The Man-Eaters of Tsavo/Chapter 12
Chapter XII: A Night After Hippo
During my stay at Tsavo I made many little excursions into the surrounding country, and used to go off on a short shooting and exploring expedition whenever I had the opportunity. I was especially anxious to bag a hippopotamus, so I made up my mind to try my luck on the banks of the Sabaki. Unfortunately, I possessed no heavy rifle, which is almost a necessity for hippo shooting, but it occurred to me to supply the deficiency by manufacturing a few cartridges for my smoothbore. In these I had double charges of powder and a hardened bullet made of lead mixed with about an eighth part of tin. I well remember the anxiety with which I fired the first round of my home-made ammunition. As I more than half expected that the barrel would burst, I lashed the gun in the fork of a tree, tied a piece of string a hundred feet long to the trigger, and then -- taking shelter behind a friendly stump -- pulled off. To my great satisfaction the barrel stood the test perfectly. More than that, on trying the penetrative effect of my bullets, I found that they would smash through a steel plate an eighth of an inch thick at thirty yards' range. This was quite good enough for my purpose, and gave me great confidence in the weapon. All the same, I had a very narrow escape one day while manufacturing some of this ammunition. My plan was to remove the shot from the cartridge, put in the additional powder, and ram this well in before replacing the wad and putting in the bullet. I had clamped my refilling machine to my rough-hewn table, and was stamping the double charge of powder well down into the cartridge, when suddenly, for some unknown reason, the whole charge exploded right into my face. Everything became pitch dark to me, and I groped my way about the little hut in agony of mind as well as of body, for I thought I had been blinded. I am thankful to say, however, that gleams of light soon began to return to my eyes, and in a few hours' time I was almost all right again and able to go on with my cartridge making.
All my preparations having been made, I set out for the Sabaki, taking with me my Indian gun-bearer Mahina, my cook Mabruki, a bhisti (water-carrier), and a couple of natives to carry our odds and ends. On these occasions I usually took no tent, but bivouacked in the open. We took some bread and a few tinned provisions with us, but I could always depend upon getting a paa, guinea-fowl, partridge or rock-rabbit for the larder on the march. These rock-rabbits are more like big rats than rabbits, and are found in great numbers among the rocks along the banks of the rivers. They are not at all bad eating, but the Swahili will not touch them. They call them tupu (shameless, naked things), owing to their lack of a tail, of which indeed they possess not even a vestige.
Our route lay by the always interesting Tsavo River. Along the banks everything within reach of its moisture is delightfully fresh and green. Palms and other trees, festooned with brilliant flowering creepers, flourish along its course; all kinds of monkeys chatter and jabber in the shade overhead as they swing themselves from branch to branch, while birds of the most gorgeous plumage flutter about, giving a very tropical aspect to the scene. On the other hand, if one is tempted to stray away from the river, be it only for a few yards, one comes immediately into the parched, thorny wilderness of stunted, leafless trees. Here the sun beats down pitilessly, and makes the nyika of the Tsavo valley almost intolerable. The river has its source at the foot of snow-crowned Kilima N'jaro, whence it flows for about eighty miles in a northerly direction until it joins the Athi River, about seven miles below Tsavo Station. From this point the united streams take the name of Sabaki and flow more or less eastwards until they reach the Indian Ocean at Malindi, some seventy miles north of Mombasa.
A narrow and tortuous Masai warpath winds along its whole length, but although we followed this trail our journey was nevertheless a very slow one, owing to the overhanging branches and creepers, from which we had constantly to be disengaged. The march was full of interest, however, for it was not long before we came upon fresh tracks both of hippo and rhino. Every now and again, also, we caught glimpses of startled bush-buck and water-buck, while occasionally the sound of a splash in the water told of a wary crocodile. We had gone about half the distance to the Sabaki when we came upon an unexpected obstacle in the shape of a great ridge of barren, rugged rock, about a hundred feet high, which extended for about a mile or so on both banks of the river. The sides of this gorge went sheer down into the water, and were quite impossible to scale. I therefore determined to make a detour round it, but Mahina was confident that he could walk along in the river itself. I hinted mildly at the possibility of there being crocodiles under the rocky ledges. Mahina declared, however, that there was no danger, and making a bundle of his lower garments, he tied it to his back and stepped into the water. For a few minutes all went well. Then, in an instant, he was lifted right off his feet by the rush of the water and whirled away. The river took a sharp bend in this gorge, and he was round it and out of our sight in no time, the last glimpse we caught of him showing him vainly trying to catch hold of an overhanging branch. Although we at once made all the haste we could to get round the ridge of rocks, it took us nearly half an hour to do it. I had almost given up hope of ever seeing Mahina again, and was much relieved, therefore, when we reached the river-side once more, to find him safe and sound, and little the worse for his adventure. Luckily he had been dashed up against a rushy bank, and had managed to scramble out with no more serious damage than a bruised shin.
Eventually we arrived at the junction of the rivers and proceeded some way down the Sabaki, beside which the Tsavo looks very insignificant. Several islands are dotted about in mid-stream and are overgrown with tall reeds and rushes, in which hippo find capital covert all the year round. As with the Tsavo, the banks of the Sabaki are lined with trees of various kinds, affording most welcome shade from the heat of the sun: and skirting the river is a caravan road from the interior -- still used, I believe, for smuggling slaves and ivory to the coast, where dhows are in readiness to convey them to Persia or Arabia.
