African Elephant 1130172

Sport On The Blue Nile – An Armchair Safari with Isaac Johnson


Johnson, more than 115 years ago, set off on an African big game hunt through the Sudan. He trekked along the banks of the River Dinder (a place where many great elephant hunters took their great tuskers). Although his most famous quote is about discovering a lion right next to him (“To say that the pulsations of my heart at this moment were normal, would be described as a falsehood. But I lay perfectly still and contemplated the magnificent creature lying there beside me in all quiet dignity of leonine repose.”), he spent much time hunting elephant. And that is what his little known, but highly rated by those lucky enough to have obtained a copy, book is known for.

Our route lay along the river until we came to a dense forest, with undergrowth of thorn bushes. Through this jungle we passed by forcing our way. Axes were used and thorn branches were held back by two men, while the horse and loaded donkeys passed with extreme difficulty. On emerging from this forest we crossed a bend of the river and entered into a forest on the other side. Once we found a suitable camping site, I descended and we began to set up camp. After dinner tranquility reigned.

Next morning at an early hour, I started off with two guides, to search the country for traces of elephant. The country was full of spoor but it is useless to follow up an old track. Unless the excrements are less than 12 hours old, and the age can be easily determined, it is a waste of time to give chase. We proceeded along the sandy bed of the river, passing numerous tracks were elephants came to drink, but the lack of sharpness in the impression of the gigantic foot, and the desiccated condition of the feces, showed clearly that time had elapsed since elephant passed this way.

We searched in vain and, tired from marching for hours through stretches of loose sand where the feet sink at every step, took a short rest. This was a thick, dark forest where no ray of sunlight ever finds its way, and full of exasperating elephant bugs, or ticks, which creep over one’s body all day long. Eventually, hungry and tired, we worked our way back to camp. After a good meal we felt somewhat refreshed and fit again.

The second day was a repetition of the first: heat, fatigue, continual marching over heavy sand, fording the river on the back of one or another of my trusty guides, and then facing the dense, impenetrable, solemn forest which seems untrod (sic) by man. We crept and struggled through branches both intertwined and interlaced. Thorns sink deep into the flesh and hold us in place until they are released. We step over tree trunks overgrown by creepers and use the axe often. On we go in single file until reaching a path made by a passing pachyderm. There progress is easy compared to the exasperating fight with the dense jungle. The path is not a new one but we hope it will lead to spots which elephants have visited more recently, where we can start in earnest to pursue a substantial thing and not a shadow of that which has long passed.

But again we are doomed to disappointment. The sun goes down and leaves us no nearer to our goal than when we started pursuit of what which we failed to find. Weary again, we return to camp. After another bath we realize that we cannot expect to immediately come across roving elephants which are not plentiful in the district and which themselves are always on the quest for fresh pastures and new fields.  During the night one of the Arabs imagined that he heard elephants breaking the branch of trees on the other side of the river. So on the third day we proceeded to explore the forest in that direction, but failed to find spoor.

The outskirts of the forest had been burned and cleared of the dry straw undergrowth and we walked quickly in hopes of reaching the denser forest, when suddenly Ibrahim stopped me and whispered to look ahead. Since it was late in the day, and we did not seem to be near any elephant, I raised my rifle and fired, striking the buck in the chest. The delight of the Arabs knew no bounds, for now they had an excellent supply of fresh meat. They forgot about the elephant; the business of the moment was to get meat back to camp. That took so much time that it was considered too late to look for elephant spoor.

The fourth day’s search for elephant was more exciting than the rest. We were working our ways through the intricacies of the dense forest when we heard, way ahead of us, noise like thunder. And then we realized that the elephants were there, breaking off branches from trees. They snapped with a crashing sound, like a volley of artillery in the woods. We managed gradually to approach the spot whence the noise appeared to proceed, but with difficulty, because the elephants, of which we knew there were more than one, were slowly moving on and destroying huge tree branches as they went.

Ultimately we reached a more open path and this we followed. But the noises had ceased. We remained still and silent and waited to hear in what direction the elephants might be. However, hearing no sound, I went ahead cautiously along a track that was a winding, serpentine affair made by elephants in the forest. It swerved around behind a mass of foliage and there the elephant must have been standing close to us, with only a screen of boughs and verdure intervening. I came upon a heap of excrements, fresh and steaming, and the ground was still wet. The elephant must have passed only a few minutes previously.

