Journey to Ashira
Leave for Ashira land.—In a swamp.—Cross the mountains.—A leopard after us.—Reach the Ashira country.
Early on that morning of my departure for the Ashira Land we were awakened by the voice of friend Obindji, who was recommending Okendjo to take great care of his "white man," and see that nothing should hurt him.
We were soon under way, and, leaving the Ovenga, ascended the Ofoubou River for three miles and a half, when we unloaded our canoes. Then we struck off due east.
We had very great trouble in getting through the marshy lands which border the river, for they were overflowed to the very foot of the hills.
This was about as hard a piece of traveling as I ever had in my life. The water was so yellow that I could not see to the bottom, which was slimy clay, covering the roots of trees.
I hardly entered the swamp before down I seated myself in a manner I did not like at all. I barely saved my gun from going to the bottom. My foot had slipped on a root. Then I went tottering along, getting hold of all the branches or trees I could reach, at the same time saying to myself that I did not see the use of such a country.
I was in water from my knees to my waist; below my knees I was in mud. I felt warm enough, for at every step, I would go deeper into the sticky mud, and it was difficult to get my feet out again. I took good care to have Okendjo and two or three fellows go ahead of me. They had no clothes, and if they tumbled into the water I did not care; they were not long in drying off.
Finally we got through, and stood at the foot of a mountain ridge along which, we may say, lay the route leading to Ashira Land. Here we gave three cheers, and with cheery hopes I started once more for a terra incognita.
We are lost in the jungle. Under the tall trees a dense jungle covers the ground; lianas hang gracefully from the limbs and trunks of trees. Many of them are covered with flowers. Now and then, huge blocks of quartz rocks are met with. We go along slowly, for we are tired.
Okendjo says that soon we shall reach the promised land, where goats, fowls, plantain, and palm wine are plentiful.
Mountain after mountain had to be ascended. Oh, how hard we worked! How we panted after reaching the summit of a hill. How beautiful were the rivulets, they were so pure, so cool, so nice; their crystalline water rolled in every direction, tumbling over the rocks in foaming cascades, or purling along in a bed of white pebbles. Oh how much they reminded me of the hill-streams and trout-brooks of home; for if the trees I saw had not the foliage of our trees at home, the stones were the same. The quartz was similar. Nature there, at least, was alike. The rocks were of the same formation.
I felt well and happy. I was on my way to discover new lands, new rivers, new mountains, and new beasts and birds. I was to see new tribes of men whom I had never seen before.
So I trotted along, Okendjo, Adouma, and I leading the way. By-and-by the country became still more rugged. The blocks of quartz we met were of larger size, and soon our path led us in the midst of huge masses of stones. How queer and small we looked as our caravan filed, one by one, between the ponderous blocks! We looked exactly like pigmies alongside of the huge boulders.
Quite near us were some large ebony-trees; how beautiful their foliage looked, contrasting with the blocks of quartz and granite, some of which were covered with mosses, and others perfectly bare. What could have brought these huge boulders on those mountains? I should not wonder if glaciers had accomplished it in ages that are past. The more rocky the soil, the better ebony-trees appeared to flourish.
How hard the walking was! In many places the rains had washed away the soil from the immense and wide-spreading roots, which ran along the ground like huge serpents—indeed, many of them were just like big boa constrictors.
My feet were so sore by walking on those roots, or rather by stepping from one to another, for I was obliged to wear thin-soled shoes, so that I might bend my feet to seize the roots. If I had worn thick shoes I should have tumbled down at the first jump.
Just before sunset we stopped, and I ordered the camp to be built, the firewood to be collected for the night. There were no large leaves to be found, so we all hoped that no rain or tornado would come that night.
We all made beds of such leaves as were to be found; for myself, I put two mats on the top, and lighted, as usual, four fires round me to keep off the wild beasts.
The Bakalai built a camp for themselves, the Ashira built another, and my own was between the two. I lay down, feeling very tired, and prayed to God to take care of me. For a pillow I used the belt which held my revolvers, and taking one of my guns in my arms, I went to sleep.
Toward one o'clock in the morning I was awakened by the loud roaring of a leopard which was prowling round our camp. He had smelled human flesh; probably he had tasted it before, but he dared not approach very close, for the fires were bright and the men awake. He was afraid of the bright light, and his howls testified how enraged he was. He was, no doubt, hungry, but his cowardice kept him back. I ordered some guns to be fired at random in the direction where we heard his growls.
For a while the forest became silent, and the leopard went off. We thought we had frightened him; but, just as we were on the point of going to sleep once more, suddenly the roaring began again, and this time the beast had come nearer. He wanted, no doubt, to make his breakfast upon one of us; but his desires were not to be gratified. I felt mad, as I wanted to sleep, for the next day was to be one of hard traveling.
If I had dared, I would have ventured into the forest after the beast; but the risk was too great, it was so dark. The leopard would have done, no doubt, as cats do, lain flat on the ground and waited for his prey, and pounced upon me as the smaller animal would do upon a mouse. So, as the roars of the beast continued, we concluded to keep awake, first putting more wood on our fires.
The loads we had carried since leaving Obindji had been very heavy, and the sore backs of the men began to show that they had hard work. I was loaded as well as any of them, with powder, shot, my own food, bullets for my gun and my revolvers, which I carried in my belt, an extra pair of pantaloons, shoes, etc., etc.
Resuming our journey next morning, I discovered that the fellows had either been eating lots of plantains, or perhaps slyly throwing away a quantity of them, in order to be relieved of the burden. I warned them that if we were short of food they would have to starve first.
They replied, "There are plenty of nuts in the forest—there are plenty of berries in the forest; we can stand being a day without food!"
Toward the evening of that day we began to see signs of a change in the face of the country. Now and then we would pass immense plantations of plantains, the trees loaded with fruit. We came at last to one which gorillas had visited and made short work of, having demolished lots of trees, which lay scattered right and left. Elephants had also made sad havoc in some of the plantations. Then we came across patches of sugar-cane. These plantations were scattered in the great forest, and grew in the midst of innumerable trunks and dead branches of trees that had been cut down.
The soil became more clayey, and at last we emerged from the immense forest. I saw, spread out before me, a new country, the like of which I had not seen since I had been lost in the great equatorial jungle. It was Ashira Land. The prairies were dotted plentifully with villages, which looked in the distance like ant-hills.