Chapter 3 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The “Springhaan.”

“Ah! the springhaan!” cried Von Bloom, recognising the Dutch name for the far-famed migratory locust.

The mystery was explained. The singular cloud that was spreading itself over the plain was neither more nor less than a flight of locusts!

It was a sight that none of them, except Swartboy, had ever witnessed before. His master had often seen locusts in small quantities, and of several species,—for there are many kinds of these singular insects in South Africa. But that which now appeared was a true migratory locust (Gryllus devastatorius); and upon one of its great migrations—an event of rarer occurrence than travellers would have you believe.

Swartboy knew them well; and, although he announced their approach in a state of great excitement, it was not the excitement of terror.

Quite the contrary. His great thick lips were compressed athwart his face in a grotesque expression of joy. The instincts of his wild race were busy within him. To them a flight of locusts is not an object of dread, but a source of rejoicing—their coming as welcome as a take of shrimps to a Leigh fisherman, or harvest to the husbandman.

The dogs, too, barked and howled with joy, and frisked about as if they were going out upon a hunt. On perceiving the cloud, their instinct enabled them easily to recognise the locusts. They regarded them with feelings similar to those that stirred Swartboy—for both dogs and Bushmen eat the insects with avidity!

At the announcement that it was only locusts, all at once recovered from their alarm. Little Trüey and Jan laughed, clapped their hands, and waited with curiosity until they should come nearer. All had heard enough of locusts to know that they were only grasshoppers that neither bit nor stung any one, and therefore no one was afraid of them.

Even Von Bloom himself was at first very little concerned about them. After his feelings of apprehension, the announcement that it was a flight of locusts was a relief, and for a while he did not dwell upon the nature of such a phenomenon, but only regarded it with feelings of curiosity.

Of a sudden his thoughts took a new direction. His eye rested upon his fields of maize and buckwheat, upon his garden of melons, and fruits, and vegetables: a new alarm seized upon him; the memory of many stories which he had heard in relation to these destructive creatures rushed into his mind, and as the whole truth developed itself, he turned pale, and uttered new exclamations of alarm.

The children changed countenance as well. They saw that their father suffered; though they knew not why. They gathered inquiringly around him.

“Alas! alas! Lost! lost!” exclaimed he; “yes, all our crop—our labour of the year—gone, gone! O my dear children!”

“How lost, father?—how gone?” exclaimed several of them in a breath.

“See the springhaan! they will eat up our crop—all—all!”

“’Tis true, indeed,” said Hans, who being a great student had often read accounts of the devastations committed by the locusts.

The joyous countenances of all once more wore a sad expression, and it was no longer with curiosity that they gazed upon the distant cloud, that so suddenly had clouded their joy.

Von Bloom had good cause for dread. Should the swarm come on, and settle upon his fields, farewell to his prospects of a harvest. They would strip the verdure from his whole farm in a twinkling. They would leave neither seed, nor leaf, nor stalk, behind them.

All stood watching the flight with painful emotions. The swarm was still a full half-mile distant. They appeared to be coming no nearer,—good!

A ray of hope entered the mind of the field-cornet. He took off his broad felt hat, and held it up to the full stretch of his arm. The wind was blowing from the north, and the swarm was directly to the west of the kraal. The cloud of locusts had approached from the north, as they almost invariably do in the southern parts of Africa.

“Yes,” said Hendrik, who having been in their midst could tell what way they were drifting, “they came down upon us from a northerly direction. When we headed our horses homewards, we soon galloped out from them, and they did not appear to fly after us; I am sure they were passing southwards.”

Von Bloom entertained hopes that as none appeared due north of the kraal, the swarm might pass on without extending to the borders of his farm. He knew that they usually followed the direction of the wind. Unless the wind changed they would not swerve from their course.

He continued to observe them anxiously. He saw that the selvedge of the cloud came no nearer. His hopes rose. His countenance grew brighter. The children noticed this and were glad, but said nothing. All stood silently watching.

