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A Lonely Christmas | Lost Without Water in the African Veld

In December 1936 Harris, Richardson and their party were in the untracked wilderness desperately short of water. Christmas day brought the discovery of a fountain but also led to a near tragedy.

Three hours before that festive morn had dawned upon us, our search for water was renewed the moon enabling us to trace the waggon road, although at every step it was becoming less and less distinct. Arriving as the day broke, at the summit of a gentle ascent, which here disturbing the monotony of the otherwise uniformly level flat, had obstructed our view to the southward, another vast landscape presented itself to our gaze.

Endless meads, clad in a vernal and variegated robe of gay but scentless flowers, in whose presence the desert seemed to smile, spreading away before us, exhibited the motley confusion of a Turkey(1) carpet. One isolated tumulus(2) stood like a pineapple in the centre, and in the distance, three rectangular table topped mountains, of singularly uniform appearance, reminded the spectator of terraced barrack rooms shooting boxes perhaps, erected by the giants of olden times. Hair brained gnoos, careering over the plain, hailed our advance now stopping inquisitively to scrutinize the wagons then lashing their dark sides with their snowy tails(3), as they hastily retreated. Large troops of blesbucks(4), or white faced antelopes, a pied species that we had rarely met with before, likewise chequered the scene; and with herds of springbucks(5), quaggas and ostriches(6), announced the proximity of water. Presently, to our delight, we descried a reed encircled fountain at which after twenty- eight hours of total abstinence, the dying oxen were enabled to slake their terrible thirst. A strong calcareous deposit adhering to the vegetation, rendered the water extremely bitter to the taste, and it was by the exercise of the long whips alone that the cattle were prevented from plunging into the pool, before our casks had been filled.

The accidental, but important discovery of portions of a broken yoke key(7), here enabled the Hottentots to decide the knotty and long argued question, whether the outward bound tracks upon which we were proceeding, were those of Dutch(8), of Griqua(9) wagons. Opinion being now unanimous in favour of the former, it was determined to follow them as long as they should preserve a south westerly direction. The total absence of fuel obliged us after an hours halt, to continue our march over numerous salt pans, upon which herds of blesbucks were busily licking the crystallized efflorescence(10). Alarmed at our approach, vast troops of them were continually sweeping past against the wind, carrying their broad white noses close to the ground like a pack of harriers(11) in full cry. Never having killed any of these antelopes, and our stock of provisions requiring to be recruited, I mounted Breslar, my favorite Rozinante(12), and never heeding whither I sped dashed into the thick of them. The pineapple hill bore east about five miles, and I fancied was a never failing land mark to direct my return to the road, which although faint, could readily be distinguished by a practiced eye. Dealing death around, I continued to scour the plain, the herd before me increasing from hundreds to thousands, and reinforcements still pouring in from all directions, when crying  Hold, enough(13), I stayed my hand from slaughter. Having divested some of the slain from their brilliant parti coloured robes, and packed the spolia(14) on my horse, I set out to rejoin the waggons, but ah! How vainly did I seek for them. Again and again, I strained my eyes for the road, and cantered to and fro between the string of frosted salt pans, and the little hill, which, floating in the sea of mirage that environed me, seemed as if poised in the sky. The monotony of the landscape baffled all my attempts at recognition, and my search was utterly fruitless.

Every feature of the cone was precisely the same the table mountains were completely obscured by the vapour and in the constant recurrence of similar forms, I lost the points of the compass, and at last became totally bewildered.

To retrace my steps over plains so trampled by innumerable herds was clearly impossible. At one moment as if in mockery, a solitary Quagga, magnified ten thousand times by the treacherous mirage, loomed like the white tilt of a wagon; but my joy at the supposed discovery was invariably followed by the bitter disappointment. Again a group of pigmy Bushwomen(15), walking unnoticed among a herd of blesbucks, and seen through the same deceptive medium, personated our followers with the cattle. Alas! these too fled at my approach, and jabbered when I had overtaken them. Several hours had thus passed in idle search. Spent by fatigue and anxiety, my parched tongue rattling like a board against the palate of my mouth, I wandered on over flowery wastes, still lengthening as I advanced. Dry tanks(16) surrounded by a garden of pinks and marigolds(17), served only to increase my sufferings, but neither fount, nor pool, nor running stream, greeted my straining gaze. At length the refraction dissipating with the declining day, the three table topped mountains became again visible in the horizon. With the consoling reflection that at all events I was now advancing in the same direction as the caravan, I hastened forward, and before dusk, found myself not a little revived by a draught of the clearest water from a serpentine river flowing to the westward; the banks of which were trimmed with reeds and dwarf willows, while portions of its sandy bed were imprinted with the heavy foot steps of a troop of lions.

