The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
XXIII. The Hippo Pool
For a number of days we camped in a grove just above a dense jungle and not fifty paces from the bank of a deep and wide river. We could at various points push through light low undergrowth, or stoop beneath clear limbs, or emerge on tiny open banks and promontories to look out over the width of the stream. The river here was some three or four hundred feet wide. It cascaded down through various large boulders and sluiceways to fall bubbling and boiling into deep water; it then flowed still and sluggish for nearly a half mile and finally divided into channels around a number of wooded islands of different sizes. In the long still stretch dwelt about sixty hippopotamuses of all sizes.
During our stay these hippos led a life of alarmed and angry care. When we first arrived they were distributed picturesquely on banks or sandbars, or were lying in midstream. At once they disappeared under water. By the end of four or five minutes they began to come to the surface. Each beast took one disgusted look, snorted, and sank again. So hasty was his action that he did not even take time to get a full breath; consequently up he had to come in not more than two minutes, this time. The third submersion lasted less than a minute; and at the end of half hour of yelling we had the hippos alternating between the bottom of the river and the surface of the water about as fast as they could make a round trip, blowing like porpoises. It was a comical sight. And as some of the boys were always out watching the show, those hippos had no respite during the daylight hours. From a short distance inland the explosive blowing as they came to the surface sounded like the irregular exhaust of a steam-engine.
We camped at this spot four days; and never, in that length of time, during the daytime, did those hippopotamuses take any recreation and rest. To be sure after a little they calmed down sufficiently to remain on the surface for a half minute or so, instead of gasping a mouthful of air and plunging below at once; but below was where they considered they belonged most of the time. We got to recognize certain individuals. They would stare at us fixedly for a while; and then would glump down out of sight like submarines.
When I saw them thus floating with only the very top of the head and snout out of water, I for the first time appreciated why the Greeks had named them hippopotamuses-the river horses. With the heavy jowl hidden; and the prominent nostrils, the long reverse-curved nose, the wide eyes, and the little pointed ears alone visible, they resembled more than a little that sort of conventionalized and noble charger seen on the frieze of the Parthenon, or in the prancy paintings of the Renaissance.
There were hippopotamuses of all sizes and of all colours. The little ones, not bigger than a grand piano, were of flesh pink. Those half-grown were mottled with pink and black in blotches. The adults were almost invariably all dark, though a few of them retained still a small pink spot or so-a sort of persistence in mature years of the eternal boy-, I suppose. All were very sleek and shiny with the wet; and they had a fashion of suddenly and violently wiggling one or the other or both of their little ears in ridiculous contrast to the fixed stare of their bung eyes. Generally they had nothing to say as to the situation, though occasionally some exasperated old codger would utter a grumbling bellow.
The ground vegetation for a good quarter mile from the river bank was entirely destroyed, and the earth beaten and packed hard by these animals. Landing trails had been made leading out from the water by easy and regular grades. These trails were about two feet wide and worn a foot or so deep. They differed from the rhino trails, from which they could be easily distinguished, in that they showed distinctly two parallel tracks separated from each other by a slight ridge. In other words, the hippo waddles. These trails we found as far as four and five miles inland. They were used, of course, only at night; and led invariably to lush and heavy feed. While we were encamped there, the country on our side the river was not used by our particular herd of hippos. One night, however, we were awakened by a tremendous rending crash of breaking bushes, followed by an instant's silence and then the outbreak of a babel of voices. Then we heard a prolonged sw-i-sh-sh-sh, exactly like the launching of a big boat. A hippo had blundered out the wrong side the river, and fairly into our camp.
In rivers such as the Tana these great beasts are most extraordinarily abundant. Directly in front of our camp, for example, were three separate herds which contained respectively about sixty, forty, and twenty-five head. Within two miles below camp were three other big pools each with its population; while a walk of a mile above showed about as many more. This sort of thing obtained for practically the whole length of the river-hundreds of miles. Furthermore, every little tributary stream, no matter how small, provided it can muster a pool or so deep enough to submerge so large an animal, has its faithful band. I have known of a hippo quite happily occupying a ditch pool ten feet wide and fifteen feet long. There was literally not room enough for the beast to turn around; he had to go in at one end and out at the other! Each lake, too, is alive with them; and both lakes and rivers are many.
Nobody disturbs hippos, save for trophies and an occasional supply of meat for the men or of cooking fat for the kitchen. Therefore they wax fat and sassy, and will long continue to flourish in the land.
