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

Chapter 27: Ripon Falls. The Outlet of Lake Victoria.

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As they approached the northern end of the lake they passed a high hill, which was marked on the chart as "Jack's Mount." Referring to Stanley's account of his voyage around the lake, they ascertained that the hill received its name in honor of one of the four-footed companions of that explorer.

When Stanley left England he took, as members or attachés of his expedition, five dogs, three of which died before he reached Uganda. "Jack" and his companion, "Bull," were the survivors when they arrived near this mountain. A wild cow that had been given by one of the chiefs behaved so badly that Jack deemed it his duty to correct her; but she was not to be intimidated. In the struggle for control, the unfortunate dog was gored to death. Stanley says: "He died regretted by all who had known his many good qualities. His companion, Bull, when he beheld his poor mate stretched out still and dead, also expressed, as clearly as canine nature would allow, his great sorrow at his lamentable fate. Grave and deliberate, from years and long travel, he walked round the body two or three times, examining it carefully, and then advanced to me, with his honest eyes wide open, as if to ask, 'What has caused this?' Receiving no answer, he went aside and sat down, with his back toward me, solemn and sad, as though he were ruminating despondingly on the evils which beset dog and man alike in this harsh and wicked world."

The little flotilla turned northward after passing Jack's Mount, and entered a bay, from which the Victoria Nile flows out of the lake. This bay is known on the map as Napoleon Channel, and is ten or twelve miles wide at its entrance. A large island lies across the opening, and during the wars between M'tesa and the people of Busoga it has been occupied repeatedly by both the hostile armies; consequently, it is not a desirable place of residence for peacefully inclined natives, and at the time our friends made their excursion to Ripon Falls it was quite deserted. They landed on the island, and from some of the fields a goodly supply of yams and other vegetables was obtained, without the necessity of paying for them.

The bay narrowed as the party advanced to the north; and, after a few miles had been made from the end of the island, the men ceased rowing, and allowed the boats to drift with the current, which became stronger every minute.

The boys were eager to catch the first glimpse of Ripon Falls, and Frank asked if there was a column of spray to indicate their location, as there is at Niagara and other great cataracts of America.

"You are not likely to see anything of the kind," replied the Doctor, "as the river makes a descent of only a few feet. The cataract is so small that the natives frequently pass it in their canoes, though not without danger."

"The natives call the place 'The Stones' instead of 'Falls,'" said Abdul, "for the reason, I suppose, that the river passes over the stones, or rocks, which stretch across it. The descent is about twelve feet in the ordinary state of the river, and diminishes to not more than nine feet in the season when the rains are not falling."

The river narrowed to a width varying from four to six hundred yards. The banks were hilly, and covered with dense forests in some places, but presenting open spaces like clearings at frequent intervals. There were villages on both banks, though none of any great extent. The natives came out to gaze on the flotilla, but offered no opposition, or gave any indication of more than ordinary interest in the intrusion. Back of the villages were banana fields and groves of cocoa trees, and moored in front of each village were several boats, together with nets and other equipment for fishing.
Ripon Falls: The Nile Flowing Out of Lake Victoria

Where a rocky point jutted into the river the boats came to land. A scramble over the neck of this peninsula and through tangled vines and low bushes brought the travelers to the bank of the river again, and close to Ripon Falls.

Running rather than walking down the narrow path, Frank and Fred reached the river side by side so exactly that neither could claim precedence. Here they were at last at what may be called the head of the Nile, until the tributaries of Lake Victoria are traced to their sources.

They sat down on the sloping bank, close to a little hut belonging to some of the native fishermen, and studied the picture which was unfolded to their eyes.

The river at the falls was not more than five or six hundred feet in width, and the passage of the water was barred by several islands, which recalled to the youths the broken sheet of water at Niagara.

"We will call the big one in the center Goat Island," said Frank, "and try to think we are looking at Niagara again."

"That's all right," replied his cousin; "but what shall we do with the other two islands? They must have names of their own, or they'll feel slighted."

Frank thought a moment, and then suggested the names of Mary and Effie.

Fred assented, and thus the islands at Ripon Falls received their appellations in honor of two young ladies who were far away. But it is doubtful if future geographers will recognize them, and thus far the names have not appeared on any chart of the lakes of Central Africa.
A Group of Hippopotami

While the conversation was going on the youths were busy with their sketch books, and soon had creditable pictures of the falls; then they watched the fish leaping the cataract, and the natives securing them with spears.

