snake. He collapsed almost immediately. We sent a runner down to the Lower Camp, which was nearly six miles away, for assistance. There was no qualified medical practitioner to be had; however, an amateur came up and treated the patient with strychnine. We had, in the meantime, scarified the injured part and applied ligatures above it. McGrath escaped with his life, but the greater portion of his instep rotted away, and he became a physical wreck. For a tune he completely lost the use of the muscles of his eyelids; for months he had to use his hands when he wanted to open or shut his eyes.
After abandoning the shaft, Wolff and I were instructed to drive a tunnel into the hillside on the southern fall of the saddle. We took this work under contract, at so much per foot. The driving involved the use of props and slabs; these had to be cut and trimmed in a forest situated more than a mile away, beyond a deep valley on the northern face.
South African timber is notoriously close-grained and heavy; consequently the humping of those green balks through the valley and over the saddle to the tunnel was almost the heaviest and most painful work I have ever perspired under. Felling the trees and dressing the timber was child's play compared to it.
One day while engaged in felling I had an adventure with a mamba. Wolff and I were working in a steep sided gully which contained small, isolated patches of timber; he was felling a tree about fifty yards above me. It crashed down, its crown striking a patch of scrub. Out of this a large mamba glided and came down the gully, straight for me. I could not climb out, so I made myself as small as possible against the gully-side. The snake passed within a few feet of me, but made no attempt to attack.
Snakes and leopards were very plentiful about our camp. A large python dwelt in a krantz within less than a hundred yards of our tent. The creature was often seen, but it always escaped when we ran over with our guns on receiving a report that it was sunning itself. The trees were covered with the claw marks of leopards.
Before very long a few diggers came and prospected in the vicinity of the saddle for surface gold. Among them was one of the strangest characters I have ever met. His name was John Mulcahy. Originally from my own county, Tipperary, he had gone to California in the early days of the "placer" mines. He and Bret Harte had been mates. Mulcahy had prospected far and wide among the Rocky Mountains, and had even crossed the Yukon River on one of his trips.
Solitary in his habits and possessed of a most violent temper, Mulcahy was usually disliked by those with whom he came in contact. But he attracted me very strongly. Aged, I should say, about forty five yellow-bearded, exceedingly handsome, strong, and tall there was, nevertheless, a suggestion of something sinister about him. To me he unbent considerably when we were alone.
Once in a burst of confidence Mulcahy told me that he had left California to escape the attentions of a certain widow, the proprietress of a saloon, who had fallen in love with him. He related how she had pursued him to a remote camp, burst into his tent one morning and, before he could resist, thrown her arms around his neck, and given him a kiss "you might have wathered a mule at."
Mulcahy and I first met at the Rotunda Creek Rush, and when that abode of "wild cat" collapsed, we arranged to take a prospecting trip towards the Olifant River. We made a start, but after a week were driven back by some of the worst weather I have ever experienced. The climax came when we were caught one afternoon on a high mountain plateau by a succession of violent hailstorms. We crept under the lee of a rock for shelter, but our fire was smashed out over and over again by hurtling masses of ice, so we shivered in darkness through what seemed to be an interminable night.
As the weather remained unsettled, we decided to return to camp and there refit. Besides, we badly needed recuperation after the more than ordinary hardships we had undergone. We arrived at the Lower Camp one morning at about nine o'clock, more than half-starved. I shall never forget my wolfish sensations as we flung down our swags at Stopforth and Bowman's eating-house and called for breakfast. I then enjoyed the heartiest meal of my life, after which I sat back pulling at my pipe and noting with astonishment the amount of food which Mulcahy consumed.
I thought he would never stop; plateful followed plateful in an apparently endless endeavor to sate the insatiable. However, all things must come to an end; so, eventually, did Mulcahy's Gargantuan meal. As he paid the prescribed fee of two shillings, I thought Stopforth looked pensive.
After resting for some ten days, and the weather having in the meantime cleared, we made another start. We had decided to commence our journey after a good meal, so struck our tent early one morning at the Upper Creek, and tramped down to the Lower Camp, once more to bestow the doubtful favor of our custom upon Stopforth and Bowman.
We put down our swags at the door and entered. It was barely eight o'clock, so no other customers had arrived. The eating-house was a large marquee tent, with rough tables and benches on either side of a passage down the middle. At the end of this passage a square piece had been cut out of the canvas, and it was through the resulting aperture that plates were passed to and from the kitchen. Bowman it was who presided over the cooking while Stopforth did the waiting.
We took our seats at one of the tables and called for breakfast. Stopforth stood for a few seconds and regarded Mulcahy with a somber eye. Then he strolled slowly down the passage and called through the aperture:
"Breakfast for ten; here's this son of a back."
My partner was enormously pleased at this compliment to his prowess; for months afterwards he used to chuckle at the remembrance of it.
After Mulcahy moved up to "The Reef" he kept more than ever to himself, discouraging advances even from me. This, we afterwards found, was due to his having struck rich gold from the very first, and to his desire to keep the circumstance from being known. He worked his cradle at a small spring about a hundred and fifty yards away. To this spring he had scarped a footpath along the mountain side, and over this footpath he harrowed his stuff. He seemed seldom or never to sleep. It was his custom to knock off work comparatively early in the afternoon. Until about nine o'clock he would stroll about. Then he would recommence work, and we would often hear the barrow going all night long. Most of the daytime he spent cradling at the spring.
Occasionally, in the evening, this strange being would come and stand near our tent. Wolff, who hated him, strongly objected to this; he thought the man came to listen to our conversation. My theory, which I fully believe to have been the right one, was that the lonely creature sometimes felt an irresistible longing for human companionship.
The belief currently held regarding Mulcahy was to the effect that he had been a noted "road agent" that is to say, a highway robber in California. One incident, of which I was a witness, might be taken to indicate that at least he had something very heavy on his conscience.
