Lost in the Jungle
Propose start for haunted mountains.—Olenda says it cannot be done.—At last I leave Olenda village.—A tornado.—We are lost.—We fight a gorilla.—We kill a leopard.—Return to Olenda.
I soon after returned to Olenda's village.
One day I said to Olenda, "Olenda, have you ever been to the Nkoumou-Nabouali?" The wrinkled old chief looked at me through his small eyes for some time without saying a word, and then he replied, "Moguizi, no living man has ever been to the top of those mountains."
"What kind of people live in those mountains?"
"No one lives there," said Olenda, "except a race of people whom you may perhaps see, but, as soon as you approach their abodes, they vanish away, and no one can tell which way they have gone, for no one can see them when they disappear; their villages are made only with branches of trees."
I remained silent a little while.
Then I said, "Olenda, I want to go there; I want to go to the very top of the Nkoumou-Nabouali—to the very top," I added, pointing out to him the highest blue peak I could see from his village—"to the highest top, so that I may look at all the country round." I thought to myself what a glorious sight it would be, for, at a single glance, I should see hills, and plains, and rivers spread all around. My enthusiasm was very great when thinking of these things. I felt strong—so strong that I thought it would be nothing to go through that belt of immense forest and climb those high mountains.
Olenda gave a quiet laugh, which I still recollect, for it came from his hollow chest, and, if I had believed in witchcraft, I should have certainly thought Olenda was a sorcerer. His people were afraid of him, for no one could understand how he could have lived so long; all the wives he had married when a young man had died long ago; there was not a living man or woman in the country who knew him when he was a young man. The mothers of these people he knew when they were babies.
After he had given that laugh, which ended in a sarcastic smile, he looked me in the face and said, "You can not do it. No one has ever been there; there is a mighty spirit living in those woods which prevents people from passing. Besides, there is nothing to eat; there are no wild beasts, no antelope, no wild boar. At the foot of the mountain there is a tremendous waterfall, which drowns the roar of the gorilla."
"I must go," said I. So I talked to the Ashiras, and finally I managed, by making presents and promising more on my return, to get guides enough among the Ashira freemen to lead me through the impenetrable forests which lay between the prairie and the mountain top.
Then we prepared ourselves for the journey. I had two fine axes, which I filed and ground on soft stone in order to make them very sharp; also several manchettes, or cutlasses, to help us to cut our way through the jungle. I had several boxes of matches to light our fires, besides fire-steel and flints, in case our matches should get wet. I also took several wax candles, as it is much more easy to light the fires with them. Likewise I took one heavy blanket, for I knew not what kind of weather we should have on the mountains; as for my men, the fires would be their blankets.
The heavy portion of our luggage was several hundred bullets, about fifty pounds of shot with which to kill Guinea-fowls and other birds, and about ten pounds of powder.
For food we had smoke-dried plantains, which had been cooked first, and then dried on an orala by smoking them. We had also smoked cassada. This kind of food, prepared in this way, would keep much longer and be much lighter, so each man could carry a much greater quantity of it. We wanted plenty of food. It was the first time I had seen plantain prepared in that way.
We started in the midst of the cheers of the Ashira people, and, as we disappeared down the hill, I saw Olenda looking after us with his body half bent, and for all the world like some being of another planet.
We took a northerly direction till the afternoon, when we left the prairie, and entered at once into as fine a piece of bog land as any one could wish to be in. It was awful traveling; the ground was soft, and every step we made took us almost knee-deep into it. Now and then I had to look at my compass to see that we were going in the right direction, for there was no path whatever; but the Ashira said we would find one after passing the marshes; that it was a hunting-path, and that there we would meet game. The fellows were already thinking of meat.
When night came on we stopped on a hill surrounded by bog; we were so tired that we had not the strength to build our shelters; besides, there were no large leaves to be seen. We lighted tremendous fires, but toward midnight I was awakened by the sound of distant thunder, which gradually grew louder and louder; then flashes of lightning glared through the forest, and then terrific claps of thunder rolled along the sky. The rain began to pour down with a fury that flooded the country in a short time; our beds of leaves were saturated, compelling us to get up. The rain kept pouring down with increasing violence. We had not built our fires sufficiently high, although we had used huge pieces of wood that ought to have been high enough from the ground to prevent the rain from putting them out. But they were getting dimmer and dimmer, and at last we were left in complete darkness. It was pitch dark, and we could not even see each other except when a flash of lightning would brighten the forest.
We were in a pretty fix. I began to regret that we had not been more careful. Leopards and other wild beasts might be prowling about, and get hold of some of us. What would the Ashiras say if one of their number should be carried away by a wild beast? They would call me a bad spirit.
