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MORE ABOUT OSTRICHES

KARROO GARDENS-A RIDE WITH BONNY-SKETCHING UNDER DIFFICULTIES-ANECDOTES AND INCIDENTS.

Ah, those were happy days, when, with a congenial spirit, I drove and galloped over the South African plains.  There was not much in the way of thrilling incidents, to be sure, and nothing whatever of wild adventure, but there was novelty in everything, and possibilities enough to keep the spirit ever on the alert.

We used to ride out sometimes after steenboks,-small brown creatures, that made little show when bagged, but then there were huge and horrid vultures to remind one of the sandy desert, and there were pauws- gigantic birds that were splendid eating; and the very thought that I trod on land which little more than quarter of a century back had been marked by the print of the royal lion was in itself sufficient to arouse unwonted interest, which was increased by the knowledge of the fact that the kloofs or glens and gorges of the blue hills on the horizon were at that time the natural homes of leopards or “Cape-tigers” and huge baboons.

These animals are, however, extremely wary.  The baboons go about in troops, and are wont to leave a trusty old-man baboon on guard, while the rest go down at early morn to rob the settler of his fruits and vegetables.  If the old man happens to see or scent danger he gives a signal and the troop flies helter-skelter to the nearest cliffs.  They are therefore not easily got at by hunters.  As to “tigers,” they go about stealthily like cats.  I was told there was not a chance of getting a shot at them, unless I went out with dogs and a hunting party for the purpose.  As this could not be accomplished at the time, I had to content myself with smaller game.

Bonny, (one of Hobson’s younger sons), and I went out one day after breakfast to try for a steenbok before dinner.  There were plenty of them in the stretches of bush-land that dotted the Karroo in the immediate neighbourhood of the farmhouse.

Stretching out at a gallop with that light-hearted cheerfulness which is engendered by bright weather, fresh air, and a good mount, we skirted the river where Hreikie nursed her little flock.

Hreikie was a small Hottentot girl, as lightly clad as was compatible with propriety.  Her face was dirty brown, her mouth large, her nose a shapeless elevation with two holes in the front of it.  Her head was not covered, but merely sprinkled with tight woolly knobs or curls the size of peas.  Each knob grew apart from its neighbour knob, and was surrounded, so to speak, by bald or desert land.  This style of hair was not peculiar to Hreikie alone, but to the whole Hottentot race.  Hreikie’s family consisted of thirty-three young ostriches, which, though only a few weeks of age, stood, I think, upwards of two feet high.  Some of them had been brought out by artificial incubation-had been heated, as it were, into existence without maternal aid.  These birds, Bonny said, had been already purchased for 15 pounds sterling apiece, and were deliverable to the purchaser in six months.  They were fed and guarded all day and housed each evening with tender solicitude by their Hottentot stepmother, whom the birds evidently regarded as their own natural parent.

We swept on past the garden, where, on a previous morning, Bonny and I had killed a deadly green-tree snake upwards of five feet long, and where, on many other mornings, he and I, with sometimes other members of the family entered into strong temptation among the magnificent fruit.  We used to overcome the temptation by giving way to it!  There were plums, peaches, figs, apples, apricots, grapes, nectarines, and other fruits, with which the trees were so laden that some of the branches had given way and their luscious loads were lying on the ground.  Cartloads of these were given away to friends, and to any one, as there was no market for their disposal.

Many splendid gardens like this exist on what is sometimes styled the barren Karroo; but the land is anything but barren.  All it requires is a copious supply of water, and wherever farmers have taken the trouble to form dams and store the heavy though infrequent rains, gardens of the most prolific kind have been the result.  The Karroo-bush itself, which gives name to these plains, is a succulent plant, which thrives in the almost waterless soil, and forms a rich pasturage for sheep and cattle.  Hobson’s garden-copiously watered by streams led out from his large dams-was a beautiful shady oasis of green and gold, in the midst of what, to some eyes, might have appeared a desert, but which, if irrigated properly, would become a perfect paradise of fertility.

