The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
XIX. The Tana River
Our first sight of the Tana River was from the top of a bluff. It flowed below us a hundred feet, bending at a sharp elbow against the cliff on which we stood. Out of the jungle it crept sluggishly and into the jungle it crept again, brown, slow, viscid, suggestive of the fevers and the lurking beasts by which, indeed, it was haunted. From our elevation we could follow its course by the jungle that grew along its banks. At first this was intermittent, leaving thin or even open spaces at intervals, but lower down it extended away unbroken and very tall. The trees were many of them beginning to come into flower.
Either side of the jungle were rolling hills. Those to the left made up to the tremendous slopes of Kenia. Those to the right ended finally in a low broken range many miles away called the Ithanga Hills. The country gave one the impression of being clothed with small trees; although here and there this growth gave space to wide grassy plains. Later we discovered that the forest was more apparent than real. The small trees, even where continuous, were sparse enough to permit free walking in all directions, and open enough to allow clear sight for a hundred yards or so. Furthermore, the shallow wide valleys between the hills were almost invariably treeless and grown to very high thick grass.
Thus the course of the Tana possessed advantages to such as we. By following in general the course of the stream we were always certain of wood and water. The river itself was full of fish-not to speak of hundreds of crocodiles and hippopotamuses. The thick river jungle gave cover to such animals as the bushbuck, leopard, the beautiful colobus, some of the tiny antelope, waterbuck, buffalo and rhinoceros. Among the thorn and acacia trees of the hillsides one was certain of impalla, eland, diks-diks, and giraffes. In the grass bottoms were lions, rhinoceroses, a half dozen varieties of buck, and thousands and thousands of game birds such as guinea fowl and grouse. On the plains fed zebra, hartebeeste, wart-hog, ostriches, and several species of the smaller antelope. As a sportsman's paradise this region would be hard to beat.
We were now afoot. The dreaded tsetse fly abounded here, and we had sent our horses in via Fort Hall. F. had accompanied them, and hoped to rejoin us in a few days or weeks with tougher and less valuable mules. Pending his return we moved on leisurely, camping long at one spot, marching short days, searching the country far and near for the special trophies of which we stood in need.
It was great fun. Generally we hunted each in his own direction and according to his own ideas. The jungle along the river, while not the most prolific in trophies, was by all odds the most interesting. It was very dense, very hot, and very shady. Often a thorn thicket would fling itself from the hills right across to the water's edge, absolutely and hopelessly impenetrable save by way of the rhinoceros tracks. Along these then we would slip, bent double, very quietly and gingerly, keeping a sharp lookout for the rightful owners of the trail. Again we would wander among lofty trees through the tops of which the sun flickered on festooned serpentlike vines. Every once in a while we managed a glimpse of the sullen oily river through the dense leaf screen on its banks. The water looked thick as syrup, of a deadly menacing green. Sometimes we saw a loathsome crocodile lying with his nose just out of water, or heard the snorting blow of a hippopotamus coming up for air. Then the thicket forced us inland again. We stepped very slowly, very alertly, our ears cocked for the faintest sound, our eyes roving. Generally, of course, the creatures of the jungle saw us first. We became aware of them by a crash or a rustling or a scamper. Then we stood stock listening with all our ears for some sound distinguishing to the species. Thus I came to recognize the queer barking note of the bushbuck, for example, and to realize how profane and vulgar that and the beautiful creature, the impalla, can be when he forgets himself. As for the rhinoceros, he does not care how much noise he makes, nor how badly he scares you.
Personally, I liked very well to circle out in the more open country until about three o'clock, then to enter the river jungle and work my way slowly back toward camp. At that time of day the shadows were lengthening, the birds and animals were beginning to stir about. In the cooling nether world of shadow we slipped silently from thicket to thicket, from tree to tree; and the jungle people fled from us, or withdrew, or gazed curiously, or cursed us as their dispositions varied.
While thus returning one evening I saw my first colobus. He was swinging rapidly from one tree to another, his long black and white fur shining against the sun. I wanted him very much, and promptly let drive at him with the 405 Winchester. I always carried this heavier weapon in the dense jungle. Of course I missed him, but the roar of the shot so surprised him that he came to a stand. Memba Sasa passed me the Springfield, and I managed to get him in the head. At the shot another flashed into view, high up in the top of a tree. Again I aimed and fired. The beast let go and fell like a plummet. "Good shot," said I to myself. Fifty feet down the colobus seized a limb and went skipping away through the branches as lively as ever. In a moment he stopped to look back, and by good luck I landed him through the body. When we retrieved him we found that the first shot had not hit him at all!
At the time I thought he must have been frightened into falling; but many subsequent experiences showed me that this sheer let-go-all-holds drop is characteristic of the colobus and his mode of progression. He rarely, as far as my observation goes, leaps out and across as do the ordinary monkeys, but prefers to progress by a series of slanting ascents followed by breath-taking straight drops to lower levels. When closely pressed from beneath, he will go as high as he can, and will then conceal himself in the thick leaves.