We could not even talk, for the thunder was too loud, and drowned our voices; besides, the rain made a great noise as it fell in torrents upon the trees, and from their leaves to the ground. We were surrounded by tall trees, and I was afraid that some of then might be struck by the lightning, and their heavy broken limbs fall in the midst of us.
In fact, it was as uncomfortable a night as any, one could wish to spend in the jungle, for we knew not what would happen next. Toward four o'clock in the morning the rain ceased, but then I was wet to the bones; of course, my Ashiras would soon dry. We lighted our fires once more, having split in two some pieces of half-rotten logs which lay near by, and had perhaps lain there for more than a hundred years, the heart being soft and dry. This is the kind of wood we use to light our fires with when there has been a heavy rain, and the wood that has fallen from the trees is wet outside. In these immense forests, which have been resting in their gloomy solitude for ages, the growths of trees succeed one after the other. I have often wondered how Africa looked before it was covered with this dense vegetation, and what kind of animals it had, for the fauna of that country must have changed like ours. I remembered that once the immense mastodon roamed through America. With these thoughts I went to sleep in clothes wet to the skin. I took a large dose of quinine, however, in order to prevent a chill, which probably might have ensued from such a severe night.
The next morning I dried my wet clothes, and once more we went bravely into the great jungle, still taking by my compass a northerly direction through the dense and thorny forest. The hunting-path was almost a myth, for only now and then would we get a glimpse of it; but my Ashira men seemed to know almost every large tree we passed. We advanced slowly, our manchettes helping to cut the undergrowth. The third day I lost my only shirt—at least it would not hold together; and one of the legs of my pantaloons was torn off once, and I had to mend it with the fibre of the bark of trees. I lost, besides, many patches of skin, and the sharp thorns tore my flesh. Snakes we would see now and then.
We had hardly entered the jungle that first morning before I heard the roar of the gorilla. This at once revived my drooping spirits, as also those of my men, who immediately began to see looming up before them large pieces of gorilla meat broiled or roasted on charcoal.
A dead silence among ourselves followed the roar of the big monster. Each Ashira, as if by instinct, came close to me for protection. We had not far to go. I went off in an easterly direction with friend Gambo, leaving all the Ashiras together in fear of the gorilla. We had barely gone a quarter of a mile in the direction from whence the roar proceeded when we heard what was now a much loader roar, this time quite near. We stood quite still, for fear of alarming the beast, which was evidently approaching us unawares. At last we could see the bushes bend toward us. Gambo and I looked at each other, and inspected our guns; they were all right. A feeling of safety crept over us of course, for a good gun, with a steady aim, is a friend in need, and this we thought each of us possessed.
The fear of alarming the gorilla, however, proved needless. He had come where he had heard a noise, and when he saw us he at once struck the intervening bushes, rose to an erect position, made a few steps in a waddling sort of way, stopped, and seated himself; then beating his vast breast, which resounded like an old drum, he advanced straight upon us. His dark gray sunken eyes flashed with rage; his features worked convulsively; his intensely black face looked horrid. His huge canines, powerful sinewy hands, and immense arms told us that we must not expect mercy from the monster. At every few paces he stopped, and, opening his cavernous mouth, gave vent to his thunderous roars, which the forest gave back with multiplied echoes until it was full of the din.
He was evidently not a bit alarmed, but quite ready for a fight. We stood perfectly still. He advanced till he stood beating his breast within about six yards of us, when I thought it time to put an end to the scene. My shot hit him in the breast, and he fell forward on his face, dead. The gorilla seems to die easy if shot in the right place. This one proved to be a middle-aged male, and a very fine specimen, but it was utterly impossible to preserve his skin in that great jungle.
In a short time all the Ashira joined us, and soon after the gorilla was cut to pieces, the hands and feet being thrown away, and the brain being religiously preserved for fetiches.
There was plenty in the camp, for during the day I killed a nice little ncheri (gazelle), when I also had a feast.
We were now fairly in the midst of high hills, sometimes going down, then going up; but, to save me, I could not tell exactly where we were going. Occasionally we followed the tracks that elephants had made, but finally lost them. The elephants had evidently often changed their minds, and retraced their steps from whence they came. I could not tell exactly where the mountains of the Nkoumou-Nabouali were. The compass became of no use, for we never followed two minutes the same direction. At the rate we should have had to go through the forest, taking our course by the compass, we should have required perhaps a month or more, as we would have had to go on without making use of the clearings that we found now and then, or the tracks made by the wild beasts, or the little streams that came down from the hills. In fact, we would have had to make a road. The woods were very dense, game was scarce, and at last we had but one day's provisions left. The berries were not plentiful—indeed, for two or three days we did not eat to our heart's content for fear of running through our provisions too fast.
