Chapter 49 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

Scenes seldom visited.

Knowing that the longer they should be in reaching the next watering-place the weaker their cattle would become, our travellers strove to perform more than half the distance in less than half the time. On their first day’s journey after leaving the kraal, they went about twenty-five miles; but on starting the next day they saw that not more than half that distance was likely to be accomplished, and that their principal work would consist in plying the jamboks.

Towards noon they came upon a tract of country, the greater portion of which had once been flooded with brackish water, and was now slightly incrusted with salt. The reflection of the sun’s rays on this incrustation gave it the appearance of water; and, on seeing it, the cattle, horses, and dogs rushed forward, anticipating a grand pleasure in quenching their thirst. On discovering what it was, the animals gave out their various expressions of disappointment. The horses neighed, the oxen bellowed, and the dogs barked and howled. A constant mirage floated over the plain, magnifying and distorting the appearance of everything within view. Where the saline incrustations did not cover the ground, there grew a short, sour herbage, browsed upon by blesboks, wilde beests, and several other species of antelopes. These animals, as well as some stunted trees, at times appeared suspended in the air, and magnified far beyond natural size. High up in the air could be seen the reflection of animals that were many miles distant from the place they appeared to be occupying. These optical illusions were the cause of much annoyance to the thirsty travellers,—especially to their animals, unable to understand them. Excited with the hope of quenching their thirst, they were with much difficulty prevented from rushing about in pursuit of the phantom that was so terribly tantalising them.

The cattle had been a long time without salt, and had a strong desire to lick up the saline incrustation, that in some places covered the earth to an eighth of an inch in thickness. This increased their thirst, and caused them to hasten forward to the next deceptive show that spread itself before them. In place of meeting water, they only found that which strengthened the desire for it. Our travellers seemed to have reached a land where phantoms and realities were strangely commingled.

They saw spectral illusions of broad lakes, with trees mirrored upon their placid surface. A sun of dazzling brightness seemed shining from the bottom of an unfathomed sea, and a forest appeared suspended in the air!

But along with these fair fancies there were many unpleasant realities. For the first two or three hours after entering amid such scenes, they could not help feeling interested. In time, however, the interest died away as their vision became accustomed to the strange appearances. One yet awaited them, stranger and more extraordinary than any yet witnessed.

About three hours after the sun had passed the meridian, they arrived at a place that resembled a small island in the midst of an ocean. Water was rolling down upon them from every direction, and had their eyes not been so often deceived, they could easily have imagined that the dry earth upon which they stood was about to be instantly submerged. While contemplating this singular scene, their attention was called to another no less singular.

It was that of a gigantic bird moving across the sky, not in flight, but walking with long strides! They might have been alarmed but for their knowledge of what it was.

An ostrich somewhere on the karroo was being reflected by the mirage, and magnified to ten times its natural size.

On a former expedition our hunters had seen much of the singular phenomena produced by the mirage. They had witnessed many, many spectacles, but the one upon which they were now gazing excited their admiration more than any they had ever encountered. The reflected ostrich was perfect in shape, and his stalk so natural that, but for what they knew, they might have believed that something as extraordinary as anything seen by John the Revelator had descended to the earth from another world. Such a sight, appearing in the sky that overhangs Hampstead Heath, would have converted all London to a belief in the prophecies of the Reverend Doctor Gumming.

As they stood gazing upon it, a cloud came rolling up the heavens, carried along by a breeze that had commenced blowing from the west. By this the mirage was destroyed, and the vast spectral image suddenly disappeared. The phantom shapes were seen no more; and soon after the travellers saw before them some real ones, that led them to believe they were approaching the limit of the karroo.

The ground was higher, more uneven, and covered by a more luxuriant vegetation. Water would be found at no great distance. This fact was deduced from the presence of some zebras and pallahs, seen feeding near, as they knew that neither of those animals ever strays far from the neighbourhood of a stream.

Near what may be called the border of the karroo, the hunters came across what to them was a prize of some value. It was an ostrich-nest, containing seventeen fresh eggs, which afforded the raw material for an excellent dinner.

This was soon cooked and eaten; and our travellers continued their march. But Swartboy had a passion either for killing ostriches, or procuring their feathers. Possibly the penchant might have been for both; but, be that as it may, he was unwilling to go away from the nest, even after the eggs had been extracted from it.

Knowing that his masters intended to encamp by the first watering-place they should meet, he determined to stay behind for an hour or two and rejoin the travelling party in the evening; and as no one made objection he did so.

His prejudice in favour of poisoned arrows, and against the use of fire-arms, as weapons of offence, had been gradually removed; and he had for some time past been induced to shoulder a double-barrelled gun capable of carrying either bullets or shot.

With this gun the Bushman seated himself upon the edge of the ostrich’s nest, and was left in this attitude by the others as they moved away from the spot.

Just as the sun was setting a dark grove of timber loomed up before their eyes; and on reaching it they discovered a stream of water. The impatient oxen would not allow their packs to be taken off till after they had quenched their thirst, after which they went vigorously to work upon the rich herbage that grew upon the banks of the stream.

It was full two hours before Swartboy made his appearance by the camp-fire. Its light illumined a set of features expanded into an expression that spoke of some grand satisfaction. He had evidently gained something by remaining behind. Success had attended his enterprise. In his hands were seen the long white plumes of an ostrich,—the trophies of his hunter skill,—that even in Africa are not so easily obtained. His story was soon told.

He had lain flat along the ground close by the ostrich’s nest until the birds had returned. They had come back in company, and Swartboy had secured them both as a reward for his watchful patience. He had brought the plumes with him, not as a mere evidence of his triumph, but intended to be taken on to Graaf Reinet, and there presented to his “Totty.”

The Bushman stated that he had seen a large flock of ostriches while waiting for the two he had killed. He had no doubt but what they could be found on the following day; and, as it was necessary that the cattle should have a little time to rest and recover themselves after the toils of the karroo, an ostrich-hunt was at once agreed upon, and for that evening ostriches became the chief topic of conversation around the camp-fire.