Mountains of the Moon – 5
The tale of brave Alvarez
Young man, what’s your age? Twenty-two? When you were just a toddler, back in 1889, that’s when my story begins. I was prospecting for gold beyond the forest and the ranges to the north of the Cape Colony. I was young then, and cared for no danger.
I started from Bulawayo, alone, with two donkeys carrying my luggage. I crossed the Zambezi, beyond which the maps were marked with the words ‘unknown region’. I’d cross rolling hills, tall grasses, small Bantu villages. Then eventually Bantu villages became less frequent. I had reached a place that was never before visited by a white man.
Wherever I saw a river or creek, or a hill, I looked for gold. How many had become rich in the southern part of Africa with gold or diamond? I had heard those tales since when I was a little boy. That’s what I came to Africa for. But I found nothing in two years of roaming around. Two years of hardship, and nothing to show for it. Actually, once I came very close.
I had shot a deer that morning. After having lunch, I decided to take a nap inside the tent — you know, it’s impossible to travel during a summer day in that part of the world, the temperature gets up to 115-130 degrees in the sun. Anyway, after the nap, before leaving the place, it turned out that I lost the fly for my rifle. You know how it is impossible to aim without a fly? Well, I’d lost the damned fly. What to do? I looked around. There were some whitish rocks in a nearby hillock. There were white pebbles too. I took a small one, and after a bit of an effort, it was placable as a fly. And then when the sun came down, I moved on. I had forgotten where that white hillock was.
Fifteen days or so later, I came across an Englishman, also prospecting. He had two Matabele coolies with him. We were very glad to have met each other. His name was Jim Carter. He was also a vagabond like me, though a few years older he was. One day, while cleaning my rifle, he became very excited. He said: Where did you get this fly? I told him what had happened. He became even more excited: Don’t you see? This is pure silver. There must be silver mine nearby. I’d guess you’d get over nine thousand ounce of silver from a tonne of rock. Let’s go there right away. This will change our luck.
I’ll make the story shorter. I turned around, with Carter accompanying me. But despite trying for four months, facing many adventures, nearly dying of thirst in the desert-like veldt, despite all that, we couldn’t find that place. When I left that place last time, I’d never thought I’d need to find it again. In the African veldt, without many landmarks, you didn’t really have much of a chance of finding an old campsite. Everything looked the same. After four months, we had given up on the silver mine. We decided to head towards the Gwayi River. Carter didn’t leave me. We were together until the day he died. I still remember that unholy day that he died.
Anyway, thirst was the worst thing. So we decided to trek along a river bank. We ate what we hunted. And if we came across a Bantu village, we’d buy yam or chicken from them.
Some time later, we came across a Bantu village, it was oh, about fifty miles or so from the Orange River. The village chief’s daughter, a little kid of five or six, was very ill. Stomach ache it was. She was crying, so was everyone else. Obviously it was a case of the demons, she clearly had to be sacrificed. I found out from asking that she went to the woods and came back with the ache. Did she have any berry? Yes she did. A lot. Well that probably was it. I had some homeopathic medicines with me.
A single dose and the demons were gone. Of course we became very popular in the village. We stayed there for over a week as guests of the chief. Well, we’d invite them too — we hunted deer during the day, to make ber-be-que for our hosts at night. After a week or so, just before leaving the village, the chief said: You love white marbles, no? Wait here, I’ll get you some. He came back with a little white ball. We were stunned. It was a diamond! A raw, uncut diamond! The largest either of us had ever seen.
The chief said: Take it, its yours. See that range over there, like smoke, it’s about fifteen days of walk from here. There’s a lot white marble beyond that range. We’ve never been there. Not a good place. There’s a monster there called Bunyip. Three of my friends went there many years ago. They had never returned. And a white man went there when my grandfather was the chief. He had never returned either.
