Armchair Safari – Through Central Africa from Coast to Coast With James Barnes

It was midway in Barnes’ journey that he was in Central Africa, alone in the cannibal country, where he successfully hunted a magnificent elephant. The following is his story.

The one-eyed Chief after whom the village was named, was bothering me by pointing out the various possessions of mine that he would like to receive. So I decided to move on to a small collection of huts closer to where the big bull was supposed to be. I pitched my tent in a squalid little hamlet, hoping to make friends with the inhabitants. It is best with these savages to be low key and appear perfectly at home. The men were all armed, mainly with bows and arrows. I had no method of communication with them except by sign language but I understood that several in the area were looking for elephant.

Most of the men stood about at a respectful distance and gazed at me. The first friendly overture came from a woman with her child, who had a tick bite. Before the afternoon was over, I applied ointment to half the children in the village. No elephants were reported that first day, but as a result of my medical assistance I succeeded in purchasing a couple of scrawny chickens and some eggs. Why these people keep chickens is a mystery, as they never eat them. Alas, regarding the eggs: it did not make any difference whether they were stale or fresh. However, by the end of the day, the little head man became very friendly.

On the second day I was again told that the big bull had not put in an appearance but there were many newly arrived elephants off to the east. I also learned that one of the village men could speak a little Swahili. He came to me and asked to go. When I suggested he remain in camp to care for my belongings, he explained that although the men are cannibals and liars, they are not thieves, and he should come along to carry a big gun. Off we went.

We must have gone five or six miles beyond the farthest village before we came across the track of the herd. It was a big herd because the grass and swamp undergrowth looked as if a tornado had been through it. The footprints and spoor were very fresh. When we reached the edge of this swampy ground and entered the forest again, one of the native hunters (there were about a dozen of them) cautioned me to wait. Then he disappeared. The others gathered around and pointed to the left.

Walking carefully, we had gone about a quarter of a mile when the leader stopped and motioned me to go forward. I stepped ahead of him and almost instantly found that I was alone. But I listened and something was moving – no more than 20 or 30 feet to the left. Without any warning, but with a rustle of leaves, the head of an elephant, with a trunk reaching and feeling for the wind, appeared directly in front of me. I could tell it was a cow by the small brownish tusks. Backing away slowly, I got away before she saw or winded me.

My friends, the trackers, were not five yards off. They could not understand why I had not shot. I tried to explain that the ivory was not large enough. And then came a bunch of strange sounds to the right and left, and the crashing of a branch. The herd was coming in our direction. The men turned and silently we all started walking quickly and in single file. We had almost reached the end of the very deepest wood when there came another shrill trumpeting sound. It was as if a giant had severed a sheet of cloth – a tearing, ripping sound. A big branch crashed behind us and another in front. The images of a great shape of moving black through the leaves appeared on the left. The herd was now around us! I cannot say that it was pleasant.

One of the men shook a little bag of flour in order to find the direction of the wind. There was not a breath of air stirring. Then came a crackling of twigs and a little elephant, no more than four or five feet high, shuffled by us within a few yards. Almost instantly a large cow burst through the leaves. She was close; she saw us. She came with outstretched trunk while her ears swept the branches on either side. I fired several times. The cow died instantly while I managed to turn a small bull behind her. At the sound of the shots, pandemonium arose: squealing, trumpeting and breaking of branches were all around us. Two of the men came and knelt by my side.

The native with my second gun, had been deserted by his nerve, and when he came up to me I could see he was badly frightened. His dark color seemed to change on his face and around his lips. He finally confessed that he had never gone out after elephant before, and said he never wanted to go again. It took two or three minutes before the smashing and crashing subsided completely. I sat down on the dead cow’s shoulder, thus covering myself with elephant ticks, which I did not discover until later, and wiped my perspiring forehead.

The jabbering natives came up and started to hack at the body. Staggering under as much meat as they could carry, they led the way back to the villages. Immediately after we arrived, there was a great commotion and everyone seemed ready to head to where the elephant lay. I returned to my tent for tea and some food. I relaxed and was about to turn in when the “frightened” gun bearer and another man came into my tent and said, “There are many elephants around the village, Master.” And then, tembo makubwa, hapa – “The big elephant is here.”

I stepped outside into a bright, moonlit night. You could see the green leaves, grey thatch of the huts and red blossoms from some flowering shrub. Testing the rifle I found I could see through the sights well enough for close shooting. It was rather a foolish thing to do but I went after the elephants.

Following three or four guides down a path through the overgrown plantation, it was quite exciting. One of the men took my spare rifle. I carried the big one myself. In general I do not think that a better gun bearer can be found than the average native tracker. His faith in the white man and the weapon itself is so certain that he is sure not to desert you, and the tracker is never tempted to do what a professional gun bearer will do when excited, he never fires himself.

