The Man-Eaters of Tsavo/Chapter 19

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Chapter XIX: The Stricken Caravan[edit]

Not long after this adventure the permanent way reached the boundary of the Kapiti Plains, where a station had to be built and where accordingly we took up our headquarters for a week or two. A few days after we had settled down in our new camp, a great caravan of some four thousand men arrived from the interior with luggage and loads of food for a Sikh regiment which was on its way down to the coast, after having been engaged in suppressing the mutiny of the Sudanese in Uganda. The majority of these porters were Basoga, but there were also fair numbers of Baganda (i.e. people of Uganda) and of the natives of Unyoro, and various other tribes. Of course none of these wild men of Central Africa had either seen or heard of a railway in all their lives, and they consequently displayed the liveliest curiosity in regard to it, crowding round one of the engines which happened to be standing at the station, and hazarding the wildest guesses as to its origin and use in a babel of curious native languages. I thought I would provide a little entertainment for them, so I stepped on to the footplate and blew off the steam, at the same time sounding the whistle. The effect was simply magical. The whole crowd first threw themselves flat on the ground howling with fear, and then -- with heads well down and arms well spread out -- they fled wildly in all directions; nor did the stampede cease until I shut off steam and stopped the whistle. Then, their curiosity gradually overpowering them, very cautiously they began to return, approaching the locomotive stealthily as though it were some living monster of the jungle. Eventually, two of their chiefs summoned up courage enough to climb on to the engine, and afterwards thoroughly enjoyed a short run which I had to make down the line in order to bring up some construction material.

Just after this caravan had moved on we were subjected to some torrential rain-storms, which transformed the whole plain into a quaking bog and stopped all railway work for the time being. Indeed, the effect of a heavy downpour of rain in this sun-baked district is extraordinary. The ground, which is of a black sub-soil, becomes a mass of thick mud in no time, and on attempting to do any walking one slides and slips about in the slush in a most uncomfortable manner. Innocent-looking dongas, where half an hour previously not one drop of water was to be seen, become roaring torrents from bank to bank in an incredibly short time; while for many hours or even a few days the rivers become absolutely impassable in this land of no bridges. On this account it is the custom of the wise traveller in these parts always to cross a river before camping, for otherwise a flood may come down and detain him and his caravan on the wrong side of the stream for perhaps a week. Of course when the rain ceases, the floods as quickly subside, the rivers and dongas dry up, and the country once more resumes its normal sun-cracked appearance.

On leaving my tent one morning when work was at a standstill owing to the rain, I noticed a great herd of zebra about a couple of miles away on the north side of the railway. Now, it had long been my ambition to capture one of these animals alive; so I said to myself, "Here is my chance!" The men could do nothing owing to the rain, and the ground was very boggy, so I thought that if we could surround the herd judiciously and chase the zebra up and down from point to point through the heavy ground, some of them would soon get exhausted and we should then be able to catch them. I selected for the hunt a dozen fleet-footed Indians who were employed on the earth works, and who at once entered with great zest into the spirit of the scheme. After having partially surrounded the herd, the half-circle of coolies began to advance with wild shouts, whereupon the zebras galloped madly about from side to side, and then did just what we wished them to do -- made straight for an exceptionally boggy part of the ground, where they soon became more or less helpless. We singled out a few young ones and succeeded in running them to an absolute standstill, when we threw them down and sat on their heads until the other men came up with ropes. In this way we captured no less than six: they were very wild and fractious, giving us a great deal of trouble in getting them along, but eventually we managed to bring them in triumph to the camp, where they were firmly secured. The whole expedition lasted little more than a couple of hours.

Three of the captured zebras I kept for myself, while the other three were given to the Surfacing Engineer, whose men had assisted in the hunt. Two of my three unfortunately died very shortly after; but the third, a sturdy two-year-old, flourished splendidly. At first he was exceedingly vicious, biting and kicking everyone who approached him; indeed, he once planted both his hind feet on my chest, but did me no serious damage beyond throwing me heavily to the ground. In time, however, he became very tame and domesticated, allowing himself to be led about by a rope and head collar, and would drink from a bucket and eat from my hand. He used to be left to graze picketed by a long rope to a stake in the ground; but one afternoon on returning to camp I found, much to my annoyance, that he had disappeared. On making enquiry, I learned from my servants that a herd of wild zebra had galloped close by, and that this had so excited him that he managed to tear the picketing peg out of the ground and so rejoin his brethren in freedom.

