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The Waters of Erongo by Frederick Cornell


North-East of Swakopmund, and somewhere where the line that runs the copper ore down from Otari has a station called Omaruru, there stands a mass of huge table-topped mountains. At the time of which I write they were known as the Erongos, so named after a famous chief of the Gainin Bushmen, who had made something of a stand there against the invading Damaras that eventually “ate up” both him and his tribe.

Even in that land, where most mountains are table-topped, and where the flat plateau above and the plain beneath represent geological epochs that are divided by aeons of years, these Erongo Mountains are remarkable; for they have never been climbed. From their base thick vegetation can be seen crowning the inaccessible summit, and in several places water flows in gushing cataracts down the steep cliffs that frown upon the plain on every side.

This mountain had always had a great fascination for me; and once or twice, in the old days, before the railway came, and when we used to water our transport animals at these same streams, I attempted to climb its steep sides, full of curiosity to see what the top might be like.

But I never got within a thousand feet of it, for the crowning bastions are almost sheer, and would need a better cragsman than myself to negotiate.

Isolated, and rising straight from the plain to a height of about 3,000 feet, it formed a prominent landmark for those few traders or prospectors who, in the old days, returned from their trips to the north to Walfisch Bay by this route; and I was glad indeed to see its huge bulk towering up one day more years ago than I care to remember when trekking in from a long expedition in the Kaokoveld for it meant that my long journey was nearly finished.

With my wagon I had as cook and roust-about an old Englishman named Jim Blake, who had ran away from his ship at Walfisch Bay many years before, and who had traversed the country in all directions, since then, as few men had. In spite of the many years he had spent there, and the fact that he spoke many of the native dialects well, his Cockney accent was as pronounced as ever it could have been when he first shipped at Limehouse; and he had, apparently, a wholesale contempt for everything, and everybody, but himself.

As his employer, he tolerated me, and as he was invaluable in many ways, I tolerated him in return, but he had one habit that always annoyed me immensely. In season and out of season he would say: “Yer don't know heverythink if yer thinks yer does!”; and I could never break him of it.

Well, the evening that I speak of, we outspanned under the cliffs of Erongo, and the oxen drank deep.

We had had a very successful trip, and I felt at peace with all mankind, as I sat smoking, and watching the setting sun turn the tall rocks from gold to crimson, and thence through a whole gamut of purples, violets and mauves to the cold grey of twilight.

“Pritty, 'aint it?” said a voice at my elbow. It was old Blake. His mahogany face shone with the effects of the first soap and water he had been able to use for weeks, for we had been very short of water; and even his arms showed the tattoo-marks that were usually hidden by the grime inseparable to life in the desert.

“Yes,” I answered, “it's beautiful, the most beautiful mountain I know in Africa. I wonder what's on top? I've had a go at climbing it myself several times but, of course, it can't be done. The Bushmen couldn't, Erongo himself only had his werf half-way up when he fought the Damaras. No one has ever climbed it!”

“You don't know heverythink if yer thinks yer does,” sniffed old Jim; “you're wrong. I've bin up it meself!”

“Rubbish, Jim!” I said; “don't talk rot. How far have you been up, anyway? As far as the bottom of the big fall, I suppose?”

“To the top and all over it,” said old Jim. “Oh, I knows yer don't believe. But it's gospel. You don't know heverythink!”

“No, that's true, Jim,” said I meekly, for I wanted his yarn. “I know you sailormen can climb better than I ever shall but how did you do it? Ropes? Ladders? . . . How?”

“No,” he answered slowly, turning his quid in his cheek, and spitting with great precision at a blue-headed lizard that had emerged from a crack in the rock and sat eyeing us. “Got yer!” he went on as the small reptile retired in considerable discomfiture.

“No, neether ladders nor ropes. If yer reely wants ter know, I were carried up!”

“Oh, you can chuckle, but so it were! Twenty year or more agone I came here fust. There was four of us white men; me as cook, two prospectors, and the perfesser.

“He was a queer bloke, that perfesser, clever, too, but bless yer he didn't know heverythink! I'd bin with him a long time, and he used ter tell me more'n he tole the other fellers . . . a clever sort of chap . . . but he didn't know heverythink. And he 'ad one great pecooliarity: he was everlastingly afeard of getting old! He must ha' bin well over fifty, but he used ter get himself up outrageous young: and when I docked his shavingwater he cussed most wonderful!

