NINE DAYS WITHOUT SEEING AN ELEPHANT. THE ROOSEVELT PARTY DEPARTS AND WE MARCH FOR THE MOUNTAINS ON OUR BIG ELEPHANT HUNT. THE POLICEMAN OF THE PLAINS
The Mount Elgon elephants have a very bad reputation. The district is remote from government protection and for years the herds have been the prey of Swahili and Arab ivory hunters, as well as poachers of all sorts who have come over the Uganda border or down from the savage Turkana and Suk countries on the north. As a natural consequence of this unrestricted poaching the herds have been hunted and harassed so much that most of the large bull elephants with big ivory have been killed, leaving for the greater part big herds of cows and young elephants made savage and vicious by their persecution. Elephant hunters who have conscientiously hunted the district bring in reports of having seen herds of several hundred elephants, most of which were cows and calves, and of having seen no bulls of large size.
The government game license permits the holder to kill two elephants, the ivory of each to be at least sixty pounds. This means a fairly large elephant and may be either a bull or a cow. The cow ivory, however, rarely reaches that weight and consequently the bulls are the ones the hunters are after and the ones that have gradually been so greatly reduced in numbers. The elephants of this district roam the slopes of the mountains and often make long swinging trips out in the broad stretches of the Guas Ngishu Plateau to the eastward, in all a district probably fifty miles wide by sixty or seventy miles long.
The hunters who invade this section usually march north from the railroad at a point near Victoria Nyanza, turn westward at a little settlement called Sergoi, and continue in that direction until they reach the Nzoia River. Naturally, these names will mean nothing to one not familiar with the country, but perhaps by saying that the trip means at least ten days of steady marching in a remote and unsettled country, far from sources of supplies, I will be able to convey a faint idea of how hard it is to reach the elephant country.
Our purpose in making this long trip of ten weeks or more was to try for black-maned lion on the high plateau and to collect elephants for the group that Mr. Akeley is preparing for the American Museum of Natural History. The government gave him a special permit to collect such elephants as he would require, two cows, a calf, a young bull, and, if possible, two large bulls. One or more of these were to be killed by Colonel Roosevelt and one by myself. It seemed promising that the cows, calf, and young bull could be got on Mount Elgon, but the likelihood of getting the big bulls was far from encouraging. Lieutenant-Governor Jackson thought we might be successful if we directed our efforts to the southeastern slopes of the mountain and avoided the northeastern slopes along the River Turkwel, which had been hunted a good deal by sportsmen and poachers. If we were unable to get the big bulls on Elgon it might be necessary to make a special trip into Uganda for them. However, we determined to try, and try we did, through eight weeks of hard work and wonderful experiences in that remote district.
A Kikuyu Spearman
The Porters Like Elephant Meat
My Masai Sais and Gunbearers
At Sergoi, the very outpost of crude civilization, we were warned not to go up the southern side of the mountain on account of the natives that live there. We were told that they were inclined to be troublesome. We met Captain Ashton and Captain Black coming out after six weeks on the northern slopes. They reported seeing big herds, but mostly cows and calves. At Sergoi we also received word from Colonel Roosevelt and at once marched to the Nzoia River, where we met him.
During our march we saw no elephants, but as we neared the river there were fresh signs of elephant along the trail. It is strikingly indicative of the "Roosevelt luck" that he saw, on the morning we met him, the only elephants that he had seen in the district, and that within twenty-four hours from that time he had killed three elephants and Kermit one. Of this number two cows killed by Colonel Roosevelt were satisfactory for the group, and also the calf killed by his son, Kermit. This left one young bull and two large bulls still to be secured, and to that end we addressed our efforts during the succeeding weeks.
For nine days we hunted the Nzoia River region, but without seeing an elephant. There were kongoni, zebra, topi, waterbuck, wart-hogs, reedbuck, oribi, eland, and Uganda cob, but scour the country as we would, we saw no sign of elephant except the broad trails in the grass and the countless evidences that they had been in the region some time before. The country was beautiful and wholesome. There was lots of game for our table, from the most delicious grouse to the oribi, whose meat is the tenderest I have ever eaten. There were ducks and geese and Kavirondo crane; and sometimes eland, as fine in flavor as that of the prize steer of the fat-stock show. Then there were reedbuck and cob, both of which are very good to eat. So our tins of camp pie and kippered herring and ox tongue remained unopened and we lived as we never had before.