B. and I procured our desired number of colobus by taking advantage of this habit-as soon as we had learned it. Shooting the beasts with our rifles we soon found to be not only very difficult, but also destructive of the skins. On the other hand, a man could not, save by sheer good fortune, rely on stalking near enough to use a shotgun. Therefore we evolved a method productive of the maximum noise, row, barked shins, thorn wounds, tumbles, bruises-and colobus! It was very simple. We took about twenty boys into the jungle with us, and as soon as we caught sight of a colobus we chased him madly. That was all there was to it.
And yet this method, simple apparently to the point of imbecility, had considerable logic back of it after all; for after a time somebody managed to get underneath that colobus when he was at the top of a tree. Then the beast would hide.
Consider then a tumbling riotous mob careering through the jungle as fast as the jungle would let it, slipping, stumbling, falling flat, getting tangled hopelessly, disentangling with profane remarks, falling behind and catching up again, everybody yelling and shrieking. Ahead of us we caught glimpses of the sleek bounding black and white creature, running up the long slanting limbs, and dropping like a plummet into the lower branches of the next tree. We white men never could keep up with the best of our men at this sort of work, although in the open country I could hold them well enough. We could see them dashing through the thick cover at a great rate of speed far ahead of us. After an interval came a great shout in chorus. By this we knew that the quarry had been definitely brought to a stand. Arriving at the spot we craned our heads backward, and proceeded to get a crick in the neck trying to make out invisible colobus in the very tops of the trees above us. For gaudily marked beasts the colobus were extraordinarily difficult to see. This was in no sense owing to any far-fetched application of protective colouration; but to the remarkable skill the animals possessed in concealing themselves behind apparently the scantiest and most inadequate cover. Fortunately for us our boys' ability to see them was equally remarkable. Indeed, the most difficult part of their task was to point the game out to us. We squinted, and changed position, and tried hard to follow directions eagerly proffered by a dozen of the men. Finally one of us would, by the aid of six power-glasses, make out, or guess at a small tuft of white or black hair showing beyond the concealment of a bunch of leaves. We would unlimber the shotgun and send a charge of BB into that bunch. Then down would plump the game, to the huge and vociferous delight of all the boys. Or, as occasionally happened, the shot was followed merely by a shower of leaves and a chorus of expostulations indicating that we had mistaken the place, and had fired into empty air.
In this manner we gathered the twelve we required between us. At noon we sat under the bank, with the tangled roots of trees above us, and the smooth oily river slipping by. You may be sure we always selected a spot protected by very shoal water, for the crocodiles were numerous. I always shot these loathsome creatures whenever I got a chance, whenever the sound of a shot would not alarm more valuable game. Generally they were to be seen in midstream, just the tip of their snouts above water, and extraordinarily like anything but crocodiles. Often it took several close scrutinies through the glass to determine the brutes. This required rather nice shooting. More rarely we managed to see them on the banks, or only half submerged. In this position, too, they were all but undistinguishable as living creatures. I think this is perhaps because of their complete immobility. The creatures of the woods, standing quite still, are difficult enough to see; but I have a notion that the eye, unknown to itself, catches the sum total of little flexings of the muscles, movements of the skin, winkings, even the play of wind and light in the hair of the coat, all of which, while impossible of analysis, together relieve the appearance of dead inertia. The vitality of a creature like the crocodile, however, seems to have withdrawn into the inner recesses of its being. It lies like a log of wood, and for a log of wood it is mistaken.
Nevertheless the crocodile has stored in it somewhere a fearful vitality. The swiftness of its movements when seizing prey is most astonishing; a swirl of water, the sweep of a powerful tail, and the unfortunate victim has disappeared. For this reason it is especially dangerous to approach the actual edge of any of the great rivers, unless the water is so shallow that the crocodile could not possibly approach under cover, as is its cheerful habit. We had considerable difficulty in impressing this elementary truth on our hill-bred totos until one day, hearing wild shrieks from the direction of the river, I rushed down to find the lot huddled together in the very middle of a sand spit that-reached well out into the stream. Inquiry developed that while paddling in the shallows they had been surprised by the sudden appearance of an ugly snout and well drenched by the sweep of an eager tail. The stroke fortunately missed. We stilled the tumult, sat down quietly to wait, and at the end of ten minutes had the satisfaction of abating that croc.
Generally we killed the brutes where we found them and allowed them to drift away with the current. Occasionally however we wanted a piece of hide, and then tried to retrieve them. One such occasion showed very vividly the tenacity of life and the primitive nervous systems of these great saurians.
I discovered the beast, head out of water, in a reasonable sized pool below which were shallow rapids. My Springfield bullet hit him fair, whereupon he stood square on his head and waved his tail in the air, rolled over three or four times, thrashed the water, and disappeared. After waiting a while we moved on downstream. Returning four hours later I sneaked up quietly. There the crocodile lay sunning himself on the sand bank. I supposed he must be dead; but when I accidentally broke a twig, he immediately commenced to slide off into the water. Thereupon I stopped him with a bullet in the spine. The first shot had smashed a hole in his head, just behind the eye, about the size of an ordinary coffee cup. In spite of this wound, which would have been instantly fatal to any warm-blooded animal, the creature was so little affected that it actually reacted to a slight noise made at some distance from where it lay. Of course the wound would probably have been fatal in the long run.
