The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
VI. The First Game Camp
In the review of "first" impressions with which we are concerned, we must now skip a week or ten days to stop at what is known in our diaries as the First Ford of the Guaso Nyero River.
These ten days were not uneventful. We had crossed the wide and undulating plains, had paused at some tall beautiful falls plunging several hundred feet into the mysteriousness of a dense forest on which we looked down. There we had enjoyed some duck, goose and snipe shooting; had made the acquaintance of a few of the Masai, and had looked with awe on our first hippo tracks in the mud beside a tiny ditchlike stream. Here and there were small game herds. In the light of later experience we now realize that these were nothing at all; but at the time the sight of full-grown wild animals out in plain sight was quite wonderful. At the close of the day's march we always wandered out with our rifles to see what we could find. Everything was new to us, and we had our men to feed. Our shooting gradually improved until we had overcome the difficulties peculiar to this new country and were doing as well as we could do anywhere.
Now, at the end of a hard day through scrub, over rolling bold hills, and down a scrub brush slope, we had reached the banks of the Guaso Nyero.
At this point, above the junction of its principal tributary rivers, it was a stream about sixty or seventy feet wide, flowing swift between high banks. A few trees marked its course, but nothing like a jungle. The ford was in swift water just above a deep still pool suspected of crocodiles. We found the water about waist deep, stretched a rope across, and forcibly persuaded our eager boys that one at a time was about what the situation required. On the other side we made camp on an open flat. Having marched so far continuously, we resolved to settle down for a while. The men had been without sufficient meat; and we desired very much to look over the country closely, and to collect a few heads as trophies.
Perhaps a word might not come amiss as to the killing of game. The case is here quite different from the condition of affairs at home. Here animal life is most extraordinarily abundant; it furnishes the main food supply to the traveller; and at present is probably increasing slightly, certainly holding its own. Whatever toll the sportsman or traveller take is as nothing compared to what he might take if he were an unscrupulous game hog. If his cartridges and his shoulder held out, he could easily kill a hundred animals a day instead of the few he requires. In that sense, then, no man slaughters indiscriminately. During the course of a year he probably shoots from two hundred to two hundred and fifty beasts, provided he is travelling with an ordinary sized caravan. This, the experts say, is about the annual toll of one lion. If the traveller gets his lion, he plays even with the fauna of the country; if he gets two or more lions, he has something to his credit. This probably explains why the game is still so remarkably abundant near the road and on the very outskirts of the town.
We were now much in need of a fair quantity of meat, both for immediate consumption of our safari, and to make biltong or jerky. Later, in like circumstances, we should have sallied forth in a businesslike fashion, dropped the requisite number of zebra and hartebeeste as near camp as possible, and called it a job. Now, however, being new to the game, we much desired good trophies in variety. Therefore, we scoured the country far and wide for desirable heads; and the meat waited upon the acquisition of the trophy.
This, then, might be called our first Shooting Camp. Heretofore we had travelled every day. Now the boys settled down to what the native porter considers the height of bliss: a permanent camp with plenty to eat. Each morning we were off before daylight, riding our horses, and followed by the gunbearers, the syces, and fifteen or twenty porters. The country rose from the river in a long gentle slope grown with low brush and scattered candlestick euphorbias. This slope ended in a scattered range of low rocky buttes. Through any one of the various openings between them, we rode to find ourselves on the borders of an undulating grass country of low rounded hills with wide valleys winding between them. In these valleys and on these hills was the game.
Daylight of the day I would tell about found us just at the edge of the little buttes. Down one of the slopes the growing half light revealed two oryx feeding, magnificent big creatures, with straight rapier horns three feet in length. These were most exciting and desirable, so off my horse I got and began to sneak up on them through the low tufts of grass. They fed quite calmly. I congratulated myself, and slipped nearer. Without even looking in my direction, they trotted away. Somewhat chagrined, I returned to my companions, and we rode on.