One evening Wolff and I were watching the approach of a very violent thunderstorm. Just as it broke, and while we were in the act of fastening the tent-door, Mulcahy appeared and, to my surprise, asked if he might come in. Wolff gave no answer, but I replied in the affirmative. Mulcahy entered, and the three of us sat down, Wolff and I on one bunk and the visitor on the other. The table was between the bunks.
Our tent had what is known as a "fly"; that is to say, a second roof pitched about six inches above the ordinary one. The rain came down in torrents and the wind blew with great violence. The inner roof remained dry, except where the outer one flapped against it. This contact happened just over where Mulcahy was sitting, and occasioned a wet mark resembling, in rough outline, the head, shoulders, and outstretched arms of a human being. The mark was fully visible to Wolff and me, but could not be seen by Mulcahy, although the canvas on which it appeared sloped immediately over him.
Wolff, who was a big, heavy man, very slow of speech, said in his halting, broken English
"Mulcahy, dere is de ghost of dat last man you shot in California."
Mulcahy turned, shot a glance back towards where Wolff's eyes were directed, and fell forward on the table. When he lifted his face it was drawn and the color of ashes; his eyes were full of horror. It was a terribly dramatic scene.
Shortly after this Mulcahy took a partner, a man named Friese. They found a great deal of gold.
The last time I saw Mulcahy was in 1876, at East London. I was then working on a surf boat, and in passing under the stern of a steamer, the anchor of which was being weighed, I noticed a yellow bearded man leaning over the rail. His face was not turned towards me; nevertheless, I felt I could hardly be mistaken as to his identity. I called out his name; he turned, and I saw that it was Mulcahy, right enough. He recognized me at once, and apparently was delighted to see me. We conversed for a short while, but my boat was soon worked away on the warp, out of earshot. I afterwards heard that Mulcahy had taken several thousand pounds sterling with him to Cape Town, and that there he purchased a liquor-shop in a low quarter of the city. Shortly afterwards he died insane.
The tunnel at the saddle having to be abandoned on account of our striking a mass of loose rock through which it was impossible to drive without more expensive appliances than we possessed, Wolff left the service of the company. I was anxious to leave too, because alluvial gold had been struck in rich patches on and near the saddle. But Simpson made a point of my remaining for a few weeks longer in his employ, for the sake of protecting the company's supposed interests.
I wished to peg out, on my own account, the site where my tent stood, but this I could not do so long as the claims of the company were held in my name. On the very day the company suspended operations all the vacant ground on and about the saddle was pegged out. Most of those who "rushed" the vicinity were New Zealanders from Hokitika. The site on which my tent stood was appropriated by a man named Cunningham. When ground was required for mining purposes, any one tenting on it had to remove.
Within five minutes of Cunningham's first pick-stroke, he struck the "lead." On merely turning over the surface sods the nuggets could be picked out like plums from a cake. The bedrock was soft soapy shale; there was no "wash" in the ordinary sense of the term. Loam, with which small, angular fragments of quartz were mixed, covered the bedrock to a depth of about six inches. But this bedrock turned out to be scored by a small gutter or channel a few inches deep and about eighteen inches wide, which ran for about twenty feet through the middle of the claim. The surface soil gave no indication of the existence of the channel.
The bottom of this channel was literally paved with nuggets. The stuff it contained gave an average of over four ounces to the pan; it had to be harrowed to Mulcahy's spring, there to be cradled. Within a few weeks the claim was worked out, for there was no gold to be found outside the channel. But the gold won by Cunningham was worth over 4,000. The legs of my bunk had actually been sunk in the richest part of the ground, they must have literally been touching some of the nuggets. This was but one of the several occasions upon which I all but grasped the skirts of Fortune.
Soon a water-race was brought in from the opposite side of the valley on the southern slope of the saddle a distance of about four miles. Then ground-sluicing operations began. I again took service, this time with a party of New Zealanders. I never knew how much gold was found by them, but the amount must have been considerable. I was not permitted to be present at any "wash up," but in the stages just previous to that climax I used to see nuggets lying thickly about whenever the water cleared. No one, even though he were one of the partners was allowed to pick up gold before the end of the "wash up," all had to come into the pan.
My best friend among these men was a gigantic Swede who was called Peter. He had another name, but, as he said himself, it would be necessary to take a pinch of snuff before you could pronounce it properly. Ordinarily the most good-natured of men, Peter became an elemental savage when hungry. If then spoken to his only reply would be a snarl quite likely to be followed by a blow. However, as Peter ate, his normal placidity gradually returned. When fully satisfied he would say leaning back with a smile and a sigh of satisfaction.
"Now a little child might play mit me." To show how little surnames counted for in those days I will mention a trifling incident. My tent mate among the New Zealanders went by the name of Bill. One Saturday afternoon I remained at the tent, the other members of the party having gone down to the Lower Camp; a native brought up a parcel containing a blanket and addressed to "Mr. William Bogis." I sent the boy away, saying that I did not know of any one bearing that name. Next day Bill was swearing at the storekeeper for not having sent up a blanket he had bought. I innocently related what had happened, and then Bill swore at me. "Mr. William Bogis" had been my tent-mate for several weeks and I was unaware of the fact.
In 1889, when traveling from Kimberley to Johannesburg by coach, I picked up an old newspaper at a wayside hotel. In it was a paragraph giving an account of how a prospector named William Bogis had been blown to pieces in a shaft somewhere in Northern Bechuanaland. I have no doubt this related to my old mate.
A very curious character at Pilgrim's Rest was a man named Fabayne, whose dwelling-place was a cave under a cliff about half-way up the creek on the northern side. Fabayne was well-connected, his father was a Church dignitary, a dean, I fancy and was evidently well off; for he allowed the scapegrace son 200 per annum, paid quarterly. Fabayne was a university man and an accomplished scholar, but he had gone the pace at an unusually rapid rate. When I knew him he was a hopeless drunkard.
Whenever Fabayne drew a 50 installment he would place 45 in the hands of the keeper of a certain bar, and 5 with a butcher whose shop was in the vicinity. He would then get drunk and remain so as long as the 45 lasted. During the continuance of his spree it was his custom to remain on the bar premises night and day, and to stand treat to all and sundry. It was understood that the bar-keeper was to fire him out as soon as the deposit became exhausted. This usually happened in about three weeks. He would then return to his cave.
