IN THE TORRID SUDAN An Armchair Safari with Lincoln Tangye

Tangye went to and through the Sudan over 100 years ago. His book was written to present descriptions of sport and travel in widely separated districts amongst varied people, one of which was new in submission to the white man. In this article he gives an example of a few days’ general sport by the river.

The stifling atmosphere as the wind dropped gave little incentive to move, even when the river bank, a few hundred yards away, became teeming with small black moving objects. Guinea fowl in their thousands were flying to the pools for their evening drink. In earlier days one traveled with little thought of comfort. In today’s Sudan a hot bath awaits one’s return and in the place of a skimpy dinner, there is a feast served on a white tablecloth. Use and custom are everything. The only failure in a meal was the bread which the Arab makes as heavy as lead.

Was-Mustapha was a spot much looked toward to by my shikaris, as they were eager, always eager, for meat. Sir Samuel Baker came to mind as he often hunted hippopotamus here. Here we too, hoped to find them between the Rahad and the Dinder. While traveling, a reedbuck, one of the most graceful African antelopes, dashed lightly through the trees and stopping through a fatal curiosity to examine the intruders, paid its debt to nature.

The camels halted far from the river bank and a careful advance was made to the fringe of bush, the luxuriance of which pronounced once more the river, which our shortcut had left to meander through miles of straggling curves. Elephant spoor was, as usual, plentiful and any part of the thick tangled scrub might have held one. Paths, irregular and many-branched, had been trodden into being by mighty feet, rendering our progress easy. Yet they were narrow and the breast high grass concealed all else.

Far below a careful glance revealed a still deep pool, so large that neither end was visible and stretching from bank to bank. Crocodiles lay stone still on a sandy pit upstream. No ripple showed upon the water, no movement stirred the air. Yet, as is so often the case, this tranquility hid the whirlwind. In reality the void was full.

One feels virtue in killing a crocodile as an enemy of all creation. And with the wish to atone for the killing of an inoffensive antelope I moved gently forward to gain a position of advantage. What was the streak of ruddy light that burst noiselessly from the shade and concentrated quivery in the path ahead? Crouched on the ground, tensely gathering its limbs beneath it, gripping the soil in anticipation of its spring, a leopard faced me 50 feet away. Into such a small space did he bestow his body that little but his head was visible and an advance of a few yards was made before I knelt and fired. The leopard shrank once again and was off before I could align my second barrel. This magnificent beauty turned in a flash and leapt over the bordering grass, showing for a moment, broadside, all the rich coloring of his coat.

In such times it is well to have a familiar shikari to assure you that it was not your fault and that likely a twig turned the bullet. It could not be expected that Mr. Crocodile would remain undisturbed by so unhallowed an interruption of his siesta and his menacing snout was all that showed as he momentarily rose to investigate. So a shady bush was sought and an hour passed while the sun rose higher and higher. I watched the large numbers and varieties of birds navigate around the freshly burned ground on the far side. In the midst of my lazy reveries, a breathing, bubbling sound burst oddly on my hearing. The water stirred and a huge black head rose from the depths of the pool beneath. Cumbrously it turned and opened its jaws in a vast phlegmatic yawn. Others became visible around it and the hippo herd we had almost mourned as absent was before our eyes.

It is poor sport to shoot the beasts in water from the bank. That can only be justified by the desire for a specimen head, by their ravages of native crops, or by an imperative need for meat for natives. Certainly an old bull is by no means an antagonist. He will charge determinedly if he sees the opportunity and is a desperate enemy to the small boats or canoes which purposely or accidentally approach too near. But civilization is against him. The heavy rifle has robbed him of his chances and he is disappearing in the trackless wastes of the marsh country and the more remote rivers.

The head of a hippo is not quite the easy mark it appears to be. As a rule it is sunk low in the water, nostrils just above the surface, and the brain box rises only three or four inches higher. At 100 yards it is therefore necessary to be absolutely accurate for a bullet through any part but the brain would only annoy him and cause a hasty retreat below the surface from whence he would return for an occasional breath and a momentary glance to ascertain the position of his adversaries before diving into safety again.

My bullet found its way right up the snout and the hippo rolled about on the surface, mortally wounded, until a second shot pierced his brain, and he sank like a stone on the further side. The midday trudge three hours later over the hampering sand of the dry river bed rounding the far end of the pool, the stifling heat radiated by the dry river grass which met well above our heads as we passed single file along tracks made by wild animals, must be experienced to be appreciated. Happy is the black man whose pigmented skin protects him partially from the effects of light and heat rays.

Forty yards away from the foot of the steep riverbank floated the great carcass, strangely, little visible. To leave it longer would be to let it become the prey of swarming crocodiles whom my Arab friends prepared to dare. I took the caution of firing a few shots into the water to scare the reptiles and with much shouting and splashing Fadl el Mullah swam out with a rope, a second man following. The society of the TIMSAGH, as my men named the crocodiles, appeared to be an occasion of hilarious amusement. Laughter and jests filled the air as the body rolled over on their mounting it.

