Our provisions began to run short; and towards the end of the month there was nothing left but a little bad biscuit and a few ounces of sugar. Coffee and tea were expended, but scarcely missed, as our sailors discovered a pretty good substitute in roasted mapira. Fresh meat was obtained in abundance from our antelope preserves on the large island made by a creek between the Kongone and East Luabo.
In this focus of decaying vegetation, nothing is so much to be dreaded as inactivity. We had, therefore, to find what exercise and amusement we could, when hunting was not required, in peering about in the fetid swamps; to have gone mooning about, in listless idleness, would have ensured fever in its worst form, and probably with fatal results.
A curious little blenny-fish swarms in the numerous creeks which intersect the mangrove topes. When alarmed, it hurries across the surface of the water in a series of leaps. It may be considered amphibious, as it lives as much out of the water as in it, and its most busy time is during low water. Then it appears on the sand or mud, near the little pools left by the retiring tide; it raises itself on its pectoral fins into something of a standing attitude, and with its large projecting eyes keeps a sharp look-out for the light-coloured fly, on which it feeds. Should the fly alight at too great a distance for even a second leap, the blenny moves slowly towards it like a cat to its prey, or like a jumping spider; and, as soon as it gets within two or three inches of the insect, by a sudden spring contrives to pop its underset mouth directly over the unlucky victim. He is, moreover, a pugnacious little fellow; and rather prolonged fights may be observed between him and his brethren. One, in fleeing from an apparent danger, jumped into a pool a foot square, which the other evidently regarded as his by right of prior discovery; in a twinkling the owner, with eyes flashing fury, and with dorsal fin bristling up in rage, dashed at the intruding foe. The fight waxed furious, no tempest in a teapot ever equalled the storm of that miniature sea. The warriors were now in the water, and anon out of it, for the battle raged on sea and shore. They struck hard, they bit each other; until, becoming exhausted, they seized each other by the jaws like two bull-dogs, then paused for breath, and at it again as fiercely as before, until the combat ended by the precipitate retreat of the invader.
The muddy ground under the mangrove-trees is covered with soldier- crabs, which quickly slink into their holes on any symptom of danger. When the ebbing tide retires, myriads of minute crabs emerge from their underground quarters, and begin to work like so many busy bees. Soon many miles of the smooth sand become rough with the results of their labour. They are toiling for their daily bread: a round bit of moist sand appears at the little labourer's mouth, and is quickly brushed off by one of the claws; a second bit follows the first; and another, and still another come as fast as they can be laid aside. As these pellets accumulate, the crab moves sideways, and the work continues. The first impression one receives is, that the little creature has swallowed a great deal of sand, and is getting rid of it as speedily as possible: a habit he indulges in of darting into his hole at intervals, as if for fresh supplies, tends to strengthen this idea; but the size of the heaps formed in a few seconds shows that this cannot be the case, and leads to the impression that, although not readily seen, at the distance at which he chooses to keep the observer, yet that possibly he raises the sand to his mouth, where whatever animalcule it may contain is sifted out of it, and the remainder rejected in the manner described. At times the larger species of crabs perform a sort of concert; and from each subterranean abode strange sounds arise, as if, in imitation of the songsters of the groves, for very joy they sang!
We found some natives pounding the woody stems of a poisonous climbing-plant (Dirca palustris) called Busungu, or poison, which grows abundantly in the swamps. When a good quantity was bruised, it was tied up in bundles. The stream above and below was obstructed with bushes, and with a sort of rinsing motion the poison was diffused through the water. Many fish were soon affected, swain in shore, and died, others were only stupefied. The plant has pink, pea-shaped blossoms, and smooth, pointed, glossy leaves, and the brown bark is covered with minute white points. The knowledge of it might prove of use to a shipwrecked party by enabling them to catch the fish.
The poison is said to be deleterious to man if the water is drunk; but not when the fish is cooked. The Busungu is repulsive to some insects, and is smeared round the shoots of the palm-trees to prevent the ants from getting into the palm wine while it is dropping from the tops of the palm-trees into the little pots suspended to collect it.
We were in the habit of walking from our beds into the salt water at sunrise, for a bath, till a large crocodile appeared at the bathing- place, and from that time forth we took our dip in the sea, away from the harbour, about midday. This is said to be unwholesome, but we did not find it so. It is certainly better not to bathe in the mornings, when the air is colder than the water--for then, on returning to the cooler air, one is apt to get a chill and fever. In the mouth of the river, many saw-fish are found. Rowe saw one while bathing--caught it by the tail, and shoved it, "snout on," ashore. The saw is from a foot to eighteen inches long. We never heard of any one being wounded by this fish; nor, though it goes hundreds of miles up the river in fresh water, could we learn that it was eaten by the people. The hippopotami delighted to spend the day among the breakers, and seemed to enjoy the fun as much as we did.
Severe gales occurred during our stay on the Coast, and many small sea-birds (Prion Banksii, Smith) perished: the beach was strewn with their dead bodies, and some were found hundreds of yards inland; many were so emaciated as to dry up without putrefying. We were plagued with myriads of mosquitoes, and had some touches of fever; the men we brought from malarious regions of the interior suffered almost as much from it here as we did ourselves. This gives strength to the idea that the civilized withstand the evil influences of strange climates better than the uncivilized. When negroes return to their own country from healthy lands, they suffer as severely as foreigners ever do.