The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
VIII. The River Jungle
We camped along this river for several weeks, poking indefinitely and happily around the country in all directions to see what we could see. Generally we went together, for neither B. nor myself had been tried out as yet on dangerous game-those easy rhinos hardly counted-and I think we both preferred to feel that we had backing until we knew what our nerves were going to do with us. Nevertheless, occasionally, I would take Memba Sasa and go out for a little purposeless stroll a few miles up or down river. Sometimes we skirted the jungle, sometimes we held as near as possible to the river's bank, sometimes we cut loose and rambled through the dry, crackling scrub over the low volcanic hills of the arid country outside.
Nothing can equal the intense interest of the most ordinary walk in Africa. It is the only country I know of where a man is thoroughly and continuously alive. Often when riding horseback with the dogs in my California home I have watched them in envy of the keen, alert interest they took in every stone, stick, and bush, in every sight, sound, and smell. With equal frequency I have expressed that envy, but as something unattainable to a human being's more phlegmatic make-up. In Africa one actually rises to continuous alertness. There are dozy moments-except you curl up in a safe place for the purpose of dozing; again just like the dog! Every bush, every hollow, every high tuft of grass, every deep shadow must be scrutinized for danger. It will not do to pass carelessly any possible lurking place. At the same time the sense of hearing must be on guard; so that no break of twig or crash of bough can go unremarked. Rhinoceroses conceal themselves most cannily, and have a deceitful habit of leaping from a nap into their swiftest stride. Cobras and puff adders are scarce, to be sure, but very deadly. Lions will generally give way, if not shot at or too closely pressed; nevertheless there is always the chance of cubs or too close a surprise. Buffalo lurk daytimes in the deep thickets, but occasionally a rogue bull lives where your trail will lead. These things do not happen often, but in the long run they surely do happen, and once is quite enough provided the beast gets in.
At first this continual alertness and tension is rather exhausting; but after a very short time it becomes second nature. A sudden rustle the other side a bush no longer brings you up all standing with your heart in your throat; but you are aware of it, and you are facing the possible danger almost before your slower brain has issued any orders to that effect.
In rereading the above, I am afraid that I am conveying the idea that one here walks under the shadow of continual uneasiness. This is not in the least so. One enjoys the sun, and the birds and the little things. He cultivates the great leisure of mind that shall fill the breadth of his outlook abroad over a newly wonderful world. But underneath it all is the alertness, the responsiveness to quick reflexes of judgment and action, the intimate correlations to immediate environment which must characterize the instincts of the higher animals. And it is good to live these things.
Along the edge of that river jungle were many strange and beautiful affairs. I could slip along among the high clumps of the thicker bushes in such a manner as to be continually coming around unexpected bends. Of such maneouvres are surprises made. The graceful red impalla were here very abundant. I would come on them, their heads up, their great ears flung forward, their noses twitching in inquiry of something they suspected but could not fully sense. When slightly alarmed or suspicious the does always stood compactly in a herd, while the bucks remained discreetly in the background, their beautiful, branching, widespread horns showing over the backs of their harems. The impalla is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and graceful of the African bucks, a perpetual delight to watch either standing or running. These beasts are extraordinarily agile, and have a habit of breaking their ordinary fast run by unexpectedly leaping high in the air. At a distance they give somewhat the effect of dolphins at sea, only their leaps are higher and more nearly perpendicular. Once or twice I have even seen one jump over the back of another. On another occasion we saw a herd of twenty-five or thirty cross a road of which, evidently, they were a little suspicious. We could not find a single hoof mark in the dust! Generally these beasts frequent thin brush country; but I have three or four times seen them quite out in the open flat plains, feeding with the hartebeeste and zebra. They are about the size of our ordinary deer, are delicately fashioned, and can utter the most incongruously grotesque of noises by way of calls or ordinary conversation.
The lack of curiosity, or the lack of gallantry, of the impalla bucks was, in my experience, quite characteristic. They were almost always the farthest in the background and the first away when danger threatened. The ladies could look out for themselves. They had no horns to save; and what do the fool women mean by showing so little sense, anyway! They deserve what they get! It used to amuse me a lot to observe the utter abandonment of all responsibility by these handsome gentlemen. When it came time to depart, they departed. Hang the girls! They trailed along after as fast as they could.
