Armchair Safari: Claws Of Africa

The safari with the ladies completed, I next took out two men on a general big-game hunting expedition. These were two elderly, very wealthy, pleasant-natured Americans who were old friends and had come to equatorial Africa on big-game hunting trips many times before.

There was a happening on this safari, however, that was unlike any they had previously experienced. It began with a bet, made as we drank an early cup of tea before leaving camp one morning to look for rhino. Having two clients who were each keen on actual hunting, I employed an assistant white hunter who took charge of one client, while I took care of the other. On this particular morning, the assistant white hunter and his client were going off in one direction on a hunt for the rhino, the other client and myself, going in the other direction.

As he sipped his tea in the grey-blue light of the very early dawn, one of the clients looked across to this friend and said, “Just to make in interesting, Sam, what say to a little bet about it?”

Sam emptied his cup and filled it again. “This big-game hunting life is pretty interesting as it is, I reckon.” “What is the bet to be about, Ned?”

“A thousand dollars that Courtney and I get a rhino before you and your hunter. First back to the camp with his rhino trophy wins the money. What say?”

Sam nodded, “It’s a bet,” he said, and the two men shook hands on it.

Five minutes later, Sam and the assistant hunter, along with their gun bearers, were in their motor truck and away. I started up the other truck and my client and I climbed up on to the front seat, and the gun bearers, as well as Gabriel, who came along as a kind of general handyman, got in the back.

“Half that thousand dollars is yours if we win this bet,” said my client as we started off.

I had not needed any offer to make me do my best to see that my client won. I had entered into the spirit of the thing just as keenly as the two rivals, but just the same it was nice to know that I had a chance at getting that money. (I wanted to get off to the Northern Frontier on that strange quest of mine as soon as I could, and that extra money would be very useful.)

For a couple of miles or so, we drove steadily on, with the growing light bringing out the bush in all its soft color. Now and then, there was a clattering of hooves as a herd of zebra galloped along, and sometimes impala and wildebeest stopped and looked at us and then went scampering off. There was also a high whistling of birds. A certain lovely aromatic scent, which I think belongs to early morning in the African bush alone, was everywhere. From various indications I knew that the day was going to be blazingly hot, but those early morning hours were nonetheless exquisite and tender.

Then, as we topped a little rise, there came quietly from one of the gun bearers, the Swahili word for rhino. I looked round to see him pointing down the slope to one side. I stopped the car, and rifles in hand, we got out.

“Down there,” said the gun bearer, and following the direction of his finger I saw that a rhino was in the wallow at the foot of the slope. The wallow was a shallowish hole, only a little longer and wider than the rhino himself, a filthy place of thick slime and mud, and the rhino was rolling himself in it.

My client grinned. “Those thousand dollars aren’t going to be hard to win by the look of things,” he said. “Our luck is in.”

He stepped back to the truck and got out a camera, which he always took with him on expeditions. “I’d like to get a photo of him first, Courtney, if you don’t mind. It’s not often one gets a chance of a photo of a rhino in his wallow.”

We went off quietly through the grass down the slope. Farther on were numbers of bushes and trees, but here the ground was mostly open. Rhino are short-sighted creatures however, and the wind being wrong for him, he had not scented us. It seemed that we should have little difficulty in getting close enough for the taking of a good photo. My client unslung his camera and carried it ready for action.

On down the slope we went, all of us walking quietly, careful not to rustle the grass more than could be helped. So close were we approaching that the grunting and blowing of the rhino as he rolled in the wallow came clearly to our ears. I could even see that the mud and filth of which the wallow was comprised has a reddish color, the color of the earth around it.

For another five yards we went on thus and came from the gun bearers the single word simba, lion. I had seen him at the same moment. He was a big lion, right ahead of us, crouched in the grass near one of the few patches of bush in the immediate vicinity. I think he was almost as surprised to see us as we were to see him.

We stopped dead. This was something we hadn’t bargained for. I didn’t want to shoot him: apart from the circumstance that killing without a specific and sufficient purpose went very much against the grain, there was the fact that the sound of the shot would startle the rhino and send him clambering up and out of the wallow and away.

Instead we tried quietly to drive the lion off, throwing bits of stick and pebble at him. The result, however, was only to tease him. He snarled, showed his teeth, crouched lower still, and began swishing his tail to and fro. The next moment he came charging across the grass. I was at the head of the party and his charge was full at me. I lifted my rifle. The lion’s speed was terrific. My gun bearer came running up behind me, his rifle at the ready in case I should miss. But I did not miss. The range was short and my shot took him fairly and squarely and bowled him over. I had not been in any real danger, but at the sound of the rifle the rhino looked up out of his filth-bath, snorted and blew terrifically and in an instant was out and away.