We followed the spoor, cautious and listening intently, but there was not a sound. The elephants had evidently got our wind and decamped. We continued to follow spoor but as the ground was completely covered by dead leaves and forest refuse, the footprints were only discerned with difficulty. Thus it was impossible to be sure of the track. Nevertheless, we followed the most likely ones until we reached a place where the jungle and undergrowth ceased and where we came upon recent elephant footprints distinctly visible in the soil. At some distance I detected movement in a tree top and then perceived the trunk of an elephant stretched upward and picking off tender twigs. I motioned to the men to keep perfectly silent and to follow me. I took a position near the trunk of the tree and hoped not to attract the elephant’s attention. I waited and hoped that he would show himself and that I could get a shot at a vulnerable spot. Then, suddenly, the men waiting started to chatter away.

I was afraid that the elephant would either bolt or attack so I turned around and gestured for the men to be quiet, and at the same time raised my rifle to make them understand that I would shoot them if they did not stop jabbering. On turning back around, I saw that the elephant had disappeared. It is a curious psychological phenomenon, and that I have found to be constant with all types of natives, that extreme fright and nervous tension at a critical moment, finds vent in uncontrollable, maniacal jabbering. This is often observed in the apes. When frightened or confronted, a monkey exhibits uncontrollable jaw movement. In all of my experiences I can only recall two instances of natives who had sufficient self-control in the moment of danger to prevent themselves from this type of action.

The elephant tracks were followed and after a long pursuit we again came up to the pachyderms. We perceived three enormous brutes moving in single file at not more than 150 yards from our position, and they were moving slowly right to left across our flank. But they were behind thick intervening bushes which left only the tops of their backs and swinging heads visible. It was impossible to get an accurate shot. Moreover, we could not tell males from females as the tusks were also hidden behind trees. If one could have fired even a random shot in the supposed portion of the skull, and succeeded in bringing down one of the three, it might have turned out to be a female, in which case an extra fee would have been payable and the tusks would have been confiscated.

Having got our wind, the elephants were off again. As it became obvious they were being pursued, they were constantly on the lookout, and it became more difficult to follow. We went into a sea of dry elephant grass, 15 feet high, and followed in a narrow gallery that had been opened up at some former time by passing elephants. At some point we must have come close to the elephants because we heard rustling and cracking of straw as we marched along. Suddenly there was a terrific crashing in the straw ahead and the herd went helter-skelter with a noise and clatter like the roar and rattle of a prairie fire as it advances under the pressure of a driving wind. So reluctantly, we returned to camp once more.

Subsequently it was almost an everyday occurrence when we reached good game districts that opportunities were lost due to idiocy of the guides. They had a good sense of direction but some had no sporting instincts. We often returned to camp tired and in bad humor, but I remained more determined to bring down an elephant shot by myself. Meanwhile I had my camp bed and mosquito net rigged up outside of the shelter in an open forest. One night I was awakened by my boy, Osman, who beckoned me not to speak. It was bright moonlight and I understood that something had been seen or heard. I was not kept long in doubt for I soon heard the loud crashing of elephants breaking and tearing the boughs of trees.  They were only a few hundred yards away.

I rose immediately and hastily dressed, and set with cautious steps in the direction of the noise. The moon was full and from its position I could tell that it was about midnight. We reached the spot where the elephants had been feeding but it was impossible to see footprints, or the direction which the elephants had taken. So we returned to camp, knowing we would follow up right after breakfast.

We started at 8 a.m., so the elephants had an eight-hour head start. We found the trail and started pursuit. We marched briskly as the tracks of five elephants were clearly defined. By about midday we had tracked the elephants to a spot in the river where they had apparently gone down to drink. Then the tracks branched in different directions. Ibrahim, the tracker, selected one track and I followed him for a while through various grasses when I became convinced that he was on the wrong track. But he said, “No, we are going right.” And we continued further into the forest.

Finally I lost patience and stopped abruptly and lectured him rather severely. Some natives are like overgrown children and must be treated as such. I said that I would be willing to follow him without complaint, through any heat, thirst or fatigue as long as he provided a reason to pursue. He refused to admit that he had lost the track. He should have known better, a herd of five elephants could not traverse the distances we have traveled without leaving substantial indications of their passage, nor any fresh spoor. I demanded we return to the river. What Ibrahim had refused to take as a suggestion he now accepted as an order and we wound our way laboriously back to the river.