The 5 was meant to keep him in food and clothes until the next installment fell due. He used to fetch a sheep's pluck every day and make soup of it in a billy. The butcher used his own discretion in the matter of clothes, but when Fabayne grew more than ordinarily ragged I fancy the bar-keeper contributed towards his outfit, a thing he could, under the circumstances, well afford to do.
A complete inventory of the belongings of this strange being would have included a pick, a shovel, a pan, and an old sluice-box, none of which he ever used, also a blanket, a big knife, a billy, and a Greek Testament. The cave, although draughty, was comfortable and fairly dry. Now and then I shared it with Fabayne; generally on those occasions when I sold my tent. He was a charming companion, not alone was he exceedingly well-read, but he was sympathetic and helpful to a degree. I have many a time seasoned my mealie porridge with his pluck soup, and found the seasoning good.
When "getting off" after one of his quarterly sprees, Fabayne's habits were apt to be trying to one like myself, without an allowance, and who had to work hard and constantly to keep body and soul together. For instance, he would sometimes sit half the night through, at the mouth of the cave, declaiming Sophocles. I could not understand a word he uttered, but his elocution was good, his voice was well modulated, and the sonorous periods of the choruses from the "Antigone" and the "Elektra" were effective by virtue of their mere sound.
This sort of thing was all very well up to about nine o'clock; after that, however, it became annoying. But it was impossible to stop him. I used to pelt him with fairly heavy stones, and although I must sometimes have hurt him rather severely, he took no notice. Fabayne admitted that he was deliberately drinking himself to death; trying to argue him out of this intention proved to be of not the slightest avail.
I recall a wedding which had a sequel very characteristic of its environment. A certain digger his name has escaped me, although I knew the man well married a rather pretty girl. The ceremony took place in a little church that had recently been built near the Middle Camp, and in which the Rev. Mr. B used occasionally used to officiate. This church stood on a small knoll, a straight pathway leading steeply up to it from the creek.
By common consent every one within sight struck work and assembled close to the church for the purpose of giving the bride and bridegroom a cheer on their emerging. I should say that from thirty to forty men lined the pathway on each side. Nearly every one had provided himself with an old boot for the occasion. After the knot had been tied the happy couple passed down the hill between the lines of their cheering friends. Then, at a given signal, we all let fly the boots in a volley taking care, of course, that neither bride nor bridegroom was hit. Then one man picked up a fairly heavy boot from where it had fallen and deliberately hurled it at the bride, striking her on the back. The perpetrator of this outrage was, needless to say, a discarded suitor.
The bridegroom turned round, took off his coat which he handed to the bride to hold and rolled up his sleeves. He knew quite well who had thrown the missile. A ring was at once formed, and the fight began. It only lasted, however, for three rounds. The bridegroom was victorious; he escaped without a scratch. The other man was, as he richly deserved to be, severely punished. It was, however, just as well for him that this was the case, otherwise we would have ducked him in the muddiest tail race within reach. As the victor marched off with his proud mate he received an immense ovation. I regret to have to record the fact that the officiating parson was taken down to Tom Craddock's bar and there made very drunk indeed.
When I camped near the Big Rock on Slater's Claim there lived, on the flat where the creek widened out under Gardiner's Point, an American named Knox. He was a tall, swarthy man of immensely powerful physique. Originally a sailor from, I think, Martha's Vineyard, he had deserted from his ship in the early days of the diamond-fields.
Knox was a quiet, inoffensive man, except when under the influence of drink. Then he was, in local parlance, "a holy terror." He would get a keg of Mauritius rum, a most ferocious intoxicant, open it, fasten up his tent, and go to bed. For several days thereafter Knox would not be dangerous, unless you tripped over the tent-ropes or tried to open the tent. However, he eventually reached a stage during which if he heard footsteps anywhere in his vicinity he would fire his revolver in the direction of the sound. The canvas sides of his tent were riddled with bullet-holes, I only remember one case in which damage actually resulted, it was that of a native who got a bullet through the calf of his leg.
After a time people "in the know" avoided the vicinity of Knox's tent whenever he was on the spree. Sometimes, when in the later stages of his cups, Knox would fire in all directions apparently for the purpose of relieving his feelings. However, as there were no tents very close to his, this did not matter so very much. Many a time have I heard the old Colt revolver barking at intervals through the evening, but the performance was taken quite as a matter of course. One would merely say to another:
"Hullo, there's Knox at it again. I suppose he'll be out to-morrow or the day after."
I remember something which caused much comment early in 1875. I can vouch for the details, so far as I relate them. On New Year's Night, 1874, three men met at a bar known as "The Half-way House," which stood where the creek narrowed and made a sharp turn a few hundred yards above the Middle Camp. The late John Barrington, afterwards of Knysna, was one, another was a man named Marshall, the name of the third I have forgotten.
Just before midnight they drank to a profane and senseless toast, "Before this day twelve months may we all die in a tail-race and be covered by tailings." "Tailings" are the waste products of the sluice-box, the sand and gravel carried away by the stream of water which flows over the "ripples."
About four months afterwards the man whose name I have forgotten was out prospecting among the higher ranges to the north of the creek. He fell ill and endeavored to return to camp, but a bitterly cold rain set in and he perished miserably. Soon afterwards Marshall, who had been in the Low Country, went down with fever. The attack was comparatively light, so he soon got better. But one dark night, while still somewhat weak, he went out to visit a friend. Not far from the tent of the latter a "head-race," which is not just the same as a "tail-race," had recently been dug. As the digging had been effected while Marshall was laid up, he was unaware of the existence of the excavation.
