The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 17: A Day on an Island. Incidents of Hunting and Fishing.

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A Flock of Cranes

From their halting place, described in the last chapter, our friends pushed onward without farther delay. The captain of the steamer said there were many islands in the lake, principally on the western side—a fact that was not known until quite recently. Baker, Speke, Stanley, and Long were all unable to make a thorough exploration of the western part of Lake Albert, and all of them came away with the impression that what has since proved to be a series of islands was in reality the mainland.

Some of the islands are inhabited, but the greater number are without population. The islands were not considered safe from the incursions of the slave stealers, and some that formerly were densely occupied had latterly been entirely deserted. The slavers would send out spies to learn the situation of an island and the number of persons to be found there. This being ascertained, they would make a sudden descent, usually at night, and the frightened Africans could not escape, as their boats would be in the possession of the robbers. Those who took shelter in the bushes were soon hunted down or starved out, and their primitive weapons were no match whatever for the muskets of their enemies whenever they ventured to fight.

The islanders supported themselves mainly by fishing, though they generally had small fields of bananas, plantains, yams, potatoes, and other edible things. They had no goats or sheep, with here and there an exception, but the most of them had flocks of chickens, and occasionally a dog was to be seen. The dog is not usually a popular animal with the African, and the breed is not such as would please a fancier of New York or London.
The Kingfisher

It was necessarily slow work to move among the islands with the steamer, and sometimes an hour or more was consumed in making a single mile. Soundings were taken every few yards, and where there was any probability of running aground the small boat was sent ahead to ascertain the depth of water.

They stopped at some of the islands in order to obtain wood for the steamer, and, as they were generally obliged to cut it themselves, the operation of "wooding up" was not a rapid one. On one island they found several logs that had evidently been thrown on shore by the action of the waves when the lake was at its highest point. They were well seasoned by the heat of the tropical sun, and made excellent fuel. The captain of the steamer said he hoped the other islands on the way would be equally kind to them, and furnish them with dry wood instead of green. One of the logs was over five feet in diameter, and nearly a hundred feet long, and the work of reducing it to fuel for the furnaces of the boat was no small task.

The island was uninhabited; and as the captain said a couple of days would be required for his men to cut up the logs they had found and load the wood on the boat, the Doctor concluded to pass the night on shore. He ordered the tents to be carried to land and set up where a strip of gravelly beach, with an acre or so of grass beyond it, made an excellent site for a camp. The cooking utensils were left on board, as it was not deemed advisable to make a division of kitchen work for a single night. Of course, the guns and ammunition were carefully looked after. Ramen and Bash were in a tent with Ali, close to Doctor Bronson and his nephew, and they took turns in watching through the night to guard against a surprise.

As soon as they were landed Fred was eager to make the tour of the island in search of game. Ramen was sent ahead to see if everything was right; and as there were no indications of natives, either resident or transient, a hunting expedition was organized immediately.
A Pair of Kingfishers at Home

They had not gone far before the sharp eyes of the youth discovered something in motion on the shore a little way beyond them. Peering through the grass and bushes, and advancing cautiously, he found a flock of cranes, evidently quite unaware of his proximity. Two of them stood with their heads bent forward, as if listening for the rustling of the bushes; another seemed engaged in digesting his breakfast; while the rest were prodding the ground with their long bills in search of worms.

Fred motioned to the Doctor, to imply that there was something worthy of a shot, and the Doctor signalled to him to try his skill. In obedience to the signal Fred continued to creep forward, while the Doctor sat down to wait for the result.

Soon a shot was heard, and in a few moments Fred came dragging a magnificent crane which he had secured. With a presence of mind unusual in a beginner he had selected the finest of the flock for his target.

"Look out for him!" exclaimed Doctor Bronson; "he is not quite dead, and may do you harm."

As he spoke he placed his foot on the neck of the bird and held it firmly, while explaining to Fred the reason of his caution.