“We didn’t win the bet with that rhino,” said my client, adding cheerfully, “All the same, we’ve got something out of the episode, a photo of that lion charging you, Courtney. I’m right glad that I had the presence of mind to snap the camera as he came. There can’t be many photos of a lion charging a man. I mean real-life ones, like this, not cinema fakes and bunk.”

We put the dead lion on the truck and resumed the journey. Some three or four miles farther on I spotted some rhino sign and stopped the truck, got down, and rifle in hand, with the gun bearers and Gabriel right behind us, we followed the tracks. It was not very long before we sighted our quarry — two bull rhino in a little open space near a rhino wallow. One of the rhino had just come out of the wallow, for the muddy filth of which it was composed was still all over him. One was a large creature, with great horns, and the other a somewhat smaller and younger animal.

We wanted only one of the animals and decided it should be the bigger one. My client, who was quite skilled with a rifle, took aim and fired. The great animal came down with a kind of slithering crash, stone dead, the shot having taken him in the heart, and we started to go over to him.

But, a complication had arisen. After a startled look round and about as the shot sounded and his companion crashed to the ground, the younger rhino snorted, glared, lumbered over to his mate, and took up a position as if to guard him. There he stood, looking with his short-sighted eyes this way and that, ready to do battle with all and sundry who came near. Sometimes he raised his head a little and savagely sniffed the air, trying to catch our scent. His small eye glared redder and redder. Yet it was not altogether that he was savagely maintaining a guard. There was also about him an air of stupidity, and bewilderment as to what it was all about.

Our task was to get him away from the body of the dead animal. We didn’t want to shoot him. We had one rhino and that was enough. I decided to draw, or coax, him away from the body, something I had done successfully on similar occasions. As my client was elderly, and in the job we had at hand there would be a lot of running about, I told him to get up a tree to be out of harm’s way. The trees were easy to climb, and my client was soon perched safely in the branches.

Then, with the gun bearers standing a sort of general guard, I called Gabriel to me and together we set out to draw the rhino away. It was a curious business. It consisted of throwing sticks and small stones at him to attract his attention, and when he came lumbering towards us, we slipped behind trees and bushes and dodged him. So long as we kept nimbly on the move there was nothing very dangerous in it. The fact that the rhino was young lessened the risk still further. He had little of the cunning and true ferocity of the older animal. Our dodging him from bush to bush and the rhino in his short-sighted, heavy way, lumbering after us was much like a game of hide and seek as anything else.

From his place in the tree, my client laughed and cheered us on. He said that we looked awfully funny dodging the rhino like that, particularly Gabriel. He said he didn’t know when he had laughed so much.

But, our tactics were proving quite successful. Already the rhino had been drawn away from the body of his companion and I saw that he would soon tire of the whole business and go lumbering off altogether.

Then suddenly the whole affair took on a new aspect. Dodging the rhino once more, Gabriel and I slipped round a thick bush that didn’t seem to be different from any of the others, until in our slipping we brushed against and shook it. We knew instantly that we would have been far safer out in the open, with the rhino coming full tilt at us. We might have been able to dodge the rhino but we couldn’t dodge what was in this bush. It was full of African bees, of which there are none fiercer and more dangerous. With a hissing hum, they swarmed up and down on us in their millions. It was a desperate moment —stings to our cheeks, necks, ears and hands. I had a feeling of blind panic, Gabriel likewise. Looking round I saw that we were near the rhino’s wallow. It offered at least some protection. Gabriel saw it at the same time and together we flung ourselves into it. The thing was so shallow that our heads and shoulders were still exposed. To better protect our heads, Gabriel and I reached down to the filth of the wallow and brought up great armfuls of fibrous matter and mud and plastered the lot over our heads and faces, leaving only a tiny place through which to breathe.

It was dreadful to bring into contact with the human body, but this was no time for niceties. The bees continued to whirl over our heads. So great was their mass that they cast a shadow on the reddish stuff in which we sat. But it was better to be protected because the earlier stings were already aflame. There we sat. The smell was tremendous, and I found it hard not to be sick. I felt nasty slimy things crawling around my ears and in my hair.

Then suddenly it seemed that some new danger threatened us. From the direction of where we had left the vehicle came a tremendous cry. I could only make out that the voice was my client’s. I thought he might be warning us that the rhino had returned and was making for the wallow. I went into a dither at the thought, and so did Gabriel. Then we realized that the bees had left us as suddenly as they came on. But it was one of those times when disgust is too great for words.