The head-race was about eight feet deep; it was wide at the top, but it narrowed down to about a foot's-breadth at the bottom. Into this chasm poor Marshall fell headlong, and his shoulders jammed where the channel narrowed. Owing to weakness he was unable to extricate himself, and his head, being downward, damned the water up so that it drowned him. The tent of the friend he had intended to visit stood close by. This man noticed that the flow of the water stopped several times and then went on again with a rush. This was caused by the struggles of the unhappy Marshall as he was drowning.
Nothing happened to John Harrington, whom I met fourteen years afterwards in Cape Town, but in view of the two fatalities he was somewhat uneasy until the following New Year's Day had arrived.
Another terrible accident was the one in which a friend of mine named Blenkins lost his life. I have a very clear recollection of the circumstances. The thing happened on the afternoon of the day on which I returned from the "rush" to Rotunda Creek.
Blenkins was working on the high terrace known as Gardiner's Point. A large quartzite boulder it was afterwards found to measure nearly thirty tons stood embedded in the face of the claim, about three feet above bedrock. This boulder had been stripped on one side.
Many attempts had been made towards causing it to drop forward, with the view of rolling it down the face of the terrace. No one knew, of course, how much of it was still concealed by the yet undisturbed gravel. Poor Blenkins very unadvisedly sat down before it and began loosening the wash underneath with a driving-pick. Suddenly the boulder fell forward and pinned him to the bedrock, from the waist downwards. I was at work in the creek below. I heard a shout and saw men running from every direction up the face of the terrace. I joined the stream. I shall never forget what I saw when I reached the scene of the accident. It was hours before we succeeded in shifting the boulder. We only managed this by excavating a pit in the bedrock and rolling the monster into it. Whilst doing this two other men nearly lost their lives.
My poor friend was alive and conscious all the time. The only mercy was that he did not suffer physically; he was too badly crushed. He died soon after being released. Blenkins was extremely popular. His tent stood within about fifteen yards of mine.
The professional digger of those days was a being sui generis. Shrewd, frugal, industrious, and capable of taking care of himself while in his accustomed environment, he was apt to become as helpless as a child when he reached unfamiliar surroundings. Thus, a successful digger wishing to invest his "pile" was often the prey of the first specious rogue he met.
Poor Alick Dempster! All old Pilgrims will remember him and the rich little "pocket" he struck close to John Barrington's claim, and just below the "Half-way House." Dempster was a digger of the old school. He disbelieved in banks, so always kept his gold in his tent. Whenever he wished to go anywhere, no matter what the distance, he walked. He preferred nuggets and "dust" to notes or specie; when he made a purchase he liked to weigh out the equivalent of the price across the counter from his chamois leather bag. He usually got drunk on Saturday night, but not to such an extent as to lose his reason.
After his "pocket" had been worked out Dempster decided to revisit his native country, Scotland. So he entertained his friends at a farewell banquet, packed his swag with 220 ounces of gold carefully secured in the middle and started on a tramp to Durban. A lot of his friends accompanied him to the Blyde River Drift, and there gave him a parting cheer. Even now I can see him sturdily walking up the hill after he had crossed the river, and pausing to wave his hat to us in farewell.
Dempster arrived safely in Durban and booked his passage to England. But the enforced idleness on the voyage preyed on his mind; the strange surroundings irked him; he took to drink badly. One day, when in the Bay of Biscay, he rushed on deck carrying his leather bag of gold. After flinging this into the sea he leaped over-board. Dempster was fished out; the gold, of course, went to the bottom.
A few months afterwards a striking and realistic picture of poor Alick Dempster's escapade occupied the place of honor in the Police News. Little detail was given, what there was resembled a nightmare. Just touching the water and causing a tremendous splash was a conventionally, designed gold-bag labeled "800." In the air, descending from the ship's rail, in what the late Lewis Carroll would have described as an Anglo-Saxon attitude, was a figure purporting to be Alick himself, but it was hardly a recognizable portrait.
This work of sensational art caused great excitement in the camp. There was only one copy, and that was in immense demand so much so that the owner found himself suddenly famous. Prompted by a simple desire to be obliging, he pasted the picture on the lid of a packing-case, and printed the legend "This is Alick Dempster" beneath it in large letters. A native was hired to carry the board up and down the creek, beating an old tin billy to attract attention. This thoughtful proceeding was much appreciated. One may wonder as to how it struck the native.
Expedition to Delagoa Bay—A rencontre at Constantinople—Morisot and the lion—Game in the Low Country—The Barber encampment—Lion's attack by daylight—Lions in the donga—The lion's voice—Ways of the lion—The lion an eater of carrion—Tyrer and the buffalo—Veld fires—A piece of bad luck—The Low Country rivers—Snakes—Hyenas—Louren Marques—Funeral of Pat Foote—Discovery of gold near Blyde River—Anticipated affluence Disappointment
I am here met by the difficulty that many of my exploring, hunting, and prospecting adventures during the years 1874 and 1875 have been described in one or other of my published works, either as stated fact or fact disguised as fiction. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to recall a few as yet unrecorded reminiscences of adventure by flood and field during that period.
In June, 1874, I joined an expedition to Delagoa Bay, which was organized by President Burgers for the purpose of convoying ammunition and other war materials to Pretoria. An attack upon Sekukuni, the Baphedi chief, had been decided on. This, however, was not attempted until nearly two years had elapsed. The undertaking was a difficult one, and involved some interesting experiences, but as I have already published an account of it under the title of "A Forgotten Expedition," [In "By Veld and Kopje."] I cannot deal with the episode here, in detail.
Quite recently I came across a reminiscence of this trip in an unexpected quarter. In his "Recollections" Mr. David Christie Murray relates how, when dining at the Hotel Misseri, in Constantinople, at the time of the Russo Turkish War, he witnessed a meeting between a French officer, Captain Tiburce Morisot, and Archibald Campbell afterwards known as "Schipka" Campbell. These men recognized each other as having met in South Africa, the occasion being a visit of Campbell to Morisot's camp, and the roasting of a giraffe's heart at the camp-fire.
