On September 12 we left the Krokodil River early in the morning, after first watering our cattle and filling our water-bags. Our guide did not expect to come across any water before the Sabie--a river several days' journey further on. There were several springs on the way, but as that part of the country was so little known, because of its unhealthiness, no one could tell when the last rains had fallen.
The shrubs and bushes had grown high above the ruts made by the waggon two years ago, and were a great hindrance to us. The road we followed twisted and wound rather more than was agreeable, but it was certainly easy to follow for the lagers that came after us. The horsemen rode next to the lagers to shoot bucks. We had no 'slaughter-cattle' with us, so had to live on the game that we shot.
In the neighbourhood of the river we still came across birds and insects, but the further we went the more monotonous and _dead_ Nature became. I could never have pictured such a lifeless wood to myself. No sound of insects was to be heard, no chirp or song of bird; and not even the trail of a serpent was to be seen.
There was a melancholy stillness. Traces of game were in abundance. It seemed as if only those animals lived there which, accustomed to the monotonous silence, withdrew noiselessly from the gaze of the interloper, or, in their ignorant curiosity, stood still until a hunter's bullet warned them or put an end to their lives. To them we must have been strange disturbers of the peace. Shots fell in all directions; sometimes a whole salvo was discharged when we came upon a herd of bucks. There were many thornless trees growing in their stately height far above the usual scrub of the Boschveld. Our horses often grazed on the sweet buffalo grass that always grows under trees. Looked at from a rise, the Boschveld appeared to be nothing but trees--trees as far as the eye could see. One shuddered at the thought of what would become of anyone who lost his way there, since for miles and miles there was no water to be seen and no trail to go by. It made one hurry back to the safety of the lager, trusting to the capability of the guide.
To our great joy, the first spring contained water. It was a large pool surrounded by rocks, where the game was accustomed to drink. We arrived there towards afternoon, rested a few hours, and continued our journey with fresh courage. As the waggons moved too slowly for our liking, we rode on ahead; but the consequence was that, when it got dark and we off-saddled, we had no bedding, for nearly all the waggons were obliged to outspan when darkness set in, as there was no road.
We knee-haltered our horses in case there were lions about, and collected a large quantity of wood to keep the fire going all night. That night our talk, of course, ran upon lion-hunting and shooting expeditions. Then we crept as close to the fire as possible, and were soon in a troubled, or untroubled, sleep, dreaming of lions and other wild animals. But I felt the cold very much, and could not sleep without my rug, and kept turning from side to side to get as much warmth from the fire as possible. If only I had made two fires! In a battle I have been between two fires, and did not find it at all agreeable, but in this case it would have been different.
I lay awake, waiting for the third fire, the red dawn, but not in a poetical mood. There is a time for everything; that I learnt during the war. Rain is lovely, and cold gives energy, but one must be warm to appreciate it. As I lay thus, four mules, tethered together, came closer and closer up to our fire, grazing all the while. I lay still, listening to the peculiar noise made by the biting off of each mouthful of grass. I seemed to expect a joke, and suddenly one of the mules fell on his back. In a moment all our heroes were up and ready to defend themselves against lions or khakies, according to their different dreams. I laughed, and laughed again, so that the hyenas could hear me a mile off, and the startled lion-hunters began to laugh also, so that we woke up the whole camp. This little episode made my blood circulate, so that I very soon also was in the land of dreams.
As the burghers chased all the game on ahead of the lager, the President and Commandant Boshoff agreed to go in advance, so as to have a chance of seeing the numerous kinds of wild buck and larger game. I went with them. Greatly to my distress I forgot to ask our guide what direction we would take that day with regard to the sun. An experienced hunter would not have forgotten it, as he knows from experience that in the excitement of the chase we often leave the beaten track. I had to pay dearly for my forgetfulness. I rode some distance to the left of the President, but took care to keep him in sight. But the Boer is wonderfully disobedient to any authority, and not long after two men made their appearance to my left, and I saw that if I did not look out they would be ahead of me in no time, and chase all the game away from me. As the donga next to which we rode seemed to be a favourite resort for game, I took the same direction as they did, more to the left. The dongas ran into each other with numerous bends and curves, and were sometimes overgrown with high grass, then again quite bare. I paid no attention to the direction we took.