When the day's hunt was over the sun in a splendid effort painted such sublime sunsets above Mount Elgon as I had never dreamed of. And the music of hundreds of African birds along the river's edge greeted us with the cool, delightful dawn. Purely from an æsthetic standpoint, our days on the Nzoia were ones never to be forgotten, while from the standpoint of the man who loves to see wild game and doesn't care much about killing it, the bright, clear days on the Nzoia were memorable ones. The Roosevelt party went its way back to civilization; the Spaniards, De la Huerta and the Duke of Peñaranda, came and made a flying trip up the mountain for elephant, then returned and went their way. The young Baron Rothschild came on to the plateau for a couple of weeks and then disappeared. And still we lingered on, happy, healthy, generally hungry, and intoxicated with the languorous murmur of Africa.
With Sharp Stakes in Them
Then we marched for the mountain on our big elephant hunt. The details of those twelve days of adventuring in districts, some of which were probably never traversed before by white men, our experiences with the natives, our climb up the side of the mountain and our camp in the crater; our icy mornings, our ascent of the highest peak, and our explorations of the ancient homes of the cave-dwellersall are part of a remarkable series of events that have nothing to do with an elephant story. In the forests we saw numberless old elephant pits, and on the grassy slopes there were mazes of elephants' trails, some so big that hundreds of elephants must have moved along them. But we saw no elephants. We scanned the hills for miles and tramped for days in ideal elephant country, but our quest was all in vain. Then our food supplies ran low, our last bullock was killed, and we hurried back to the base camp on the river, a hungry, tired band of a hundred and twenty men.
The matter of provisioning a large number of porters far from the railroad is a serious one. In addition to carrying the safari outfit, the porters must carry their posho, or cornmeal ration, and it is impossible for them to carry more than a limited number of days' rations. So the farther one gets from the base of supplies the more difficult it is to move, and a relay system must be employed. Porters must be sent back for food, often six or eight days; or else a bullock wagon must be used for that purpose. In our safari we used two wagons, drawn by thirty oxen, to supplement the porters in keeping up food supplies, and even by so doing there were times when rations ran low. In such times we would shoot game for them, either kongoni or zebra, both of which are considered great delicacies by the black man.
However, this is not telling about my memorable elephant experiences in the Guas Ngishu Plateau.
We got back to the Nzoia River on December third. On the fifteenth, after many more unsuccessful attempts to get in touch with a herd, Mr. Akeley and I resolved to try the mountain again. We thought that perhaps the elephants might have moved northward along the eastern slope, and so we thought we'd push clear up to the Turkwel River and find out beyond question. We outfitted for an eight days' march, carried only one tent and a small number of good porters. Only the absolute necessaries were taken, for we expected to move fast and hard. The first day we marched eight hours, crossed the Nzoia River, and by a curious chance at once struck a fresh trail which was diagnosed as being only a few hours old. The bark torn from trees was fresh and still moist; the leaves of the branches that had been broken off as the elephants fed along the way were still unwithered, and the flowers that had been crushed down by the great feet of the herd had lost little of their freshness and fragrance.
The trail led us first in one direction, then in another; sometimes it was a big trail that plowed through the long grass like a river, with little tributaries branching in and out where the individual members of the herd had swerved out of the main channel to feed by the way. And sometimes when all the herd were feeding, the main trail disappeared, to be replaced by a maze of lesser trails leading in all directions. But by the skilful tracking of our gunbearers the main trail would be found again some distance onward. We followed the trail for hours, and then, night coming on, we went into camp near a small stream, choked with luxuriant vegetation. Akeley thought he heard a faint squeal of an elephant far off, and while the porters made camp we went on for a mile or so to investigate. But no further sounds indicated the proximity of the herd.
Early the next morning we took up the trail again, and in less than an hour my Masai sais pointed off to a distant slope a couple of miles away, where a black line appeared. It looked like an outcropping of rock. Akeley looked at it and exclaimed, "By George, I believe he's got them!" and a moment later, after he had directed his glasses on the distant spot, he said briskly, "That's right, they're over there." And so, for the first time, after having scanned suspicious-looking spots in the landscape for weeks and always with disappointment, I saw a herd of real live elephants. To the naked eye they looked more like little shifting black beetles than anything else, but in the glasses they were plainly revealed with swaying bodies and flapping ears and swinging trunks.