An odd sight it was. There was not only the misty swarm of the insects to gaze upon. The air above them was filled with birds—strange birds and of many kinds. On slow, silent wing soared the brown “oricou,” the largest of Africa’s vultures; and along with him the yellow “chasse fiente,” the vulture of Kolbé. There swept the bearded “lamvanger,” on broad extended wings. There shrieked the great “Caffre eagle,” and side by side with him the short-tailed and singular “bateleur.” There, too, were hawks of different sizes and colours, and kites cutting through the air, and crows and ravens, and many species of insectivora. But far more numerous than all the rest could be seen the little springhaan-vogel, a speckled bird of nearly the size and form of a swallow. Myriads of these darkened the air above—hundreds of them continually shooting down among the insects, and soaring up again, each with a victim in its beak. “Locust-vultures” are these creatures named, though not vultures in kind. They feed exclusively on these insects, and are never seen where the locusts are not. They follow them through all their migrations, building their nests, and rearing their young, in the midst of their prey!

It was, indeed, a curious sight to look upon, that swarm of winged insects, and their numerous and varied enemies; and all stood gazing upon it with feelings of wonder. Still the living cloud approached no nearer, and the hopes of Von Bloom continued to rise.

The swarm kept extending to the south—in fact, it now stretched along the whole western horizon; and all noticed that it was gradually getting lower down—that is, its top edge was sinking in the heavens. Were the locusts passing off to the west? No.

“Da am goin’ roost for da nacht—now we’ll get ’em in bagfull,” said Swartboy, with a pleased look; for Swartboy was a regular locust-eater, as fond of them as either eagle or kite,—ay, as the “springhaan-vogel” itself.

It was as Swartboy had stated. The swarm was actually settling down on the plain.

“Can’t fly without sun,” continued the Bushman. “Too cold now. Dey go dead till da mornin.”

And so it was. The sun had set. The cool breeze weakened the wings of the insect travellers, and they were compelled to make halt for the night upon the trees, bushes, and grass.

In a few minutes the dark mist that had hid the blue rim of the sky, was seen no more; but the distant plain looked as if a fire had swept over it. It was thickly covered with the bodies of the insects, that gave it a blackened appearance, as far as the eye could reach.

The attendant birds, perceiving the approach of night, screamed for awhile, and then scattered away through the heavens. Some perched upon the rocks, while others went to roost among the low thickets of mimosa; and now for a short interval both earth and air were silent.

Von Bloom now bethought him of his cattle. Their forms were seen afar off in the midst of the locust-covered plain.

“Let ’em feed um little while, baas,” suggested Swartboy.

“On what?” inquired his master. “Don’t you see the grass is covered!”

“On de springhaan demself, baas,” replied the Bushman; “good for fatten big ox—better dan grass—ya, better dan mealies.”

But it was too late to leave the cattle longer out upon the plain. The lions would soon be abroad—the sooner because of the locusts, for the king of the beasts does not disdain to fill his royal stomach with these insects—when he can find them.

Von Bloom saw the necessity of bringing his cattle at once to their kraal.

A third horse was saddled, which the field-cornet himself mounted, and rode off, followed by Hendrik and Swartboy.

On approaching the locusts they beheld a singular sight. The ground was covered with these reddish-brown creatures, in some spots to the depth of several inches. What bushes there were were clustered with them,—all over the leaves and branches, as if swarms of bees had settled upon them. Not a leaf or blade of grass that was not covered with their bodies!

They moved not, but remained silent, as if torpid or asleep. The cold of the evening had deprived them of the power of flight.

What was strangest of all to the eyes of Von Bloom and Hendrik, was the conduct of their own horses and cattle. These were some distance out in the midst of the sleeping host; but instead of being alarmed at their odd situation, they were greedily gathering up the insects in mouthfuls, and crunching them as though they had been corn!

It was with some difficulty that they could be driven off; but the roar of a lion, that was just then heard over the plain, and the repeated application of Swartboy’s jambok, rendered them more tractable, and at length they suffered themselves to be driven home, and lodged within their kraals.

Swartboy had provided himself with a bag, which he carried back full of locusts.

It was observed that in collecting the insects into the bag, he acted with some caution, handling them very gingerly, as if he was afraid of them. It was not them he feared, but snakes, which upon such occasions are very plenteous, and very much to be dreaded—as the Bushman from experience well knew.