Then across a mile-wide valley we saw two dark objects in the tall grass; and almost immediately identified these as rhinoceroses, the first we had seen. They stood there side by side, gazing off into space, doing nothing in a busy morning world. After staring at them through our glasses for some time, we organized a raid. At the bottom of the valley we left the horses and porters; lined up, each with his gunbearer at his elbow; and advanced on the enemy. B. was to have the shot According to all the books we should have been able, provided we were downwind and made no noise, to have approached within fifty or sixty yards undiscovered. However, at a little over a hundred yards they both turned tail and departed at a swift trot, their heads held well up and their tails sticking up straight and stiff in the most ridiculous fashion. No good shooting at them in such circumstances, so we watched them go, still keeping up their slashing trot, growing smaller and smaller in the distance until finally they disappeared over the top of a swell.
We set ourselves methodically to following them. It took us over an hour of steady plodding before we again came in sight of them. They were this time nearer the top of a hill, and we saw instantly that the curve of the slope was such that we could approach within fifty yards before coming in sight at all. Therefore, once more we dismounted, lined up in battle array, and advanced.
Sensations? Distinctly nervous, decidedly alert, and somewhat self-congratulatory that I was not more scared. No man can predicate how efficient he is going to be in the presence of really dangerous game. Only the actual trial will show. This is not a question of courage at all, but of purely involuntary reaction of the nerves. Very few men are physical cowards. They will and do face anything. But a great many men are rendered inefficient by the way their nervous systems act under stress. It is not a matter for control by will power in the slightest degree. So the big game hunter must determine by actual trial whether it so happens that the great excitement of danger renders his hand shaky or steady. The excitement in either case is the same. No man is ever "cool" in the sense that personal danger is of the same kind of indifference to him as clambering aboard a street car. He must always be lifted above himself, must enter an extra normal condition to meet extra normal circumstances. He can always control his conduct; but he can by no means always determine the way the inevitable excitement will affect his coordinations. And unfortunately, in the final result it does not matter how brave a man is, but how closely he can hold. If he finds that his nervous excitement renders him unsteady, he has no business ever to tackle dangerous game alone. If, on the other hand, he discovers that identically the same nervous excitement happens to steady his front sight to rocklike rigidity-a rigidity he could not possibly attain in normal conditions-then he will probably keep out of trouble.
To amplify this further by a specific instance: I hunted for a short time in Africa with a man who was always eager for exciting encounters, whose pluck was admirable in every way, but whose nervous reaction so manifested itself that he was utterly unable to do even decent shooting at any range. Furthermore, his very judgment and power of observation were so obscured that he could not remember afterward with any accuracy what had happened-which way the beast was pointing, how many there were of them, in which direction they went, how many shots were fired, in short all the smaller details of the affair. He thought he remembered. After the show was over it was quite amusing to get his version of the incident. It was almost always so wide of the fact as to be little recognizable. And, mind you, he was perfectly sincere in his belief, and absolutely courageous. Only he was quite unfitted by physical make-up for a big game hunter; and I was relieved when, after a short time, his route and mine separated.
Well, we clambered up that slope with a fine compound of tension, expectation, and latent uneasiness as to just what was going to happen, anyway. Finally, we raised the backs of the beasts, stooped, sneaked a little nearer, and finally at a signal stood upright perhaps forty yards from the brutes.
For the first time I experienced a sensation I was destined many times to repeat-that of the sheer size of the animals. Menagerie rhinoceroses had been of the smaller Indian variety; and in any case most menagerie beasts are more or less stunted. These two, facing us, their little eyes blinking, looked like full-grown ironclads on dry land. The moment we stood erect B. fired at the larger of the two. Instantly they turned and were off at a tearing run. I opened fire, and B. let loose his second barrel. At about two hundred and fifty yards the big rhinoceros suddenly fell on his side, while the other continued his flight. It was all over-very exciting because we got excited, but not in the least dangerous.
The boys were delighted, for here was meat in plenty for everybody. We measured the beast, photographed him, marvelled at his immense size, and turned him over to the gunbearers for treatment. In half an hour or so a long string of porters headed across the hills in the direction of camp, many miles distant, each carrying his load either of meat, or the trophies. Rhinoceros hide, properly treated, becomes as transparent as amber, and so from it can be made many very beautiful souvenirs, such as bowls, trays, paper knives, table tops, whips, canes, and the like. And, of course, the feet of one's first rhino are always saved for cigar boxes or inkstands.