I happened to be present at the occurrence evidently referred to; the episode took place on the very expedition which I mentioned above. But the detail as given to Mr. Murray is quite wrong. The party was not composed of "Frenchmen cutting a military road," nor was Morisot in charge of it. He was, as a matter of fact, merely one of the gang, the same as I was. We were on convoy duty near the Komati River. It was a marrow-bone and not the heart that was roasted. I have a very clear recollection of the incident. The skin of the giraffe was the largest I have ever seen; it had been found necessary to cut it in two before it could be removed.
Morisot, by the way, had a startling adventure with a lion. We were camped at the Crocodile River Drift; lions were more plentiful in the neighborhood than I have ever known them elsewhere; all night long they growled or gruntled around our encampment. The river bank, close to the water, was very sandy, and the spoor on the sand strip, which lay about two hundred yards from the wagons, showed that many lions used to pass to and fro over it every night. It was our habit to light six large fires as soon as the sun went down.
Morisot said he wanted to shoot a lion, so one day he dug a shallow pit in the sand, within about twenty yards of the water. Just before nightfall he took his rifle and went away in the direction of the drift. Nothing happened for a couple of hours; then we heard the sound of approaching footsteps evidently of some one running and husky gasps. Shortly afterwards Morisot, minus his rifle and hat, rushed into camp. He was in a condition of ghastly terror; his jaw had dropped, his face was ashen, his eyes were glazed. He tottered to his sleeping place and crept under the blankets.
Morisot could never be induced to tell us what had happened to him. Next morning, however, we found the spoor of a very large lion at the edge of the pit. My own idea is that Morisot went to sleep and was awakened by the lion growling within a few inches of his face. One could hardly blame him for being demoralized under such circumstances.
Those who nowadays travel by rail through the denuded tract between Delagoa Bay and the Drakensberg can form no idea as to the marvelous richness of animal life on those plains in the early seventies. More especially was this the case in the level wooded area extending from the inland slope of the Lebomba Range to Ship Mountain. Blue wildebeeste and quagga were so plentiful that we seldom wasted ammunition on them. Buffalo abounded, sometimes in very large herds. Waterbuck were always to be found near the rivers. Elephants existed, but were very wild and usually were scarce. Giraffe were numerous, but difficult to approach on foot.
The Komati and the Crocodile were then wide, swiftly flowing streams; in winter their water was crystal clear. Along their banks the dense, evergreen boskage lay soft and rich as velvet. In these enchanted thickets koodoo, sable, and other beautiful antelopes of the rarer varieties were always to be found. Impala were as numerous in the areas lying along the river courses as were springbucks on the upland southern plains.
Shooting stories are proverbially as unreliable as fishing ones. I have hitherto avoided relating my own slaying experiences. They do not, I suppose, differ from those of other men who followed big game in the days when rifles had not reached anything like their present pitch of deadly perfection. I think, however, that every old hunter might tell of things he has seen which would be interesting enough if he only could get people to believe them. Personally I could relate some which, although literally true, are so grossly improbable that I candidly confess I would not believe them myself had I not seen them happen.
I will give a specimen of these Munchausen-like anecdotes, just to show the reader how well-advised I have been in suppressing the series. On one occasion, when camped about ten miles from Ship Mountain, one of my friends among the Balala [Landless and weaponless waifs who wander over uninhabited tracts. Lit., "people who are dead."] came in to report that a very fine tsessaby bull was to be found in a kloof some four miles away. The meat of the tsessaby is more delicious than that of any other game, so I went forth without delay. My gun was a double-barreled one, the left barrel taking a Snider cartridge and the right a cartridge with a round bullet, only to be used at close quarters.
Before I had gone five hundred yards from the camp I noticed two very large blue wildebeest bulls on my left. They were not more than two hundred and fifty yards away. According to all precedent they should have decamped at once. Instead of doing this, however, they kept a course more or less parallel to mine. Suddenly, however, they turned and came towards me in a most threatening manner, so much so that my Balala companion climbed into a tree and I laid myself prone behind an ant-hill, covering the leading animal with my rifle. They, stood at a distance of about eighty yards. I fired, hitting the leader just where the neck sank into the chest; he fell dead.
The other wildebeest ran away for about fifty yards; then he wheeled round and stood facing me. Just as I was about to fire he turned and stood broadside on, gazing at the carcass of his mate. I fired, aiming just behind the shoulder. The bullet "klopped" hard. The animal reeled, ran about fifty yards to my right, and once more stood, again broadside on. Again I fired, and once more the bullet "klopped." Then the wildebeest made a swift rush for about sixty yards and collapsed. After falling it lay perfectly still.
I found that my bullets had struck within two inches of each other. I cut the carcass open and found that both bullets had pierced the heart, not alone pierced it, but torn it to literal ribbons of flesh.
The critical reader, especially if he has ever hunted big game, will find that the foregoing tale contains three improbabilities and a manifest impossibility. Although the circumstances happened exactly as related, I do not expect to be believed.
About four miles to the north of our camp, near Ship Mountain, was a leegte several miles long and of varying breadth. It was more or less full of reeds; it also contained several extensive patches of low, dense jungle. This leegte was the main refuge for lions which ranged over a large extent of surrounding country; every morning their fresh spoors could be traced to it. But owing to the density of the cover they were seldom seen. On one occasion a hunt was organized by our people acting in conjunction with a party of hunters who were camped about fifteen miles away, and who had lost some oxen through lions, whose spoor had been followed to one of the jungle-patches.
The marauders had been traced to one end of the cover, so we put in some beaters between where we supposed them to be and the rest of the reed-jungle area. The beaters lit a row of small fires along the line they occupied. Eventually a lion broke to the open, like a driven buck, close to where one of the hunters was standing. The latter fired, and hit the lion in the tail.
The effect of the wound was very startling. No longer was the lion a shrinking fugitive, disgusted at having been disturbed before his meal of the previous night had been digested, and only anxious to get to some other hiding place. Now he was a tornado of fury with flaming eyes, gleaming teeth, and erect mane. Emitting short, coughing thunder-growls of wrath, he charged straight for the one who had fired the shot.
