A Railroad Through The Pleistocene

Theodore Roosevelt

Scribner’s/October, 1909

The great world movement which began with the voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, and which has gone on with ever-increasing rapidity and complexity until our own time, has developed along a myriad lines of interest. In no way has it been more interesting than in the way in which it has brought into sudden, violent, and intimate contact phases of the world’s life history which would normally be separated by untold centuries of slow development. Again and again, in the continents new to peoples of European stock, we have seen the spectacle of a high civilization all at once thrust into and superimposed upon a wilderness of savage men and savage beasts. Nowhere, and at no time, has the contrast been more strange and more striking than in British East Africa during the last dozen years.

The country lies directly under the equator; and the hinterland, due west, contains the huge Nyanza lakes, vast inland seas which gather the head-waters of the White Nile. This hinterland, with its lakes and its marshes, its snow- capped mountains, its high, dry plateaus, and its forests of deadly luxuriance, was utterly unknown to white men half a century ago. The map of Ptolemy in the second century of our era gave a more accurate view of the lakes, mountains, and head-waters of the Nile than the maps published at the beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century, just before Speke, Grant, and Baker made their great trips of exploration and adventure. Behind these explorers came others; and then adventurous missionaries, traders, and elephant hunters; and many men, whom risk did not daunt, who feared neither danger nor hardship, traversed the country hither and thither, now for one reason, now for another, now as naturalists, now as geographers, and again as government officials or as mere wanderers who loved the wild and strange life which had survived over from an elder age.

Most of the tribes were of pure savages; but here and there were intrusive races of higher type; and in Uganda, beyond the Victoria Nyanza, and on the head-waters of the Nile proper, lived a people which had advanced to the upper stages of barbarism, which might almost be said to have developed a very primitive kind of semi-civilization. Over this people—for its good fortune—Great Britain established a protectorate; and ultimately, in order to get easy access to this new outpost of civilization in the heart of the Dark Continent, the British Government built a railroad from the old Arab coast town of Mombasa westward to Victoria Nyanza.

This railroad, the embodiment of the eager, masterful, materialistic civilization of to-day, was pushed through a region in which nature, both as regards wild man and wild beast, did not and does not differ materially from what it was in Europe in the late Pleistocene. The comparison is not fanciful. The teeming multitudes of wild creatures, the stupendous size of some of them, the terrible nature of others, and the low culture of many of the savage tribes, especially of the hunting tribes, substantially reproduces the conditions of life in Europe as it was led by our ancestors ages before the dawn of anything that could be called civilization. The great beasts that now live in East Africa were in that by-gone age represented by close kinsfolk in Europe; and in many places, up to the present moment, African man, absolutely naked, and armed as our early paleolithic ancestors were armed, lives among, and on, and in constant dread of, these beasts, just as was true of the men to whom the cave lion was a nightmare of terror, and the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros possible but most formidable prey.

This region, this great fragment out of the long-buried past of our race, is now accessible by railroad to all who care to go thither; and no field more inviting offers itself to hunter or naturalist, while even to the ordinary traveler it teems with interest. On March 23, 1909, I sailed thither from New York, in charge of a scientific expedition sent out by the Smithsonian, to collect birds, mammals, reptiles, and plants, but especially specimens of big game, for the National Museum at Washington. In addition to myself and my son Kermit (who had entered Harvard a few months previously), the party consisted of three naturalists: Surgeon-Lieut. Col. Edgar A. Mearns, U.S.A., retired; Mr. Edmund Heller, of California, and Mr. J. Alden Loring, of Owego, N. Y. My arrangements for the trip had been chiefly made through two valued English friends, Mr. Frederick Courteney Selous, the greatest of the world’s big-game hunters, and Mr. Edward North Buxton, also a mighty hunter. On landing we were to be met by Messrs. R. J. Cuninghame and Leslie Tarlton, both famous hunters; the latter an Australian, who served through the South African war; the former by birth a Scotchman, and a Cambridge man, but long a resident of Africa, and at one time a professional elephant hunter—in addition to having been a whaler in the Arctic Ocean, a hunter-naturalist in Lapland, a transport rider in South Africa, and a collector for the British Museum in various odd corners of the earth.

