A Dangerous Bridge Crossing
Departure for the Apingi country.—The Ovigue river.—Dangerous bridge to cross.—How the bridge was built.—Glad to escape drowning.—On the way.—Reach the Oloumy.
Yonder, in a northeasterly direction, lies a country where live a strange people called Apingi. The Ashira, who now and then visit the country, say that a large river flows through it, and that the river, which is called Ngouyai, runs also at the foot of the Nkoumou-Nabouali Mountains. On the banks of that large stream many strange tribes of men live, of whom they have heard, but have never seen.
Our evenings were often spent in talking about that strange country. It was said there was an immense forest between it and Ashira Land, and that there were paths leading to it through the jungle, which was believed to be very dense.
One morning I went to Olenda and said to him, "King, I wish to go to the Apingi country, and I want you to give me people to accompany me." The old man, with his little deep, sunken eyes, regarded me for a little while, for he seemed never tired of looking at me, then said, "Moguizi, you shall go to the Apingi country, and I will give you people who have been there to accompany you" And then he repeated his kombo, which I have given to you before, and returned to his hut.
If Olenda was not tired of looking at me, I must say that I was never tired of looking at him, for so old a person I had never seen in my life. I have often wondered if Olenda was not the oldest person living in the world. I believe he was.
When the king gave the order to get ready for my departure, great preparations were made. Food was collected and cooked for my trip, quantities of ripe plantain were boiled and then smoked, and then, the food being ready, the people came who had been ordered by the king to accompany me. Olenda gave me three of his sons, or, I should rather say, great-grandchildren. They were to be the leaders. Adouma, Quengueza's nephew, was the only stranger who was allowed to accompany me. This was a great favor, for the law was very strict in that land that no Commi should be permitted to go farther than the Ashira Land. Macondai was too small. I was afraid he would die from the hardships we should encounter in the jungle. Olenda was to take care of him.
The names of Olenda's three great-grandchildren were Minsho, Iguy, and Aiaguy. Minsho, being the eldest, was to be the chief.
It was a bad time of the year to start, for we were in the beginning of December. It rained every day, and tornadoes coming from that very Apingi country blew over us toward the sea. All the rivers were rising. In the valleys there was a great deal of water, but the prairie looked very green and beautiful. For the last few days it had been raining almost without intermission, and we had to delay our departure on account of the swollen state of the rivers.
But at last, on the 6th of December, 1858, there was a great commotion in the village of Olenda, for we were really about to start. Olenda had come out, and was surrounded by his people. He had called our party, and admonished his great-grandsons to take care of his moguizi, for the moguizi was his friend, and had come to him, Olenda. If Olenda had not been living, he would never have come into the country. The whole people shouted with one voice, "That is so." Then the old king proceeded formally to bless us, and to wish us good success, and that no harm should befall us on the road.
On this occasion his majesty was painted with the chalk or ochre of the Alumbi, and had daubed himself with the ochres of his most valiant ancestors, and with that of his mother. He invoked their spirits to be with us, and afterward took a piece of wild cane, bit off several pieces of the pith, and spat a little of the juice in the hand of each one of the party, at the same time blowing on their hands. Then, in his sonorous and hollow voice, which hardly seemed human, he said, solemnly, "Let all have good speed with you, and may your road be as smooth (pleasant) as the breath I blow on your hands."
Then Minsho received the cane, of which he was to take great care, as, if it were lost, heavy misfortunes would happen to us, but as long as he kept it all would be well. Minsho was to bring back the cane to Olenda.
Immediately after this we started, taking a path leading toward the northeast. The prairie in the valleys was very swampy, the heavy rains having overflowed the lands, and we had to walk through considerable pools of standing water. In one of these swamps we had to wade up to our waists in muddy water, and several of the party slipped down and seated themselves in a manner they did not like, to the great merriment of the others, whose turn was to come next, and who, when laughing at their neighbors' misfortunes, fancied they could go through safely. As for myself, being short in stature, I had the water on several occasions higher than my waist.
Toward noon we approached the Ovigui River, a mountain torrent which had now swollen into a river, and before reaching its natural banks we had to pass through a swamp in the forest for half an hour. The torrent had overflowed, and its waters were running swiftly down among the trees. I began to wonder how we were to cross the bridge. The Ashiras had been speaking of that bridge, and, in fact, we had delayed our start two or three days because they said the waters were too high.
At last we came to a spot where the ground was dry, and a little way farther I could see the swift waters of the Ovigui gliding down with great speed through the forest. I saw at once that even an expert swimmer would he helpless here, and would be dashed to pieces against the fallen trees which jutted out in every direction. Not being a very good swimmer, I did not enjoy the sight. There was one consolation, no crocodile could stand this current, and these pleasant "gentlemen" had therefore retired to parts unknown.
I wanted all the time to get a glimpse of the bridge, but had not succeeded in doing so. I called Minsho, who pointed out to me a queer structure which he called the bridge. It was nothing but a creeper stretched from one side to the other.