I had with me only the suit of clothes I wore and a spare pair of pantaloons, for I was getting very poor, and my stock of garments left at Olenda was small—indeed, it was so small that it was next to nothing. My poor rags could hardly be kept together. At times we had to pass through dense and very thorny jungles, where briers were as thick as grass on a prairie, and the holes in my clothes left so many bare spots that at every advance my scratched body bore witness of the hard time we had had, and of the difficulties we should encounter if I persisted in advancing into these mountains where there were no paths.
It came into my head that the Ashiras did not want to go; so I called our men together, and, after lighting a bright fire, we talked over "the situation," and then concluded that we had better return rather than risk certain death by starvation.
We rested that night in the forest, and the next morning I gave the order to return, feeling quite disappointed at my non-success. We set out praying only that we might not starve. We still were in good spirits, and laughed over our misfortune, although hunger began to pinch us hard, and I can assure you it is not a very pleasant thing. We were looking for berries every where, and the Ashiras for rat-holes and mice-nests, for mice and rats are great dainties among them; squirrels and monkeys, wild boars and antelopes, Guinea-fowls, parrots, and even serpents, but nothing was to be seen. To make it worse, we lost our way. We had been careless in not breaking boughs of trees when we followed the elephant's tracks, and we got into the wrong track of other elephants. Once lost in such a forest, the more you try to find your way the more you generally get bewildered. At last I took my compass, and we directed our steps, with its help, toward the south.
On a sudden, a cry of joy came from the Ashira. A bee's hive had been discovered by one of the men. He pointed us to a big tree. "Look," said he, "just where the branches start from the trunk. Don't you see bees round there? There is a big hole there, and the bees have their hive in it." As we saw the spot we all cried out, "Yes, there is a bee-hive."
Immediately the tree was ascended, the bees smoked, not out, but in, for we wanted plenty of food; the combs were brought down, for the man who ascended the tree had provided himself with large leaves and native cords to put the honey in, which he did, tying several parcels round his neck. As soon as he came down I put my hands on my revolvers and said, "I would blow out the brains of any one who should touch the honey before I gave it to him." So every thing was put before me. I unfolded the large leaves, divided the honey in exactly equal portions for each of us, not forgetting to put in the mixture the dead smoked bees, the worms, the comb, the honey, and the dirt that was among it, for in that way we had more of it. It was delicious! perfectly splendid! dead bees, honey, wax, dirt, worms, went down as fast as we could possibly eat them, and when done, I declared, "I wish, boys, we had more of this honey." This suggestion of mine was responded to by a vigorous hurrah, all shouting, Rovano! rovano! "That is so, that is so."
We got up after our meal, all feeling rather the better for it. I said to myself, as I rose and felt a good deal more elasticity in my legs, "After all, honey eaten in the way we have done is far more strengthening than fine honey, that is so clear and clean." It is wonderful, Young Folks, how a few days of starvation sharpens the appetite. You can not understand it till you have gone through the ordeal of hunger.
In the afternoon, just after descending a hill, we came to a very thick part of the forest. We were all silent, for we wanted to kill game, when suddenly one of the men close to me made us a sign to stop and keep perfectly still, his face showing excitement and fear. I stopped and looked at him. Without saying a word, he pointed me to a tree. I looked, and could see nothing; I was looking at the wrong tree. He came close to me, and whispered the word ngègo (leopard). I looked in the direction indicated. Truly there was a magnificent leopard resting flat on the immense horizontal branch of a tree not more than fifteen or twenty feet from the ground.
We had narrowly escaped, for we had to pass under that tree. The leopard had seen us, and was looking at us, as if to say, "Why do you disturb me in my sleep?" for I suppose, as they move but seldom in the daytime, he intended to remain there for the day. His long tail wagged; he placed himself in a crouching position, ready to spring on some of us, hoping, I dare say, thus to secure his dinner. His glaring eyes seemed to look at me, and, just as I thought he was ready to spring, I fired between his two eyes, and the shot went right through his head, and down he fell with a heavy crash, giving a fearful groan. He tried to get up again, but another shot finished him, and then the tremendous war-shouts of the Ashiras rang through the forest. I shot that leopard at a distance of not more than eight or ten yards.
The leopard was hardly on the ground before we rushed in with our knives. A heavy blow of the axe partly severed his head from his neck. We cut off his tail to take it back to town, and then took his claws off, to give them to Olenda for a necklace. The leopard was cut in pieces, and we lighted a big fire, or, rather, several big fires.
