From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz
I met a shaggy old Boer hunter whose talk was to send me on a long journey. He hailed from Angola but he had spent some years in a region known as the Kaokoveld, which – with a wide sweep of his arm – he vaguely described as lying far to the north.
He told me of big game and strange tribes and of many adventures; and he told me one story in particular of how, when he was stalking an antelope towards dusk, he suddenly saw a goods train crossing the rise.
For a moment he thought he had lost his senses. Then he realised that what he was looking at was not a goods train, but hundreds of elephant marching head by tail in single file across a hill.
His stories made a strong appeal, and the thought that there was, in that distant corner, a remnant of the old savage Africa, unspoilt as yet by the white man, so fired my imagination that I decided I would go and have a look at it for myself.
On leaving Khairos next day, we followed a faint track which Daniel optimistically called ‘the road of the Angloa Boers’. He said it was the route taken by the Dorstland Trekkers when they passed through forty-five years before. They had no doubt cut a passage for their wagons at the time, but it required a better eye than mine to see any trace of it, and we had great difficulty in getting our cart along in the thick bush. We travelled due north to Otyitundua, reaching there in five or six days.
At night we halted, as a rule, some distance from the waterholes, for the elephant came out after dark to drink and we watched them as they filed by. The bulls and cows never drink together, but on alternate nights. The bulls pad along quietly and, taking their fill, they splash and roll in the mud, then they go off as softly as they came. But the cows can be heard approaching from a distance and they objected to our presence for, whenever they scented us, they trumpeted angrily and the calves ran about squealing, between them creating a din that was pretty alarming at first.
However, they never attempted to molest us, and on moonlit nights we were able to see them clearly. When we passed elephant in the daytime they shuffled off, although once or twice a bull faced round, his ears outstretched and his trunk upflited, as if he meant to charge. Daniel and I stood ready with our rifles in case of need, but we never had occasion to fire.
On our way to Otyitundua there was running water at several spots, and at one of these we saw the first relic of the Dorstland Trek; for here, beside a well-trodden elephant path, lay the lonely grave of one of the trekkers, and from now onward we repeatedly came on similar milestones of these indomitable pioneers. The graves are covered with mounds of limestone and they are still in good condition. Daniel even knew the names of those who lay beneath.
At Otyitundua are the ruins of the houses they built in 1878 and 1879 and the remains of their cattle kraals and walled gardens, as well as the irrigation furrows they cut to lead water to the plains below. It is hard to understand why they left a place such as this, where they could have enjoyed peace and plenty under what to them must have been ideal conditions after their wanderings in the desert, but the trek spirit drove them ever onward.
On the evening we reached the hill at Otyitundua, a troop of elephant coming to drink frightened a herd of cattle belonging to a local Herero, and the terrified animals stampeded past our cart with the elephant on their heels. But for the fact that Daniel had taken the precaution of double-tying our oxen with gemsbok riems to a big tree, they would have gone too, for they got wildly excited and tugged and strained at their bonds. Had they broken loose, I doubt if we should ever have seen them again.
The cattle and the elephant streaming by in a cloud of dust amid bellowing and trumpeting was a sight to remember. It seemed to me that the elephant were as frightened as the cattle, and that when the cattle started running they had become infected too, for they made no attempt to attack the herd. The last we saw of them, oxen and elephant were intermingled, each apparently bent on getting away from some fancied danger in the rear.
We travelled in two days to Ubombo, across picturesque, game-covered plains, with quantities of gemsbok, zebra and giraffe, and more elephant. Once I saw several full-grown giraffe, with two calves. One calf was about eight feet high, but the other could not have been more than a few days old. It was so tiny that at first I only made out a head and a pair of ears above the long grass, and I took it to be an antelope of some kind. Then they crossed an open glade and I was able to see what it was as it sprawled along, all legs and neck, beside its mother.
In addition to antelope there was plenty of guinea fowl, partridge and pheasant, so we kept our larder well stocked. One morning a large flock of guinea fowl running into several hundred came up a game track in single file. I waited until the front of the line was twenty yards off, and then I whistled. The birds looked up, and I sliced seven of their heads off with one bullet. It was rank murder, but it kept us in poultry for more than a week.
We halted at Ubombo for several days, then travelled for two days through increasingly thick bush to Gauko-Otawi, the Rustplaats, or resting place, of the Trekkers. Here it was that in 1878 they had built a church, their trek-fever temporarily stilled. They thought they had, at last, reached the land of their dreams, but they stayed for only two years: for these Boers Utopia always lay beyond the next horizon.