Armchair Safari – A Morning With Elephants

The weary safari plodded through swamp.
The weary safari plodded through swamp.

Mayne Reid is not well known, perhaps because he spent most of his adventurous life traveling between Cape Town and Cairo. His book, An Amateur in Africa, should really have been called, A Hunter-Adventurer In Africa because he is one of the most adventurous hunters around. His book is full of thrilling adventures along with the kind of humor that one must have when on safari.

After arriving in the Sudd, his last stop before steaming to Cairo, Mayne Reid decided to go on one last elephant hunt. It was tea time when “he” arrived, a queer looking individual whose appearance was grotesquely rounded off by a lady’s sun helmet, picked up heaven knows where and now long past its first youth. This gave him an absurd likeness to a dissipated Chinese Mandarin. Immediately he informed us that elephants were destroying his “shambe” (plantation).

We threw off the remains of our afternoon’s lethargy and sent for our invaluable interpreter. Was it a herd? No, two bulls. Were they big? Yes, two enormous bulls. How far away? Two hours’ march. What was the country like? Oh, there are a few reeds by the river, otherwise its open country. This sounded good enough, especially as the interpreter, after a few minutes of excited conversation, informed us that, “He knows these elephants well. They are neighbors of his!”

I asked if they often dropped in for lunch, but the African’s sense of humor, though wide, is not profound, and the question met with the surprised disdain it no doubt deserved.

We arranged that our friend should remain the night in camp, so as to be on the spot to guide us away to this scene of agricultural tragedy. Next morning, at the first flush of light, we started off through the hushed splendor of an African dawn. Far away on our left, one of the high peaks of the Mountains of the Moon reared its dazzling whiteness against the pale sky. To our right the burnt plains sloped gently away to the lake, rosy in the first flush of morning. Here and there a waterbuck peacefully feeding along the track started away at our approach. A kob stamped his warning foot as he got our wind. Once, to the excited cries of “M’boga” from the gun boys, four buffalo, bulls every one of them, sauntered slowly across the bank not 50 yards ahead of us paying, like all the game in this unshot and practically unknown paradise, absolutely no attention to our little paradise, and shambled heavily away to the hills. The temptation was almost irresistible, but we were after bigger stuff than buffalo. And, in spite of the energetic protests on the part of the local hunter, who had attached himself uninvited to this expedition and who evidently believed in supporting home industries, we let them go until another day.

Ninety minutes’ steady marching brought us to a spot where the foothills came down almost to the path, and here our guide bore away to the left, mounting steadily through country which bore an almost fantastic resemblance to an English orchard, and then plunging through lengthening grass until we stood on a small knoll overlooking the riverbed. The elephants, we were informed, were there. But the brontosaurus itself might have been there for all the good it seemed likely to do us. The few reeds resolved themselves into a steady mass stiffened with elephant grass 10-15 feet high, about a mile wide, impenetrable, save where one of the enormous bulls or his kindred had marked the course of the river.

elephants-at-waterholeOne of these elephant tracks led down from the knoll, and we advanced gingerly along it for 40 yards. Then we gathered that the Mandarin was making frantic signs for us to retreat. We did not stop to argue the point and returned to the knoll, where, after some minutes of difficult conversation, we discovered that he proposed to send two trackers along the upper path and drive the elephants down towards us. It didn’t sound very pleasant, but we presumed he knew best.

The trackers went off for five minutes or so while we metaphorically held our breath. Then there was a distant crash, a noise like galloping thunder, and the two men came racing back along the path. “They are coming, they are coming!” The noise rose to a roar and something enormous but unseen even at that little distance, crashed past us through the reeds in the valley at our feet.

It is almost an axiom in elephant shooting not to shoot until you know what you are shooting at. It is 100 to 1 against hitting any part of the beast that matters or indeed any part at all. Besides, it may be a cow. So we held our fire; but the Mandarin had no such scruples, or perhaps he was determined to commit us definitely.