We cantered on over the plain, till the garden and the farm looked in the distance like ships at sea, and rode among the bushes that crowned a rising ground.  We set up some guinea-fowl and other birds, and startled a hare, but let them go, as our aim was steenboks.  The little boks, however, were not on the knoll that day, so away we went again at a gallop until the garden and the farm went down on the horizon.

Sometimes we kept together and chatted, at other times we diverged and skirted small clumps of underwood on opposite sides.  At one time, while separated from Bonny, I saw a large stone lying on the ground.  As I looked, the stone began to crawl!  It was a tortoise, fully as large as a soup-tureen.  The sight of an animal in its “native wilds,” which you have all your life been accustomed to see in zoological gardens, has something peculiar, almost absurd, in it.  As it is with animals, so it is with other objects.  I remember being impressed with this idea, for the first time, in the south of France, when I beheld a tree covered with lemons-a fruit which, up to that period, had been connected in my mind with grocers’ windows and brown sugar!

I turned aside and dismounted.  The sluggish tortoise stopped, recognised in me an enemy, and drew in its head and feet.  After lifting and looking at him I set him down.  Then it occurred to me that some one had said a tortoise could carry a man.  I stepped upon this one’s back forthwith.  He lay perfectly still for some time.  At last with great caution the head and feet were protruded.  Another pause, as if of meditation, then the feet were applied to the ground; they pushed and strained, until finally the creature advanced about two inches, and then stopped!  This was not much, but it was sufficient to prove his great strength, and to convince me that a large tortoise could easily have walked off with a little boy.

I found Bonny dismounted and waiting.

“No steenboks to-day, I fear,” he said.

“We must have a shot at something, Bonny,” said I, dismounting, and sitting down on an anthill.  Having been a fair average shot in a rifle corps in Scotland I took careful aim at a small bush, bent on doing credit to the British Volunteers.  The result was a “bull’s-eye.”

“Capital!” exclaimed Bonny; “if you shoot like that you’ll kill plenty of boks.”

Half an hour later I was passing round the left of a knoll, while Bonny took the right.  Up leaped a steenbok, which ran a hundred yards or so, and stopped to look at me.  I was already off the horse and down in the Hythe position.  A careful aim was again taken.  The result was “a miss!” while the small deer vanished like the smoke of my rifle.  So great is the difference between target-practice and hunting!

It was time now to think of returning for dinner.  I was thoroughly lost by that time in the vast plain-like a ship at sea without a compass.  But Bonny was as knowing in Karroo-craft as a Kentucky hunter is in wood-craft.  He steered as true a course for home as if he had smelt the leg of mutton that was roasting at the fire.  Probably he did-in imagination!  Soon the two ships reappeared on the horizon; our fleet nags quickly transformed them into the garden and the farm, and in half an hour we were relating our mild adventure round Hobson’s hospitable board.

“I’m going to visit brother Jonathan after dinner:  will you come?” said my host.

“Yes, with pleasure,” said I, “but first, while you have your siesta, [midday nap], I will go into the opposite field and make that long-talked-of sketch of your house.”

“Very good; I’ll send for you when the cart is ready.  There are some ostriches in the field, but you don’t need to mind them, for they are quite young, although full-grown.”

It is a common custom among South Africans to take a nap in the heat of the day during summer.  They dine early, and the power of the sun at that part of the day renders work almost impossible.  I could not at first fall in with this custom; therefore, while the family retired, I took my sketch-book and colours and went off to the field.

There was a mound, whence I could obtain a good view of the house with its surroundings, the cattle-kraal or enclosure, the course of the little stream, with one of the small dams or lakelets, and the garden, the whole backed by the blue mountain range on the horizon.

The sun was blazing fiercely, but, as before remarked, I delight in heat.  Selecting a stone I sat down, opened my book and colour-box, and began.  To those who don’t know it, I may say that sketching is a most fascinating and engrossing species of work.  I soon forgot where I was, forgot Hobson, forgot time, forgot every thing in fact except the glowing face of nature, when a sound recalled me.  I looked round and observed eight or ten huge ostriches stalking towards me with slow funereal gait.  I felt somewhat uneasy,-for their youth, of which Hobson had assured me, was in no way indicated by their huge bodies and dreadful legs.  However, I had taken the precaution to carry my forked stick, and drawing it nearer continued at my work with an easier mind.  If they meant war I knew escape to be hopeless, for the nearest wall was a quarter of a mile off.

