On leaving Johanna and our oxen for a time, H.M.S. "Orestes" towed us thence to the mouth of the Rovuma at the beginning of September. Captain Gardner, her commander, and several of his officers, accompanied us up the river for two days in the gig and cutter. The water was unusually low, and it was rather dull work for a few hours in the morning; but the scene became livelier and more animated when the breeze began to blow. Our four boats they swept on under full sail, the men on the look out in the gig and cutter calling, "Port, sir!" "Starboard, sir!" "As you go, sir!" while the black men in the bows of the others shouted the practical equivalents, "Pagombe! Pagombe!" "Enda quete!" "Berane! Berane!" Presently the leading- boat touches on a sandbank; down comes the fluttering sail; the men jump out to shove her off, and the other boats, shunning the obstruction, shoot on ahead to be brought up each in its turn by mistaking a sandbank for the channel, which had often but a very little depth of water.
A drowsy herd of hippopotami were suddenly startled by a score of rifle-shots, and stared in amazement at the strange objects which had invaded their peaceful domains, until a few more bullets compelled them to seek refuge at the bottom of the deep pool, near which they had been quietly reposing. On our return, one of the herd retaliated. He followed the boat, came up under it, and twice tried to tear the bottom out of it; but fortunately it was too flat for his jaws to get a good grip, so he merely damaged one of the planks with his tusks, though he lifted the boat right up, with ten men and a ton of ebony in it.
We slept, one of the two nights Captain Gardner was with us, opposite the lakelet Chidia, which is connected with the river in flood time, and is nearly surrounded by hills some 500 or 600 feet high, dotted over with trees. A few small groups of huts stood on the hill-sides, with gardens off which the usual native produce had been reaped. The people did not seem much alarmed by the presence of the large party which had drawn up on the sandbanks below their dwellings. There is abundance of large ebony in the neighbourhood. The pretty little antelope (Cephalophus caeruleus), about the size of a hare, seemed to abound, as many of their skins were offered for sale. Neat figured date-leaf mats of various colours are woven here, the different dyes being obtained from the barks of trees. Cattle could not live on the banks of the Rovuma on account of the tsetse, which are found from near the mouth, up as far as we could take the boats. The navigation did not improve as we ascended; snags, brought down by the floods, were common, and left in the channel on the sudden subsidence of the water. In many places, where the river divided into two or three channels, there was not water enough in any of them for a boat drawing three feet, so we had to drag ours over the shoals; but we saw the river at its very lowest, and it may be years before it is so dried up again.
The valley of the Rovuma, bounded on each side by a range of highlands, is from two to four miles in width, and comes in a pretty straight course from the W.S.W.; but the channel of the river is winding, and now at its lowest zigzagged so perversely, that frequently the boats had to pass over three miles to make one in a straight line. With a full stream it must of course be much easier work. Few natives were seen during the first week. Their villages are concealed in the thick jungle on the hill-sides, for protection from marauding slave-parties. Not much of interest was observed on this part of the silent and shallow river. Though feeling convinced that it was unfit for navigation, except for eight months of the year, we pushed on, resolved to see if, further inland, the accounts we had received from different naval officers of its great capabilities would prove correct; or if, by communication with Lake Nyassa, even the upper part could be turned to account. Our exploration showed us that the greatest precaution is required in those who visit new countries.
The reports we received from gentlemen, who had entered the river and were well qualified to judge, were that the Rovuma was infinitely superior to the Zambesi, in the absence of any bar at its mouth, in its greater volume of water, and in the beauty of the adjacent lands. We probably came at a different season from that in which they visited it, and our account ought to be taken with theirs to arrive at the truth. It might be available as a highway for commerce during three quarters of each year; but casual visitors, like ourselves and others, are all ill able to decide. The absence of animal life was remarkable. Occasionally we saw pairs of the stately jabirus, or adjutant-looking marabouts, wading among the shoals, and spur-winged geese, and other water-fowl, but there was scarcely a crocodile or a hippopotamus to be seen.
At the end of the first week, an old man called at our camp, and said he would send a present from his village, which was up among the hills. He appeared next morning with a number of his people, bringing meal, cassava-root, and yams. The language differs considerably from that on the Zambesi, but it is of the same family. The people are Makonde, and are on friendly terms with the Mabiha, and the Makoa, who live south of the Rovuma. When taking a walk up the slopes of the north bank, we found a great variety of trees we had seen nowhere else. Those usually met with far inland seem here to approach the coast. African ebony, generally named mpingu, is abundant within eight miles of the sea; it attains a larger size, and has more of the interior black wood than usual. A good timber tree called mosoko is also found; and we saw half-caste Arabs near the coast cutting up a large log of it into planks. Before reaching the top of the rise we were in a forest of bamboos. On the plateau above, large patches were cleared and cultivated. A man invited us to take a cup of beer; on our complying with his request, the fear previously shown by the bystanders vanished. Our Mazaro men could hardly understand what they said. Some of them waded in the river and caught a curious fish in holes in the claybank. Its ventral fin is peculiar, being unusually large, and of a circular shape, like boys' playthings called "suckers." We were told that this fish is found also in the Zambesi, and is called Chirire. Though all its fins are large, it is asserted that it rarely ventures out into the stream, but remains near its hole, where it is readily caught by the hand.
The Zambesi men thoroughly understood the characteristic marks of deep or shallow water, and showed great skill in finding out the proper channel. The Molimo is the steersman at the helm, the Mokadamo is the head canoe-man, and he stands erect on the bows with a long pole in his hands, and directs the steersman where to go, aiding the rudder, if necessary, with his pole. The others preferred to stand and punt our boat, rather than row with our long oars, being able to shove her ahead faster than they could pull her. They are accustomed to short paddles. Our Mokadamo was affected with moon- blindness, and could not see at all at night. His comrades then led him about, and handed him his food. They thought that it was only because his eyes rested all night, that he could see the channel so well by day. At difficult places the Mokadamo sometimes, however, made mistakes, and ran us aground; and the others, evidently imbued with the spirit of resistance to constituted authority, and led by Joao an aspirant for the office, jeered him for his stupidity. "Was he asleep? Why did he allow the boat to come there? Could he not see the channel was somewhere else?" At last the Mokadamo threw down the pole in disgust, and told Joao he might be a Mokadamo himself. The office was accepted with alacrity; but in a few minutes he too ran us into a worse difficulty than his predecessor ever did, and was at once disrated amidst the derision of his comrades.
On the 16th September, we arrived at the inhabited island of Kichokomane. The usual way of approaching an unknown people is to call out in a cheerful tone "Malonda!" Things for sale, or do you want to sell anything? If we can obtain a man from the last village, he is employed, though only useful in explaining to the next that we come in a friendly way. The people here were shy of us at first, and could not be induced to sell any food; until a woman, more adventurous than the rest, sold us a fowl. This opened the market, and crowds came with fowls and meal, far beyond our wants. The women are as ugly as those on Lake Nyassa, for who can be handsome wearing the pelele, or upper-lip ring, of large dimensions? We were once surprised to see young men wearing the pelele, and were told that in the tribe of the Mabiha, on the south bank, men as well as women wore them.