Every little while the head of a hippopotamus was seen rising in the water below the falls, and Frank thought it would be a nice thing to get out the rifles and have a hunt for this noble game. With the Doctor's consent, he took a shot at one of the huge fellows, but with no better luck than to see his bullet strike the water about six inches from the mark. As far as the hippo was concerned it was a timely warning, which he heeded by disappearing immediately.

Abdul said the place was a good one for crocodiles, and that the natives were very cautious about venturing into the water. Once in a while it happened that a fishing boat was overturned; and if it was well out in the river at the time of the accident, the unfortunate natives were seized by these terrible scourges of the Nile before they could reach the shore.

"We are about forty miles a little north of east from M'tesa's palace," said Abdul; "and if there was a good road we could easily get back in a couple of days. But the country is marshy, with a very thick growth of bushes, so that traveling is slow and disagreeable. There used to be a good supply of game through this region, but it has been killed off to quite an extent since the king came into possession of rifles and shotguns in place of the old weapons of Africa.

"Elephants were formerly very troublesome here, and the natives were unable to protect their banana plantations from their ravages. A herd of wild elephants may wander all around a plantation, and if they have never tasted bananas a very slight fence will keep them off; but when the taste for this food has been created they seem unwilling to live on anything else, and will run great risks to obtain it."

"There is one animal of Africa we have not yet made much acquaintance with," said one of the youths.
Ready for Business

"What is that?" the other asked.

"The rhinoceros," was the reply.

"We are not in the region where he most abounds," said Abdul, "though he is not by any means unknown here. His proper country is South Africa, and he formerly flourished nearly down to the Cape of Good Hope. The settlement of the country drove him to the interior along with the elephant, the lion, and other noble game; and now the rhinoceros must be sought in the interior wilds, and is not always found when sought."

"This is a good place to have a talk about him," said the Doctor, as they sat on the bank near the falls and watched the water pouring through its contracted channel; "and perhaps we may have a chance to see one of these thick-skinned creatures before we leave the neighborhood of the highest cataract of the Nile.

"Scientifically considered," the Doctor continued, "the rhinoceros may be set down as an ungulate mammal, secondary only to the elephant in point of size among terrestrial animals. He is distinguished by his horn, which is supported on the end of the nose, but not connected with it, as it comes away with the hide, to which it and its broad base entirely belong."

"His horn is a powerful weapon, I believe?" said one of the boys.

"It is one of the most powerful weapons belonging to any animal," replied Doctor Bronson, "as it is more conveniently situated for use than the tusks of an elephant or the horns of a bull.

"With his horn he can kill an elephant, and frequently does it. The elephant and rhinoceros in a wild state are enemies, and when they meet there is pretty sure to be a fierce battle, resulting in the death of one, and perhaps both, of the adversaries. But when domesticated they are quite friendly, and instances have occurred wherein two of these beasts have shown great affection for each other. The rhinoceros at home is a fierce brute; he does not wait to be assaulted, but often begins an attack upon peaceful travelers: sometimes he will travel a long distance with the evident intention of making a disturbance.
Trouble in the Rhinocerous Family

"Dr. Livingstone is an excellent authority on the rhinoceros, as he had many opportunities of seeing him at home. He says that among some of the tribes he visited in South Africa a man is obliged to kill a rhinoceros before he is allowed to marry and be considered more than a youth. Probably the custom has been changed in the last few years, owing to the scarcity of these animals, and the impossibility of finding enough of them to meet the wants of the rising generation."

Frank asked the size of the rhinoceros, and whether or not he was quick in his movements.

"As to the figures," answered the Doctor, "we learn, on the authority of those who have hunted him, that the white rhinoceros of Africa will sometimes measure fourteen feet from nose to tail, and his girth often exceeds eleven feet. His horn will sometimes be five feet long, but much more frequently it is about three feet. One variety of the rhinoceros has a double horn, the second one being a little back from the first and considerably shorter—frequently nothing more than a protuberance.