The man dropped down his rifle and sprang into the branches of a tree. The latter was too small to afford complete safety. The lion began springing at the demoralized hunter, trying to claw him from his insecure refuge. However, a skilful shot from another member of the party brought the furious brute to the dust. A surprising sequel to the incident was this: the man who had fled up the tree claimed the lion's skin, on the score that he had drawn first blood.
About fifteen miles away from one of our camps was that of the Barbers and Cummings, old Kaffrarian friends of mine. I once walked over to see them. A sort of kraal-fence of horns around their encampment was evidence of the splendid sport they had enjoyed. Mr. Hilton Barber had had a narrow escape a few days previously. When on horseback he had been charged by a wounded buffalo. Mr. Barber was flung off. His horse was killed, but the buffalo fell to a well-directed bullet fired from the fallen rider while the poor horse was still impaled on the cruel horns.
The Barber party had encountered few, if any, lions up to the time of my visit. A few days afterwards, however, a remarkable thing occurred. The encampment being outside the tsetse fly area, the party had brought both cattle and horses with them. One day all the hunters were away on horseback. The oxen, in charge of a native herd, were grazing hi the immediate vicinity of the wagons. In the middle of the forenoon a troop of lions came up openly and deliberately, and attacked the cattle, killing several. One or two were pulled down on the very edge of the camp. This was an almost unprecedented occurrence.
One very important incident of my visit was the gift to me of a pair of boots by Mr. Hilton Barber. I had, for weeks previously, been using sandals of buffalo hide, and my feet used to get terribly scarred by thorns. I shall never forget the comfort of that pair of boots.
Our camp, some ten miles to the westward of Ship Mountain, was almost on the edge of a donga, with sheer sides about ten feet deep. At the bottom was a water-hole the only one within a radius of many miles. On pitch-dark nights the lions would often come up this donga to drink. It was eerie, indeed, to lie in the flimsy tent listening to the growls and gulps of the great brutes within less than ten yards of where we lay. I often tried to muster up courage to light a flare, creep to the edge of the donga, and try a shot. By daylight the idea seemed feasible enough, and not very dangerous. But I never got so far as to translate this idea into action. There is, I think, nothing so calculated to imbue one with a sense of personal insignificance as the knowledge, on a dark night, that lions are in one's immediate vicinity.
Leaving the brazen toned roar, which is but seldom heard, out of the question, the lion's ordinary voice seems to be emitted by some being of incalculable immensity. It resembles a series of deep, half-smothered detonations linked together by querulous gruntle. It is difficult to realize that the sound originates from anything less huge than a mammoth.
Three times only have I heard a lion roar wrathfully. The sound is harsh and shattering, and is pitched in a higher key than that of the growl. To me the growl was far more awe-inspiring than the roar; it carried a suggestion of stealth combined with latent ferocity and unimaginable force in reserve. The adjective "thunderous" does not fit the roar at all; the latter suggests, more than anything else, the tones of a mighty, cavernous brass trumpet. Most terrifying, however, is the suspicion that a lion is silently padding round your camp just before daybreak, debating with himself as to whether he will or will not attack.
Yes, it was "when the phantom of false morning died" that I always dreaded the lion. Indeed, in the early part of the night, when the awesome voices were audible often in several directions at once, there was little or no danger. But just before dawn the silence suggested sinister possibilities. An examination of the ground after day had broken would occasionally show that a lion had circled round the camp over and over again, apparently unable to key up his courage to the attacking pitch. But experience shows that the lion sometimes does attack, and when this happens it is almost invariably in the dark interval just before the east begins to pale.
The reason for this is easily discovered if one looks at the thing from the lion's point of view. I am convinced that leaving out the cases in which a lion is a confirmed man-eater, is wounded, or is cornered this animal never attacks man unless (1) when it is too old or stiff to catch and pull down game, or (2) when game of every description simultaneously vacates a given area and stampedes to a great distance, a thing which not infrequently happens.
Here, then, we have a desperately hungry brute; he may, possibly, have gone several days without food. He winds a camp of human beings, creatures he knows to be edible but which, I firmly believe, he hates the idea of eating as much as the ordinary man would hate the idea of eating a monkey. But the lion has been prowling all night, has perhaps prowled for a succession of hungry nights, and he knows that day is at hand. Moreover, he knows that at dawn the last chance of his having a meal will have gone.
Accordingly a conflict is set up in his mind. His dislike of human flesh plus that dread of the human species which he shares with the whole brute creation is on the one side, his ravening hunger on the other. Increase the hunger-pressure to a certain pitch, and the lion will attack. I have not forgotten that "The Man-Eaters of Tsavo" used to take their human toll early in the evening, but not alone had they deliberately adopted man-eating, so to say, as a profession, but long impunity had made them careless.
I knew a man who once lay sleeping in a patrol tent near Pretorius Kop on the Delagoa road. The night was chill, so he folded a gunny bag over his feet to keep them warm. In the morning, at the critical time, something seized him by the foot and pulled him out of the tent. He knew at once what had happened, a lion had caught hold of him. Close to where he lay stood a billy half full of cold tea. He grasped this in passing, and, as soon as he was clear of the tent, belabored the lion over the face with it. The brute dropped him and made off. The man's ankle was slightly bruised, but the skin was not broken. This proved clearly that the lion was an old one with teeth worn down to mere stumps.
The first time I heard a lion roar was when two of them had pulled down a sick ox about a hundred yards from my tent. Another lion approached, and the two in possession roared apparently to warn off the intruder. It was from the spoors, which I examined after day had broken, that I inferred the details. To judge by the tracks the last-comer was a very old animal.
The next occasion was when a donkey, which was tied to a tree within four paces of where I was sitting over a very small fire, was carried off. Two lions sprang on the poor animal simultaneously; they made no sound until they had dragged their prey into the bush, a distance of about twenty yards. Then they roared together, their raucous voices mingling in a most peculiar and awe-inspiring duet. Very soon they dragged the carcass to a spot about forty yards farther on, where they ate it. They roared at intervals during the repast probably as a warning to me not to interfere with them. The third instance happened when a lioness was shot through the spine and thus disabled. Her voice was the most terrible of all.