There was no sign of the rhino and retrieving my rifle and hat from the foot of the bush where the bees had attacked us, we made our way slowly back to where we had left my client and the gun bearers. I say slow because we were encumbered with the weight of the mud and stuff. In the heat of the day, it was already drying on our clothes making our movements all the difficult. The distance to my client was only 100 yards, but encumbered as we were, it was quite a long journey. We returned to my client to find that his cries were because he was picking tree ants off his body. He had come down from the tree, torn his clothes off and those were his cries we heard from the wallow. My normally even-tempered client was now in a bad way. Descriptions of things like this often sound humorous, but the actual happening is not in the least bit funny. And none of us were in the mood for laughing.

At length, the last of the ants were found, my client put his clothes back on, and we went over to the dead rhino. With the aid of the boys, we took his horns, feet and bits of skin. I brought up the truck and put the trophies on board.

“Well, that’s that,” said my client as we set off in the drive back to camp. “Getting the darn rhino certainly ran us into some difficulties. But I reckon we have not been very long about it and have a good chance of being first back at camp and winning that thousand dollars.” But I wasn’t very interested in the dollars just then. My desire was to get back to camp, slip into a stream and wash the filth away. Most of the mud was dry and that made almost every movement very painful. It constricted or contracted with every movement of my arms or legs, and my head felt like I had to gasp for each breath. Then, too, there was the smell.

We reached camp safely in due course, and my client gave a shout of triumph as he saw that there was no sign for the rival hunting party. “We’re first back,” he cried. “We’ve done it. We had a bit of trouble but it was worth it. Won’t Sam be mad?” I didn’t care whether or not Sam would be mad. Gabriel and I got out of the truck and ran to the stream as fast as our stiff limbs would allow. As the water streamed over us, my skin turned white and Gabriel’s black. After cleansing, there was a period of treating the bee stings, from which our faces were covered and swelling. Then, dressed in clean clothes, I sat down to a meal with my client. The morning’s work had netted me 500 dollars, about 100 pounds. But there was still no sign of the other client and his hunter, and as the morning wore on, I began to feel a bit anxious. When it turned 1 p.m. I began to wonder if something had happened, and after one hour more, I decided to go in search of them. With my client and one or two boys, I boarded the truck and set out. The ground was dry and dusty and at first it was easy enough to pick up their wheel tracks and follow them.

For some time we followed them thus. The day was hot — the sun was one blazing mass of fire and the whole country was a-shimmer with heat. I wondered how they were getting on as regarded water. In this part of the country, streams were scarce and by now the water in the water bottles would be finished. I drove as fast as possible, consistent with staying on the tracks. We came to a spot where we thought they had stopped, but apparently it was only a short stop — maybe they had started following a rhino track on foot. But then we found marks where they had come back, and those of the truck turning farther on.

Author Roger Courtney

From there the ground became harder and tracking meant that I had to slow to half my previous speed. Sometimes I had to get out of the truck to make sure of their tracks. And sometimes the ground became so hard that we lost their track altogether. It was only when I was about to turn around that I made them out in the ground just in front. Then at last, the people we sought showed ahead before us. They were on foot, a dusty straggle of tired men, the assistant hunter in front, his client behind him, and then two gun bearers. On sighting us, they sat down in the bush and waited for us to come up. Almost before we stopped, they were around the truck reaching for water bottles. After a good drink they were well enough again.

Sam asked whether Ned got a rhino, and Ned replied that he did and that the horns and feet were back at camp. Then Sam said, “But we’ve got a rhino too, and that right early. I reckon you might not have won the bet so easily if the rhino we got hadn’t also got us.”

As the boys chatted with each other, the assistant hunter told us what had happened. They had spotted a rhino on the path, got out, stalked and the client fired a shot. They followed his wounded rhino, which had crashed off into the bush. They followed, and found that until the bullet had taken effect, the rhino had circled around, came back across the truck. At first it had butted the radiator, putting his great horn clear through the radiator, ruining it entirely. With its ruined radiator the truck would have seized up within the first mile. That was why they were walking home.

The men got Sam’s rhino’s horns and feet and put it in the truck before they headed home. “That rhino cost me a thousand dollars,” said Sam. “It isn’t often that we get a trophy as costly as that.”

They all got in and we drove to where the damaged truck stood, and then towed it back to camp. It may be that Sam’s trophy was the most costly he ever had, but I often had a hundred pounds that I earned with far less discomfort.–Selected and Edited by Ellen Enzler-Herring of Trophy Room Books

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