It rained. In ten minutes the dusty plains, as far as the eye could reach, were covered with water two or three inches deep, from which the sparse bunches of grasses grew like reeds in a great marshy lake. We splashed along with the water over our ankles. The channels made by the game trails offered natural conduits, and wherever there was the least grade they had become rushing brooks. We found the safari very bedraggled. Billy had made a mound of valuables, atop which she perched, her waterproof cape spread as wide as possible, a good deal like a brooding hen. We set out for the meeting-point on the Kedong. In half an hour we had there found a bit of higher ground and had made camp.
As suddenly as they had gathered the storm clouds broke away. The expiring sun sent across the valley a flood of golden light, that gilded the rugged old mountain of Suswa over the way.
“Directly on the other side of Suswa,” C. told me, “there is a ‘pan’ of hard clay. This rain will fill it, and we shall find water there. We can take a night’s rest, and set off comfortably in the morning.”
So the rain that had soaked us so thoroughly was a blessing after all. While we were cooking supper the wagon passed us, its wheels and frame creaking, its great whip cracking like a rifle, its men shrieking at the imperturbable team of eighteen oxen. It would travel until the oxen wanted to graze, or sleep, or scratch an ear, or meditate on why is a Kikuyu. Thereupon they would be outspanned and allowed to do it, whatever it was, until they were ready to go on again. Then they would go on. These sequences might take place at any time of the day or night, and for greater or lesser intervals of time. That was distinctly up to the oxen; the human beings had mighty little to say in the matter. But transport riding, from the point of view of the rank outsider, really deserves a chapter of its own.
THE TRANSPORT RIDER.
The wagon is one evolved in South Africa—a long, heavily-constructed affair, with ingenious braces and timbers so arranged as to furnish the maximum clearance with the greatest facility for substitution in case the necessity for repairs might arise. The whole vehicle can be dismounted and reassembled in a few hours; so that unfordable streams or impossible bits of country can be crossed piecemeal. Its enormous wheels are set wide apart. The brake is worked by a crank at the rear, like a reversal of the starting mechanism of a motor car. Bolted to the frame on either side between the front and rear wheels are capacious cupboards, and two stout water kegs swing to and fro when the craft is under way. The net carrying capacity of such a wagon is from three to four thousand pounds.
This formidable vehicle, in our own case, was drawn by a team of eighteen oxen. The biggest brutes, the wheelers, were attached to a tongue, all the others pulled on a long chain. The only harness was the pronged yoke that fitted just forward of the hump. Over rough country the wheelers were banged and jerked about savagely by the tongue; they did not seem to mind it but exhibited a certain amount of intelligence in manipulation.