"The crane family is distinguished for its long bill, which is a powerful weapon of offence and defense. When wounded it is capable of dealing heavy blows, and it aims at the eye of whoever or whatever comes near it. I once knew a gentleman in Missouri who lost an eye, and came near losing his life, by a blow from a crane. He had wounded a large crane so severely that it was lying on the ground apparently dead; as he stooped to pick it up the bird struck him in the right eye, destroying it instantly, and inflicting a severe wound besides. Instances of the same kind occur almost every year, and when you fire at these birds you should be very cautious about approaching any that may fall at your shot."
Fish Eagle on a Hippopotamus Trap

Fred said he had looked at the bird before picking it up, and he touched it with his foot to make sure that it was incapable of harm. Doctor Bronson replied that the crane will sometimes rouse itself when supposed to have been killed, and deal severe blows to its assailants; for this reason it should be approached very cautiously.

The prize was handed over to one of the attendants, and the party moved on. The flock of cranes had flown away and left no chance for a second shot; they are very shy, and take alarm at the least noise. Fred was quite content with the one he had secured. The crane is not worth much for table purposes, as his body consists mainly of hard muscles, and his flesh has a fishy flavor on account of his diet.

Aquatic birds seemed to be the order of the day, as the next victim of Fred's shot was a kingfisher, which was perched on a low treetop close to the water. He was on the watch for a fish, and did not heed the approach of the hunters until too late.

Doctor Bronson said the kingfisher was to be found in all parts of the world, and more than a hundred varieties of it had been classified by naturalists. The largest of them is found in Australia; it is about eighteen inches long, and feeds in the woods as well as in the water. Another variety, belonging to South America, has a peculiar scream, resembling a loud and prolonged laugh, and for this reason it is sometimes called "the laughing jackass."
Central African Yam

"Haven't I read somewhere," said Fred, "that the kingfisher is the 'halcyon' of the ancients, and that its habits and period of hatching its eggs gave rise to the term 'halcyon days?'"

"Quite likely you have," was the reply, "since such is the case. The kingfisher has been a familiar bird in all ages, as he is not at all shy, and, when undisturbed, he will remain until you walk quite close to him. As his name implies his chief food is fish of his own catching, but he does not disdain the mouse or other animal small enough for him to grapple with. Some varieties make their nests in hollow trees, but the majority dig holes in banks, unless they can find unoccupied ones that were made by some burrowing animal and abandoned. Whether the bird appropriates a deserted nest or makes one of its own, it always has it with the entrance sloping upward, so that the rain cannot enter. Moisture is fatal to the eggs, and the kingfisher takes good care that they shall not be injured."

The grass bore indications of the presence of the hippopotamus, or river horse; though Fred remarked that he could not properly be called a river horse at this point, seeing that he inhabited a lake. It did not make much difference what he was called, as he was probably quite indifferent to what was said of him as long as he was left uninjured.
Potato and Yam Fields

They followed some of the hippo tracks, in the hope of discovering the animal that made them, but without success. The tracks in every instance led to the water, and nobody had the slightest desire to go below the surface to see how the hippo got along.

Just as they were turning back from the last of the traps Fred espied some birds flying in the air too far off to be worth a shot; he called the attention of the Doctor to the birds, and the latter, after a brief glance at them through his glass, said they were fish eagles.

"Yes, fish eagles," as he took another look at them, "and one has just lighted on the top of a low tree. No, it's a trap for a hippo; and so the island, if not inhabited, is visited by people who do not live far away."

Fred wanted to go in pursuit of the eagle, as he desired to preserve its skin, as a trophy of his skill in hunting; but the Doctor said the ground was too wet and soft for them to go there. "And besides," he continued, "there may be someone watching the trap; and, if so, he might resent our visit and send an arrow or a spear, without waiting for us to explain our intentions."
The Kilnoky

The walk was continued a couple of hours or more, but no additional prizes were secured. There were not many birds among the trees, and the Doctor said it would be useless to look for deer or similar game on the island, as none were at all likely to be found there. The animals couldn't swim there from the mainland, on account of the crocodiles, and there was no probability that the natives would bring them off in boats, and endeavor to start a deer park on private account. There were few places where walking was at all easy, owing to the abundance of vines and brushwood. There were occasional patches of grass, but it grew so high that half the time the travelers could not see at all, and therefore hunting was quite out of the question.

