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
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
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'
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
'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
'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
'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
'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
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
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.