We sailed on the Hamburg from New York—what headway the Germans have made among those who go down to the sea in ships!—and at Naples transshipped to the Admiral, of another German line, the East African. On both ships we were as comfortable as possible, and the voyage was wholly devoid of incidents. Now and then, as at the Azores, at Suez, and at Aden, the three naturalists landed, and collected some dozens or scores of birds—which next day were skinned and prepared in my room, as the largest and best fitted for the purpose. After reaching Suez the ordinary tourist type of passenger ceased to be predominant; in his place there were Italian officers going out to a desolate coast town on the edge of Somaliland; missionaries, German, English, and American; Portuguese civil officials; traders of different nationalities; and planters and military and civil officers bound to German and British East Africa. The Englishmen included planters, magistrates, forest officials, army officers on leave from India, and other army officers going out to take command of black native levies in out-of-the-way regions where the English flag stands for all that makes life worth living. They were a fine set, these young Englishmen, whether dashing army officers or capable civilians; they reminded me of our own men who have reflected such honor on the American name, whether in civil and military positions in the Philippines and Porto Rico, working on the Canal Zone in Panama, taking care of the custom-houses in San Domingo, or serving in the army of occupation in Cuba. Moreover, I felt as if I knew most of them already, for they might have walked out of the pages of Kipling. But I was not as well prepared for the corresponding and equally interesting types among the Germans, the planters, the civil officials, the officers who had commanded, or were about to command, white or native troops; men of evident power and energy, seeing whom made it easy to understand why German East Africa has thriven apace. They are first-class men, these English and Germans; both are doing in East Africa a work of worth to the whole world; there is ample room for both, and no possible cause for any but a thoroughly friendly rivalry; and it is earnestly to be wished, in the interest both of them and of outsiders, too, that their relations will grow, as they ought to grow, steadily better—and not only in East Africa but everywhere else.

On the ship, at Naples, we found Selous, also bound for East Africa on a hunting trip; but he, a veteran whose first hunting in Africa was nearly forty years ago, cared only for exceptional trophies of a very few animals, while we, on the other hand, desired specimens of both sexes of all the species of big game that Kermit and I could shoot, as well as complete series of all the smaller mammals. We believed that our best work of a purely scientific character would be done with the mammals, both large and small. No other hunter alive has had the experience of Selous; and, so far as I now recall, no hunter of anything like his experience has ever also possessed his gift of penetrating observation joined to his power of vivid and accurate narration. He has killed scores of lion and rhinoceros and hundreds of elephant and buffalo; and these four animals are the most dangerous of the world’s big game, when hunted as they are hunted in Africa. To hear him tell of what he has seen and done is no less interesting to a naturalist than to a hunter. There were on the ship many men who loved wild nature, and who were keen hunters of big game; and almost every day, as we steamed over the hot, smooth waters of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, we would gather on deck around Selous to listen to tales of those strange adventures that only come to the man who has lived long the lonely life of the wilderness.

On April 21 we steamed into the beautiful and picturesque harbor of Mombasa. Many centuries before the Christian era, dhows from Arabia, carrying seafarers of Semitic races whose very names have perished, rounded the Lion’s Head at Guardafui and crept slowly southward along the barren African coast. Such dhows exist to-day almost unchanged, and bold indeed were the men who first steered them across the unknown oceans. They were men of iron heart and supple conscience, who fronted inconceivable danger and hardship; they established trading stations for gold and ivory and slaves; they turned these trading stations into little cities and sultanates, half Arab, half negro. Mombasa was among them. In her time of brief splendor Portugal seized the city; the Arabs won it back; and now England holds it. It lies just south of the equator, and when we saw it the brilliant green of the tropic foliage showed the town at its best.

