Five Weeks in a Balloon
The Mountains of the Moon.--An Ocean of Verdure.--They cast Anchor.--The Towing Elephant.--A Running Fire.--Death of the Monster.--The Field-Oven.--A Meal on the Grass.--A Night on the Ground.
About four in the morning, Monday, the sun reappeared in the horizon; the clouds had dispersed, and a cheery breeze refreshed the morning dawn.
The earth, all redolent with fragrant exhalations, reappeared to the gaze of our travellers. The balloon, whirled about by opposing currents, had hardly budged from its place, and the doctor, letting the gas contract, descended so as to get a more northerly direction. For a long while his quest was fruitless; the wind carried him toward the west until he came in sight of the famous Mountains of the Moon, which grouped themselves in a semicircle around the extremity of Lake Tanganayika; their ridges, but slightly indented, stood out against the bluish horizon, so that they might have been mistaken for a natural fortification, not to be passed by the explorers of the centre of Africa. Among them were a few isolated cones, revealing the mark of the eternal snows.
“Here we are at last,” said the doctor, “in an unexplored country! Captain Burton pushed very far to the westward, but he could not reach those celebrated mountains; he even denied their existence, strongly as it was affirmed by Speke, his companion. He pretended that they were born in the latter’s fancy; but for us, my friends, there is no further doubt possible.”
“Shall we cross them?” asked Kennedy.
“Not, if it please God. I am looking for a wind that will take me back toward the equator. I will even wait for one, if necessary, and will make the balloon like a ship that casts anchor, until favorable breezes come up.”
But the foresight of the doctor was not long in bringing its reward; for, after having tried different heights, the Victoria at length began to sail off to the northeastward with medium speed.
“We are in the right track,” said the doctor, consulting his compass, “and scarcely two hundred feet from the surface; lucky circumstances for us, enabling us, as they do, to reconnoitre these new regions. When Captain Speke set out to discover Lake Ukereoue, he ascended more to the eastward in a straight line above Kazeh.”
“Shall we keep on long in this way?” inquired the Scot.
“Perhaps. Our object is to push a point in the direction of the sources of the Nile; and we have more than six hundred miles to make before we get to the extreme limit reached by the explorers who came from the north.”
“And we shan’t set foot on the solid ground?” murmured Joe; “it’s enough to cramp a fellow’s legs!”
“Oh, yes, indeed, my good Joe,” said the doctor, reassuring him; “we have to economize our provisions, you know; and on the way, Dick, you must get us some fresh meat.”
“Whenever you like, doctor.”
“We shall also have to replenish our stock of water. Who knows but we may be carried to some of the dried-up regions? So we cannot take too many precautions.”
At noon the Victoria was at twenty-nine degrees fifteen minutes east longitude, and three degrees fifteen minutes south latitude. She passed the village of Uyofu, the last northern limit of the Unyamwezi, opposite to the Lake Ukereoue, which could still be seen.
The tribes living near to the equator seem to be a little more civilized, and are governed by absolute monarchs, whose control is an unlimited despotism. Their most compact union of power constitutes the province of Karagwah.
It was decided by the aeronauts that they would alight at the first favorable place. They found that they should have to make a prolonged halt, and take a careful inspection of the balloon: so the flame of the cylinder was moderated, and the anchors, flung out from the car, ere long began to sweep the grass of an immense prairie, that, from a certain height, looked like a shaven lawn, but the growth of which, in reality, was from seven to eight feet in height.
The balloon skimmed this tall grass without bending it, like a gigantic butterfly: not an obstacle was in sight; it was an ocean of verdure without a single breaker.
“We might proceed a long time in this style,” remarked Kennedy; “I don’t see one tree that we could approach, and I’m afraid that our hunt’s over.”
“Wait, Dick; you could not hunt anyhow in this grass, that grows higher than your head. We’ll find a favorable place presently.”
In truth, it was a charming excursion that they were making now--a veritable navigation on this green, almost transparent sea, gently undulating in the breath of the wind. The little car seemed to cleave the waves of verdure, and, from time to time, coveys of birds of magnificent plumage would rise fluttering from the tall herbage, and speed away with joyous cries. The anchors plunged into this lake of flowers, and traced a furrow that closed behind them, like the wake of a ship.
All at once a sharp shock was felt--the anchor had caught in the fissure of some rock hidden in the high grass.
“We are fast!” exclaimed Joe.
These words had scarcely been uttered when a shrill cry rang through the air, and the following phrases, mingled with exclamations, escaped from the lips of our travellers:
“A strange cry!”
“Look! Why, we’re moving!”
“The anchor has slipped!”
“No; it holds, and holds fast too!” said Joe, who was tugging at the rope.
“It’s the rock, then, that’s moving!”
An immense rustling was noticed in the grass, and soon an elongated, winding shape was seen rising above it.
“A serpent!” shouted Joe.
“A serpent!” repeated Kennedy, handling his rifle.
“No,” said the doctor, “it’s an elephant’s trunk!”
“An elephant, Samuel?”
And, as Kennedy said this, he drew his rifle to his shoulder.
“Wait, Dick; wait!”
“That’s a fact! The animal’s towing us!”
“And in the right direction, Joe--in the right direction.”
The elephant was now making some headway, and soon reached a clearing where his whole body could be seen. By his gigantic size, the doctor recognized a male of a superb species. He had two whitish tusks, beautifully curved, and about eight feet in length; and in these the shanks of the anchor had firmly caught. The animal was vainly trying with his trunk to disengage himself from the rope that attached him to the car.
“Get up--go ahead, old fellow!” shouted Joe, with delight, doing his best to urge this rather novel team. “Here is a new style of travelling!--no more horses for me. An elephant, if you please!”
“But where is he taking us to?” said Kennedy, whose rifle itched in his grasp.
“He’s taking us exactly to where we want to go, my dear Dick. A little patience!”
“‘Wig-a-more! wig-a-more!’ as the Scotch country folks say,” shouted Joe, in high glee. “Gee-up! gee-up there!”
The huge animal now broke into a very rapid gallop. He flung his trunk from side to side, and his monstrous bounds gave the car several rather heavy thumps. Meanwhile the doctor stood ready, hatchet in hand, to cut the rope, should need arise.
“But,” said he, “we shall not give up our anchor until the last moment.”
This drive, with an elephant for the team, lasted about an hour and a half; yet the animal did not seem in the least fatigued. These immense creatures can go over a great deal of ground, and, from one day to another, are found at enormous distances from there they were last seen, like the whales, whose mass and speed they rival.
“In fact,” said Joe, “it’s a whale that we have harpooned; and we’re only doing just what whalemen do when out fishing.”
But a change in the nature of the ground compelled the doctor to vary his style of locomotion. A dense grove of calmadores was descried on the horizon, about three miles away, on the north of the prairie. So it became necessary to detach the balloon from its draught-animal at last.
Kennedy was intrusted with the job of bringing the elephant to a halt. He drew his rifle to his shoulder, but his position was not favorable to a successful shot; so that the first ball fired flattened itself on the animal’s skull, as it would have done against an iron plate. The creature did not seem in the least troubled by it; but, at the sound of the discharge, he had increased his speed, and now was going as fast as a horse at full gallop.