In elephant hunting the first important thing to consider is the wind, for the elephant is very keen-scented and is quick to detect a breath of danger in the breeze. Fortunately we had seen them in time. If we had gone ahead a few hundred yards they would have got our wind and gone away in alarm, but this had not occurred. We could see that they were feeding quietly and without the slightest evidence of uneasiness.
Some Kikuyu Belles
We left our horses and the porters under a big tree and told the latter to come on if they heard any firing; otherwise, they were to await our return. Then, with only our gunbearers and a man carrying Akeley's large camera, we circled in a wide detour until we were safely behind the elephants. The wind continued favorable, and we cautiously approached the brow of a hill near where we had last seen them. They had disappeared, but their trail was as easy to follow as an open road. Before reaching the brow of the next hill one of the gunbearers was sent up a tree to reconnoiter the country beyond.
"Hapa," he whispered, as he carefully climbed down and indicated with his hand that they were near. Again we swung in a wide circle and came over the brow of the next hill. There, four or five hundred yards away, was the herd of elephants, standing idly under the low trees that studded the opposite slope. There were between forty and fifty of them, and from the number of totos, or calves, we assumed that many of the big ones were cows. We studied the herd for some minutes, estimating the ivory and trying in vain to pick out the bulls. There is very little difference between the appearance of a cow and a bull elephant when the latter has only moderate-sized tusks. Usually the tusks of the male are heavier and thicker, but except for this distinction there is very little noticeable difference between the two. Of course, an elephant with gigantic tusks is at once known to be a bull, but if he has small tusks it is a matter of considerable guesswork.
Two Kongoni on Guard
We could not tell which ones of this herd were bulls, but assumed that there must surely be several small-sized or young bulls among them. We decided to go nearer, knowing that the elephant's eyesight is very poor, and with such a favoring wind his sense of smell was useless. It seemed amazing that they did not see us as we walked up the slope toward them. When a couple of hundred yards away we climbed a tree to study them some more. They were in three separate groups, each of which was clustered sleepy and motionless under the trees. They had ceased feeding and had evidently laid up for their midday rest, although the hour was hardly ten in the morning.
From our "observation tower" in the tree we studied the three groups as well as we could. So far as we could judge there were at least three bulls of medium size, but as we looked those three lazily moved off toward the group on the extreme left. At that time we were within about a hundred yards of the nearest group with the wind still favorable, and except for one thing we might easily have crept up through the grass to within thirty or forty yards. Directly between us and the elephants were two kongoni, one lying down and the other alert and erect.
The Policemen of the Plains
The kongoni is the policeman of the plains. He is the self-appointed guardian of all the other animals, and for some strange, unselfish reason, he always does sentinel duty for the others. His eyes are so keen that he sees your hat when you appear over the horizon two miles away, and from that moment he never loses sight of you. If you approach too near he whistles shrilly, and every other animal within several hundred yards is on the alert and apprehensive. The kongoni often risks his own life to warn other herds of animals of the approach of danger, and if I were going to write an animal story I'd use the kongoni as my hero. The hunters hate him for the trouble he gives them, but a fair-minded man can not help but recognize the heroic, self-sacrificing qualities of the big, awkward, vigilant antelope. Why these two sentinels had not seen us is still and always will be a mystery, but it is certain that they had not.
At the same time we knew that any attempt to approach nearer would alarm them and they in turn would sound the shrill tocsin of warning to the unsuspecting elephant herd, in which event we might have to track the elephants for miles until they settled down again. So we cautiously climbed down, retreated below the edge of the hill, and worked our way up in the lee of the group farthest to our left in the expectation of finding the three bulls. From tree to tree, and in the protection of large ant-hills, we moved forward until we were less than fifty yards from the elephants. Then we studied them again, but could not locate the bulls.
Probably at this time something may have occurred to make the elephants nervous. Perhaps the warning cry of a bird or the suspicious rustling of our footsteps in the tall grass, but at any rate the herd began to move slowly away. Two of the larger groups marched solemnly down the slope away from us and the other disappeared among the low scrub trees to our right. We followed the two larger groups and soon were again within a few yards of them. An ant-hill four or five feet high gave us some protection, and over the top of this we watched the enormous animals as they stood under the trees ahead of us. While watching these two large groups we forgot about the one that had disappeared to the right.
