Chapter 15 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

Spooring for a Spring.

Von Bloom was in the saddle at an early hour. Swartboy accompanied him, while all the others remained by the wagon to await his return. They took with them the two horses that had remained by the wagon, as these were fresher than the others.

They rode nearly due westward. They were induced to take this direction by observing that the springboks had come from the north. By heading westward they believed they would sooner get beyond the wasted territory.

To their great satisfaction an hour’s travelling carried them clear of the track of the antelope migration; and although they found no water, there was excellent grass.

The field-cornet now sent Swartboy back for the other horses and the cow, pointing out a place where he should bring them to graze, while he himself continued on in search of water.

After travelling some miles farther, Von Bloom perceived to the north of him a long line of cliff rising directly up from the plain, and running westward as far as he could see. Thinking that water would be more likely to be found near these cliffs, he turned his horse’s head towards them. As he approached nearer to their base, he was charmed with the beautiful scenery that began to open before his eyes. He passed through grassy plains of different sizes, separated from each other by copses of the delicate-leaved mimosa; some of these forming large thickets, while others consisted of only a few low bushes. Towering high over the mimosas, grew many trees of gigantic size, and of a species Von Bloom had never seen before. They stood thinly upon the ground; but each, with its vast leafy head, seemed a little forest of itself.

The whole country around had a soft park-like appearance, which contrasted well with the dark cliff that rose beyond—the latter stepping up from the plain by a precipice of several hundred feet in height, and seemingly as vertical as the walls of a house.

The fine landscape was gratifying to the eyes of the traveller—such a fine country in the midst of so much barrenness; for he knew that most of the surrounding region was little better than a wild karoo. The whole of it to the north for hundreds of miles was a famous desert—the desert of Kalihari—and these cliffs were a part of its southern border. The “vee-boor” would have been rejoiced at such a sight under other circumstances. But what to him now were all these fine pastures—now that he was no longer able to stock them?

Notwithstanding the beauty of the scene, his reflections were painful.

But he did not give way to despair. His present troubles were sufficiently grievous to prevent him from dwelling much on the future. His first care was to find a place where his horses might be recruited; for without them he could no longer move anywhere—without them he would be helpless indeed.

Water was the desired object. If water could not be found, all this beautiful park through which he was passing would be as valueless to him as the brown desert.

Surely so lovely a landscape could not exist without that most essential element!

So thought the field-cornet; and at the turning of every new grove his eyes wandered over the ground in search of it.

“Ho!” he joyfully exclaimed as a covey of large Namaqua partridges whirred up from his path. “A good sign that: they are seldom far from water.”

Shortly after, he saw a flock of beautiful pintados, or guinea-hens, running into a copse. This was a still further proof that water was nigh. But surest of all, on the top of a tall cameel-doorn tree, he next observed the brilliant plumage of a parrot.

“Now,” muttered he to himself, “I must be very near to some spring or pool.”

He rode cheerfully forward: and after a little while arrived upon the crest of an elevated ridge. Here he halted to observe the flight of the birds. Presently he noticed a covey of partridges flying in a westerly direction, and shortly after, another covey going the same way. Both appeared to alight near a gigantic tree that grew in the plain about five hundred yards from the bottom of the cliffs. This tree stood apart from any of the others, and was by far the largest Von Bloom had yet seen.

As he remained gazing at its wonderful dimensions, he observed several pairs of parrots alighting upon it. These, after chattering a while among its branches, flew down upon the plain not far from its base.

“Surely,” thought Von Bloom, “there must be water there. I shall ride forward and see.”

But his horse had scarcely waited for him to form this design. The animal had been already dragging upon the bridle; and as soon as his head was turned in the direction of the tree, he started forward with outstretched neck, snorting as he rushed along.

The rider, trusting to the instinct of his horse, surrendered up the bridle; and in less than five minutes both horse and rider were drinking from the sweet water of a crystal fountain that gushed out within a dozen yards of the tree.

The field-cornet would now have hastened back to the wagon: but he thought that by allowing his horse to browse an hour or so upon the grass, he would make the return-journey with more spirit, and in quite as good time. He, therefore, took off the bridle, gave the animal his liberty, while he stretched himself under the shade of the great tree.

As he lay, he could not help admiring the wonderful production of nature that towered majestically above him. It was one of the largest trees he had ever beheld. It was of the kind known as the “nwana” tree, a species of ficus, with large sycamore-shaped leaves that grew thickly over its magnificent head. Its trunk was full twenty-feet in diameter, rising to more than that height without a branch, and then spreading off into numerous limbs that stretched far out in a horizontal direction. Through the thick foliage Von Bloom could perceive shining egg-shaped fruits as large as cocoa-nuts; and upon these the parrots and several other kinds of birds appeared to be feeding.

Other trees of the same species stood out upon the plain at long distances apart; and though they were all taller than the surrounding timber, none were so large or conspicuous as the one that grew by the spring.

The field-cornet, as he enjoyed the cool shade which its umbrageous frondage afforded, could not help thinking what an admirable spot it would be to build a kraal. The inmates of a dwelling placed beneath its friendly shelter, need never dread the fierce rays of the African sun; even the rain could scarce penetrate its leafy canopy. In fact, its dense foliage almost constituted a roof of itself.

Had his cattle still remained to him, no doubt the vee-boor would have resolved at once to make this spot his future home. But, tempting as it was, what now could he do in such a place? To him it would be only a wilderness. There was no species of industry he could follow in such a remote quarter. True, he might sustain himself and his family by hunting. He saw that game was plenteous all around. But that would be but a sorry existence, with no promise for the future. What would his children do hereafter? Were they to grow up with no other end than to become poor hunters—no better than the wild Bushmen? No! no! no! To make a home there would be out of the question. A few days to recruit his wearied horses, and then he would make a struggle and trek back to the settlements.

But what after he had got back? He knew not what then. His future was gloomy and uncertain.

After indulging in such reflections for an hour or more, he bethought him that it was time to return to the camp; and having caught and bridled his horse, he mounted and set forth.

The animal, refreshed by the sweet grass and cool water, carried him briskly along; and in less than two hours he came up with Swartboy and Hendrik where they were pasturing the horses.

These were taken back to the wagon and harnessed in; and then the great vehicle once more “trekked” across the plains.

Before the sun had set, the long white cap-tent was gleaming under the leafy screen of the gigantic “nwana.”