A GLANCE at the maps of Africa published before the year 1850 will show how little was known about the middle of the continent. All round the coast and a few hundred miles up the rivers there were plenty of names, but the centre was left almost blank. Most people supposed that the Great Sahara Desert in the north stretched down to the Kalahari Desert in the south. Cleverer men, however, thought of the enormous flow of water in the Nile, Congo, and Zambesi, and felt sure that somewhere there must be a land of streams, forests, and hills, vast enough to feed such mighty rivers.
In the exciting hope of pioneering this new land, and in the noble desire of bringing a better way of life to its peoples, Oswell and Livingstone dared the hardship and danger of the Kalahari. Oswell was to manage the trek, and the hard and tiring task of shooting enough game for the camp pot depended upon his quick eye, cool head, and steady hand. Livingstone was to be interpreter and scientific observer, while the party relied upon his wonderful power of gaining the goodwill of the natives.
They started from Kolobeng in a north-easterly direction, and for the first 120 miles their track lay through country they had passed before. Then they struck north towards the desert, and from this point they knew nothing of the country before them. One of the natives with them had crossed many years ago, and thought he could remember his route, but his memory proved very hazy.
With this man as guide, they came to the wells of Serotli, on the edge of the desert, and found that the place was just a dip in the sand, surrounded by low scrub and a few stunted trees. In the dip, however, were several little hollows, as though a rhinoceros had been rolling in the sand; and in one of these hollows lay about a quart of water.
Oswell at once set the party to work with spades and land turtle-shells to deepen the holes, but hard toil till nightfall only brought enough water to give the horses a mouthful or two each. Their guide told them that this was their last chance of water for 70 miles, so Oswell sent the oxen back to their last watering-place. Bellowing and moaning with disappointment and distress, the poor beasts crawled back 25 miles, and at last found relief from the terrible thirst they had suffered for ninety-six hours.
Meanwhile four of the Serotli pits were dug out to the depth of 8 feet, and water trickled into them so plentifully that Oswell sent for the oxen. On their arrival they were at once watered, inspanned, and headed across the desert. The heat was very great, and the wheels sank so deep into the loose sand that their utmost efforts only dragged the waggons 6 miles before sundown. On the following day they covered 19 miles without water. On the third day again these gallant beasts struggled 19 miles through the heavy sand in the smiting heat without a drop to drink.
That night was a bad one for the leaders of the expedition. They had now come 44 miles from Serotli at a rate of only 2 miles an hour, and the guide told them they were still 30 miles from the next water which was at a place called Mokokonyani the bushmen of the desert.
The oxen were spent with toil and thirst, and all night lay moaning out to their masters a piteous appeal for drink. No one knew for certain what lay before them, or whether they were in the right direction. Failure seemed more than likely, but Oswell and Livingstone were not the men to know despair. At the first sign of daybreak they sent the horses forward with the guide to try and find Mokokonyani. With the horses safe, the men could cover the ground in safety, and hunt for food on the way.
Oswell and Livingstone intended to follow with the waggons as long as the oxen could hold out; then they would loose the oxen on the trail of the horses in the hope that, without their burdens, they would mostly reach water alive. Half an hour after starting, the waggons passed through a belt of scrub, and came suddenly upon the horses at a dead halt. "Is it water?" was on every lip. No such luck was in store for them: the guide had lost his way.
Soon the weary oxen staggered in distress, and were outspanned to rest while the leaders took counsel for the future. Meanwhile the natives scattered through the scrub in a forlorn hope of finding water. Presently one of them heard the harsh croaking of a frog. No sweet music could fall softer on his ear, for where there is a frog there is always water close by. He ran back, and reported the discovery of a patch of marsh. Once more the jaded oxen were inspanned. The sense of water in the air seemed to revive them, and in two brisk miles they reached relief.
For the present, at all events, the expedition was saved. And it was well for them that they came upon the marsh, for it took them four more days to reach Mokokonyani, though on the first and third days they were luckily able to find water by digging. It turned out that they were in the bed of a "sand river" called the Mokokoong by the bushmen. Deep down below their feet a constant flow of water crept at a snail's pace through the sand. The course of the stream could be roughly traced like the long-dried bed of an ancient river. Sometimes it lay between ridges of naked limestone or banks of sand; sometimes it was lost in the level plain. In a very few places there were sand-holes deep enough to reach the stream, and here patches of marsh formed, or water showed in plenty, as at Mokokonyani. Otherwise there was no sign of water, though the bushmen get enough to quench their thirst by sucking through a long reed thrust down into the sand.