"Gordon Cumming says that, notwithstanding his short legs and generally unwieldy body, the rhinoceros is quick in his movements, and a horseman can scarcely overtake him. Another hunter says he can dart like lightning, and in strength is unsurpassed by any animal of the forest. There is an old story that a rhinoceros was once sent as a present to the King of Portugal. One day in a rage he destroyed the ship on which he was being transported, and the sailors had great difficulty to escape in the boats. When we think of the frail construction of ships two or three centuries ago and the strength of the rhinoceros, we can hardly treat the story as a gross fabrication."
Bad for the Dog

"You mentioned the white rhinoceros a moment ago," said one of the boys. "Is he more dangerous than his black brother?"

"He is the larger but the less aggressive of the two," said the Doctor, in response to the question. "The black one will attack without provocation, while the white rhinoceros, though the larger, asks to be let alone, and only shows fight when compelled to defend himself.

"The black rhinoceros is ready to attack man, elephant, or lion without warning, and sometimes, when he is anxious for a fight, he will get one up with his own brother or a near relative. It is a providential circumstance that his eye is small, and so badly placed that he cannot see with ease. If he had good eyesight he would be vastly more dangerous than he is.

"Mr. Oswell, an African hunter and explorer, who discovered Lake N'gami, tells how he was one day walking quietly to camp, when he saw two large rhinoceroses feeding on the plain. At sight of him the animals advanced in his direction, and he stopped and took aim at one of them. He knew that a shot in the forehead of the rhinoceros has no worse effect than to tickle him, as though it were the touch of a fan; but, as the beast might be angry at being struck with a fan, he is liable to resent a shot on his skull. Mr. Oswell did not get a chance to fire at a vulnerable point, and as the animals continued to approach he determined to try a run past them, trusting to their bad eyesight to enable him to escape.

"He brushed close to one of them in his rush to escape, but a loud snort told him he had been seen. He turned and fired, and the next moment felt himself impaled on the animal's horn.
Rhinocerous Heads

"His next sensation was that of being on the back of a pony which was led by one of his men. He angrily inquired why they were not following the track of the beast; but hardly had he spoken before he discovered that his hand, which had been resting on his side, was full of clotted blood, and he met his men, who had come from camp to bury him. He didn't need burying just then, but the wound required some time to heal, and he carried the scar for the rest of his life.

"When Anderson killed his first rhinoceros he was wild with delight. Immediately on approaching his prostrate game he plunged his knife into its back, to ascertain if it was fat. The natives warned him not to repeat the experiment, as a short time before a native had done the same thing and got into serious trouble. The rhinoceros had been stunned instead of killed. The stroke of the knife revived him, and he rose and ran toward the river, with the unfortunate native clinging to his back.

"The situation was anything but pleasant for the man, who dared not spring to the ground, for fear of being transfixed by the brute's horn, and ran the risk of being drowned if he stayed where he was until the river was reached. Happily the rhinoceros paused long enough to allow somebody else to send a shot that settled him and released the native from his free but involuntary ride."

"His case reminds me," said Fred, "of a question I once heard proposed for a debating society in the country."

"What is that?" said Frank.

"'If a man is holding a tiger by the tail, which is the best for his personal safety—to hold on or let go?'"

"A good deal might be said on both sides of that question," the Doctor remarked, "but perhaps the tiger would not permit a prolonged discussion. In one way the native on the rhinoceros had the advantage of the tiger man."

"How was that?"

"Why, the tiger might devour his caudal retainer, while the rhinoceros would not do so with his rider. He is strictly graminivorous, and never touches flesh to eat it. He devours grass, young trees, and similar things, and in this respect has quite a resemblance to the hippopotamus, whose cousin he is sometimes called."

One of the boys asked if it was really true that the hide of the rhinoceros was impervious to bullets, except in a few places. The Doctor explained that an ordinary musket ball, fired at a distance of fifty yards and more, had no effect, and even a rifle ball might be deflected from most parts of this tough-hided beast. "It is no use to fire at the head with anything less than a cannon," he continued. "The only vulnerable point is about three inches behind the shoulder, and when a bullet is planted there at the proper angle it penetrates the lungs and causes death almost instantaneously.

"The natives hunt the rhinoceros by driving him into pitfalls, and then piercing him with hundreds of spears. By the time they are through with the business he is stuck so full of the weapons that he resembles a gigantic porcupine, with quills on a colossal scale. The killing of a rhinoceros is a formidable affair with them, and they look with admiration on the weapons of the European and the comparative ease with which this powerful animal is brought down by it.