Finally we found other spoor marks in the sand on the other side. Further, on entering the forest over there we found abundant fresh excrement. The spoor we followed led into the heart of another dense forest and after a period of forced marching we came to a clearing where only a grassy plain existed. At the farther end of the plain we distinguished an elephant standing with his back turned towards us. Immediately I signaled the men to lie low in a shady place where they would not be seen. With my rifle in one hand and a camera in the other I set out to either obtain a trophy or a shot of the elephant in his native haunt.

After taking a pinch of soil to determine the direction of the wind, I advanced cautiously toward the elephant. He had been feeding on the succulent grass. I was making for some cover to the right, which, if I could reach, would enable me to take a shot and hopefully bring down the elephant. However, without turning, the elephant somehow became aware of my approach and sauntered off, disappearing down an elephant path with which he seemed evidently familiar. We followed up but not directly, for fear of driving him farther off.

We could hear his measured movements but the forest was so thick that no ray of light could penetrate and our eyes slowly became accustomed to the gloom as we advanced. Soon Ibrahim whispered, “Ahoo,” (there he is) but I could see nothing. After a time I saw a glimpse of a moving object and more suspected than saw the movement of his ears as his head moved from side to side. I could not see the sights of my rifle and I ought not to have attempted to fire. However, the clambering of those unreasoning and unreasonable Arabs that I should shoot made me take aim at the elephant’s head and I fired. A shrill cry followed upon the report and the elephant bolted. We then made for the place where he was standing and came across both his track and some drops of blood on the ground. (It was afterwards ascertained that the shot aimed, had struck the head in the region of the root of the trunk.)

We followed the track until we emerged from the dense part of the forest and entered a region of yellow elephant grass that usually indicated the proximity of the river. The heat was terrific and I was thoroughly exhausted, after marching for eight consecutive hours without a rest. I told Ibrahim to find the nearest track down to the river. I was done. Without a bath in the river I could not continue. But there was no accessible path through this sea of elephant grass so we proceeded to force our way through, as elephants do.

When we finally emerged on to the river bank we saw, way down the river, our friend the elephant himself, slowly crossing the sandy bed in his retreat. He was a long way off and I could not expect to hit him in a vital spot at such distance. However I shot with the .303 whereupon the elephant uttered a long, drawn out scream and reared high into the air, wheeled around, charged back through the water and scrambled up the bank on which we were standing. But when we got further down to the river, we found him again standing wagging his head from side to side in melancholy silence. It was most fortunate that the elephant returned on receiving the bullet, and it was the event which turned the fortunes of the day. Had he continued forward in retreat, he would soon have reached the site of the sporting boundary line beyond which nothing would have induced me to pass.

It seemed remarkable that the elephant should have retraced his steps but I also think perhaps that the echo of the rifle shot from the other side of the shore caused the elephant to believe that the shot came form that direction, which induced him to retrace his steps contrary to the observed habits of his kind.

We then followed up the spoor with renewed energy, again through the heart of the forest to a place relatively free of the bothersome undergrowth. Suddenly the familiar sound of breaking branches was heard and it revealed the position of the elephant in the midst of a small patch of grass, feeding. Wanting to be sure this time, I decided to advance alone, trying to get to the elephant from the leeward side. I reached the margin of the tall straw path but could not see the elephant, though his movements indicated that he was close.

There was a small tree, just the thing I needed to get above the level of the grass. Silently I went up the tree and saw the elephant only 20-30 yards away, standing in a small clearing. His back was turned to me, which was fortunate, because otherwise he would have seen me climb the tree (which he could have rooted up into the air). Soon he turned slowly and then was broadside. I was waiting in position, rifle raised, so that no movement of mine should attract attention. I fired and a solid nickel .303 crashed into the brain and without a sound or struggle, the elephant fell to the ground. The Arabs arrived and vented their feelings with the most extravagant praises and dances. Their delight was at least partly accounted for by the gastronomical and financial considerations. I ordered them to cut off the tail and we would return to camp and leave the elephant in position until morning.

After a triumphant return to camp we made preparations to summon men to retrieve the elephant meat and tusks. It was my intention to take some time off but once fully rested from a week of fatiguing work, the urge to start off again in search of game returned. Such is the life of a hunter.–Edited by Ellen Enzler Herring of Trophy Room Books

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