After a while one of the men wounded a buck, and they both rode into the donga after it. I rode on, to cross the donga a little further on, so as not to have to follow in the track of the other two, and saw a red buck on the other side, which I wounded so badly that it seemed unnecessary to fire again, and I rode leisurely towards it. But when I had crossed the donga the buck had disappeared, and I began to seek for the traces of blood, but I soon had to give up the search, not to lose sight of the other two men. They, however, seemed to be a great distance off, as I did not overtake them, and I did not succeed in tracing them in the direction that the wounded buck had led them, as the track in the grass was invisible to my inexperienced eye.
I rode back to the donga, and deliberated on the course to take. In all directions I heard shots, right and left, but I stood irresolute. I had no watch with me to find the four quarters of the wind, but the sun had only just risen, and I made a guess with an imaginary compass. It was lucky for me that I made such a good guess, and had paid great attention to the direction we had taken with regard to the sun. I was certain that I should come upon the traces of the lager if only I kept within the sides of a right angle, unless the lager had at the start taken a sharp turn to the right or left.
But it was possible that in our excitement we might have crossed the waggon track which the lager was to follow; then the lager would be far to the right. Standing thus like the ass between two bundles of hay, I was not in the mood to think lightly of my case, but had to act at once, so I chose the safest and more probable of the two sides of my right angle--namely, the left, as I would then in any case not be moving towards Portuguese territory, and could always turn to the Krokodil River.
I felt pretty certain now, as it was more probable that we had not crossed the old waggon tract, and every moment I expected to hear the switching of the long whips. But when I had gone some distance I was obliged to return to the donga, and retrace my way to the place where we had slept. A clever Boer would have succeeded in finding the way back, but I soon lost my way altogether. I lost the traces of the horse's hoofs, and the dongas looked to me so different that in one place where a donga branched off I did not know which to follow. An intense feeling of desolation took possession of me. Lost in a wilderness without food or water! I thought of the twelve or thirteen men who got lost in this wood on a hunting expedition, and of whom only one was saved. A great fear came upon me. Gradually I became calmer, and tried to form some plan of action. I resolved to keep to the left, where I had already seen a solitary mountain. Perhaps water was to be found there.
My gun was loaded with Dum-Dum bullets, specially prepared for bucks. I had filed through the steel to the lead, so that the bullet would expand at once when it came into contact with bone. I found a buck tame in its very wildness, but I missed it, for the aim of my gun, a fine sporting Mauser, had been bent by the branches of the trees. It was a good thing that I did not come across a lion, or, rather, that a lion did not come across me.
I had to ride under trees, through shrubs and grass, and had to keep a sharp look-out, as the king of beasts sometimes takes the lords of creation unawares. And I had to look out for an opportunity to shoot a buck--the only food within my reach. The nearer I came to the mountain, the surer I was that I had lost my way completely, and the more I became reconciled to my fate. I planned how I should build a large fire in the night for myself and my horse, and how I should defend myself against a lion with a burning piece of wood.
Suddenly my horse went faster and pushed to the left. Greatly to my astonishment, I saw that the attraction was a little stream of water that he had scented in a donga. I off-saddled, and let my horse graze in the luxuriant grass.
Now I was strengthened in my belief that I had taken the wrong direction, for we were all under the impression that we should not soon reach water. I prepared some more Dum-Dum bullets with a small file that I carried in my pocket, and did not let my horse graze long, but hastened to the mountain to find a better shelter for the night. To my great joy, I came upon the wide road about a thousand paces further on. I followed the road along the mountain for half an hour, when I came upon the lager, camped near a stream--probably the same stream at which I and my horse had quenched our thirst.
As we sat round our fires that night we heard shots fired in the distance from the direction that we had come. Some men were sent out immediately, and returned after a while with a man quite exhausted from hunger and thirst, and paralyzed with fear; he had been unable to overtake the lager.