This leopard was fat—very fat, but smelt very strong—awfully so. The ribs looking the best, I thought I would try them and have some cutlets—real leopard cutlets. I flattened them and pounded them with the axe in order to make them tender. By that time the fire had burned up well, so I took from it a lot of bright burning charcoal, and put my cutlets on it. The cutlets soon afterward began to crisp; the fat dropped down on the charcoal, and a queer fragrance filled the atmosphere round. Then I put on the cutlets a little salt I had with me, rubbed them with some Cayenne pepper, and immediately after I began to go into them in earnest. The meat was strong, and had an odor of musk, which was very disagreeable. I found it so at the third cutlet, and when I had done I took some salt in my mouth, mixed with Cayenne pepper, in order to see if I could not get rid of the taste; I could not. I wished then that the leopard had been some other animal.
This hard work, starvation, and wet at nights, began to tell upon me. Besides, I had made no discoveries, and I began to wish that I had listened to friend Olenda. His sarcastic and hollow laugh came back to me. His prophetic words, "I tell you, Moguizi, that no one ever ascended the Nkoumou-Nabouali," were remembered.
I began to feel weaker and weaker, and when I awoke two days after killing the leopard, I rose with difficulty from my bed of leaves. We set forward without breakfast. I dared not send men in the forest for berries; we must be contented with those we should find on our route, for every hour was precious, and they might not find any, after all. So we walked on with empty stomachs, longing for a sight of the Ashira country.
I could not be mistaken; my compass was in good order; I had taken into account its variation. We were going south, if not right straight, at least in a general southern direction.
On, and on, and on, through the gloomy jungle, no man saying a word to the other, and every man looking anxiously for the first sight of prairie-land, which, with my diseased brain, weakened by hunger, was to me like a fairy-land.
At last, on the afternoon of a day which I have never forgotten, a sudden lighting of the forest gloom told us that an open country was near at hand. With a certain renewal of strength and hope we set off on a run, caring not how the jungle would tear us to pieces, till we reached a village at the very bounds of the bush. Here the people were much alarmed at our appearance and our frantic actions. "Food! food! food!" shouted the Ashiras. That was all they could say. When they discovered that we did not mean mischief, they approached. The chief had seen me at Olenda, and he made haste with his people to supply our necessities with all manner of food in their possession—plantains, pine-apples, cassada, yams, fowls, smoked fish. The chief gave me a royal present of a goat, which we killed in the wink of an eye. I ate so much that I feared I should be ill from putting too large a share into my so long empty stomach.
We were so merry during that evening. I told the good old chief to come and see me at Olenda, and that I would give him a nice present there.
The next morning we reached Olenda. The old chief, of whom I did not wonder people were afraid, came to meet me at the entrance of the village, for we had been firing guns to announce our arrival, and, as soon as he saw me, he said, in his deep, hollow, and piercing voice, "Moguizi, no Ashira has ever been or will ever go to the top of the Nkoumou-Nabouali!"
My boy Macondai was very glad to see me again, and came with tears of joy to welcome me. The people were all pleased to see us.
A child, said to be a sorcerer, was bound with cords, and was to be killed the next day. After a great deal of talking to Olenda, the boy was not to be killed. I was glad I had come in time to save his life.
The weather by this time was getting oppressively hot in the prairie. My long black hair was hanging too heavily on my shoulders. I wore it very long in order to astonish the natives. Every chief wanted me to give him a lock of my hair, and this they considered a very great-present. They would immediately go to the Alumbi house to lay it at the foot of the idol, but more generally it was worn as a fetich.
I resolved to have my hair cut, as it was too long for comfort. I gave Macondai a large pair of scissors I had with me. Of course I did not expect him to cut my hair as a Fifth Avenue or fashionable hotel barber would do, the chief point being that he should cut it tolerably short. In the interior of Africa I was not obliged to bother myself about the latest style. Collars and neckties were unknown to me. When he had done he gathered up the hair and threw it in the street.
I was surprised some time after to hear a noise of scuffling and fighting, accompanied by awful shouting. I came out of my hut to see what was the matter. They were busily engaged in securing my hair, that the wind had scattered all around, each man picking up as much as he could, and trying to prevent his neighbor from getting any, so that he might have more to himself. Even old King Olenda was in the scramble for a share. He could not trust his people. He was afraid he would not get any if he depended upon them, and when I saw him he had a lock which his head wife had found for him. I never saw such a scramble for hair before; they looked and looked after a scattered hair all day, and when they gave up the search I am sure not a hair could have been found on the ground.