John G Millais came from an artistic and hunting family. He traveled throughout Africa studying the people, the country and the wildlife. He was an ardent hunter. His Nile book was the result of a trip to the Sudan and many of the remote districts in which there was tremendous plains game hunting for the less common species. This chapter is about his hunting on the Swamps and Nam plains.
Dawn came in to the voices of a thousand courting doves and the harsh screams of white-headed eagles seated on high trees on the edge of the swamp. The Dinkas encamped here said we were close to the marsh and that “Mrs. Gray” were abundant. Leaving Mohamed to strike camp, Raoul and I therefore went forward and in ten minutes passed numerous pools of spur-winged geese and other water birds. Then we emerged on to the shore of a great grass and reed bog, which extended to the horizon.
Later we traveled on to a point which gave an excellent view over the main marsh, as well as a great side branch about half a mile wide. A careful survey disclosed nothing but many storks, ducks, egrets etc. Hippos kept up a continuous grunting in what appeared to be the main channel of water, bending to the east. There was no sign of Mrs. Gray, and at this we were very much disappointed, as we could see everything for a mile wide. When Captain Brocklehurst was here in May 1923 the water was low and the whole area was a series of great boggy pools or small lakes, so that it was possible to get well into the swampland without undue risk or labor. Now the water was high, and to go further than 200-300 yards from the forest edge involved plunging into a morass where no man could proceed.
After consultation Raoul went up the side channel and I and Gutbi, with some local Dinkas, proceeded east along the shore. Only a few minutes elapsed when, far out in the marsh, I saw what appeared to be a black animal, which the binoculars revealed was a male Mrs. Grey. More black spots then appeared, and I counted at least six antelopes which, from their size, and long horns, I knew to be the species we were after. Sending a Dinka to fetch my son (who was also with me on this trip), we then tried to plough through the swamp directly towards the game, but soon found ourselves hopelessly involved. Every step was a labor through water and oleaginous mud. We rocked from side to side until at last it was impossible to proceed.
The Dinkas then informed us that by going a mile to the south we could reach a tongue of harder ground, and still get quite near the point of the swamp where the Mrs. Grays were feeding. After half an hour’s hard labor, amidst swarms of mosquitoes which rose to attack us at every step, the sun came out in all its power, and I felt that two hours of this kind of work before a shot could be obtained was beyond my strength, so I beat a retreat to the forest edge and the camp, where I rested while Raoul continued the stalk. His account of the chase is as follows:
This has been without doubt, the hardest day I ever had. We soon reached the edge of the swamp where Mrs. Gray abound. Heaps of stinking mud and water were everywhere. The philosophical Gutbi was in an awful state about the condition of the marsh because in the previous year all had been easy, with short grass and very little deep water. He insisted on one of the older men going back to camp as the going was so frightful. Accordingly Gutbi and I, with two other men, one was a policeman, went on. After fighting through several miles of the worst going I have ever seen we came near to four Mrs. Gray bucks feeding on the edge of the tall reeds about a quarter of a mile away. Gutbi and I stalked them but being right out in the open, we could not approach them directly. When the shot came I was up to my waist in bog and water, devoid of the wind, and standing in high grass that cut like a razor. When the rifle was raised it only waived in the air, because with such insecure footing I could not keep it fixed on any mark. Eight futile shots were the result.
I followed the vanishing game as fast as I could go, leaving Gutbi and the DInkas far behind. Having run and waded for at least another hour in the blazing sun, I came up with the bucks again and with a lucky shot killed the largest male. Just after the shot I had the drum of my ear nearly split. One of the wretched locals followed me closely, without my knowledge, and as soon as I shot, he shot over my shoulder. After severely reprimanding him, I tore after the herd of Mrs. Gray and one hour later only got close enough for a long shot. But I managed to kill the second best buck as it stood at 150 yards. Gutbi was delighted with our success. By this time my tongue was so parched that I called for the water bottle but received no answer from the Dinkas, as they were miles away. When they at last met us as we ploughed our way homewards, we found the bottle empty. I left two DInkas to keep the vultures off the carcasses.
Raoul was red from mosquito bites and quite exhausted when he staggered into camp at 1 a.m. He lay without moving for some time but a sip of brandy and the smell of onions cooking made him sit up and take notice. Youth is buoyant, and in an hour he was quite himself again.
At 3 p.m., one of the men, who had been on watch in a high tree near the big side channel, came dashing into camp and again uttered the magic words, Mrs. Gray. I needed no second invitation. So seizing my water bottle and rifle, we hurried away. The man had seen two bucks in a high bank of reeds close to a large tree, so the stalk proposed to be an easy one, as trees here are usually close to or on the swamp edge itself.
