Part with the caravan.—A new camp.—Discover ostrich tracks.—An ostrich's nest.—An omelette.—Chasing ostriches on horseback.—I am unsuccessful.—Large number of sea-shells in the desert.
When I came out of my tent early the next morning, I saw the Mohammedans scattered all over the sand round our encampment, with their faces turned toward the rising sun, saying their morning prayers before the start. Then the camels and asses were milked, they were fed with grain, and then led to the wells to drink. Breakfast over, then we started on our way again. That day I was to be left by the caravan, for they did not wish to take me farther, on account of the unsafe condition of the country northward. The plundering Moors were roving about in strong bands, and frequently attacked caravans after dark.
I was overjoyed to find evidences that ostriches had been in the region through which we passed. This assured me that there was to be good sport in the Sahara, and not far from the sea.
Late in the afternoon I took leave of the caravan. Several donkeys and a fleet horse were left for my use. After many a good-by we parted, and I remained with a few splendid Jaloffs for companions. We built our camp near a scrubby grove, and, dug a well, finding pretty good water at a depth of six feet. During the night we kept a very careful watch lest the plunderers of the desert should surprise us. The Moors might capture and make me a slave—I, who love to be free! What should I do if I was to lose my freedom? I shudder at the thought! I would rather die, I said to myself, than suffer such a terrible fate; and then the story of the poor wretched men who had been taken captives on the coast, which I have told you in a former chapter, came into my mind. You will not be surprised to learn that I slept but little that night. Fortunately, nothing happened to disturb us.
In the morning, after a hearty breakfast, I began hunting on the country back of the spot where we had encamped. I had to be very careful, and keep a sharp lookout, as sometimes lions were found in these regions. I was after ostriches, and had not gone far from our camp with my four companions, when we discovered fresh tracks, which must have been made by these singular birds but a short time before. Among the scanty shrubs thereabout were some creeping vines, which bore a kind of fruit upon which the ostriches had been feeding. I was on the alert, but the ground was flat, and there was little probability of my getting near the birds, as they could see me, and run away. Their swiftness is almost incredible, for they have most extraordinary muscular power in their legs, and, though they can not soar into the air, their wings assist them wonderfully in their flight.
I could not understand at first how these ostriches had strayed into this region, and finally concluded that they must have been driven from the north by hunters, and had taken refuge here. But there was no mistake about it; my guide said the footprints were really made by ostriches. I therefore continued my chase till I came unawares upon an ostrich nest, which was a piece of very good fortune for me. It was not built of straw nor dead branches, but was simply a hole scooped out in the sand by the mother bird. I was glad to observe that there were five in the nest, which, if they were fresh, would make a fine omelette. Satisfied with our good luck, and considerably tired with the long tramp over the sandy plain, we concluded to return to camp with our five eggs. They were quite a nice little load.
Our camp was somewhat sheltered from the fresh sea-breeze by a little sand-hillock heaped together by the action of the wind. The broad Atlantic was before us, and the waves came dashing heavily on the beach. In the evening the sky was clear, and the stars shone out most beautifully. We had no matting, our bed being nothing but the white desert sand, and a very nice and comfortable bed it made, I can assure you.
When we were comfortably settled, I said to Mokar Sidi, "Bring us the frying-pan. I must have an omelette made of an ostrich egg." But what a big omelette it was going to be, for the capacity of an ostrich egg is about thirty times that of a hen's egg. I wondered if the omelette would be good. One thing was certain, the egg was newly laid. We had with us a large quantity of butter, which was carefully kept in a leather bag. I had my frying-pan—a large tin plate—and was ready to begin.
The shell of the ostrich egg was rather thick, and it required two or three good blows with my hunting-knife to break it. The contents of the egg half filled quite a large dish. I beat it with my fork for a long time, till the yellow and the white were thoroughly mixed. Then I put the pan on the bright fire we had built with pieces of wood collected from the shrubs around our camp. I melted about a pound of butter, and, while it was very hot, mixed the egg and the butter thoroughly with a spoon. With the addition of salt and pepper, the omelette was soon ready, and such an omelette as it was! It would have done you good to see it. I am sure it would have given you a keen appetite. It looked and tasted very much like an ordinary omelette. It was somewhat coarser in flavor, but nourishing; and, as it was the first time in my life I tasted of an ostrich-egg omelette, I relished it very much. Most of my fellows made their supper on couscous, a kind of millet, but some of them had a dish of pounded grasshoppers. Among the children of the desert this is considered a, great dainty, and I was told the Moors are also very fond of it.
As I wished to carry home the rest of the eggs, I made a hole in one end of each, through which I emptied the contents. The natives sometimes use these egg-shells to hold water, or cut them up into spoons, dishes, cups, and other articles of household convenience. One of these eggs will hold about three pints.
The following day, before sunrise, while walking near the camp, I spied two ostriches in the distance, too far off to be conscious of my presence. I went back into my tent as quickly as I could, and saddled and mounted my horse, and started quietly in pursuit, taking every advantage of the ground as I advanced, in order not to be seen by the game.
I felt somewhat anxious about my riding qualities, for I knew I was not at all a good horseman, but I had the consolation of knowing that if I fell off it would be upon the soft sand, for there were no rocks on which I should break my head. After this reflection, I started on a tremendous gallop after the ostriches. My little horse went on splendidly, and we gained rapidly on them. There was a fair prospect, I thought, for me to bag one, when, just as I was ready to cock my gun, down I fell at full length on the sand! My gun pitched a long way ahead of me, and my mouth was filled up with sand. I gathered myself up, and, finding that there were no bones broken, picked up my gun and started in pursuit of my horse. He was a gentle and well-trained animal, and suffered himself to be caught without difficulty.
An Ostrich Hunt.
The game, by that time, were far away, and I returned to the camp, promising myself not to go after ostriches on horseback again, or, at any rate, not before I had a little more practice in riding.
The ostrich does not run so fast as people generally suppose; at least they can not run a long distance, and a horse can easily overtake them, in spite of their legs and wings. The natives say they can kick tremendously, and that dogs are often killed in that way, as the powerful sharp claw with which the foot is armed can make fearful wounds.
The male is a splendid bird; the lower part of the neck and the body is of a beautiful shiny black, and the plumes of the wing and tail are white. The female is of a grayish-brown color, sprinkled with white, and her tail and wing-plumes are clear white. The male possesses the finest feathers. They are from six to eight feet in height, and the body weighs probably from two to three hundred pounds.
I returned to camp somewhat crestfallen in regard to riding. The least agreeable part of all had been that I got my mouth full of sand, and could not get rid of it till I came back to the camp, where I could rinse it out with water.
I was surprised at the number of sea-shells scattered about in the sands of the desert, showing conclusively to my mind that once this barren and scorching expanse had been covered by a sea. As the level of the desert is not much above that of the ocean, I feel certain that if wells were dug all over the desert, and protected with iron tubes to prevent the sands from falling in, water could be easily supplied to caravans and bands of travelers in their journeys across that terrible expanse of territory.