After an early dinner, which Mabruki soon got ready, I left my followers encamped in a safe boma a mile away from the river, and started out with Mahina to find a suitable tree, near a hippo "run", in which to spend the night. Having some difficulty in finding a likely spot, we crossed to the other side of the river -- rather a risky thing to do on account of the number of crocodiles in it: we found a fairly shallow ford, however, and managed to get safely over. Here, on what was evidently an island during flood time, we found innumerable traces of both hippo and rhino -- in fact the difficulty was to decide which track was the best and freshest. At length I picked out a tree close to the river and commanding a stretch of sand which was all flattened down and looked as if at least one hippo rolled there regularly every night.
As there was still about an hour before sundown, we did not take up our station at once, but proceeded along the bank to see if any other game was about. We had not gone very far when Mahina, who was a little way ahead, signalled to me, and on joining him I saw a splendid-looking water-buck standing in a shallow pool of the river. It was the first time I had seen one of these fine antelope, and I was delighted with the sight. I might have got twenty yards or so nearer, but I thought I had better not risk moving, so I aimed at the shoulder and fired. The buck gave one leap into the air, and then turned and galloped quickly behind an island which completely hid him from view. We waited for him to clear the rushes at the other end of this island, but as he did not appear I got impatient and plunged into the river, regardless of crocodiles or anything else. On rounding the island, however, he was nowhere to be seen, and had evidently turned off while in the shelter of the reeds and so gained the opposite bank. I was keenly disappointed at my failure, for it was impossible to follow him up: to do so we should have had to make a long detour to get across the river, and by that time darkness would have set in. This incident shows the great drawback to the .303 -- namely, that it has very little knock-down effect unless it strikes a vital part; and even then, in a bush country, an animal may manage to go far enough to be lost. On the other hand, an animal wounded with a hard bullet is likely to make a speedy recovery, which is a great blessing.
Mahina was even more upset at the escape of the buck than I was, and as we trudged back through the sand to our tree, he was full of gloomy forebodings of an unlucky night. By the light of a splendid full moon we settled ourselves on a great outspreading branch, and commenced our vigil. Soon the jungle around us began to be alive with its peculiar sounds -- a night bird would call, a crocodile shut his jaws with a snap, or a rhino or hippo crash through the bushes on its way to the water: now and again we could even hear the distant roar of the lion. Still there was nothing to be seen.
After waiting for some considerable time, a great hippo at last made his appearance and came splashing along in our direction, but unfortunately took up his position behind a tree which, in the most tantalising way, completely hid him from view. Here he stood tooting and snorting and splashing about to his heart's content. For what seemed hours I watched for this ungainly creature to emerge from his covert, but as he seemed determined not to show himself I lost patience and made up my mind to go down after him. I therefore handed my rifle to Mahina to lower to me on reaching the ground, and began to descend carefully, holding on by the creepers which encircled the tree. To my intense vexation and disappointment, just as I was in this helpless condition, half-way to the ground, the great hippo suddenly came out from his shelter and calmly lumbered along right underneath me. I bitterly lamented my ill-luck and want of patience, for I could almost have touched his broad back as he passed. It was under these exasperating conditions that I saw a hippo for the first time, and without doubt he is the ugliest and most forbidding looking brute I have ever beheld.
The moment the great beast had passed our tree, he scented us, snorted loudly, and dived into the bushes close by, smashing through them like a traction engine. In screwing myself round to watch him go, I broke the creepers by which I was holding on and landed on my back in the sand at the foot of the tree -- none the worse for my short drop, but considerably startled at the thought that the hippo might come back at any moment. I climbed up to my perch again without loss of time, but he was evidently as much frightened as I was, and returned no more. Shortly after this we saw two rhino come down to the river to drink; they were too far off for a shot, however, so I did not disturb them, and they gradually waddled up-stream out of sight. Then we heard the awe-inspiring roar of a hungry lion close by, and presently another hippo gave forth his tooting challenge a little way down the river. As there seemed no likelihood of getting a shot at him from our tree, I made up my mind to stalk him on foot, so we both descended from our perch and made our way slowly through the trees in the semi-darkness. There were numbers of animals about, and I am sure that neither of us felt very comfortable as we crept along in the direction of the splashing hippo; for my own part I fancied every moment that I saw in front of me the form of a rhino or a lion ready to charge down upon us out of the shadow of the bush.
In this manner, with nerves strung to the highest pitch, we reached the edge of the river in safety, only to find that we were again baulked by a small rush-covered island, on the other side of which our quarry could be heard. There was a good breeze blowing directly from him, however, so I thought the best thing to do was to attempt to get on to the island and to have a shot at him from there. Mahina, too, was eager for the fray, so we let ourselves quietly into the water, which here was quite shallow and reached only to our knees, and waded slowly across. On peering cautiously through the reeds at the corner of the island, I was surprised to find that I could see nothing of the hippo; but I soon realised that I was looking too far ahead, for on lowering my eyes there he was, not twenty-five yards away, lying down in the shallow water, only half covered and practically facing us. His closeness to us made me rather anxious for our safety, more especially as just then he rose to his feet and gave forth the peculiar challenge or call which we had already heard so often during the night. All the same, as he raised his head, I fired at it. He whirled round, made a plunge forward, staggered and fell, and then lay quite still. To make assurance doubly sure, I gave him a couple more bullets as he lay, but we found afterwards that they were not needed, as my first shot had been a very lucky one and had penetrated the brain. We left him where he fell and got back to our perch, glad and relieved to be in safety once more.
As soon as it was daylight we were joined by my own men and by several Wa Kamba, who had been hunting in the neighbourhood. The natives cut out the tusks of the hippo, which were rather good ones, and feasted ravenously on the flesh, while I turned my attention with gratitude to the hot coffee and cakes which Mabruki had meanwhile prepared.