The Man-Eaters of Tsavo/Chapter 18

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Chapter XVIII: Lions on the Athi Plains[edit]

Shortly after I took charge at railhead we entered the Kapiti Plain, which gradually merges into the Athi Plain, and, indeed, is hardly to be distinguished from the latter in the appearance or general character of the country. Together they form a great tract of rolling downs covered with grass, and intersected here and there by dry ravines, along the baked banks of which a few stunted trees -- the only ones to be seen -- struggle to keep themselves alive. In all this expanse there is absolutely no water in the dry season, except in the Athi River (some forty miles away) and in a few water-holes known only to the wild animals. The great feature of the undulating plains, however, and the one which gives them a never-failing interest, is the great abundance of game of almost every conceivable kind. Here I myself have seen lion, rhinoceros, leopard, eland, giraffe, zebra, wildebeeste, hartebeeste, waterbuck, wart-hog, Granti, Thomsoni, impala, besides ostriches, greater and lesser bustard, marabout, and a host of other animals and birds too numerous to name; while along the Athi and close to its banks may be found large numbers of hippo and crocodiles. At the time I was there, these great plains also formed the principal grazing ground for the immense herds of cattle owned by the Masai. I am very glad to say that the whole of this country on the south side of the railway as far as the boundary of German East Africa, from the Tsavo River on the east to the Kedong Valley on the west, is now a strictly protected Game Reserve; and so long, as this huge expanse is thus maintained as a sanctuary, there can be no danger of any of these species becoming extinct.

While crossing this dry expanse, the greatest difficulty I had to contend with was the provision of sufficient water for the three thousand workmen employed about railhead, for not a drop could be obtained on the way, nor could we hope for any until we had got to the other side of the plain and had reached the Athi River, which could not be accomplished under a couple of months. As we progressed onwards into the waterless belt, this became a very serious matter indeed, as any breakdown in the supply would have had the most disastrous consequences among so large a body of men working all day under the blazing sun of a tropical climate. Every day two trainloads of water in great tanks were brought up from the last stream we had passed, which, of course, daily fell further to the rear. This was a source of considerable delay, for the line was blocked all the time the water was being pumped into the tanks, and consequently no material for construction could come through; and a good deal of time was also wasted, when the trains returned to railhead, in distributing the water to the workmen, who often quarrelled and fought in their eagerness to get at it. At first I had most of the tank-filling done by night, but on one occasion a lion came unpleasantly close to the men working the pump, and so night work had to be abandoned. The coolies themselves were so anxious, indeed, to get a plentiful supply of water, that once or twice some of the more daring spirits among them ventured to go out on to the plains in search of waterholes, which, by reason of the large herds of game, we knew must exist somewhere. The only result of these expeditions, however, was that three of these men never returned; what befell them is not known to this day.

When we had proceeded some distance across this dry land, and when I was experiencing to the full the disadvantage and delay caused by my tank trains, a native from some remote corner of the plains -- with nothing by way of dress but a small piece of cowhide thrown over his left shoulder -- came to my tent door one day and squatted down on his heels in the native fashion. On being asked his business, "I have heard," he replied, "that the Great Master wants water; I can show it to him." This was good news, if it could be relied upon; so I questioned him closely, and ascertained that some time previously -- exactly how long ago I could not gather -- he had been in the locality on a raiding expedition and had succeeded in finding water. I asked if the place was far away, and got the reply in Swahili "M'bali kidogo" (" A little distance "). Now, I had had experience of M'bali kidogo before; it is like the Irishman's "mile and a bit." So I decided to start very early next morning on a search for this pond -- for such my informant described it to be. In the meantime the poor fellow, who appeared starving -- there was a sore famine among the natives of the district at the time -- was given food and drink, and made a ravenous meal. In the evening I had a long talk with him in broken Swahili round the camp fire, and obtained some insight into many of the strange and barbarous customs of the Masai, to which interesting tribe he belonged.