The best spot to shoot at, indeed, is not the head but the spine immediately back of the head.
These brutes are exceedingly powerful. They are capable of taking down horses and cattle, with no particular effort. This I know from my own observation. Mr. Fleischman, however, was privileged to see the wonderful sight of the capture and destruction of a full-grown rhinoceros by a crocodile. The photographs he took of this most extraordinary affair leave no room for doubt. Crossing a stream was always a matter of concern to us. The boys beat the surface of the water vigorously with their safari sticks. On occasion we have even let loose a few heavy bullets to stir up the pool before venturing in.
A steep climb through thorn and brush would always extricate us from the river jungle when we became tired of it. Then we found ourselves in a continuous but scattered growth of small trees. Between the trunks of these we could see for a hundred yards or so before their numbers closed in the view. Here was the favourite haunt of numerous beautiful impalla. We caught glimpses of them, flashing through the trees; or occasionally standing, gazing in our direction, their slender necks stretched high, their ears pointed for us. These curious ones were generally the does. The bucks were either more cautious or less inquisitive. A herd or so of eland also liked this covered country; and there were always a few waterbuck and rhinoceroses about. Often too we here encountered stragglers from the open plains-zebra or hartebeeste, very alert and suspicious in unaccustomed surroundings.
A great deal of the plains country had been burned over; and a considerable area was still afire. The low bright flames licked their way slowly through the grass in a narrow irregular band extending sometimes for miles. Behind it was blackened soil, and above it rolled dense clouds of smoke. Always accompanied it thousands of birds wheeling and dashing frantically in and out of the murk, often fairly at the flames themselves. The published writings of a certain worthy and sentimental person waste much sympathy over these poor birds dashing frenziedly about above their destroyed nests. As a matter of fact they are taking greedy advantage of a most excellent opportunity to get insects cheap. Thousands of the common red-billed European storks patrolled the grass just in front of the advancing flames, or wheeled barely above the fire. Grasshoppers were their main object, although apparently they never objected to any small mammals or reptiles that came their way. Far overhead wheeled a few thousand more assorted soarers who either had no appetite or had satisfied it.
The utter indifference of the animals to the advance of a big conflagration always impressed me. One naturally pictures the beasts as fleeing wildly, nostrils distended, before the devouring element. On the contrary I have seen kongoni grazing quite peacefully with flames on three sides of them. The fire seems to travel rather slowly in the tough grass; although at times and for a short distance it will leap to a wild and roaring life. Beasts will then lope rapidly away to right or left, but without excitement.
On these open plains we were more or less pestered with ticks of various sizes. These clung to the grass blades; but with no invincible preference for that habitat; trousers did them just as well. Then they ascended looking for openings. They ranged in size from little red ones as small as the period of a printed page to big patterned fellows the size of a pea. The little ones were much the most abundant. At times I have had the front of my breeches so covered with them that their numbers actually imparted a reddish tinge to the surface of the cloth. This sounds like exaggeration, but it is a measured statement. The process of de-ticking (new and valuable word) can then be done only by scraping with the back of a hunting knife.
Some people, of tender skin, are driven nearly frantic by these pests. Others, of whom I am thankful to say I am one, get off comparatively easy. In a particularly bad tick country, one generally appoints one of the youngsters as "tick toto." It is then his job in life to de-tick any person or domestic animal requiring his services. His is a busy existence. But though at first the nuisance is excessive, one becomes accustomed to it in a remarkably short space of time. The adaptability of the human being is nowhere better exemplified. After a time one gets so that at night he can remove a marauding tick and cast it forth into the darkness without even waking up. Fortunately ticks are local in distribution. Often one may travel weeks or months without this infliction.
I was always interested and impressed to observe how indifferent the wild animals seem to be to these insects. Zebra, rhinoceros and giraffe seem to be especially good hosts. The loathsome creatures fasten themselves in clusters wherever they can grip their fangs. Thus in a tick country a zebra's ears, the lids and corners of his eyes, his nostrils and lips, the soft skin between his legs and body, and between his hind legs, and under his tail are always crusted with ticks as thick as they can cling. One would think the drain on vitality would be enormous, but the animals are always plump and in condition. The same state of affairs obtains with the other two beasts named. The hartebeeste also carries ticks but not nearly in the same abundance; while such creatures as the waterbuck, impalla, gazelles and the smaller bucks seem either to be absolutely free from the pests, or to have a very few. Whether this is because such animals take the trouble to rid themselves, or because they are more immune from attack it would be difficult to say. I have found ticks clinging to the hair of lions, but never fastened to the flesh. It is probable that they had been brushed off from the grass in passing. Perhaps ticks do not like lions, waterbuck, Tommies, et al., or perhaps only big coarse-grained common brutes like zebra and rhinos will stand them at all.