The females halted at a respectful distance, but two of the largest black males came stalking close up to me and stood still, gazing intently, first with one eye, then with the other, at a distance of about six yards.

Meanwhile some of the females sat down, and one of them put herself in an attitude so absurd that I introduced her into the drawing.  Presently the largest male advanced a little nearer, and kept somewhat behind me.  This was embarrassing.  It occurred to me that, in the art of war, an attacking party is supposed to have the advantage of one that is assaulted.  I therefore rose, brought my fork to the charge, and went at the bird with a furious roar.  It turned and ran a few yards, but stopped when I stopped, and began to return slowly, as before, the moment I had sat down.  As it drew nearer I observed that it eyed my colour-box curiously.  Stories about the peculiar taste of these giant birds recurred to me.  People say they will eat anything.  Their digestive powers have passed into a proverb.  The day before I had given an ostrich a large apple, which it coolly bolted, and I could trace the progress of the apple by the lump in its throat as it passed rather slowly down.  Some one-Bonny I rather think-had told me he had seen an ostrich accept and swallow a bottle of shoe-blacking!  Anything bright is sure to attract the eye of an ostrich and be coveted.  I trembled for my colour-box, and, seizing my fork, charged again.

About this time Bonny himself came to say that the cart was ready.  We therefore packed up and came away.  The ostriches, he said, were too young to think of molesting us, though he admitted that they would probably have swallowed the colour-box if I had allowed them.  They followed us down to the gate, and finally saw us safely off their premises.

“Father once had an ostrich,” said Bonny, as we walked towards the house, “that caught a couple of thieves for him.”

“Indeed! how was that, Bonny?”

“You are aware that Kafirs are terrible thieves?” he replied.

“Yes, I’ve been given to understand that they have propensities that way.”

“Oh! but you have no idea how clever they are at it, and the Totties are just as bad, if not worse.  On one occasion we had a nest of eggs in the field over there, which we had left to be hatched in the natural way by the hen-ostrich.  One night it rained very hard-so hard that we feared the young ones would be drowned in the nest, so brother Johnny was sent to look after them.  He took two Totties with him.  It was very dark, but he found the nest with the cock bird sitting on it.  You know the cock always sits at night.  Well, Johnny took him by the nose and pulled him off the nest, and gave him to the two Totties to hold.  It was hard work, but they kept his head well down, so that he couldn’t kick.  Johnny soon bagged all the little ones, leaped over the wall, and then called out to let go the cock.  It was so dark that he couldn’t see very well.  He could only hear a scuffle, and then saw the two men bounding over the wall like indiarubber balls while the cock went bang against it like a battering-ram.  We got the little ones home all safe, but, would you believe it? these rascally Totties had managed to pull out all the best wing-feathers while they were holding the cock-each feather worth, perhaps, twenty shillings or more-and got clear away with them to the canteen, where they can always sell stolen goods.

“But that is not what I was going to tell you,” continued Bonny.  “It was about two Kafir thieves who were going round the country stealing.  They came to our place one evening, and, in the course of their depredations, happened to cross one of the fields where a pair of our ostriches had a nest.  The cock had not yet commenced his night duty on the nest.  He caught sight of the two Kafirs, and was down on them instantly like lightning.  They took refuge in a mimosa-thorn, and there he kept them all night.  It was no use their trying to make a bolt for it, because twice or three times their speed could not have saved them from the ostrich.  There they remained, and there father found them next morning, when he rode out to feed the birds.”