There are many instances recorded among the natives of lions becoming habitual man-eaters. I have heard of whole communities being broken up by the brutes. It was useless for the unfortunate people to move from one spot to another, as the man-eaters invariably followed them. The Amangwane horde wandered for eight years mostly over the plains of the Orange Free State after having been driven out by Tshaka. It was related to me by some of the few survivors of that awful pilgrimage with whom I have foregathered, that for years man-eating lions followed them, taking toll of the unhappy stragglers. After a time this was taken quite as a matter of course.
I have often seen it stated that lions will not eat carrion. This is quite erroneous; I am inclined to think that they occasionally prefer meat that is tainted. I have known them gorge at the carcass of an ox which had died of tsetse bite, and which had lain putrefying for several days, when there were sick oxen in the immediate vicinity to be had for the mere trouble of killing.
I was one of those who, in 1874, rescued the fever stricken Alexandre party from their ghastly camp on the seaward slope of the Lebomba. Of the original eight members, three were dead, and the survivors were so weak and spent that they were unable to do more in the matter of interment than scoop shallow trenches within a few yards of the shelter, lay the bodies of their dead companions therein, and cover them up with sand. Yet these were unearthed several times by lions, which grew so fearless that the firing of a shot would not always scare them away. Once the lions came up and regarded the unfortunate beings in broad daylight, and then, as though they had deliberately made a choice, proceeded to unearth a corpse.
Most of this took place during the absence of the one member of the party who was still able to move about, but as he had to fetch water every day in a demijohn from a spot eight miles distant, he was usually away. However, the account of their experiences given by the sick men was amply corroborated by awful but quite indescribable evidence.
The rencontre of Morisot and Campbell at Constantinople reminds me of a somewhat similar experience. When I was camped near Ship Mountain, a messenger arrived one night from the camp of the hunters recently alluded to, asking whether we had, by any chance, a man among us possessing any surgical knowledge. One of the party, a man named Tyrer, had been gored by a buffalo and badly hurt. Unfortunately we could give no assistance such as was needed.
The accident had been a peculiar one; not alone was the nature of the injury unusual, but so were the circumstances under which it had been inflicted. Tyrer, on his way to the camp late in the afternoon, had wounded a very large buffalo. On the following morning he went to the locality where the animal had disappeared, with the intention of taking up the spoor. Here the jungle was very dense. Suddenly he came face to face with the creature he was seeking. It charged, and was upon him before he had time even to lift his rifle. Tyrer dropped the latter, and, with the strength of desperation, grasped the horns of the monster close to their tips.
Then began a terrible wrestling match. The buffalo was exceptionally large, probably it was old and correspondingly stiff, for on no other grounds can one account for Tyrer having been able to save his life. Gross and unwieldy as it looks, the buffalo in its prime is as active as a cat. But Tyrer's antagonist was apparently unable to bend its neck, and get its head beneath its chest, so Tyrer was for a time able to hold on. His native bearer had dropped the spare gun and climbed into a tree.
At length Tyrer was shaken off and flung in a heap on the ground. In an instant the buffalo picked him up on one of its horns, flung him into the air and rushed away. The result to poor Tyrer was a terrible injury one which I do not care to describe. Some weeks later the injured man was carried past our camp on a litter. He was afterwards conveyed to Natal, and thence to Europe, where a skilful operation set him right.
In 1889 I went to Johannesburg. While there I met an old friend, Charles Currey, then head of the Department of Lands and Mines, in the Cape Civil Service. We arranged to take a trip together to a place called Struben's Mill, which lay behind some hills on the right-hand side of the Main Reef to westward of the Golden City. Currey was bent on sketching; I on collecting ferns. The afternoon grew hot, and we longed for a cup of tea. Seeing a house high up on the hillside, with smoke issuing from its chimney, we decided to call there and try our luck.
We were hospitably received by the man in charge; he at once provided the desired refreshment. He and I found that we knew a great deal of the same country, so we began exchanging reminiscences. I told the story about Tyrer, and added that I had often wondered as to what had become of him. Our host, who had listened to my long relation with an impassive face, then remarked
"Yes; you have got the yarn pretty right. My name is Tyrer."
I shall never forget Currey's look of astonishment.
Veld fires were occasionally things to be reckoned with in the Low Country. Looking from the cliff-crest of the mountain range over the immense plains, one was apt to think that these were covered with dense, continuous forest. But a closer acquaintance corrected this impression. There was little jungle, but there were many large trees and these usually stood somewhat far apart. When among them it was, as a rule, possible to get a clear view over a radius of about two hundred yards. Now and then one reached an area in which the trees were very high indeed, with clean boles running to a height of thirty to forty feet. But the ground was covered with long, coarse grass, which was tinted a soft green in summer, but in winter was yellow and dry. At all seasons the haulms were so hard that the toes of one's boots wore out with distressing quickness. It was in winter that the grass fire became a real danger.
Great tracts perhaps hundreds of square miles in extent might be swept by a conflagration. If, during the course of one of these, the wind happened to be blowing towards you from the direction of the fire, the danger was apt to become real and imminent. There was only one alternative; you had either at once to find some spot comparatively clear of grass and there wait until the flame-storm had swept past, or else to set the grass alight where you were and then take refuge on the burnt area.
Occasionally the trees caught alight and afforded striking spectacles at night. I think that when this happened the tree was very old, and a considerable portion of the trunk, from the ground upwards, was decayed. I remember once noticing an extremely large tree which had caught alight from a grass fire that had swept past. I returned along the same track more than six weeks afterwards. The grass was springing up luxuriantly, it had reached a height of several inches. But the tree was still burning. I camped near it; the tall, massive trunk, glowing on the windward side like a column of ignited charcoal and sending out a great tress of flame to leeward, was a sight never to be forgotten.