The party now tried to follow the sand river, but soon lost it for two waterless days. Then they found and followed it once more, until the underground stream disappeared in a marsh. At this point their guide again failed them, and they went many miles out of their course without water for three days. Here again fortune favoured them, for Oswell's eagle eye spied a bushwoman lurking in the thick scrub. He gave chase and captured her, and for a few beads she led them to a water-hole.
And now from a hillock they could see new and fertile country in the distance, with thick smoke rising beyond. It must be reeds burning on the shore of the great lake, they thought, and so pushed onward.
In a few more days they suddenly burst through the thick bush upon a wide and deep river, and from the natives on its banks they learnt that this was the Zouga, flowing from the great Lake Ngami, 250 miles up stream. It was now 4th July and late in the season, but for twelve more days they forced and jolted their waggons along the river bank until the oxen were nearly spent. Then Oswell and Livingstone picked out a span of the fittest, and pressed forward with a light waggon. As they neared the lake the bush grew denser, and in the space of 5 miles they cut down more than one hundred small trees to let the waggon pass. At last, on 28th July, they reached Lake Ngami, having taken nine weeks to cover the 600 miles between them and Kolobeng.
Beyond the Zouga lay a fertile land of forest and plains, but the failure to reach it took away half the joy of their discovery. They could not get the waggons across, though Livingstone, at the risk of his life from alligators, spent many hours in the water vainly trying to make a raft. They were forced to return—Livingstone to Kolobeng, and Oswell to England; but they made plans to come again the next year, and Oswell promised to bring up a boat.
Next year, however, their plans failed, for Oswell was delayed, and Livingstone started without him. He took with him his wife and children, and, in spite of the hardships of the desert, they reached the Zouga and Lake Ngami in safety. Here fever fell upon the children, and he was forced to return. On the way back he met Oswell, who had followed only a few weeks' march behind.
Nothing could be done that year, but in 1851 these two great men again crossed the Kalahari Desert, taking with them Mrs. Livingstone and the children. This time Oswell, with his usual unselfish care for others, went a day in advance and dug out the wells, and thus the rest of the party were saved from delay and thirst.
They passed the Zouga in safety, and then, in a lovely land of fruits, flowers, and herds, they crossed stream after stream until they came to a point on the River Chobi 400 miles from Linyanté. Linyanté was the headquarters of the Makololo tribe, and their wise and powerful chief hurried to meet the travellers. He was quite overcome by his first sight of white men, but Livingstone's genial kindness soon set him at his ease, and then no one could have done more to help them. Sebituani told them all he knew about the country in and around his borders. Far to the north-west, he said, there lived a tribe who once sent back to him his present of an ox, and asked for a man to eat instead. From the east there came black messengers from the Portuguese with calico and beads and guns in exchange for slaves.
He promised to take his white friends ten days north of Linyanté to the mighty River Seshéké, which fell, men said, over a cliff into a chasm with a smoke and thunder that sounded many miles. Unfortunately this noble chief, whom Oswell decribed as a "gentleman in thought and manner," died of pneumonia a few days after; but his tribe kept all his promises to the explorers.
Leaving Mrs. Livingstone with the waggons in camp at the Chobi, the two friends went by canoe to Linyanté, and thence on horseback to the Seshéké. Here they indeed saw a mighty river, which proved to be the great Zambesi; but the waterfall was said to be far off, and the season was so late that once more they turned homewards.
On the way back many new plans were made. They had just been on the southern border of a country whence vile and brutal white men were getting slaves at the rate of eighteenpence apiece. If only they could find a good road into this country, honest trade might put an end to this wicked robbery of human lives. The road they had already found was too long and difficult, so Livingstone determined to revisit Linyanté the next year, and then seek a possible path to the sea-coast. It would be impossible for his family to go with him, and the thought of leaving them to the risks and dangers of Kolobeng was a great trouble to his mind.
Once more the goodness of his companion came to his aid. For Oswell persuaded Livingstone to send his wife and children to England, and also gave him the money for their outfit and expenses. He sold the ivory that had fallen to his rifle, and handed the price of it to his friend as a share of the game on their new preserves.