Some few days after our successful sortie against the zebra, the great caravan of Basoga porters returned from the coast on their way back to their own country; but alas, with what a terrible difference in their appearance! All their gaiety and lightheartedness was gone, and the poor fellows were in a pitiable state. A frightful epidemic of dysentery had broken out amongst them, doubtless caused by their having eaten food to which they were entirely unaccustomed, their simple diet in their own homes consisting almost entirely of bananas, from which they also make a most refreshing and stimulating drink. The ranks of the caravan were terribly decimated, and dozens of men were left dead or dying along the roadside after each march. It was a case of the survival of the fittest, as of course it was quite impossible for the whole caravan to halt in the wilderness where neither food nor water was to be had. There was only one European with the party, and although he worked like a slave he could do very little among such a number, while the Basoga themselves seemed quite indifferent to the sufferings of their comrades. Thirteen poor wretches fell out to die close to my tent; they were in the most hopeless condition and far too weak to be able to do anything at all for themselves. As soon as I discovered them, I boiled a bucketful of water, added some tins of condensed milk and the greater part of a bottle of brandy to it, and fed them with the mixture. Their feeble cries for some of this nourishment were heartrending; some could only whisper, "Bwana, Bwana" ("Master, Master"), and then open their mouths. One or two of them, indeed, could hardly do even this, and were so weak as to be unable to swallow the spoonful of milk which I put between their lips. In the end six proved to be beyond all help, and died that night; but the remaining seven I managed to nurse into complete recovery in about a fortnight's time. As our camp was moved on, they were brought along from place to place on the top of trucks, until finally they were well enough to resume their journey to Usoga, very grateful indeed for the care which we had taken of them.

The day after I first found these stricken natives I had arranged to ride on my pony for some miles in advance of the railway, in order to make arrangements for the building of a temporary bridge over the Stony Athi River -- a tributary of the Athi, and so-called on account of the enormous numbers of stones in its bed and along its banks. I ordered my tent to follow me later in the day, and left directions for the care of the sick Basoga, as I knew I should be away all night. My road lay along the route taken by the home-returning caravan, and every hundred yards or so I passed the swollen corpse of some unfortunate porter who had fallen out and died by the wayside. Before very long I came up with the rearguard of this straggling army, and here I was witness of as unfeeling an act of barbarism as can well be imagined. A poor wretch, utterly unable to go a step further, rolled himself up in his scarlet blanket and lay down by the roadside to die; whereupon one of his companions, coveting the highly-coloured and highly-prized article, turned back, seized one end of the blanket, and callously rolled the dying man out of it as one would unroll a bale of goods. This was too much for me, so I put spurs to my pony and galloped up to the scoundrel, making as if to thrash him with my kiboko, or whip made of rhinoceros hide. In a moment he put his hand on his knife and half drew it from its sheath, but on seeing me dismount and point my rifle at him, he desisted and tried to run away. I made it clear to him by signs, however, that I would fire if he did not at once go back and replace the blanket round his dying comrade. This he eventually did, though sullenly enough, and I then marched him in front of me to the main camp of the caravan, some little distance further on. Here I handed him over to the officer in charge, who, I am glad to say, had him soundly thrashed for his brutality and theft.

After performing this little act of retributive justice, I pushed on towards the Stony Athi. On the way -- while still not far from the caravan camp -- I spied a Grant's gazelle in the distance, and by the aid of my glasses discovered that it was a fine-looking buck with a capital pair of horns. A few Basoga from the caravan had followed me, doubtless in the hope of obtaining meat, of which they are inordinately fond; so, handing them my pony, I wriggled from tuft to tuft and crawled along in the folds of the ground until eventually I got near enough for a safe shot, which bowled the antelope over stone-dead. Scarcely had he dropped when the Basoga swooped down on him, ripped him open, and devoured huge chunks of the raw and still quivering flesh, lapping up the warm blood in the palms of their hands. In return for the meat which I gave them, two of them willingly agreed to go on with me and carry the head and haunch of the gazelle. When we had got very nearly to the place where I intended to camp for the night, a great wart-hog suddenly jumped up almost at my horse's feet, and as he had very fine and exceptionally long tusks, I dismounted at once and bagged him too. The Basoga were delighted at this, and promptly cut off the head; but my own people, who arrived with my tent just at this juncture, and who were all good Mohammedans, were thoroughly disgusted at the sight of this very hideous-looking pig.

I camped for the night on the banks of the Stony Athi, close to where the railway was to cross, and made my notes of what was necessary for the temporary bridge. At the time the river was absolutely dry, but I knew that it might at any moment become a roaring torrent if rain should set in; it would therefore be necessary to span it with a forty-foot girder in order to prevent constant "washouts" during the rainy season. The next morning I started early on my return to railhead. On my way I had to pass the camp which the Basoga caravan had just left, but the spectacle of about a dozen newly-made graves which the hyenas had already torn open caused me to put spurs to my horse and to gallop as fast as possible through the pestilential spot. When I had almost got back to railhead I happened to notice a huge serpent stretched out on the grass, warming himself, his skin of old gold and bright green sparkling brilliantly in the sunshine. He appeared to take little notice of me as I cautiously approached, and was probably drowsy and sated with a heavy meal. I shot him through the head as he lay, and the muscular contortions after death throughout his long body gave me a very vivid idea of the tremendous squeezing power possessed by these reptiles. Skinning him was an easy process, but unfortunately his beautiful colouring soon disappeared, the old gold turning to white and the bright green to lustreless black.