Then Minsho told me that some years before the bed of the river was not where we stood, but some hundred yards over the other side. "This," he said, "is one of the tricks of the Ovigui." I found that several other of these mountain streams have the same trick. Of course Minsho said that there was a muiri (a spirit) who took the river and changed its course, for nothing else could do it but a spirit. The deep channel of the Ovigui seemed to me about thirty yards wide. Now in this new bed stood certain trees which native ingenuity saw could be used as "piers" for a bridge. At this point in the stream there were two trees opposite each other, and about seven or eight yards distant from each shore. Other trees on the banks were so cut as to fall upon these, which might have been called the piers. So a gap had been filled on each side. It now remained to unite the still open space in the centre, between the two "piers," and here came the tug. Unable to transport heavy pieces of timber, they had thrown across this chasm a long, slender, bending limb, which they fastened securely to the "piers." Of course no one could walk on this without assistance, so a couple of strong vines (lianas) had been strung across for balustrades. These were about three or four feet above the bridge, and about one foot higher up the stream.
I could barely see the vine, and my heart failed me as I stood looking at this breakneck or drowning concern. To add to the pleasurable excitement, Minsho told me that, on a bridge below, half a dozen people had been drowned the year before by tumbling into the river. "They were careless in crossing," added Minsho, "or some person had bewitched them." The waters of the Ovigui ran down so fast that looking at them for any length of time made my head dizzy. I was in a pretty fix. I could certainly not back out. I preferred to run the risk of being drowned rather than to show these Ashira I was afraid, and to tell them that we had better go back. I think I should never have dared to look them in the face afterward. The whole country would have known that I had been afraid. The moguizi would have then been nowhere. A coward I should have been called by the savages. Rather die, I thought, than to have such a reputation.
I am sure all the boys who read this book would have had the same feelings, and that girls could never look at a boy who is not possessed of courage.
The engraving before you will help to give a good idea of the bridge I have just described to you, and of our mode of crossing.
The party had got ready, and put their loads as high on their backs as they could, and in such a manner that these loads should slip into the river if an accident were to happen. The crossing began, and I watched them carefully. They did not look straight across, but faced the current, which was tremendous. The water reached to their waists, and the current was so swift that their bodies could not remain erect, but were bent in two. They held on to the creeper and advanced slowly sideways, never raising their feet from the bridge, for if they had done otherwise the current would have carried them off the structure.
One of the men slipped when midway, but luckily recovered himself. He dropped his load, among the articles in which were two pairs of shoes; but he held on to the rope and finished the "journey" by crossing one arm over the other. It was a curious sight. We shouted, "Hold on fast to the rope! hold on fast!" The noise and shouting we did was enough to make one deaf.
Another, carrying one of my guns, so narrowly escaped falling as to drop that, which was also swept off and lost. Meantime I wondered if I should follow in the wake of my shoes and gun. At any rate, I was bound to show the Ashira that I was not afraid to cross the bridge, even, as I have said, at the risk of being drowned. It would have been a pretty thing to have these people believe that I was susceptible of fear. The next thing would have been that I should have been plundered, then murdered. These fellows had a great advantage over me. Their garments did not trouble them.
At last all were across but Minsho, Adouma, and myself. I had stripped to my shirt and trowsers, and set out on my trial, followed by Minsho, who had a vague idea that if I slipped he might catch me. Adouma went ahead. Before reaching the bridge I had to wade in the muddy water. Then I went upon it and marched slowly against the tide, never raising my feet, till at last I came to the tree. There the current was tremendous. I thought it would carry my legs off the bridge, which was now three feet under the water. I felt the water beating against my legs and waist. I advanced carefully, feeling my way and slipping my feet along without raising them. The current was so strong that my arms were extended to their utmost length, and the water, as it struck against my body, bent it. The water was really cold, but, despite of that, perspiration fell from my face, I was so excited. I managed to drag myself to the other side, holding fast to the creeper, having made up my mind never to let go as long as I should have strength to hold on. Should my feet give way, I intended to do like the other man, and get over by crossing one arm over the other. At last, weak and pale with excitement, but outwardly calm, I reached the other side, vowing that I would never try such navigation again. I would rather have faced several gorillas, lions, elephants, and leopards, than cross the Ovigui bridge.
Putting ourselves in walking order again, we plunged into the great forest, which was full of ebony, barwood, India-rubber, and other strange trees. About two miles from the Ovigui we reached a little prairie, some miles long and a few hundred yards wide, which the natives called Odjiolo. It seemed like a little island incased in that great sea of trees.
What a nice little spot it would have been to build a camp under some of the tall, long-spread branches of trees which bordered it! But there was no time for camping. There were to be no stops during the daytime till we reached the Apingi country.
A few miles after leaving the Odjiolo prairie we came to a steep hill called Mount Oconcou. As we ascended we had to lay hold of the branches in order to help ourselves in the ascent, and we had to stop several times in order to get our breath. We finally reached a plateau from which we could see Nkoumou-Nabouali Mountains. Then we surmounted the other hills, with intervening plains and valleys, all covered with dense forest, and at last found ourselves on the banks of a most beautiful little purling mountain brook, which skirted the base of our last hill. This nice little stream was called the Aloumy or Oloumy. Here we lit our fires, built shelters, and camped for the night, all feeling perfectly tired out, and I, for one, thankful for the nice camp we had succeeded in building, for I needed a good night's rest.