Far away in the south, in the “sudd” districts of the Mountain Nile, the river sluggishly flows through interminable deserts of papyrus swamp. But where I shot the hippo the river opens up into wide lagoons. I noted the indifference of the Sudanese to the presence of crocodiles and their cool behavior under dangerous circumstances. (One time when after a wounded hippo, a man jumped overboard with a rope and actually climbed on the animal to cast a noose over its head. Eventually, after much dodging and struggle, he succeeded.) Willing hands helped the man pull my hippo ashore and towed him a mile along the steep, shelving bank, and across the far end of the pool to our camp.

Up the bank, we on the other hand, returned for the purpose of diving through the long grass we had passed through and to search the country for other game. But the sight that met the eye was surprising. In the interval that we had been gone, the landscape had undergone a theatrical quick change. For hundreds of acres, save for a belt through which we had passed when coming, in place of the rank hay colored grass half smothering the scented olive trees, the ground was bare and black, smoldering and smoking, with little clouds slowly rising from still live patches of fire. At the sides and extremities of the area, still extending to the river bank the vermillion flames leapt 30 feet into the air, running up the trees and devouring the dry creeping plants which enswathed them. For the time being, we were cut off from retreat and nothing remained but to wait, sheltering from the heat and to spend time watching other hippos carefully rise to take stock of us. The birds wheeled excitedly through the smoke clouds.

At one spot the flames died down but in another instant they might burst out again and rage even more fiercely. However we sprang over the line of fire into the opening of a game track and walked fast through the grass. But on turning a sharp corner – HALT! Five yards away, the rest of the body hidden in the brush and grass and quite invisible, were part of the hindquarters of a huge, uncouth recumbent animal, black skinned and sparsely covered with short hair. A bull buffalo was resting in the middle of the day and had passed along this track before us. No vital spot was visible, no approach from elsewhere showed itself. The cane-like grass stems gave scarce elbow room on either side. With the fire behind us, it was backward or forward, with only a second respite for choice of plans. I quickly retreated a few yards to a fork in the track, the men setting fire to the grass, having no choice but to leave the buffalo leeward as we went.

The ground was clear outside and from a convenient point I awaited with my .303 the onrush of the flames and of a furious bull, left only 40 yards away. The flames marched forward. And drowned by their roaring crackle, one could hear no rustle of the grass. The patch was burnt out and from our sad eye the big black brute had vanished. I had trusted to the smoke from the fire of the grass masking our scent as we skirted around him, but he doubtless knew perfectly well each detail of our movements. A buffalo’s sense of smell is developed to an extraordinary extent and combined with great cunning and savageness, probably justifies him in being classified as one of the most dangerous of the world’s big game.

Eventually we met up with the men and our dead hippo. Cutting him up occupied the remaining hours of the day. It was marvelous to watch how quickly the men could cut through the tough skin, and inch and a quarter thick, and cut it into strips to make a kurbash, or whip. I instructed the men to cut the head from the body for the purpose of preservation. So, in the characteristic native way of doing things backwards, they proceeded to cut the body off from the head by the simple means of dismantling the head from the carcass and leaving the head until last.

In any event, little of that hippopotamus was left for the crocodiles, hyenas or leopards. Indeed the utilization of nearly all parts, internal economy included, was an example of fastidious European taste. Strip by strip was cut away from the huge joints and hung on improvised rails well above the reach of four-footed marauders, to dry into biltong which would serve my camp followers for weeks to come in their villages far away. By even the next day the presence of biltong was impressive but the Arab in these matters has no nose. Neither camel nor semi-putrefaction exist for him.

Many are the long walks undertaken, yielding all the incidents, or lack of them, which come to the fortune of a hunter. The sikhari stops in his tracks and examines the ground, which may contain little, if any, meaning to an untrained eye. A whispered debate ensues and while beaters make for one end of a narrow island in a dry river bed, I make downwind to the other and to wait for more flames to drive out the buffalo whose tracks evidence his very recent presence and probably hiding place. Alas the notes of most hunters probably contain more records of game which they did not successfully stalk than of that brought back to camp. In all sport the same story is told. At the end of the season one feels that after all, blanks and disappointments go to make keener the pleasurable recollection of rewards hard earned. So, if the buffalo did not appear, there was the joy of marking the clean leap of the reedbuck or oribi, the careful stroll of the waterbuck feeding on the edges of the swamps or possibly the new spoor of an elephant on the grassland burned yesterday.

The hippo also deserted their pool that night. Their tracks were plainly visible in the black cotton soil and were lost in harder ground farther in the bush. Silently the lumbering animals had departed. The night yielded no sound to us as we rested and they had marched into some remembered spot where man was less likely to harass.–Selected and edited by Ellen Enzler Herring of Trophy Room Books

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