The mind becomes even more readily habituated to hardship and suffering than the body. Everything around me was vague and conjectural, and wore an aspect calculated to inspire despondency; yet I no sooner became convinced that I was actually lost in the heart of a howling wilderness, inhabited if at all, by barbarous and hostile tribes, than I felt fully prepared to meet the emergency. The setting sun having given me the bearing of the table mountains, considerably to the westward of south, it was evident that without being aware of it, I had crossed the road, and ridden too far to the eastward. In the hope of yet retrieving my error, I hurried down the river as fast as possible, but night closing in, I was fain to prepare for a bivouack among the bushes. The stars were completely concealed behind a clouded sky, and repeated flashes of lightning were accompanied by distant thunder. Having completed all my preparations, I was listening with breathless attention for the cracking of a whip, or the signal guns which I knew would be fired from the wagons, when to my inexpressible delight, a joyous beacon fire shone suddenly forth on the river. Upon consideration, I felt puzzled to account for its appearance in a spot which I had so recently passed, but concluding that the wagons had subsequently arrived there, I laid the flattering unction to my soul, and groped my way towards it. My disappointment and disgust may better be imagined that described when, by the light of the fire, I discovered a gang of Bushmen carousing over a carcase. I slunk silently back to my den, fully impressed with the necessity of remaining perfectly quiet, but scarcely hoping that my horse would be so fortunate as to escape the observation of these lynx eyed(18) vagabonds.

The uneasy snorting of my unfortunate steed, and his constant efforts to get loose, soon apprised me of the presence of lions at no great distance to windward, but the fear of attracting my two legged enemies to the spot prevented my kindling a fire for his protection or even for dressing a koorhaan(19) with which I had taken care to provide myself. Dying of hunger, and my girdle of famine(20) tightened to the last hole, I felt strangely tempted to devour my Christmas repast uncooked. About midnight however, having prepared a deep oven, I ventured to light a fire, and the fowl being duly baked and disposed of, I presently betook myself of sleep.

The following morning set in with tremendous rain. Drenched, cold, and cramped, I arose from my aquatic bed, and at once perceived that all hope of finding the trail of our wagons was at an end. The soil consisting chiefly of a red loamy earth from which the faintly marked tracks were easily obliterated, I resolved to follow the course of the river several miles further, to the westward; and then, should I fail in finding the wagons, to cross the country in a direct line to the conical hill, which was still a conspicuous land mark thus certainly intersecting the road, if indeed any traces of it remained, of which I began to be doubtful. To this programme I rigorously adhered, walking the greater part of the way to save my harassed steed, upon whose back I now contemplated the probability of having to seek my way to the Colony a probability which was mightily increased about sunset, when I found myself preparing to perfect my acquaintance with the cone, by roosting on its summit, In a deep cave dug by no mortal hand.

During this second days weary pilgrimage, scorched by the ardent and refected rays of a summer sun, I arrived at an extensive pond covered with water lilies, and bordered by a broad belt of flags and rushes. Hastily approaching the margin, I became suddenly ingulfed in a pit fall, six feet in depth, filled with mire and water, from which I extricated myself with inconceivable difficulty. On recovering my shoes out of the stiff blue clay at the bottom, I perceived that the whole tank was closely invested by a chain of these traps, which had been carefully covered over by my friends the Bushmen. Having shot a springbuck, I here scorched enough of the flesh to satisfy the cravings of hunger, and slinging a fine fat leg on either side of the saddle took up my nights lodging as already described, without having been able to discover the smallest traces of the road.

The night was serene and starlight. From the top of my stronghold I looked out upon the tranquil expanse beneath me and listened for hours to catch some friendly melody that might direct my bewildered footsteps. Where, alas! was the busy hum of men?(21) The shrill neighing of the wild ass, the bleat of the timid springbuck, or the bellow of the gnoo, with the deep- drawn distant sighing of a prowling lion, occasionally borne along upon the breeze, alone disturbed the grave like stillness of the wilderness! Seriously  did I now debate with myself upon the propriety of making for the Colony, instead of prolonging my search. It is true that every thing betwixt me and was wrapped in uncertainty, and that to arrive there I should have to pass alone through an unknown and inhospitable region, but on the other hand, I had already done all that human ingenuity could devise without the smallest success. I estimated my distance from the New Hantam(22), to be about two hundred miles ; and being well provided with ammunition,  there was a fair prospect of my being able to reach that district in six or seven days, unless the scarcity of game should oblige me to sacrifice my steed. Taking into consideration however, the long and dismal state of uncertainty that the measure would entail upon my companion, I finally determined to make one more huntsman like cast, before giving up the search in despair.