Soon after their return to camp our friends went on board the steamer for dinner. They came on shore again as soon as the meal was over, and prepared to pass the night on land. The evening brought clouds of mosquitoes that threatened to resent the invasion of the island by devouring the invaders. But the nets had been spread for their reception, and they were disappointed in their hopes, if any had been raised, of tasting American blood. Fred incautiously opened his net to enter it, instead of crawling underneath, according to the approved fashion; the result was that he had music all through the night, which had not been bargained for; but as he was wearied with the walk and excitements of the day he soon fell asleep, and allowed the mosquitoes to sup as they liked.

The next morning Fred took a stroll along the shore of the lake in a direction opposite to that he had taken when hunting cranes and kingfishers, and it resulted in an important discovery.
Young Polypterus

He found a field, or badly kept garden, of yams and sweet potatoes. He was not quite certain as to the former, but there was no doubt about the sweet potatoes. He ran back to camp to tell the Doctor what he had found, and the news was immediately sent to the captain of the boat.

While they waited for the captain to join them the Doctor explained to his nephew what the yam was.

"It is," said he, "the popular name for a considerable number of plants of the genus Dioscorea, and in the southern part of the United States is applied to light-colored varieties of the sweet potato. The yam is, practically, a tropical plant, though some of its species are found in the middle of the temperate zone. In the latter case the tubers or roots are small and of little value, while the tropical ones often reach a weight of thirty or forty pounds. It contains a large amount of starch, and in its component parts it greatly resembles the potato."

Fred asked why it was not possible to have the yam take the place of the potato in the United States, if it grew so large and was such a good article of food.
Lake Mohrya, with Villages

"It is quite possible to do so," was the reply; "but the potato is easier to cultivate than any yam that will thrive in our latitude. The great yams grow only in the tropics. The only one that will grow in the Northern States is the Chinese or Japanese variety, and many experiments were made with it some years ago, when there was a general failure of the potato crop.

"The Chinese yam has a root two feet or more in length, largest at the lower end, and going straight down into the ground. The difficulty with these yams was the trouble of digging out the roots, as their shape and brittleness prevented their being pulled like beets or carrots; and the only places where they are now cultivated in America are in the gardens of gentlemen who are fond of curiosities without regard to the expense."

Some of the yams in the garden they visited weighed fifty or sixty pounds each, and their shape was like that of a deformed human foot. Enough of them were taken for the wants of the steamer, and in their place was left a box containing an equivalent for their value in beads and brass wire. The captain of the steamer did not think it necessary to leave anything, but he was overruled by Doctor Bronson, who said he would have nothing from the garden unless it was paid for; and as the owner was not present to receive his compensation the articles must be left where he could find them.

After the yams had been secured our friends turned their attention to fishing, but without much success, as their implements were limited, and they did not know the proper localities for the sport. They succeeded in capturing a few specimens, which were pronounced similar to those they had seen at the village near the head of the river, and identical with the fishes found in the upper part of the Nile.

There was one which was called kilnoky by Bash and Ramen. It had a long and broad head, and very powerful fins, and its sides were spotted somewhat after the manner of a trout. On each side of the mouth and beneath the jaw there were "feelers," similar to those of the catfish, and the dorsal fin was protected by spines, which required the novice to exercise caution to avoid being pricked.
A House in the Water

Another fish, which Ramen said was called besher on the Nile and gurr on the lakes, had a short tail, to balance a long nose, and his back was covered with curious spines that stood out by themselves. Doctor Bronson said its proper name was Polypterus, and it was to be found all through Central Africa, according to the information gathered by Schweinfurth and others.

Fred angled awhile by himself, and caught a couple of fishes which were pronounced "warr" by one of the soldiers. The youth remarked that they looked very much like the perch of his native land, as the body of the fish was of a dark-green color, crossed by stripes of brown.

"They belong to the perch family," said the Doctor, "and so does the 'golo,' or Lates niloticus. There are several varieties of perch in Africa, but these are the most abundant."