In the morning I started off betimes, taking my .303 rifle and being accompanied by Mahina with the 12-bore shot-gun, and by another Indian carrying the necessary food and water. Our Masai guide, whose name we found to be Lungow, seemed to be quite certain of his way, and led us across the rolling plains more or less in the direction in which the railway was to run, but some miles to the right of its centre-line. The march was full of interest, for on the way we passed within easy range of herds of wildebeeste, hartebeeste, gazelle, and zebra. I was out strictly on business, however, and did not attempt a shot, reserving that pleasure for the homeward trip. Late in the forenoon we arrived at Lungow's pond -- a circular dip about eighty yards in diameter, which without doubt had contained water very recently, but which, as I expected to find, was now quite dry. A considerable number of bones lay scattered round it, whether of "kills" or of animals which had died of thirst I could not say. Our guide appeared very much upset when he found the pond empty, and gave vent to many exclamations in his peculiar language, in which the letter "r" rolled like a kettledrum.

Our search for water having thus proved a failure, I determined to try my luck with the game. The Masai and the Indian were sent back to camp, while Mahina and I made a big detour from the dried-up water-hole. Game abounded in all directions, but the animals were much more shy than they had been in the morning, and it was in vain that I stalked -- if it can be called "stalking," when as a matter of fact one has to move in the open -- splendid specimens of Thomson's and Grant's gazelle. I might have attempted a shot once or twice, but the probability was that owing to the long range it would have resulted only in a wound, and I think there is nothing so painful as to see an animal limping about in a crippled condition. In this fruitless manner we covered several miles, and I was beginning to think that we should have to return to camp without so much as firing a shot. Just then, however, I saw a herd of wildebeeste, and with much care managed to get within three hundred yards of them. I singled out the biggest head and waiting for a favourable moment, fired at him, dropping him at once. I ran up to the fallen beast, which appeared to be dying, and told Mahina to drive the hunting knife right through his heart so as to put him quickly out of all pain. As Mahina was not doing this as skilfully or as quickly as I thought it might be done, and seemed unable to pierce the tough hide, I handed him my rifle and took the knife in order to do it myself. Just as I raised the knife to strike, I was startled by the wildebeeste suddenly jumping to his feet. For a moment he stood looking at me in a dazed and tottery kind of way, and then to my amazement he turned and made off. At first he moved with such a shaky and uncertain gait that I felt confident that he could only go a few yards before dropping; so, as I did not wish to disturb the other game around us by firing a second shot, I thought it best just to wait. To my utter astonishment, however, after he had staggered for about sixty yards he seemed to revive suddenly, broke into his ordinary gallop and quickly rejoined the herd. From that time I lost all trace of him, though I followed up for four or five miles.

The wildebeeste, in fact, is like Kipling's Fuzzy-Wuzzy -- "'e's generally shammin' when 'e's dead"; and my friend Rawson about this time had an experience very similar to mine, but attended with more serious results. He had knocked his wildebeeste over in much the same way, and thought it was dead; and as he was very keen on obtaining photographs of game, he took his stand-camera from the Indian who carried it and proceeded to focus it on the animal's head. When he was just about to take the picture, he was thunderstruck to see the wildebeeste jump up and come charging down upon him. He sprang quickly aside, and in an instant up went the camera into the air, followed the next moment by the unfortunate Indian, the wildebeeste having stuck its horn right through the man's thigh and tossed him over its back. Fortunately the brute fell dead after this final effort, leaving Rawson grateful for his escape.

After abandoning the chase of my wildebeeste, we had not gone far on our way towards the home camp when I thought I observed something of a reddish colour moving in a patch of long grass, a good distance to our left front. I asked Mahina if he could make out what it was, but he was unable to do so, and before I could get my field-glasses to bear, the animal, whatever it was, had disappeared into the grass. I kept my eye on the spot, however, and we gradually approached it. When we were about a hundred yards off, the reddish object again appeared; and I saw that it was nothing less than the shaggy head of a lion peeping over the long grass. This time Mahina also saw what it was, and called out, "Dekko, Sahib, sher!" ("Look, Master, a lion!"). I whispered to him to be quiet and to take no notice of him, while I tried my best to follow my own advice. So we kept on, edging up towards the beast, but apparently oblivious of his presence, as he lay there grimly watching us. As we drew nearer, I asked Mahina in a whisper if he felt equal to facing a charge from the sher if I should wound him. He answered simply that where I went, there would he go also; and right well he kept his word.