Another day dawned, and again I saddled my trusty beast, and struck into the pathless waste, intending to make a wide sweep to the northward and westward, where it was possible that rain might not have fallen. About noon, lifting up my eyes from the ground, on which they had vainly sought for any indication of the party having passed, to my inexpressible joy and delight, I recognized the sedge grown fountain at which we had breakfasted on Christmas morning! Vaulting into the saddle, I eagerly dashed towards the spot, and instantly hit upon the trail of our wagons, steadily following up which, I shortly fell in with a party of Bechuana(23) of both sexes, who proved to be members of the remnant of a tribe called Lihoya, and were engaged in eating up a blesbuck that had been caught in one of their pit- falls. Having, through the agency of a broken cigar, negotiated a treaty of alliance with these terrified savages, who as usual had fled on perceiving me, I pointed to the wheel tracks, and gave them by signs to understand that I was in search of my wagons. They instantly understood my meaning, and holding up both hands, pointed to the western horizon. The ladies, although very nervous at first, had in the mean time conceived a violent attachment for the brass buttons of my jacket pointing to them, and repeatedly exclaiming with dry mouths, Tullana, Tullana!(24)

Upon my presenting these, together with a knife with which their amputation had been performed, they became perfectly insane, and declared their intention of accompanying me in person for the purpose of receiving further presents. Placing myself under the willing guidance of this savage party, I struck across the plain, and in the course of another hour was within the sight of the waggons. Jaded and wayworn, it was with profound gratitude to a protecting Providence, that I thus found myself restored to the califa(25), after three days of anxious wandering over an unexplored and inhospitable wilderness.

Notes

1. The motley confusion of a Turkey carpet. The making of patterned carpets by knotting wool was and is a famous handicraft of the Middel Eastern countries. Their designs are symmetrical rather than confused when carefully studied.
2. Tumulus. Strictly an ancient burial mound, but here referring to a rounded hill.
3. Lashing their dark sides with their snowy tails. This description undoubtedly indicates the Black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou).
4. Blesbucks. The blesbok (Damaliscus albifrons) stands about 0.91 metres in height and is a very fast runner. So named because of a white patch which is a characteristic feature of its markings.
5. Springbucks. The springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) is a small and once very common antelope. It is a fine leaper.
6. Ostriches. (Struthio camelus). A large flightless bird indigenous to Africa. It was domesticated and farmed for the feathers from about 1860.
7. Yoke key. Used in the process of inspanning the oxen.
8. Dutch. Parties of Voortrekkers were moving in the area.
9. Griqua. A people resulting from intermarriage between European settlers and Hottentots. They had trekked before the Dutch colonists, settling on the borders of the Cape Colony.
10. Chrystalized efflorescence. This was a thick deposit of Sodium Chloride in a crystalline form produced by the evaporation of the water which once contained it. Salt licks were often resorted to by hunters who wished to lie in wait for game.
11. Harriers. A type of hunting dog.
12. Rozinante. A faithful horse originally the animal belonging to Don Quixote, the crack brained yet appealing idealist who was the hero of a book by the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (1547 1616). Don Quixote de la Mancha has exerted a great influence on Western European literature.
13. Hold, enough. Harris was certainly viewing himself in a heroic light! The phrase is from Macbeth V:V:62 and occurs when the desperate Macbeth engages in a last fight with a great rival.
Lay on Macduff
And damnd be him that first cries Hold, enough.
14. Spolia. Latin, meaning literally the skins of animals or, more generally , prey or booty.
15. Pigmy Bushwomen. The Bushman tribes with their stone- age hunting culture are regarded as the aboriginal inhabitants of Southern Africa. Both the adult men and woman are small, rarely growing taller than 1.22 metres. They posses great hunting and artistic skills but no ability for cultural assimilation. From the start they came into conflict with the advancing European settlers and Bantu tribes, and were often ruthlessly hunted out. Harriss portrayal of them a view typical of the time is unsympathetic. It is only more recently when they have become almost extinct that writers like Van der Post and Victor Pohl have tried to penetrate to the heart of their vivid, mysterious life-style spent in close communication with wild animals and nature.
16. Tanks. Lakes of pools.
17. Pinks and marigolds. Harris is so much the Englishman that he can think only of flowers at home to describe the otherwise nameless flora of the African veld.
18. Lynx-eyed vagabonds. Typical of Harriss unsympathetic attitude to the Bushman. The lynx or caracal (Felis caracal) is reputed to have excellent night- sight.
19. Koorhaan. A game- bird of the Bustard family (Otidae). They are handsome birds, can run fast, and live on a diet of large insects. The largest of the group, the Gom Pou can attain 18,16 kg. or more.
20. Girdle of famine The tribesmen of the interior commonly referred to their belts of Lambele straps or hunger girdles.
21. Busy hum of men.  A reference to John Miltons LAllegro, line 117.
22. New Hantam. An area just within the northern border of the Colony in the vicinity of Colesberg. It was well known for its salted horses.
23. A party of Bechuana. The Bechuana form the western cluster of the Sotho family of Bantu peoples.
24. Tullana, Tullana! In a note Harris gives the English translation of this exclamation as Buttons, buttons! Actually the woman were saying Fruits! Fruits! (Sotho)
25. Califa. Arabic word meaning a company of travelers.