We checked the range in the map. That smoky mountain beyond the horizon was the Richtersveldt, the largest, most dangerous and the least explored range in southern Africa. No civilised man had been there, though a few brave adventurous explorers have been to its outskirts. There was no map of that range. No one knew what riches awaited the brave in that unknown land.
Our blood started boiling with excitement. There must have been a diamond mine over there. And it was up to us to go and find it. We had to find it.
We reached the foothills of the range seventeen days after leaving the village.
We knew that this was unexplored land. But that’s unexplored by white man. We were surprised to see how there weren’t any Bantu villages nearby.
It was near sunset when we had reached the foothill. Carter suggested camping there for the night. He lit a fire, I started preparing dinner. The idea was to roast a couple of birds I had shot in the morning. Carter though wanted a cup of coffee.
The fire was already lit. As I put the kettle on it, we heard a lion roar. It was less than fifty yards away. Carter got his gun out. I said: It’s near dark, be careful. I went back to preparing the roast. There were two shots, and another thudding noise. Then it was all quiet. Ten minutes had gone by, but Jim hadn’t returned. I was worried. I picked up my rifle, and started towards the direction of the shot. A few steps out, and I saw Carter dragging something very heavy. He said: Fantastic specimen. Hyenas would have spoilt it if I had left it out there. Now come and help me with it.
It took us a lot of hard work to skin that beast. Then the night fell. We went to sleep after dinner.
But I couldn’t sleep at all because of lion’s roar. Was there one? Or many? How far were they? I got my rifle ready, but Carter said: Partner of the dead cat.
He turned around and begun to snore. I stepped out of the tent. The fire had died. So I relit it. At some point I also fell asleep.
The following morning we started to venture into the forest. We saw a few Bantus. They said they were on their way back to a village, and had got lost in the forest. They were happy to see us. We showed them the way out towards the Orange River. Hearing that we wanted to go deeper into the forest, they were surprised.
You don’t know how dangerous this forest is. Men don’t go into this forest. Go back if you want to live. See at the end of this forest there is a small range. Beyond that there is a vale. After that there is the big range on one side, and the desert on the other. That vale is the most dangerous place in Earth. That’s where Bunyip lives in a cave. Bunyip guards the place, and no trespassers are left alive. Don’t go there bwana, white marble is not worth your lives. Go back to where you came from.
We asked: What is Bunyip?
It turned out that they didn’t know what Bunyip was. But it was clear that Bunyip was a very nasty thing.
We feared nothing, or no one. Carter was adamant that diamond or not, we had to solve this Bunyip puzzle. The death was calling him, if only we had listened to the Bantus.
At this point the old stopped. He was tired. Shankar was curious to find out what happened next. He had never met anyone like this man. Shankar realised that he had tremendous admiration for this old man with strong wrist, and steely blue eyes.
A real adventurer.
Alvarez said: A glass of water please.
After drinking the water, the old man started again:
Yes, listen what happened then. We entered the rain forest. Large unknown trees, ferns, orchids and lantanas of so many colours, in some areas the forest was simply impenetrable. In some areas, the trees had sharp thorns, overhead, the leaves were so dense that the sunlight never reached the ground. You could seldom see the sky. And there was one animal — baboon. Troops of baboons were everywhere. And they were not afraid of us. They scream, they show their teeth, some of the alpha males appeared ready to strike us. Carter said: If nothing else, we have enough food in this forest.
A week had gone by. Carter was right. We killed a baboon a day. There were a number of streams and water falls coming from the larger range, so there was sufficient water. But once this had actually caused an accident. We camped by a stream, the plan was to fry the baboon’s leg, Carter was thirsty and drank the stream water. He threw up right away, he had severe stomach ache. I suspected that the water was poisonous. I was right. Upon checking, it turned out that the water had arsenic. Obviously there was a layer of arsenic somewhere. But this was also a good sign, arsenic in the surface water is usually a good sign of a diamond mine.
In that forest, we hadn’t seen any other animals except for baboons and poisonous snakes. Of course there were lots of birds and insects. Nowhere else in the world other than in the African tropics would you have such a large collection of birds and insects. But then again, birds and insects aren’t really animals.