I watched the lion carefully out of the corner of my eye as we closed in. Every now and then he would disappear from view for a moment; and it was a fascinating sight to see how he slowly raised his massive head above the top of the grass again and gazed calmly and steadily at us as we neared him. Unfortunately I could not distinguish the outline of his body, hidden as it was in the grassy thicket. I therefore circled cautiously round in order to see if the cover was sufficiently thin at the back to make a shoulder shot possible; but as we moved, the lion also twisted round and so always kept his head full on us. When I had described a half-circle, I found that the grass was no thinner and that my chances of a shot had not improved. We were now within seventy yards of the lion, who appeared to take the greater interest in us the closer we approached. He had lost the sleepy look with which he had at first regarded us, and was now fully on the alert; but still he did not give me the impression that he meant to charge, and no doubt if we had not provoked him, he would have allowed us to depart in peace. I, however, was bent on war, in spite of the risk which one must always run by attacking a lion at such close quarters on an open plain as flat as the palm of the hand; so in a standing position I took careful aim at his head, and fired. The distance was, as I have said, a bare seventy yards; yet I must confess to a disgraceful miss. More astonishing still, the beast made not the slightest movement -- did not even blink an eye, so far as I could see -- but continued his steadfast, questioning gaze. Again I took aim, this time for a spot below the tip of his nose, and again I fired -- with more success, the lion turning a complete somersault over his tail. I thought he was done for, but he instantly sprang to his feet again, and to my horror and astonishment was joined by a lioness whose presence we had never even thought of or suspected.

Worse was still to follow, for to our dismay both made a most determined charge on us, bounding along at a great pace and roaring angrily as they came. Poor Mahina cried out, "Sahib, do sher ata hai!" ("Master, two lions are coming!"), but I told him to stand stock-still and for his life not to make the slightest movement. In the twinkling of an eye the two beasts had covered about forty yards of the distance towards us. As they did not show the least sign of stopping, I thought we had given the experiment of remaining absolutely motionless a fair trial, and was just about to raise the rifle to my shoulder as a last resort, when suddenly the wounded lion stopped, staggered, and fell to the ground. The lioness took a couple of bounds nearer to us, and then to my unmeasured relief turned to look round for her mate, who had by this time managed to get to his feet again. There they both stood, growling viciously and lashing their tails, for what appeared to me to be a succession of ages. The lioness then made up her mind to go back to the lion, and they both stood broadside on, with their heads close together and turned towards us, snarling in a most aggressive manner. Had either of us moved hand or foot just then, it would, I am convinced, have at once brought on another and probably a fatal charge.

As the two great brutes stood in this position looking at us, I had, of course, a grand opportunity of dropping both, but I confess I did not feel equal to it at the moment. I could only devoutly hope that they would not renew their attack, and was only too thankful to let them depart in peace if they would, without any further hostility on my part. Just at this juncture the lion seemed to grow suddenly very weak. He staggered some ten yards back towards his lair, and then fell to the ground; the lioness followed, and lay down beside him -- both still watching us, and growling savagely. After a few seconds the lion struggled to his feet again and retreated a little further, the lioness accompanying him until he fell once more. A third time the same thing took place, and at last I began to breathe more freely, as they had now reached the thicket from which they had originally emerged. Accordingly I took a shot at the lioness as she lay beside her mate, partly concealed in the long grass. I do not think I hit her, but anyhow she at once made off and bounded away at a great rate on emerging into the open.

