The Man-Eaters of Tsavo/Chapter 17

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Chapter XVII: An Infuriated Rhino[edit]

My work at Tsavo was finished in March, 1899, when I received instructions to proceed to railhead and take charge of a section of the work there. For many reasons I was sorry to say good-bye to Tsavo, where I had spent an eventful year; but all the same I was very glad to be given this new post, as I knew that there would be a great deal of interesting work to be done and a constant change of camp and scene, as the line progressed onward to the interior. In good spirits, therefore, I set out for my new headquarters on March 28. By this time railhead had reached a place called Machakos Road, some two hundred and seventy-six miles from Mombasa and within a few miles of the great Athi Plains, the latter being treeless and waterless expanses, bare of everything except grass, which the great herds of game keep closely cropped. After leaving Tsavo, the character of the country remains unaltered for some considerable distance, the line continuing to run through the thorny nyika, and it is not until Makindu is reached -- about two hundred miles from the coast -- that a change is apparent. From this place, however, the journey lies through a fairly open and interesting tract of country, where game of all kinds abounds and can be seen grazing peacefully within a few hundred yards of the railway. On the way I was lucky enough to get some fine views of Kilima N'jaro, the whole mountain from base to summit standing out clearly and grandly, with the lofty peak of Kibo topping the fleecy clouds with its snowy head.

At Machakos Road I found the country and the climate very different from that to which I had grown accustomed at Tsavo. Here I could see for miles across stretches of beautiful, open downs, timbered here and there like an English park; and it was a great relief to be able to overlook a wide tract of country and to feel that I was no longer hemmed in on all sides by the interminable and depressing thorny wilderness. As Machakos Road is some four thousand feet higher above the sea level than Tsavo, the difference in temperature was also very marked, and the air felt fresh and cool compared with that of the sun-baked valley in which I had spent the previous year.

My instructions were to hurry on the construction of the line as fast as possible to Nairobi, the proposed headquarters of the Railway Administration, which lay about fifty miles further on across the Athi Plains; and I soon began to find platelaying most interesting work. Everything has to move as if by clockwork. First the earth surface has to be prepared and rendered perfectly smooth and level; cuttings have to be made and hollows banked up; tunnels have to be bored through hills and bridges thrown across rivers. Then a line of coolies moves along, placing sleepers at regular intervals; another gang drops the rails in their places; yet another brings along the keys, fishplates, bolts and nuts while following these are the men who actually fix the rails on the sleepers and link up from one to another. Finally, the packing gang finishes the work by filling in earth and ballast under and around the steel sleepers to give them the necessary grip and rigidity. Some days we were able to lay only a few yards, while on other days we might do over a mile; all depended on the nature of the country we had to cover. On one occasion we succeeded in breaking the record for a day's platelaying, and were gratified at receiving a telegram of congratulation from the Railway Committee at the Foreign Office.

I made it my custom to take a walk each morning for some distance ahead of rails along the centre-line of the railway, in order to spy out the land and to form a rough estimate of the material that would be required in the way of sleepers, girders for temporary bridges, etc. It was necessary to do this in order to avoid undue delay taking place owing to shortage of material of any kind. About ten days after my arrival at Machakos Road I walked in this way for five or six miles ahead of the last-laid rail. It was rather unusual for me to go so far, and, as it happened, I was alone on this occasion, Mahina having been left behind in camp. About two miles away on my left, I noticed a dark-looking object and thinking it was an ostrich I started off towards it. Very soon, however, I found that it was bigger game than an ostrich, and on getting still nearer made out the form of a great rhinoceros lying down. I continued to advance very cautiously, wriggling through the short grass until at length I got within fifty yards of where the huge beast was resting. Here I lay and watched him; but after some little time he evidently suspected my presence, for rising to his feet, he looked straight in my direction and then proceeded to walk round me in a half-circle. The moment he got wind of me, he whipped round in his tracks like a cat and came for me in a bee-line. Hoping to turn him, I fired instantly; but unfortunately my soft-nosed bullets merely annoyed him further, and had not the slightest effect on his thick hide. On seeing this, I flung myself down quite flat on the grass and threw my helmet some ten feet away in the hope that he would perceive it and vent his rage on it instead of me. On he thundered, while I scarcely dared to breathe. I could hear him snorting and rooting up the grass quite close to me, but luckily for me he did not catch sight of me and charged by a few yards to my left.

As soon as he had passed me, my courage began to revive again, and I could not resist the temptation of sending a couple of bullets after him. These, however, simply cracked against his hide and splintered to pieces on it, sending the dry mud off in little clouds of dust. Their only real effect, indeed, was to make him still more angry. He stood stock-still for a moment, and then gored the ground most viciously and started off once more on the semi-circle round me. This proceeding terrified me more than ever, as I felt sure that he would come up-wind at me again, and I could scarcely hope to escape a second time. Unfortunately, my surmise proved correct, for directly he scented me, up went his nose in the air and down he charged like a battering-ram. I fairly pressed myself into the ground, as flat as ever I could, and luckily the grass was a few inches high. I felt the thud of his great feet pounding along, yet dared not move or look up lest he should see me. My heart was thumping like a steam hammer, and every moment I fully expected to find myself tossed into the air. Nearer and nearer came the heavy thudding and I had quite given myself up for lost, when from my lying position I caught sight, out of the corner of my eye, of the infuriated beast rushing by. He had missed me again! I never felt so relieved in my life, and assuredly did not attempt to annoy him further. He went off for good this time, and it was with great satisfaction that I watched him gradually disappear in the distance. I could not have believed it possible that these huge, ungainly-looking brutes could move so rapidly, and turn and twist in their tracks just like monkeys, had I not actually seen this one do so before my eyes. If he had found me he would certainly have pounded me to atoms, as he was an old bull and in a most furious and vicious mood.

One day when Dr. Brock and I were out shooting, shortly after this incident and not far from where it occurred, we caught sight of two rhinos in a hollow some little distance from us, and commenced to stalk them, taking advantage of every fold of the ground in doing so and keeping about fifty yards apart in case of a charge. In that event one or other of us would be able to get in a broadside shot, which would probably roll the beast over. Proceeding carefully in this manner, we managed to get within about sixty yards of them, and as it was my turn for a shot, I took aim at the larger of the two, just as it was moving its great head from one side to the other, wondering which of us it ought to attack. When at last it decided upon Brock, it gave me the chance I had been waiting for. I fired instantly at the hollow between neck and shoulder; the brute dropped at once, and save for one or two convulsive kicks of its stumpy legs as it lay half on its back, it never moved again. The second rhino proved to be a well-grown youngster which showed considerable fight as we attempted to approach its fallen comrade. We did not want to kill it, and accordingly spent about two hours in shouting and throwing stones at it before at last we succeeded in driving it away. We then proceeded to skin our prize; this, as may be imagined, proved rather a tough job, but we managed it in the end, and the trophy was well worth the pains I had taken to add it to my collection.