During their rest under the tents, while the sun was high in the sky, the conversation naturally turned upon the African lakes and the people living around them. Fred asked about the people that inhabit the islands of other lakes, and also about some tribes that dwell in houses standing in the water.

"I can only refer you to Cameron," said the Doctor, in reply. "He visited a small lake, in his journey across Africa, where the people actually live in the water. There are few lakes where this would be possible, on account of the presence of crocodiles, who would drive to the land everybody they did not eat. The lake seen by Cameron was called Mohrya, and lies east of Tanganyika, on the route to the Atlantic Ocean. It is rather a pond than a lake, as it is only a couple of miles long by one in width, and lies in a basin surrounded by low hills.

"Cameron tried to obtain boats to take him to these native dwellings, but could not do so, as the people on land had none, and the lake dwellers were very shy of allowing strangers to visit their houses. All he could do was to sit on the shore and study them with his telescope.
Ideal Representation of a Swiss Lake Village

"The huts were built on poles driven into the bed of the lake, and the floor of each hut was about six feet above the surface of the water. Boats were kept under the huts, and nets were stretched between the poles, so that they could be dried by the sun and air. The people live entirely in these huts, and only come to land to cultivate their gardens, which lie near the water.

"They go from house to house," the Doctor continued, "by the simple process of swimming. It is rumored that there are large snakes in the water, whose bites are poisonous; but Mr. Cameron could see nothing of them, and evidently the story is untrue, or the people would be more careful. They keep fowls and goats in their huts, and bring the former to land to graze, but they always return home with them when night comes on."

Fred wished to know something of this native tribe, but the Doctor was unable to give him farther information. He added, however, that lake dwellings are of very ancient origin, and are mentioned in history by Herodotus and other Greek writers.

"Yes," replied Fred, "I have read of them in descriptions of Switzerland and Ireland, and we saw huts in the water when we were in Siam and Java."

"The lake dwellers of Asia and Africa are modern," said Doctor Bronson, "but those of Europe disappeared ages and ages ago. All the lakes of Switzerland once contained villages built on piles, and some of them were quite extensive. From twenty to fifty villages have been explored in each of the larger Swiss lakes, and many others in the smaller ones. Most of them date from the age of stone implements, before the discovery of metals, and in the remains of the villages many weapons and utensils of stone are found. One village covered an area of three acres, and stood on piles or posts of 'hard wood'—beech, oak, and fir—and most of them ten or twelve feet long. There were about one hundred thousand of these piles. The village was in the middle of a small lake, and had a bridge, connecting it with the shore. There are two sets of piles, one above the other, so that it is evident the village was occupied at two different periods.

"Another lake was completely surrounded by these dwellings, and among the relics discovered there are articles of wood, horn, bone, bronze, and gold. When you visit Switzerland you will see, at Lucerne, Zurich, and other places, some of the relics brought up from the lakes, and putting us face to face, as it were, with the people of a prehistoric age."

    The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 17: A Day on an Island. Incidents of Hunting and Fishing.


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Plantain: A plant in the genus Musa, the genus that includes banana, but with lower sugar content than banana.
Yam: The edible, starchy, tuberous root of the yam plant, a tropical staple food.
Sounding: A measured depth of water.
Acre: An English unit of land area (symbol: a. or ac.) originally denoting a day's plowing for a yoke of oxen, now standardized as 4,840 square yards.
Crane: A large bird with long legs and a long neck which is extended during flight.
Kingfisher: A variety of birds with a large head, short tail, and brilliant coloration that feeds mostly on fish.
Naturalist: An expert in natural history or the study of plants and animals.
Halcyon: In classical legends, a bird said to nest on the sea, thereby calming the waters; later usually identified with a type of kingfisher.
Fish Eagle: Any of several other species of birds of prey that feed on fish.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

  • Examine a setting mentioned in the chapter in modern times: A modern lake village in Switzerland.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

  • Find Switzerland on the map of Europe.
  • Name the countries bordering Switzerland.

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the applicable mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.