First we came across a small range, which was probably parallel to the main range of the Richtersveldt. It didn’t take us many days to cross that range. We camped in a forested vale beyond the range. The veldt proper was ahead of us. There was a small rivulet. This cheered us up. Usually you find minerals on the banks of such brooks.
We checked the banks of the rivulet. To no avail, for nearly three weeks or so we checked. I became quite frustrated. Carter said one evening over coffee: Let’s keep trying. I’m sure there is something here.
We tried for three more weeks. We were tired of eating baboon. Even Carter was appearing to be ready to give up. I said: Come on man, let’s head back. There’s nothing here. The Bantu was wrong.
Carter said: There must be other streams here.
A few days later, on the bank of the stream, we saw small yellow pebble. This was very exciting. Carter said: We’ve found it! You recognise this?
I did. But I said: Yes, but it came from somewhere upstream, the mine isn’t here.
The pebble was the famous South African yellow diamond. While excited, we weren’t euphoric. All it proved was that somewhere upstream, there was diamond mine. But where exactly was it? It turned out that the stream was much longer than we realised. But we had all the time in the world, and we were determined to follow the stream to its source.
Or we thought we had all the time in the world. In fact, our quest was stopped by fate, or rather, it was stopped by the guardian of that diamond mine.
A few days later, we came close to a cave whence the stream started. As it was close to evening, we decided to explore the cave in the morning. There was palm tree a few yards away. There was a large shrub around it. All of a sudden the tree started to shake as if a storm was afoot, except there wasn’t a storm.
We were very surprised? There wasn’t even a breeze, let alone a gale! And yet the tree was shaking? Why? Carter picked up his to gun and went into the bush to see what was happening.
There was a yell almost immediately, and I ran into the bush with my gun ready. I found Carter’s body, bloodied but not dead yet. There were sharp wounds, as if a knife was used, on his upper body. It was a very strong beast, whatever it was. Carter said: Evil. Pure evil. Run away.
Those were his last words. I looked at the trunk of the tree. Obviously a very powerful animal was shaking it. But what animal? I didn’t see any beast. I dragged Carter’s body back to the cave. Then I went to the other side of the bush. There were prints, of some large ape, with three fingers being much clearer than the other. And the print suggested that this was much larger than any known species of ape. This beast was about 8 to 10 feet tall. I followed the trail to a cave. Was it the same trail whence the stream started? I wasn’t sure.
It was evening by then. In that completely uncharted tropical rain forest, I was facing a strange monster, all alone. In front of me there was a large cave. To my right, 4,000 feet high wall of basalt. I couldn’t see the top of the range.
I wasn’t stupid enough to enter the cave then. I returned to the camp. I sat by Carter’s corpse whole night, with a loaded rifle ready just in case the devil returned. It was the longest night of my life.
After burying Carter the next morning, I tried to return to the cave. The trouble was that there were a number of caves. How to tell which one I saw the previous evening?
It was impossible to explore a place like that without companion. It took me fifteen days to return to the Bantu village. They recognised me, and welcomed me warmly. I told the chief about Carter’s death.
Their dark faces became bloodless listening to my tale. They said: Bunyip. That’s why no one goes there.
It took me another five days to walk to the Orange River. A few days later, I came across a Dutch steamer. That took me back to the civilisation.
I tried, but could never return to the Richtersveldt. Then the Boer War came. I joined the British. I was injured, and received a pension and a bed in Pretoria Hospital. After that I got married and founded an orchard near Cape Town.
Then my wife died at child birth. I was bored with the settled life. I headed out again. But I’m an old man now. Young man, my road ends here.
You keep this map. This shows the stream where we found diamond. If you’re brave enough, go there someday. You’ll be rich. People have found diamond mines in South Africa after the war. But no one knows about the diamond mine in that vale. Save you.
Thus ended the tale of brave Alvarez.