The unfortunate balala "the people who are dead" those miserable fugitives from savage justice, or, more often, remnants of clans scattered in war, often perished in veld conflagrations. They wandered, naked and weaponless, in the neutral areas lying between the territories of the different tribes, preferring the mercy of the lion and the hyena to that of man. The appliances of these people for kindling a fire, and thus sending the conflagration on for the purpose of creating a zone of safety, were often quite inadequate for dealing with a sudden emergency.
I only know of one instance of a white man falling a victim to a veld fire. I forget this individual's name, although I knew him well. He, seeing the flames approaching, reached what he thought was a place of safety, for the grass was very sparse, and he reckoned on being able to beat out the fire as it approached him. But he had not taken into account the contingency of the wind freshening and flinging forward sheets of flame from the places where the grass was longer. This actually happened. He got badly, but not fatally, scorched. A search-party found him and he was assisted back to camp. Next day he was placed in a rough litter and carried by four natives in the rear of the little caravan. The day was sultry, and he suffered great pain, so he persuaded the natives to set down the litter in a shady place, meaning to get them to carry him on when the afternoon cooled.
The rest of the party proceeded on its course, unaware that the injured man had been left behind. A grass fire was seen to sweep over the country just crossed, but no particular notice was taken of it. In this fire the unhappy loiterer had been burnt to death. His bearers, when they saw the flames approaching, lost their heads, and, instead of burning a patch to be used as a refuge, fled. There are, surely, few cases on record of such bad luck as this.
The most enchanting scenery in the Low Country was to be found in the vicinity of the rivers. These, considering that they are African, do not lie very far apart. Yet sometimes there were long stretches of waterless country to be traversed, and severe suffering from thirst was a possibility occasionally realized. Besides, as we were practically explorers in a country without human inhabitants or recognizable landmarks, we might unwittingly pass the bend of a winding river and thus recede from badly needed water. The general landscape was, as a rule, so flat, and the trees were so high, that one could draw no inference as to the whereabouts of a river from the configuration of the country.
But what joy it was, after a long, hot, fatiguing tramp, during which water had to be doled out in sips, to reach a mighty stream, perhaps several hundred yards wide, where one might drink one's fill, wash the grime from one's clothes and person, and loll in the shade of lordly trees.
In writing of those old days I find it hard to realize that the localities described are still in existence. I suppose the rivers are yet running in the old channels, but as the rainfall has been steadily decreasing they are not likely to be today the full, impetuous torrents of liquid crystal that I remember. Moreover, the game, that rapidly moving, kaleidoscopic pageant of varied animal life which made their forested banks a wonder and a joy, has disappeared.
Of all the lovely scenes through which I have wandered, the landscapes along the Olifant and the Letaba dwell in my memory as the loveliest. In those one-time almost inviolate retreats were to be found everything best calculated to delight the heart of the hunter or the lover of nature. I am, of course, assuming winter as the season, for in summer the worm "that pierces the liver and blackens the blood" made these regions almost uninhabitable for Europeans. But from June to October, inclusive, the country was healthy, the sky rarely held a cloud, the sun shone mildly, and the night was seldom, if ever, cold.
Although the banks of the Low Country rivers were usually heavily wooded, one found here and there wide grassy glades opening to the waterside. The country being flat, the river-courses were usually wide, with many large rocks standing high out of the water. Between these the streams eddy and wind. Sometimes one would camp near a rapid, and below this a deep pool was invariably to be found; in such pools the sea-cows, snorting and champing, might sometimes be heard throughout the night.
The process of crossing rivers was believed to be dangerous on account of crocodiles, which were often to be seen in large numbers. These reptiles, however, seldom did any damage except in the vicinity of a native kraal, where they used occasionally to seize women and children who came down to fill their pots and calabashes with water. I once saw a dog taken by one; at least, I assumed that such was the case. The dog was swimming across a deep channel between two shallows when it gave a yelp and disappeared. There were many crocodiles in the river where this happened.
The rivers were full of fish, but I never carried any tackle, so could not catch any. But the natives of the lower reaches of the Olifant, the Letaba, and the Limpopo often spear them. Snakes I seldom saw in the Low Country. This may be accounted for by the circumstance that most of my wanderings there took place in winter. During the course of my various trips I did not see more than seven or eight snakes altogether.
Curiously enough, I saw three of these within the space of a few minutes. Near the Lower Letaba I reached a circular depression the end of a long, winding, dry water-course late one afternoon. The spot was so beautiful that I decided to camp there, instead of going on several miles farther, as I had intended. In the depression was a clear pool surrounded by great rocks and tall trees. The ground in the vicinity was carpeted with bright green grass.
After selecting a spot for my camp, I sent one of the bearers to collect fuel, and the other to fetch water for the purpose of making soup. The pool was less than fifty yards away. I heard the second bearer give a yell; then he came running back, shouting that he had seen a big snake. Picking up my rifle, I ran to the spot he indicated, and saw about six feet of thick python disappearing among the creepers which lay tangled over the rocks. I fired at the creature but missed it.
In returning to the camping-place I nearly trod on a large puff-adder; this I killed with a stone. Almost immediately afterwards the boy who had been sent for firewood came up with a vicious-looking black and yellow serpent squirming, broken-backed, on his stick. This was more than my nerves could stand, so after filling the billy and the canteens with water, we retired to a spot a few hundred yards away, up the hillside. Here the vegetation was less rank, so we felt safer.
Next morning, just before daybreak, we heard a lion killing close to the water. After day had fully broken, I went down and found some hyenas breakfasting on the remains of a waterbuck.
Sleep's worst enemy in the Low Country was the hyena. The voice of this beast is horrible; it begins with a guttural growl and ends with a high-pitched screech. Although cowardly to a degree, hyenas would often come to within less than a hundred yards of the fire. Occasionally they might be heard on several sides at once, uttering their unspeakable yells. We always noticed that the smell of roast meat attracted them; when meat was boiled, they were not nearly so troublesome. A shot would always send them scampering to a distance, but cartridges were not things to be wasted by the traveler in the Low Country.