When we got into the deep underbrush it was quite dark, as we should have expected. Moonlight does not penetrate overhanging branches. But the guides pressed ahead and we emerged at last at the open space of an old plantation. I breathed a sigh of relief when we emerged from the dark green tunnels. Other natives appeared and we started forward, past some more abandoned huts, plunged into the undergrowth again and came once more to the edge of a clearing where we stopped. The man carrying the spare rifle touched my arm and pointed. Against the moonlit sky, crossing the path by which we had come, there could be made out the backs of two or three big elephants some 50 yards away.

When the bulls reached our fresh tracks they stopped and began blowing. I could see their big trunks waving in the air. A small spear-carrying native came forward to lead us through some shrubs and bushes, 10-15 feet high. I did not like the elephants being behind us but went forward until we reached the edge of the undergrowth. The little spearman knelt and pointed again. In the corner of an old potato field stood the big bull, certainly not more than 60 or 70 feet away. It was the gleam of his tusks that I had caught a few moments before. He was really a magnificent sight in the bright moonlight. The ivory points nearly swept the ground. He was listening, swaying, but did not appear to be alarmed. His great ears stood out on either side of his head like the sails on a great frigate. I knelt down. It was a good chance for a head or heart shot. I raised the express. A branch on one of the bushes surrounding me caught the gun barrel and prevented me from getting a shot at his head. Then, lifting his ponderous feet, the bull began to turn. I fired two shots as quickly as possible, one at the point of the shoulder and the other at his hip. The huge beast staggered and plunged into the bushes.

The gun bearer carrying the spare rifle lunged forward and thrust it into my hands. The elephants who were behind us had turned into the path. I could just make out a big head and large ears standing behind the bushes and again fired quickly. The animal swerved to the right, and with his two companions, passed by us. There must have been a number of others in the neighborhood for we could hear them crashing off. One, we were told later, went right by the village where I had pitched my tent.

We decided to search again in the morning. When we returned to the village, the men who had accompanied me told the women and children all about the hunt. I could hear them imitating the sound of the rifle. The calm that they had shown when following the elephants was missing. They cackled and gesticulated long after I had gone to bed.

The next morning the Chief from the first village came over, alone, to tell me that all the elephants had left and were nowhere in the vicinity. But, he said through gestures, if I needed porters he could supply some. I was certain of three things. First: the big bull elephant was badly hit and would, or did, not go far. Second: that the upraised trunk of the second elephant had likely protected his brain or he would have dropped instantly. And I believed, finally, that the old man was lying because he wanted the ivory. I told him that I intended to remain until the big bull was found. The bull was likely lying dead not far away. I intended to search for him.

The men of the village were friendly toward me and it was merely a matter of time before I would get some news. The Chief squatted, scowling. But just before noon one of the men came in carrying an elephant’s tail. Calling my own small force, I picked up the camera, and with a couple of other men, followed the native through the plantations and bushes we had traversed the night before. Soon we came upon a crowd of jabbering natives surrounding the body of a big tusker. As I suspected he had not gone 300 yards. The Chief, who came with us, was a bit embarrassed but I pretended not to notice him. They cut up the elephant. The light was not the best for taking photos but I did get a couple.

The tusks were magnificent specimens. The longest one, measured round the curve, was 9 feet, 4 inches and the other only about three inches shorter. So now I was officially a professional elephant hunter. A trader back at Kifiku said he would buy all the ivory at market price. The truth was that money I was supposed to get from London before I arrived had never come and in fact I needed the funds. The results of that trip netted me over one hundred pounds. Before the afternoon was over the tusks were delivered to my tent.

But I was not through with the Chief. That evening, two men from his village walked in and deliberately shouldered the tusks (which weighed about 100 pounds each) and walked off with them. The villagers were waiting to see what I would do, while the Chief’s men were standing around with bows and arrows. I pretended it was a joke and the next morning the ivory was returned. Twice more it was taken and twice more it was returned. I finally sent word to the Chief that I was ready for his porters, but none ever came. Evidently there was a big powwow going on at his headquarters. So I took stock of my stock and watched the men gorging themselves with elephant meat. In the end there was hardly enough meat left for the flies.

Meanwhile news spread through the countryside and two or three other Chiefs asked me to come and shoot elephants for them. I could have stayed at least a month more. But now that I had what I was after, it was time to leave. My ivory was left unmolested, and in the morning when I called for porter volunteers to carry it, the entire male population showed up: men, boys, children. Before evening we reached the river landing in safety. The news that I had shot a big bull arrived in town ahead of us. The trader promptly weighed and paid for the ivory in Belgian Congo notes. All that remained was to find porters to take us westward to Penghe, a fortnight’s march westward.–selected and Edited by Ellen Enzler-Herring of Trophy Room Books

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