However, we found the matter was not quite so simple as it first seemed. Arriving at a point where the forest ended, there was a long strip of marsh or small lake between us and the little island on which the tree stood. This we had to cross in full view, the water taking us up to our chests. When half way over I suddenly saw a large pair of horns lifted above the reeds. It was close to the tree. And then – another pair. The bucks were evidently feeding quietly and if I could only reach the tree and peep around the trunk, I might get a neck shot at 20 yards, which would be a certainty.
However, as so often happens in big game hunting, the best laid plans “gang aft aglay.” Just as we were emerging on to better standing ground a big female Mrs. Gray stepped out of the reeds straight in front of us and not 30 yards away. She gave a shrill whistling snort and dashed into the reeds at once, alarming the herd, which beat an immediate retreat. At first I could see nothing and only heard splashing bodies. Then at 150 yards I observed the lines of various bucks and two pairs of rocking horns as they plunged through the swamp. At 250 yards I had my first clear view and let go two shots at the retreating beauties, but as I could not hold the rifle steady while standing in mud up to the knee, the result again was failure.
It was sad to see those grand fellows fade away. What splendid heads they carried. Both were about as fine specimens as could be seen in this part of Africa. Game once alarmed and fired at, seldom give a second chance quite like the first. With this species, and other kobs, the only thing to do is to keep pegging on after them. Sooner or later they get over their fears and offer a target. It may be difficult, but still within possible or even probable range. Thus, still keeping the bucks within view, we plodded, sometimes over awful ground, mostly in water above our knees and occasionally over areas of great fallen reeds not quite so bad. In half a mile the herd had stopped. The females, 10 in number, were quite near the forest edge and the two big black males were farther out in the swamp. As is usual, these animals did not look directly back on their trails as most antelopes do. They kept gazing ahead in a stupid sort of way, as if expecting alarm from any direction. This is a characteristic of Mrs. Gray for even when a man is close they seldom look directly at the intruder.
When starting to run, too, they are not like lechwe, which spring high in the air. Instead they lower their head almost to the ground and perform a sort of semicircle in this attitude, generally around a bunch of grass or reeds until the head is gradually raised and the animal breaks into a slow, lumbering gallop. At our second attempt I got to within 200 yards when Raoul appeared out of the forest and scared the game away. He did not know where I was but he spoiled a good chance. So now we faced another long chase of over two miles over more awful ground. The marsh was perfectly open so two attempts at stalk completely failed.
At last, as the sun was setting the two old bucks found a wide open space of fallen reeds and there they lay down by themselves. As we came towards them out of sight to within 500 yards, I found that the fallen vegetation would allow me to crawl without sinking too far into the water. Leaving the others behind a high tuft of grass, I started forwards, pushing my rifle in front of me. Doubtless the failing light helped me, and then slow movement escaped their sharp eyes. But when at last the best male stood up, I knew that to approach nearer would spoil everything.
I tried a sight with my rifle but found I was at least six inches too low for a steady resting shot. At this distance, 300 yards, one must be absolutely steady in your aim or else it is useless to fire. Accordingly I signaled one of the men to come to me. Creeping like a snake and stopping every time the standing buck looked in our direction, the man moved slowly towards me. It was an anxious time before he arrived and I kept my binoculars fixed on the buck at all times. I would be ready at any moment to fire if he gave alarm to the other buck. But no, he was too occupied in constantly shaking his head to ward off the mosquito attacks and he took no notice of the danger coming toward him.
The man lay down in front of me and I rested my rifle on his broad shoulders. Yes, the elevation was sufficient, and I got the white sight to bear steadily on the black mark. Taking a full sight, I pressed slowly and was overjoyed to hear the loud plunk that told of a successful hit. The buck half fell and then slowly galloped straight for the forest edge, about 500 yards away. But he was ours and we were lucky because in 10 minutes it would be dark.
The wounded buck disappeared in a strip of high grass, about 100 yards wide, on the edge of the marsh. As he walked slowly into it, I knew he was done for and if darkness came on before we found him, he would be found at first light the next day. But success was to be ours that evening. For after going through one clump of reeds, he retreated into another denser part, but it was there that one of the men noticed the moving horns. I could see nothing of the body but as he moved I guess the position of the body and a lucky shot finished the job. Soon the beautiful antelope lay dead before me. I had obtained one of Africa’s finest trophies. The black coat and white shoulder mark were perfect and the horns were thick and well annulated and long as well. In short it was a better specimen of Mrs. Gray than I ever expected to possess.–Selected and Edited by Ellen Enzler-Herring of Trophy Room Books