Suddenly one of the gunbearers whispered a warning and we turned to see this group only a few yards from us and bearing directly down toward the ant-hill where we crouched in the grass. They had not yet seen us, but it seemed a miracle that they did not. If one of us had moved in the slightest degree they would have charged into us with irresistible force. We held our guns and our breath while these big animals, by a most fortunate chance, passed by us to the windward of the ant-hill, not more than thirty feet away. If they had passed to the leeward side they would have got our wind and trouble would have been unavoidable. I took a surreptitious snap-shot of them after they had passed by, and for the first time in some minutes took a long breath.
Then we circled the herd again and came up to them. They were now thoroughly uneasy. They knew that some invisible hostile influence was abroad in the land, but they could not locate in which direction it lay. We saw the sensitive trunks feeling for the scent and saw the big ears moving uneasily back and forth. One large cow with a broken tusk was facing us, vaguely conscious that danger lay in that direction. And then, by some code of signals known only to the elephant world, the greater number of elephants moved off down the slope and up the opposite slope. Only the big, aggressive cow and four or five smaller animals remained behind as a rear-guard. She stood as she had stood for some moments, gazing directly at us and nervously waving her ears and trunk.
Akeley climbed to the top of an ant-hill and made some photographs showing the big cow and her companions in the foreground, while off on the neighboring hillside three distinct groups of elephants were in view. The latter were thoroughly alarmed and moved away very swiftly for some distance and then came to a pause. The big cow and her attendants then moved off, feeling that the retreat had been successfully effected. Once more we followed them and came up to them, and then once more we were flanked by a number of elephants that had previously disappeared over the hill. They had swung around and were returning directly toward where we stood, unsuspecting.
We barely had time to fall back to some small bushes, where we waited while the flanking party approached. They came almost toward us, and when only about fifty feet away I ventured a photograph, feeling that, if successful, it would be the closest picture ever made of a herd of wild elephants. I used a Verascope, a small stereoscopic French machine whose "click" is almost noiseless. The elephants advanced and we huddled together with rifles ready in the patch of bushes. It seemed a certainty that they would charge, and that if our bullets could not turn them we would be completely annihilated. But as yet there was no sign that they saw us, or, if they did, they could not distinguish our motionless forms from the foliage of the scrub.
At last, the foremost elephant, barely thirty feet from us, came to the trail in the grass by which we had retreated when we first saw them. The trunk, sweeping ahead of it as if feeling for the scent of danger, paused an instant as it reached the trail and then the animal drew back sharply as though stung. Then it whirled about and the herd went crashing away through the sparse undergrowth. It was a time of the utmost nervous tension, and I don't believe the human system could undergo a prolonged strain of that severity.
It Started Back as Though Stung
During all this time we had not succeeded in positively locating a bull elephant. Of all the forty-four elephants that were visible at any one time, there was not one that we could feel safe in identifying as the elephant needed for the group. Three more times we stalked the herd to very close range, but they were now so restless that nothing could be ascertained. So finally we decided to get ahead of them and watch them as they passed us, but just as we had reached a point where they were approaching, the two kongoni gave a shrill alarm and the entire herd made off in tremendous haste. Later, on our way back to camp, we came up with one group of six or seven, but they seemed too angry and aggressive to take needless chances with, so we watched them a while and then left them behind.
During all that day we were with the herd nearly five hours, five hours of intense nervous strain, during which time there was never a moment when we were not in some danger of discovery. But in spite of the aggressive bearing of some of them at one time or another, I had the feeling that the elephants would run away from us the instant they definitely determined where we were. And it was while laboring under this impression that I met my second Mount Elgon herd of elephants and learned by bitter experience that the impression was wholly false. But that is still another story, the story of being charged five times in one day by angry elephants, and how I killed a bull elephant for the Akeley group.
CHAPTER ONE | CHAPTER TWO | CHAPTER THREE | CHAPTER FOUR | CHAPTER FIVE | CHAPTER SIX | CHAPTER SEVEN | CHAPTER EIGHT | CHAPTER NINE| CHAPTER TEN | CHAPTER ELEVEN | CHAPTER TWELVE | CHAPTER THIRTEEN | CHAPTER FOURTEEN | CHAPTER FIFTEEN | CHAPTER SIXTEEN | CHAPTER SEVENTEEN | CHAPTER EIGHTEEN | CHAPTER NINETEEN | CHAPTER TWENTY | CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE | CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
Copyright © 2008