The sturdy sons of this Karroo farmer had no light duty to perform each day.  The farm was twenty miles in length, and of variable breadth.  There were no crops raised on it, save the fruit of the splendid garden already mentioned, some grapes, and a few mealies.  The sources of gain were ostriches and their feathers, Angora goat hair, (mohair), horses, sheep-wool, and cattle, looking after which kept father and sons pretty constantly in the saddle.  It was a dashing style of life, requiring robust health and spirits.  I have seen one or both of the boys return of an evening-after having been up at five or six, and out all day,- scarce able to decide whether to eat or sleep!  Counting and guarding the flocks formed a part of the duty.

One evening the report was brought that a horse and thirteen bucks had disappeared.  The Kafir thief had driven them off in the direction of Somerset.  There he had been questioned closely as to where he came from, etcetera.  His replies not being satisfactory, the animals were seized and put in the pound, whence they were afterwards reclaimed, while the thief escaped being put in the “tronk,” or jail, by a sudden dart into the jungle of the Boschberg!

My friend and I were soon on the road which led to the farm of his brother Jonathan.  It stood about two miles distant.  On our way we had to pass one corner of the private domain of Black Jack, or David Marais, I forget which-I think it was the former.  He was there ready for us, and evidently in a rage at the mere possibility of our intrusion, for the wings were going like flails and the tail was up.  Hobson pulled up to look at him for a minute.  I got down and went to the wall, knowing that it afforded perfect security.  Black Jack came up slowly, as if he meant no mischief.  I leant over the wall, which was breast-high, and poked fun at him.  In an instant, like a flash of light, he came at me.  I saw his great claw over my head, and almost before I could jump back, a couple of heavy stones were driven violently off the top of the wall.  To bolt and jump into the cart was almost an involuntary and instantaneous impulse on my part, though there was no need for haste, because the furious biped could not leap the wall.

“Yes,” remarked my friend, with a quiet chuckle, as we drove along; “I expected as much.  Black Jack is in a bad humour to-day.”

The farm of Jonathan lay at the side of the stream which watered that of his brother.  It was a pretty place.  We drove through the stream to get to the house.  On entering we found Jonathan standing in his hall, besprinkled with his own blood, and smiling.  He was one of those tall, thin, powerful sort of men, with genial good-humour wrinkling the corners of their eyes, who seem to be ready to smile at everything, pleasant or otherwise, that befalls them.

“Hallo! what’s wrong, Jonathan?” asked his brother, with a touch of tenderness in his tone.

“Nothing particular,” replied the other; “I’ve just had a tussle with one of my birds.  He wriggled out of the stick and kicked me.”

On more particular inquiry we found that Jonathan and his son-another powerful six-footer-had gone that morning to search for eggs, which they felt sure must have been laid somewhere about the enclosed field.  To keep the male bird in play while the search was being made, the father took his forked stick, met the cock in single combat, clapped the fork on his neck, and let him kick away.  All might have gone well, for the father, besides being strong, was accustomed to such work; but the bird, instead of keeping up a straightforward assault, as it ought to have done, turned its back to its foe, wriggled its neck, in some inexplicable manner, out of the fork, and before it could be refixed had given Jonathan several tremendous kicks.  One of these nearly tore his trousers to pieces, and another cut him across the right wrist into the bone.  This rendered his right arm powerless for the moment, and it might have gone ill with him, had not his son, who was still in sight, observed what had occurred, and run back to the rescue.  As it was, the father’s wrist was severely, though I hope not permanently, damaged.

On a certain occasion three friends visited Ebenezer.  One of these-we shall call him Squib-was a sporting character, and anxious to have a shot at the guinea-fowl which abounded on the farm.  Hobson, with his usual kindness, readily agreed to pilot him and his friends.

“The ground, however,” said Hobson, “is part of the domain which belongs to one of my ostriches, whose temper is uncertain.  I don’t feel sure of him.  Perhaps it would be better-”

“Oh! never mind that,” interrupted Squib; “we’re not afraid of ostriches.  Come along.”

“Very well,” returned the host, “come along.”

And along they went to the domain of Gouws, who was found pacing solemnly inside the wall of his enclosure.  His wings were active, and his tail was cocked.  Otherwise he was calm enough to all appearance.  Hobson knew that the bird was in a rage, and said so, but his friends, who were young and reckless, insisted on entering the enclosure.