Already we had an admiring and impatient audience. From all directions came the carrion birds. They circled far up in the heavens; they shot downward like plummets from a great height with an inspiring roar of wings; they stood thick in a solemn circle all around the scene of the kill; they rose with a heavy flapping when we moved in their direction. Skulking forms flashed in the grass, and occasionally the pointed ears of a jackal would rise inquiringly.
It was by now nearly noon. The sun shone clear and hot; the heat shimmer rose in clouds from the brown surface of the hills. In all directions we could make out small gameherds resting motionless in the heat of the day, the mirage throwing them into fantastic shapes. While the final disposition was being made of the defunct rhinoceros I wandered over the edge of the hill to see what I could see, and fairly blundered on a herd of oryx at about a hundred and fifty yards range. They looked at me a startled instant, then leaped away to the left at a tremendous speed. By a lucky shot, I bowled one over. He was a beautiful beast, with his black and white face and his straight rapierlike horns nearly three feet long, and I was most pleased to get him. Memba Sasa came running at the sound of the shot. We set about preparing the head.
Then through a gap in the hills far to the left we saw a little black speck moving rapidly in our direction. At the end of a minute we could make it out as the second rhinoceros. He had run heaven knows how many miles away, and now he was returning; whether with some idea of rejoining his companion or from sheer chance, I do not know. At any rate, here he was, still ploughing along at his swinging trot. His course led him along a side hill about four hundred yards from where the oryx lay. When he was directly opposite I took the Springfield and fired, not at him, but at a spot five or six feet in front of his nose. The bullet threw up a column of dust. Rhino brought up short with astonishment, wheeled to the left, and made off at a gallop. I dropped another bullet in front of him. Again he stopped, changed direction, and made off. For the third time I hit the ground in front of him. Then he got angry, put his head down and charged the spot.
Five more shots I expended on the amusement of that rhinoceros; and at the last had run furiously charging back and forth in a twenty-yard space, very angry at the little puffing, screeching bullets, but quite unable to catch one. Then he made up his mind and departed the way he had come, finally disappearing as a little rapidly moving black speck through the gap in the hills where we had first caught sight of him.
We finished caring for the oryx, and returned to camp. To our surprise we found we were at least seven or eight miles out.
In this fashion days passed very quickly. The early dewy start in the cool of the morning, the gradual grateful warming up of sunrise, and immediately after, the rest during the midday heats under a shady tree, the long trek back to camp at sunset, the hot bath after the toilsome day-all these were very pleasant. Then the swift falling night, and the gleam of many tiny fires springing up out of the darkness; with each its sticks full of meat roasting, and its little circle of men, their skins gleaming in the light. As we sat smoking, we would become aware that M'ganga, the headman, was standing silent awaiting orders. Some one would happen to see the white of his eyes, or perhaps he might smile so that his teeth would become visible. Otherwise he might stand there an hour, and no one the wiser, for he was respectfully silent, and exactly the colour of the night.
We would indicate to him our plans for the morrow, and he would disappear. Then at a distance of twenty or thirty feet from the front of our tents a tiny tongue of flame would lick up. Dark figures could be seen manipulating wood. A blazing fire sprang up, against which we could see the motionless and picturesque figure of Saa-sita (Six o'Clock), the askari of the first night watch, leaning on his musket. He was a most picturesque figure, for his fancy ran to original headdresses, and at the moment he affected a wonderful upstanding structure made of marabout wings.
At this sign that the night had begun, we turned in. A few hyenas moaned, a few jackals barked: otherwise the first part of the night was silent, for the hunters were at their silent business, and the hunted were "layin' low and sayin' nuffin'."
Day after day we rode out, exploring the country in different directions. The great uncertainty as to what of interest we would find filled the hours with charm. Sometimes we clambered about the cliffs of the buttes trying to find klipspringers; again we ran miles pursuing the gigantic eland. I in turn got my first rhinoceros, with no more danger than had attended the killing of B.'s. On this occasion, however, I had my first experience of the lightning skill of the first-class gunbearer. Having fired both barrels, and staggered the beast, I threw open the breech and withdrew the empty cartridges, intending, of course, as my next move to fish two more out of my belt. The empty shells were hardly away from the chambers, however, when a long brown arm shot over my right shoulder and popped two fresh cartridges in the breech. So astonished was I at this unexpected apparition, that for a second or so I actually forgot to close the gun.