“'Cleanliness, and stric' observance of rules of life that is the only way ter keep young, Blake,' he would say ter me.

“Well, in them days, bein' young, I didn't see much in what he said, and if I got a wash once a month I was werry well satisfied; and arter a while this 'ere washing business of his got on my nerves. 'Cause, as yer know, when water's been used fer a bath, yer can't werry well use it fer anything but washing up, or biling pertaters, or sich like, and he was the wastefullest man I ever had to cook for. Well, we comes up here on our way to the Koaka Velt on some kind of scientific trip er other I dunno, and it didn't matter as long as I was paid and the two prospectors they brings in gold, and tin, and copper, and all sorts of muck, and the perfesser was busy 'blow-piping' and 'classifying' and what not, and every day he gets more 'centrick. Then he gets sick only a bit of fever, but it laid him out bad for a time: and he couldn't shave, and he couldn't bath, and that hurt him wuss'n the fever. We was here, then; jist in this same camp. And when he got well enough to talk again I took him his cawfee one morning, and sees him a-looking at himself in a little glass: and he looked fair frightened! He'd got a week's bristles on, and they was grey, o' course he weren't no chicken, anyway! And he says to me pitiful like 'Blake, I surely don't look as old as all that?'

“'You've bin ill, perfesser,' I says, 'and it don't make a man look younger. You'll be all right when you've had a bath there's plenty o' water now.'

“Well, I could see 'e weren't satisfied, because he gives a bit of a groan, and looks at hisself in the glass agin. But a day or two arterwards he was well enough to get up, and when he sees Erongo for the fust time, with the water a-pouring down that big fall, he brightens up at once.

“'Just the very place the very place. Who knows but it may be true? Never to be old! . . . Never to be old!' I hears him a-saying, over and over again; but nat'rally, I on'y thought he was a bit off his napper, same as half these 'ere perfessers is, wot think they know heverythink! Anyhow, as soon as ever he was able, oft he goes and bathes in the stream, farther up, a goodish way from the camp, and a power o' good it seemed to do him, for he comes back a-looking ten years younger. Next day he sends the two prospectors out fer a long trip and then he calls me.

“'Jim,' says he, ''ow do you think I look?'

“'Look?' I says for I was fair mazed at the look of him, 'why ten years younger than ever I seed yer!'

“'Just so,' says 'e. . . . 'It's true then!'

“'Wot's true,' I says.

“'The water of life,' says he; 'I have searched for it fer years!'

“'Take some quinine,' says I, 'and back yer goes to bed,' for I'd seen fever patients that way afore.

“'You don't know heverythink, Blake,' he says he 'ad a nasty way o' using that there expression; 'it isn't fever it's joy. For if the stream below has such an effect, wot will the source be like?'

“Well, it wasn't much good taking notice of what he said, but anyhow, next day 'e'd gone!

“The boys said he'd gone upstream towards the big fall, and arter a while I follered him. As you know, that there waterfall takes a lot of reaching, but I gets there at last, and there he was a-sitting in the stream. Lord, I 'ardly knew 'im, he looked so young and vigorous, and full o' life. He wanted me to bathe, but I'd had a wash on'y a day or two before, and I wouldn't. But, my word, he seemed to keep getting younger; and as fer strength, why on our way back he jumped over rocks like a klipbok I never seen the like! Next mornin' he'd gone agin, and this time he stays away fer two days, and I gets scared. The prospectors was away, and there was on'y me and the boys and I couldn't get 'em to go far up Erongo, for they said it was full of devils. P'raps they was right them there boys knows a lot though they don't know heverythink! Third day I gets up early and goes right up the side o' the stream, till I gets to the waterfall, but no sign did I find. And I sits there a-pondering, till all of a sudden I 'ears a voice a-calling 'Jim!'

“I turns round, and there 'e was at least I s'posed it was him! He hadn't a stitch o' clothes on, and his skin shone like a babby's. Look young? Why the only thing I knew about 'im was his voice! And he came a-bounding over the rocks as if he was made of injy-rubber. And his face was all a-shinin' it made me think o' pictures o' hangels to see him.

“'Jim! Jim!' he sings out; half a-laughing and 'alf sobbing, 'it's true! it's true! look at me I'm young agin! I'm immortal!'