They did so, and Gouws followed them with a stately air, but did not attack, being no doubt perplexed by numbers.

They walked in Indian file, Hobson being the last of the line.

“I could turn him with a bit of a bush,” said Squib, glancing at Gouws, who was drawing gradually nearer to the party.  “Just cut one for me, Hobson, will you, like a good fellow?”

Hobson turned aside and stooped to cut a branch from a mimosa bush.

Just then the ostrich, which had marched ahead of the party, turned sharp round and charged.  Poor Squib tripped, by good luck, and fell as the bird passed over him.  It kicked down the other two, and sprang on the shoulders of the stooping Hobson, who fell and gashed his finger as the bird tumbled over him.

The whole party rose with marvellous celerity, and the sportsmen rushed towards the boundary wall, while Gouws scrambled on his long legs and ran after them.  Had the distance been great, their chance of escape would have been small.  As it was, Gouws overtook one of the party just as he reached a part of the wall which had been mended with mimosa-thorn bushes.  With one tremendous kick he sent the unfortunate man into the midst of the thorns, where he would certainly have given him further punishment had he not been attracted by a yell of alarm from another of the party.  Poor Squib was not fleet of foot or active.  He made a clumsy attempt to vault the wall, which his companions had already leaped.  Leaving his thorn-pierced victim, Gouws made at Squib, applied his huge foot to his person, with a slap that must have forcibly recalled the days of childhood, and sent him over the wall with undignified haste.  It is generally believed that Squib has not gone guinea-fowl shooting among ostriches since that day!

The profits on ostrich feathers are very considerable.  I do not profess to give statistical information in these pages, but merely touch lightly on what came under my observation.  At one farm which I visited near Capetown I was told that the owner had cleared 2500 pounds in one year.  Timid men are sometimes alarmed by depressions in the trade in feathers, and some of them have sold off their birds at heavy loss; but bold and hopeful men continue to persevere and prosper, as such men always will in every trade all the world over.  That ostrich-farming has been found worthy of zealous attention is proved by the fact that, while in 1865 there were only between eighty and ninety birds in the colony, in 1875 there were upwards of 22,000. [In 1925 there were 239,000.]

Some days afterwards, I pretty well completed my circle of knowledge on this subject by witnessing the birth of an ostrich!

Hobson and I rode that day over to a lovely place named Glenbonny, on the edge of that part of the Karroo where the mountainous lands begin.  It was a charming ride of forty miles-there and back-with a pleasant visit, and a rest between.  Here dwelt relatives of my friend-a family named Berrington-one daughter of which, (with wealth of golden hair), had been a shipmate on the voyage out.  The principal neighbours of this family were tigers and baboons.  There was a minor population of deer, hyenas, hares, coneys, monkeys, and moles, but no human beings of any kind.  Their dwelling was low and flat-roofed, the walls being coated with mud, so that its aspect outside was not imposing, but inside we found substantial comfort if not luxury, refinement, and hospitality.  This is not an infrequent combination in the outlying districts of the Cape, where the nature of life and things is such that wealth, education, and refinement are often found robed in a modest homespun garb, and housed in a mere hut.

Among other objects of interest inside we found ostriches-very little ones-in divers stages of progression.  There was one, the size of an ordinary fowl, which had been in existence-after egg life I mean-a few days, and swaggered about the premises like an impudent child.  There was another baby-weak in the understanding, physically as well as mentally-which staggered about in a drunken manner, with an insane tendency to use its tail as a support.  This creature was kept in existence by having its food forcibly crammed down its throat, the amount given each meal being gauged not by appetite but by the tension of its stomach.  Last, and least, there was one which had succeeded in bursting out one end of its native egg that morning.  Its already tremendous toes protruded, and were engaged in further efforts to get out when we arrived.  While we were at dinner that day the creature effected its liberation, and entered on the staggering and stuffing phase of its career.

All these birds, and many others, had been nursed into life through a hot-air and warm blanket incubator, by the amiable lady of the house, and were destined to spend the early part of their lives under the care of some Hottentot stepmother.