The waterbuck-a fine large beast about the size of our caribou, a well-conditioned buck resembling in form and attitude the finest of Landseer's stags-on the other hand, had a little more sense of responsibility, when he had anything to do with the sex at all. He was hardly what you might call a strictly domestic character. I have hunted through a country for several days at a time without seeing a single mature buck of this species, although there were plenty of does, in herds of ten to fifty, with a few infants among them just sprouting horns. Then finally, in some small grassy valley, I would come on the Men's Club. There they were, ten, twenty, three dozen of them, having the finest kind of an untramelled masculine time all by themselves. Generally, however, I will say for them, they took care of their own peoples. There would quite likely be one big old fellow, his harem of varying numbers, and the younger subordinate bucks all together in a happy family. When some one of the lot announced that something was about, and they had all lined up to stare in the suspected direction, the big buck was there in the foreground of inquiry. When finally they made me out, it was generally the big buck who gave the signal. He went first, to be sure, but his going first was evidently an act of leadership, and not merely a disgraceful desire to get away before the rest did.
But the waterbuck had to yield in turn to the plains gazelles; especially to the Thompson's gazelle, familiarly-and affectionately-known as the "Tommy." He is a quaint little chap, standing only a foot and a half tall at the shoulder, fawn colour on top, white beneath, with a black, horizontal stripe on his side, like a chipmunk, most lightly and gracefully built. When he was first made, somebody told him that unless he did something characteristic, like waggling his little tail, he was likely to be mistaken by the undiscriminating for his bigger cousin, the Grant's gazelle. He has waggled his tail ever since, and so is almost never mistaken for a Grant's gazelle, even by the undiscriminating. Evidently his religion is Mohammedan, for he always has a great many wives. He takes good care of them, however. When danger appears, even when danger threatens, he is the last to leave the field. Here and there he dashes frantically, seeing that the women and children get off. And when the herd tops the hill, Tommy's little horns bring up the rear of the procession. I like Tommy. He is a cheerful, gallant, quaint little person, with the air of being quite satisfied with his own solution of this complicated world.
Among the low brush at the edge of the river jungle dwelt also the dik-dik, the tiniest miniature of a deer you could possibly imagine. His legs are lead pencil size, he stands only about nine inches tall, he weighs from five to ten pounds; and yet he is a perfect little antelope, horns and all. I used to see him singly or in pairs standing quite motionless and all but invisible in the shade of bushes; or leaping suddenly to his feet and scurrying away like mad through the dry grass. His personal opinion of me was generally expressed in a loud clear whistle. But then nobody in this strange country talks the language you would naturally expect him to talk! Zebra bark, hyenas laugh, impallas grunt, ostriches boom like drums, leopards utter a plaintive sigh, hornbills cry like a stage child, bushbucks sound like a cross between a dog and a squawky toy-and so on. There is only one safe rule of the novice in Africa: never believe a word the jungle and veldt people tell you.
These two-the impalla and the waterbuck-were the principal buck we would see close to the river. Occasionally, however, we came on a few oryx, down for a drink, beautiful big antelope, with white and black faces, roached manes, and straight, nearly parallel, rapier horns upward of three feet long. A herd of these creatures, the light gleaming on their weapons, held all at the same slant, was like a regiment of bayonets in the sun. And there were also the rhinoceroses to be carefully espied and avoided. They lay obliterated beneath the shade of bushes, and arose with a mighty blow-off of steam. Whereupon we withdrew silently, for we wanted to shoot no more rhinos, unless we had to.
Beneath all these obvious and startling things, a thousand other interesting matters were afoot. In the mass and texture of the jungle grew many strange trees and shrubs. One most scrubby, fat and leafless tree, looking as though it were just about to give up a discouraged existence, surprised us by putting forth, apparently directly from its bloated wood, the most wonderful red blossoms. Another otherwise self-respecting tree hung itself all over with plump bologna sausages about two feet long and five inches thick. A curious vine hung like a rope, with Turk's-head knots about a foot apart on its whole length, like the hand-over-hand ropes of gymnasiums. Other ropes were studded all over with thick blunt bosses, resembling much the outbreak on one sort of Arts-and-Crafts door: the sort intended to repel Mail-clad Hosts.
The monkeys undoubtedly used such obvious highways through the trees. These little people were very common. As we walked along, they withdrew before us. We could make out their figures galloping hastily across the open places, mounting bushes and stubs to take a satisfying backward look, clambering to treetops, and launching themselves across the abysses between limbs. If we went slowly, they retired in silence. If we hurried at all, they protested in direct ratio to the speed of our advance. And when later the whole safari, loads on heads, marched inconsiderately through their jungle! We happened to be hunting on a parallel course a half mile away, and we could trace accurately the progress of our men by the outraged shrieks, chatterings, appeals to high heaven for at least elemental justice to the monkey people.
Often, too, we would come on concourses of the big baboons. They certainly carried on weighty affairs of their own according to a fixed polity. I never got well enough acquainted with them to master the details of their government, but it was indubitably built on patriarchal lines. When we succeeded in approaching without being discovered, we would frequently find the old men baboons squatting on their heels in a perfect circle, evidently discussing matters of weight and portent. Seen from a distance, their group so much resembled the council circles of native warriors that sometimes, in a native country, we made that mistake. Outside this solemn council, the women, young men and children went about their daily business, whatever that was. Up convenient low trees or bushes roosted sentinels.