It takes time to kill a hippo, provided one is wanted. The mark is small, and generally it is impossible to tell whether or not the bullet has reached the brain. Harmed or whole the beast sinks anyway. Some hours later the distention of the stomach will float the body. Therefore the only decent way to do is to take the shot, and then wait a half day to see whether or not you have missed. There are always plenty of volunteers in camp to watch the pool, for the boys are extravagantly fond of hippo meat. Then it is necessary to manoeuvre a rope on the carcass, often a matter of great difficulty, for the other hippos bellow and snort and try to live up to the circus posters of the Blood-sweating Behemoth of Holy Writ, and the crocodiles like dark meat very much. Usually one offers especial reward to volunteers, and shoots into the water to frighten the beasts. The volunteer dashes rapidly across the shallows, makes a swift plunge, and clambers out on the floating body as onto a raft.
Then he makes fast the rope, and everybody tails on and tows the whole outfit ashore. On one occasion the volunteer produced a fish line and actually caught a small fish from the floating carcass! This sounds like a good one; but I saw it with my own two eyes.
It was at the hippo pool camp that we first became acquainted with Funny Face.
Funny Face was the smallest, furriest little monkey you ever saw. I never cared for monkeys before; but this one was altogether engaging. He had thick soft fur almost like that on a Persian cat, and a tiny human black face, and hands that emerged from a ruff; and he was about as big as old-fashioned dolls used to be before they began to try to imitate real babies with them. That is to say, he was that big when we said farewell to him. When we first knew him, had he stood in a half pint measure he could just have seen over the rim. We caught him in a little thorn ravine all by himself, a fact that perhaps indicates that his mother had been killed, or perhaps that he, like a good little Funny Face, was merely staying where he was told while she was away. At any rate he fought savagely, according to his small powers. We took him ignominiously by the scruff of the neck, haled him to camp, and dumped him down on Billy. Billy constructed him a beautiful belt by sacrificing part of a kodak strap (mine), and tied him to a chop box filled with dry grass. Thenceforth this became Funny Face's castle, at home and on the march.
Within a few hours his confidence in life was restored. He accepted small articles of food from our hands, eyeing us intently, retired and examined them. As they all proved desirable, he rapidly came to the conclusion that these new large strange monkeys, while not so beautiful and agile as his own people, were nevertheless a good sort after all. Therefore he took us into his confidence. By next day he was quite tame, would submit to being picked up without struggling, and had ceased trying to take an end off our various fingers. In fact when the finger was presented, he would seize it in both small black hands; convey it to his mouth; give it several mild and gentle love-chews; and then, clasping it with all four hands, would draw himself up like a little athlete and seat himself upright on the outspread palm. Thence he would survey the world, wrinkling up his tiny brow.
This chastened and scholarly attitude of mind lasted for four or five days. Then Funny Face concluded that he understood all about it, had settled satisfactorily to himself all the problems of the world and his relations to it, and had arrived at a good working basis for life. Therefore these questions ceased to occupy him. He dismissed them from his mind completely, and gave himself over to light-hearted frivolity.
His disposition was flighty but full of elusive charm. You deprecated his lack of serious purpose in life, disapproved heartily of his irresponsibility, but you fell to his engaging qualities. He was a typical example of the lovable good-for-naught. Nothing retained his attention for two consecutive minutes. If he seized a nut and started for his chop box with it, the chances were he would drop it and forget all about it in the interest excited by a crawling ant or the colour of a flower. His elfish face was always alight with the play of emotions and of flashing changing interests. He was greatly given to starting off on very important errands, which he forgot before he arrived.
In this he contrasted strangely with his friend Darwin. Darwin was another monkey of the same species, caught about a week later. Darwin's face was sober and pondering, and his methods direct and effective. No side excursions into the brilliant though evanescent fields of fancy diverted him from his ends. These were, generally, to get the most and best food and the warmest corner for sleep. When he had acquired a nut, a kernel of corn, or a piece of fruit, he sat him down and examined it thoroughly and conscientiously and then, conscientiously and thoroughly, he devoured it. No extraneous interest could distract his attention; not for a moment. That he had sounded the seriousness of life is proved by the fact that he had observed and understood the flighty character of Funny Face. When Funny Face acquired a titbit, Darwin took up a hump-backed position near at hand, his bright little eyes fixed on his friend's activities. Funny Face would nibble relishingly at his prune for a moment or so; then an altogether astonishing butterfly would flitter by just overhead. Funny Face, lost in ecstasy would gaze skyward after the departing marvel. This was Darwin's opportunity. In two hops he was at Funny Face's side. With great deliberation, but most businesslike directness, Darwin disengaged Funny Face's unresisting fingers from the prune, seized it, and retired. Funny Face never knew it; his soul was far away after the blazoned wonder, and when it returned, it was not to prunes at all. They were forgotten, and his wandering eye focussed back to a bright button in the grass. Thus by strict attention to business did Darwin prosper.