I sent a few bullets after her to speed her on her way, and then cautiously approached the wounded lion. He was stretched out at full length on his side, with his back towards me, but I could see by the heaving of his flanks that he was not yet dead, so I put a bullet through his spine. He never moved after this; but for safety's sake, I made no attempt to go up to him for a few minutes, and then only after Mahina had planted a few stones on his body just to make sure that he was really dead.

We both felt very pleased with ourselves as we stood over him and looked at his fine head, great paws, and long, clean, sharp tusks. He was a young, but full-grown lion in fine condition, and measured nine feet eight and a half inches from tip of nose to tip of tail. My last shot had entered the spine close to the shoulder, and had lodged in the body; the first shot was a miss; as I have already said; but the second had caught him on the forehead, right between the eyes. The bullet, however, instead of traversing the brain, had been turned downwards by the frontal bone, through which it crashed, finally lodging in the root of the tongue, the lead showing on both sides. I cut out the tongue and hung it up to dry, intending to keep it as a trophy; but unfortunately a vulture swooped down when my back was turned, and carried it off.

From the time I knocked the lion over until he first staggered and fell not more than a minute could have elapsed -- quite long enough, however, to have enabled him to cover the distance and to have seized one or other of us. Unquestionably we owed our lives to the fact that we both remained absolutely motionless; and I cannot speak too highly of Mahina for the splendid way in which he stood the charge. Had he acted as did another gun-boy I know of, the affair might not have had so happy an ending. This gun-boy went out with Captain G---- in this very neighbourhood, and not long after our adventure. G---- came across a lion just as we did, and wounded it. It charged down on them, but instead of remaining absolutely still, the terrified gun-boy fled, with the result that the lion came furiously on, and poor G---- met with a terrible death.

While Mahina was scouring the neighbourhood in search of some natives to carry the skin back to camp, I took a good look round the place and found the half-eaten body of a zebra, which I noticed had been killed out in the open and then dragged into the long grass. The tracks told me, also, that all the work had been done by the lion, and this set me thinking of the lioness. I accordingly swept the plain with my glasses in the direction in which she had bounded off, and after some searching I discovered her about a mile away, apparently lying down in the midst of a herd of hartebeeste, who grazed away without taking any notice of her. I felt much inclined to follow her up, but I was afraid that if I did so the vultures that were already hovering around would settle on my lion and spoil the skin, for the destruction of which these ravenous birds are capable, even in the space of only a few minutes, is almost beyond belief. I accordingly returned to the dead beast and sat down astride of him. I had read that a frontal shot at a lion was a very risky one, and on carefully examining the head it was easy to see the reason; for owing to the sharp backward slope of the forehead it is almost impossible for a bullet fired in this manner to reach the brain. As there were lots of lions about in this district and as I wanted to bag some more, I set myself to think out a plan whereby the risk of a frontal shot might be got rid of. About a fortnight afterwards I had an opportunity of putting my scheme into practice, happily with most excellent results; this, however, is another story, which will be told later on.

I next commenced to skin my trophy and found it a very tough job to perform by myself. He proved to be a very fat beast, so I knew that Mahina would make a few honest and well-earned rupees out of him, for Indians will give almost anything for lion fat, believing that it is an infallible cure for rheumatism and various other diseases. When at length the skinning process was completed, I waited impatiently for the return of Mahina, who had by this time been gone much longer than I expected. It is rather a nerve shattering thing -- I am speaking for myself -- to remain absolutely alone for hours on a vast open plain beside the carcase of a dead lion, with vultures incessantly wheeling about above one, and with nothing to be seen or heard for miles around except wild animals. It was a great relief, therefore, when after a long wait I saw Mahina approaching with half-a-dozen practically naked natives in his train. It turned out that he had lost his way back to me, so that it was lucky he found me at all. We lost no time in getting back to camp, arriving there just at sundown, when my first business was to rub wood ashes into the skin and then stretch it on a portable frame which I had made a few days previously. The camp fire was a big one that night, and the graphic and highly coloured description which Mahina gave to the eager circle of listeners of the way in which we slew the lion would have made even "Bahram, that great Hunter," anxious for his fame.