"One day, while Captain Speke was in the country of King Rumanika, he asked the monarch to allow him to hunt the rhinoceros. Of course, the king was glad to have him do so, and sent two of his sons to manage the affair. They went to a thicket where the rhinoceros was said to abound, and as soon as Speke had taken up a good position the beaters went to work to drive out the game.

"They roused up a fine old rhinoceros, which paused close to where the hunter was standing, and enabled him to creep up and give the beast a shot in the side. The animal trotted off, bleeding internally, and soon lay down and gave a chance for a finishing shot. A little time afterward three others were started; two of them were bagged by Speke, who ordered the heads cut off and sent to the king, as proofs of what the foreigners could do.

"Speke then went home to breakfast. As soon as he was through with his meal he went to meet the king, who was just examining the trophies of the hunter's prowess. For a man to kill three of these huge beasts simply to get up an appetite for breakfast was too much for the king's equanimity, and he gave vent to his admiration in no measured terms.
In Captivity

"'This must have been done with something more potent than powder,' his majesty exclaimed; 'neither the Arabs nor N'anaji, although they talk of their shooting powers, could have accomplished such a great feat as this.'

"Before we drop the topic of the rhinoceros," said the Doctor, "I must tell you about his horn, and some of the fables connected with it.

"It was formerly gravely stated that the horn of the rhinoceros was ordinarily flexible, like the trunk of an elephant, and became stiffened into a weapon only when the beast was enraged. The story probably arose from the fact, as I have before stated, that the horn is not attached to the nose, but rests on a basis of bone connected with the skin.

"The horn of the beast is a good substitute for ivory in some of its uses, and brings about half its price. It is used for making cups and other ornaments, and for the handles of knives and similar things. Shavings and scrapings of the horn were supposed to cure children of spasms and convulsions, and in former times it was supposed that cups of this material would detect the presence of poison. Several writers have affirmed this, and I believe the superstition still prevails among the Dutch settlers in Cape Colony. To show how this idea once prevailed let me quote from Kolbe, a German traveler and naturalist, who visited South Africa about two hundred years ago, and published an account of what he had seen in his wanderings.

"'This horn,' he says, 'will not endure the touch of poison. I have often been a witness of this. Many people of fashion at the Cape have cups turned out of this rhinoceros horn; some have them set in silver, and some in gold. If wine is poured into one of these cups it immediately rises and bubbles up, as though it were boiling; and if there be poison in it the cup immediately splits. If poison be put into one of these cups it in an instant flies to pieces. Though this matter is known to thousands of persons, yet some writers have affirmed that the rhinoceros horn has no such virtue.'"

"There's a word in our language," said Fred, "which begins with the letter L, which might apply to Kolbe, the German traveler. But it isn't altogether a polite one, and so we'll call him a deliberate romancer."

"He ought to have a niche by the side of Sir John Mandeville and others of his kind," said Frank. "Sir John describes the cotton plant as having eyes, ears, and horns, and bleating like a sheep; and he tells how he successfully tried the experiment of raising young diamonds from a pair of old ones, with other interesting experiences, which are set down with sober earnest.

"But you must remember," said the Doctor, "that in the time of these old travelers they had everything their own way, as they were in no danger of contradiction. Besides, the spirit of the age demanded something marvelous, and if a traveler came home and told the story of his journey without filling it with goblins, fairies, dragons, and similar impossible things, he was charged with having seen nothing, and quite likely his neighbors would assert that during all the time of his pretended absence he was remaining quietly at home.

"Nowadays the world is so well known that the romancing traveler is speedily detected, and his fictions meet a deserved exposure. Explorers follow each other so rapidly that no untruthful story can remain long without contradiction, and we may fairly conclude that the day of the marvelous in travelers' tales has substantially ended."

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

Chapter 27: Ripon Falls. The Outlet of Lake Victoria.


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

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


Peninsula: A piece of land projecting into water from a larger land mass.
Ungulate: A hooved mammal.
Terrestrial: Living or growing in or on land (as opposed to other habitat); not aquatic, etc.
Girth: The circumference of the belly of an animal.
Caudal: Pertaining to the tail or posterior or hind part of a body.
Graminivorous: That eats grasses and seeds.


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 the chapter setting in more recent times: Ripon Falls, Uganda in the 1940s.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

Find the location of Ripon Falls, a natural outlet at the northern end of Lake Victoria which flows into the Victoria Nile, formerly considered the source of the Nile River.

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

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