“'You're naked,' I says, 'and you ought to know better at your time o' life and in this 'ere 'ot sun too!'

“He laughs like a madman.

“'Ye old fool,' he says (nice it was, and on'y yesterday he'd bin a lot older than me!). 'Don't you see it's true? I've been to the top, man, and bathed in the source there, and I'm immortal!'

“'You're barmy,' I says, though I was a bit scared, for never have I seen such a difference!

“'Come with me to the top and bathe,' says he, 'and see fer yerself!'

“'Who's to take me?' I says. 'I ain't a bird!'

“'I will!' he shouts; and before you could 'a' said 'Jack Robinson,' he grabs 'old of me in a clove hitch!

“I was strong and a bit useful in them days, but I was like a babby in the arms of a giant, and he tucked me under one arm and 'eld me like a parcel. And then well! I know yer don't believe it, but yer don't know he very think. He jist went up the side of that there cliff like a klip-springer, catching on to little points of rock, and a-springing from place to place, as if I didn't weigh more'n a feather; with me under his arm a-hollering blue murder, and a-lookin' down sick and dizzy, and a-praying for him not to let me fall! Right up that there cliff as you can see from here we went, and almost afore I knew what had happened, I was on top. There was thick grass, and bush, and flowers, and tall trees and fruit I'd never seen afore, and butterflies everywhere, and he sat me down jist close to the brink, and there I sat a-gasping. And then he laughed and what a laugh it was jist like a trumpet ringing out, and he says again: 'Come and bathe, man, and be immortal, like me!'

“And then he hustles me off into the wood, flustered and frightened, and a wondering when I should get down to terra-cotta agin. That there mountain ain't flat on top, its cup-shaped, and it's only the rim you can see from here; and there's trees and water everywhere, and birds a-singing, and flowers a-blooming and butterflies a-flitting, and if there'd o'ny bin a nice little pub up there, like wot I knows of there at 'ome in Lime'ouse, it would 'a' bin Parrydise and I'd 'a' stayed. We sees no animals and no snakes, and we goes along the banks of the stream, and at last we conies to a deep pool that bubbled and fizzed up like soda water, all over.

“'The Source!' he says; 'the Source!' an' you could ha' 'eard 'is voice a mile off; 'the Water of Life! I bathed here this morning look at me! Come, bathe, old fool, and be young, and a companion fer me, and we'll stay here fer ever!'

“'Course, I knew he must be barmy though 'ow he got me up that cliff certainly is a mystery! Any'ow, I thought I'd better 'umour 'im a bit. So I starts to undress; and then I pauses.

“'Any beer here?' I asks.

“'Beer, what do you want vile beer for, when there's necktie fit fer the gords to drink?' says 'e.

“'Baccy?' I asks agin knowin' he 'ated it.

“'Phaw,' he says, 'your filthy smoke what need is there of it?'

“'Wimmen!' I says, thinkin' that would be a clincher fer him.

“'Yes,' he shouts; 'beautiful nymphs, spirits as immortal as myself!'

“'I don't see 'em!' says I.

“'They are in the water,' says he; 'beautiful water nymphs and wood nymphs lurks there among the trees! Bathe, fool, and your eyes will be opened!'

“That settled it. I'd got an argyment fer 'im now.

“'Not me,' I says, putting my shirt on agin. 'No beer; no baccy; no wimmen but a lot o' shameless huzzies a-hiding and a-waiting to watch a feller bathe! Not me. I go back besides, I 'ad a bath on'y a few days ago.'

“Well, 'e was that wild I thought 'e'd chuck me in, but I 'umored and coaxed 'im for I had to get 'im to take me down again; and at last 'e did. How he did it I don't know, for when he took me up, like a kid, I shut me eyes, and never opened 'em agin till he put me down at the foot of the waterfall.

“'Good-bye, fool,' he said; 'some day you'll be sorry!'

“Well, we never seen 'im agin, and when I told the prospectors wot I'd seen, they told me to put more water in my grog. And at last the whole outfit went back and reported the perfesser lost or dead.

“But I knows better: he's up there yet! Look! see that smoke on the top? Well, who's a-goin' to make a fire on Erongo if it ain't 'im? You don't know heverythink, if yer thinks yer does.”