Darwin's attitude was always serious, and his expression grave. When he condescended to romp with Funny Face one could see that it was not for the mere joy of sport, but for the purposes of relaxation. If offered a gift he always examined it seriously before finally accepting it, turning it over and over in his hands, and considering it with wrinkled brow. If you offered anything to Funny Face, no matter what, he dashed up, seized it on the fly, departed at speed uttering grateful low chatterings; probably dropped and forgot it in the excitement of something new before he had even looked to see what it was.
"These people," said Darwin to himself, "on the whole, and as an average, seem to give me appropriate and pleasing gifts. To be sure, it is always well to see that they don't try to bunco me with olive stones or such worthless trash, but still I believe they are worth cultivating and standing in with."
""It strikes me," observed Funny Face to himself, "that my adorable Memsahib and my beloved bwana have been very kind to me to-day, though I don't remember precisely how. But I certainly do love them!"
We cut good sized holes on each of the four sides of their chop box to afford them ventilation on the march. The box was always carried on one of the safari boy's heads: and Funny Face and Darwin gazed forth with great interest. It was very amusing to see the big negro striding jauntily along under his light burden; the large brown winking eyes glued to two of the apertures. When we arrived in camp and threw the box cover open, they hopped forth, shook themselves, examined their immediate surroundings and proceeded to take a little exercise. When anything alarmed them, such as the shadow of a passing hawk, they skittered madly up the nearest thing in sight-tent pole, tree, or human form- and scolded indignantly or chittered in a low tone according to the degree of their terror. When Funny Face was very young, indeed, the grass near camp caught fire. After the excitement was over we found him completely buried in the straw of his box, crouched, and whimpering like a child. As he could hardly, at his tender age, have had any previous experience with fire, this instinctive fear was to me very interesting.
The monkeys had only one genuine enemy. That was an innocent plush lion named Little Simba. It had been given us in joke before we left California, we had tucked it into an odd corner of our trunk, had discovered it there, carried it on safari out of sheer idleness, and lo! it had become an important member of the expedition. Every morning Mahomet or Yusuf packed it-or rather him-carefully away in the tin box. Promptly at the end of the day's march Little Simba was haled forth and set in a place of honour in the centre of the table, and reigned there-or sometimes in a little grass jungle constructed by his faithful servitors-until the march was again resumed. His job in life was to look after our hunting luck. When he failed to get us what we wanted, he was punished; when he procured us what we desired he was rewarded by having his tail sewed on afresh, or by being presented with new black thread whiskers, or even a tiny blanket of Mericani against the cold. This last was an especial favour for finally getting us the greater kudu. Naturally as we did all this in the spirit of an idle joke our rewards and punishments were rather desultory. To our surprise, however, we soon found that our boys took Little Simba quite seriously. He was a fetish, a little god, a power of good or bad luck. We did not appreciate this point until one evening, after a rather disappointing day, Mahomet came to us bearing Little Simba in his hand.
"Bwana," said he respectfully, "is it enough that I shut Simba in the tin box, or do you wish to flog him?"
On one very disgraceful occasion, when everything went wrong, we plucked Little Simba from his high throne and with him made a beautiful drop-kick out into the tall grass. There, in a loud tone of voice, we sternly bade him lie until the morrow. The camp was bung-eyed. It is not given to every people to treat its gods in such fashion: indeed, in very deed, great is the white man! To be fair, having published Little Simba's disgrace, we should publish also Little Simba's triumph: to tell how, at the end of a certain very lucky three months' safari he was perched atop a pole and carried into town triumphantly at the head of a howling, singing procession of a hundred men. He returned to America, and now, having retired from active professional life, is leading an honoured old age among the trophies he helped to procure.
Funny Face first met Little Simba when on an early investigating tour. With considerable difficulty he had shinnied up the table leg, and had hoisted himself over the awkwardly projecting table edge. When almost within reach of the fascinating affairs displayed atop, he looked straight up into the face of Little Simba! Funny Face shrieked aloud, let go all holds and fell off flat on his back. Recovering immediately, he climbed just as high as he could, and proceeded, during the next hour, to relieve his feelings by the most insulting chatterings and grimaces. He never recovered from this initial experience. All that was necessary to evoke all sorts of monkey talk was to produce Little Simba. Against his benign plush front then broke a storm of remonstrance. He became the object of slow advances and sudden scurrying, shrieking retreats, that lasted just as long as he stayed there, and never got any farther than a certain quite conservative point. Little Simba did not mind. He was too busy being a god.