We never remained long undiscovered. One of the sentinels barked sharply. At once the whole lot loped away, speedily but with a curious effect of deliberation. The men folks held their tails in a proud high sideways arch; the curious youngsters clambered up bushes to take a hasty look; the babies clung desperately with all four feet to the thick fur on their mothers' backs; the mothers galloped along imperturbably unheeding of infantile troubles aloft. The side hill was bewildering with the big bobbing black forms.
In this lower country the weather was hot, and the sun very strong. The heated air was full of the sounds of insects; some of them comfortable, like the buzzing of bees, some of them strange and unusual to us. One cicada had a sustained note, in quality about like that of our own August-day's friend, but in quantity and duration as the roar of a train to the gentle hum of a good motor car. Like all cicada noises it did not usurp the sound world, but constituted itself an underlying basis, so to speak. And when it stopped the silence seemed to rush in as into a vacuum!
We had likewise the aeroplane beetle. He was so big that he would have made good wing-shooting. His manner of flight was the straight-ahead, heap-of-buzz, plenty-busy, don't-stop-a-minute-or-you'll-come-down method of the aeroplane; and he made the same sort of a hum. His first-cousin, mechanically, was what we called the wind-up-the-watch insect. This specimen possessed a watch-an old-fashioned Waterbury, evidently-that he was continually winding. It must have been hard work for the poor chap, for it sounded like a very big watch.
All these things were amusing. So were the birds. The African bird is quite inclined to be didactic. He believes you need advice, and he means to give it. To this end he repeats the same thing over and over until he thinks you surely cannot misunderstand. One chap especially whom we called the lawyer bird, and who lived in the treetops, had four phrases to impart. He said them very deliberately, with due pause between each; then he repeated them rapidly; finally he said them all over again with an exasperated bearing-down emphasis. The joke of it is I cannot now remember just how they went! Another feathered pedagogue was continually warning us to go slow; very good advice near an African jungle. "Poley-poley! Poley-poley!" he warned again and again; which is good Swahili for "slowly! slowly!" We always minded him. There were many others, equally impressed with their own wisdom, but the one I remember with most amusement was a dilatory person who apparently never got around to his job until near sunset. Evidently he had contracted to deliver just so many warnings per diem; and invariably he got so busy chasing insects, enjoying the sun, gossiping with a friend and generally footling about that the late afternoon caught him unawares with never a chirp accomplished. So he sat in a bush and said his say over and over just as fast as he could without pause for breath or recreation. It was really quite a feat. Just at dusk, after two hours of gabbling, he would reach the end of his contracted number. With final relieved chirp he ended.
It has been said that African birds are "songless." This is a careless statement that can easily be read to mean that African birds are silent. The writer evidently must have had in mind as a criterion some of our own or the English great feathered soloists. Certainly the African jungle seems to produce no individual performers as sustained as our own bob-o-link, our hermit thrush, or even our common robin. But the African birds are vocal enough, for all that. Some of them have a richness and depth of timbre perhaps unequalled elsewhere. Of such is the chime-bird with his deep double note; or the bell-bird tolling like a cathedral in the blackness of the forest; or the bottle bird that apparently pours gurgling liquid gold from a silver jug. As the jungle is exceedingly populous of these feathered specialists, it follows that the early morning chorus is wonderful. Africa may not possess the soloists, but its full orchestrial effects are superb.
Naturally under the equator one expects and demands the "gorgeous tropical plumage" of the books. He is not disappointed. The sun-birds of fifty odd species, the brilliant blue starlings, the various parrots, the variegated hornbills, the widower-birds, and dozens of others whose names would mean nothing flash here and there in the shadow and in the open. With them are hundreds of quiet little bodies just as interesting to one who likes birds. From the trees and bushes hang pear-shaped nests plaited beautifully of long grasses, hard and smooth as hand-made baskets, the work of the various sorts of weaver-birds. In the tops of the trees roosted tall marabout storks like dissipated, hairless old club-men in well-groomed, correct evening dress.
And around camp gathered the swift brown kites. They were robbers and villains, but we could not hate them. All day long they sailed back and forth spying sharply. When they thought they saw their chance, they stooped with incredible swiftness to seize a piece of meat. Sometimes they would snatch their prize almost from the hands of its rightful owner, and would swoop triumphantly upward again pursued by polyglot maledictions and a throwing stick. They were very skilful on their wings. I have many times seen them, while flying, tear up and devour large chunks of meat. It seems to my inexperience as an aviator rather a nice feat to keep your balance while tearing with your beak at meat held in your talons. Regardless of other landmarks, we always knew when we were nearing camp, after one of our strolls, by the gracefully wheeling figures of our kites.