Some hunting memories.
Some hunting memories.

He certainly did. Before we could stop him he raised the comic old rifle (a long obsolete Enfield eaten with rust inside and out) of which he was inordinately proud, and fired, so to speak, at the noise of the bounce. What is more, by some magnificent fluke he hit it somewhere. There was a half angry, half frightened squeal and we prepared for the worst. But they kept on heading for the river, and the Mandarin, who was either a very brave man, or very foolish one, went after them. Out of shame, we have to follow him and oust him from the pride of place. We dropped down into the reeds, picked out the fresh track without difficulty, and followed with as much speed as we could get into our feet and as much courage as we could arouse in our hearts. I confess, I know of no more uncomfortable sensation in the world than pursuing a wounded elephant through that grass.

You have got to follow his track because it is the only possible path, and as he never goes quite straight, you can never see a yard ahead. Every time you turn a corner, you expect to find him on the other side. Every time you get to a few yards of straight you expect to find him charging back along his tracks, and you know that if he charges you have got to kill or be killed. He can get through the grass at the side and you can’t. He can run twice as fast as you can. But on the other hand, you have got a hard-hitting rifle and he hasn’t. Draw what consolation you may from that and never on any account dwell on the possibility of missing.

For the moment, however, our victim did none of these things. There was a fair blood spoor, but he seemed to be going strong. The grass grew thicker, became complicated, first with scrub, then with trees, and the slope grew steeper. We had reached the river and here the Mandarin introduced us to the inevitable comic relief. I am convinced he was a serious minded man but an unkind fate appeared always to be conspiring to make him appear ridiculous. On this occasion, as he pressed onwards in the stern chase, the bank, already loosened by a far heavier animal than he, unexpectedly collapsed, and he sat down with disconcerting suddenness in the ice cold water. His fellow natives roared with unconcealed mirth. We tried our best not to smile. He appeared less concerned about his precious rifle than his precious hat, both of which escaped with a slight wetting, though indeed the deluge itself could hardly have done them any harm.

So much sought after owing to his ivory.
So much sought after owing to his ivory.

However, there was no time to waste in laughter. The state of the bank showed clearly that our quarry had crossed. An elephant, it is said, has to be considerably upset, physically or mentally, before he will cross any running water. So we gathered that he was either badly wounded, in which case we would catch up with him soon; or badly frightened and only slightly wounded, in which case we had no hope of catching him at all. At any rate, speed was the thing. We snatched a hasty drink, and in parenthesis, there is nothing in the world quite so unexpectedly delightful as a drink from one of those mountain streams. You are breathless and hot beyond dreams of perspiration, and lo! The Gods hand you a drink from the eternal snows, pure and cool as the source, fragrant as the dawn and revivifying as champagne. Foolish people say you should never drink unboiled water in the tropics. We climbed to the further bank and came suddenly upon an unexpected clearing about a quarter of a mile across and enclosed on all sides by jungle and enormous grass.

We doubled across it, plunged with increasing confidence into the gloom on the other side. We careened around the corner and there he was, apparently waiting. He stood facing us, rocking slowly from side to side, trunk up, feeling for our wind, his enormous ears (six feet in diameter) outstretched and seeming to block out the entire background. It was no moment for “after you” or tossing up for first shot. The rest of the party, with the exception of one stout hearted gun boy and the Mandarin, whose sentiments seemed to be anything but neighborly, suddenly discovered engagements elsewhere, and we both fired simultaneously. The elephant gave a high pitched, terrifying scream and advanced with a kind of lurching rush. We fired second barrels at about 12 yards range and, jumping sideways as far as the grass would let us go, reloaded with feverish fingers which seemed to take an unconscionable time fitting the cartridge. But it was unnecessary. He gave a sick and sickening grunt, the whole enormous body seemed to telescope into itself and subside slowly, oh so slowly, until it touched the ground. Then he rolled over and lay still.

The King of the Jungle was dead.–Ellen Enzler-Herring of Trophy Room Books

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