We were welcomed to Government House in most cordial fashion by the acting Governor, Lieutenant Governor Jackson, who is not only a trained public official of long experience but a first- class field naturalist and a renowned big game hunter; indeed I could not too warmly express my appreciation of the hearty and generous courtesy with which we were received and treated alike by the official and the unofficial world throughout East Africa. We landed in the kind of torrential downpour that only comes in the tropics; it reminded me of Panama at certain moments in the rainy season. That night we were given a dinner by the Mombasa Club; and it was interesting to meet the merchants and planters of the town and the neighborhood as well as the officials. The former included not only Englishmen but also Germans and Italians; which is quite as it should be, for at least part of the high inland region of British East Africa can be made one kind of “white man’s country”; and to achieve this white men should work heartily together, doing scrupulous justice to the natives, but remembering that progress and development in this particular kind of new land depend exclusively upon the masterful leadership of the whites, and that therefore it is both a calamity and a crime to permit the whites to be riven in sunder by hatreds and jealousies. The coast regions of British East Africa are not suited for extensive white settlement; but the hinterland is, and there everything should be done to encourage such settlement. Non-white aliens should not be encouraged to settle where they come into rivalry with the whites (exception being made as regards certain particular individuals and certain particular occupations); but there are large regions in which it would be wise to settle immigrants from India, and there are -many positions in other regions which it is to the advantage of everybody that the Indians should hold, because there is as yet no sign that sufficient numbers of white men are willing to hold them, while the native blacks, although many of them do fairly well in unskilled labor, are not yet competent to do the higher tasks which now fall to the share of the Goanese, and Moslem and non-Moslem Indians. The small merchants who deal with the natives, for instance, and most of the minor railroad officials, belong to these latter classes. I was amused, by the way, at one bit of native nomenclature in connection with the Goanese. Many of the Goanese are now as dark as most of the other Indians; but they are descended in the male line from the early Portuguese adventurers and conquerors, who were the first white men ever seen by the natives of this coast. Accordingly to this day some of the natives speak even of the dark-skinned descendants of the subjects of King Henry the Navigator as “the whites,” designating the Europeans specifically as English, Germans, or the like; just as in out-of-the-way nooks in the far Northwest one of our own red men will occasionally be found who still speaks of Americans and Englishmen as “Boston men” and “King.George’s men.” One of the Government farms was being run by an educated colored man from Jamaica; and we were shown much courtesy by a colored man from our own country who was practicing as a doctor. No one could fail to be impressed with the immense advance these men represented as compared with the native negro; and indeed to an American, who must necessarily think much of the race problem at home, it is pleasant to be made to realize in vivid fashion the progress the American negro has made, by comparing him with the negro who dwells in Africa untouched, or but lightly touched, by white influence. In such a community as one finds in Mombasa or Nairobi one continually runs across quiet, modest men whose lives have been fuller of wild adventure than the life of a viking leader of the ninth century. One of the public officials whom I met at the Governor’s table was Major Hinde. He had at one time served under the Government of the Congo Free State; and, at a crisis in the fortunes of the State, when the Arab slave-traders bid fair to get the upper hand, he was one of the eight or ten white men, representing half as many distinct nationalities, who overthrew the savage soldiery of the slave-traders and shattered beyond recovery the Arab power. They organized the wild pagan tribes just as their Arab foes had done; they fought in a land where deadly sickness struck down victor and vanquished with ruthless impartiality; they found their commissariat as best they could wherever they happened to be; often they depended upon one day’s victory to furnish the ammunition with which to wage the morrow’s battle; and ever they had to be on guard no less against the thousands of cannibals in their own ranks than against the thousands of cannibals in the hostile ranks, for, on whichever side they fought, after every battle the warriors of the man-eating tribes watched their chance to butcher the wounded indiscriminately and to feast on the bodies of the slain. The most thrilling book of true lion stories ever written is Colonel Patterson’s “The Man-eaters of Tsavo.” Colonel Patterson was one of the engineers engaged, some ten or twelve years back, in building the Uganda Railway; he was in charge of the work, at a place called Tsavo, when it was brought to a complete halt by the ravages of a couple of man-eating lions which, after many adventures, he finally killed. At the dinner at the Mombasa Club I met one of the actors in a blood-curdling tragedy which Colonel Patterson relates. He was a German, and, in company with an Italian friend, he went down in the special car of one of the English railroad officials to try to kill a man-eating lion which had carried away several people from a station on the line. They put the car on a siding; as it was hot the door was left open, and the Englishman sat by the open window to watch for the lion, while the Italian finally lay down on the floor and the German got into an upper bunk. Evidently the Englishman must have fallen asleep, and the lion, seeing him through the window, entered the carriage by the door to get at him. The Italian waked to find the lion standing on him with its hind feet, while its fore paws were on the seat as it killed the unfortunate Englishman, and the German, my informant, hearing the disturbance, leaped out of his bunk actually onto the back of the lion. The man-eater, however, was occupied only with his prey; holding the body in his mouth” he forced his way out through the window sash, and made his meal undisturbed but a couple of yards from the railway carriage. The day after we landed we boarded the train to take what seems to me, as I think it would to most men fond of natural history, the most interesting railway journey in the world. It was Governor Jackson’s special train, and in addition to his own party and ours there was only Selous; and we traveled with the utmost comfort through a naturalist’s wonderland. All civilized governments are now realizing that it is their duty here and there to preserve unharmed tracts of wild nature, with thereon the wild things the destruction of which means the destruction of half the charm of wild nature. The English Government has made a large game reserve of much of the region on the way to Nairobi, stretching far to the south, and one mile to the north of the track. The reserve swarms with game; it would be of little value except as a reserve; and the attraction it now offers to travelers renders it an asset of real consequence to the whole colony. The wise people of Maine, in our own country, have discovered that intelligent game preservation, carried out in good faith, and in a spirit of common sense as far removed from mushy sentimentality as from brutality, results in adding one more to the State’s natural resources of value; and in consequence there are more moose and deer in Maine to-day than there were forty years ago; there is a better chance for every man in Maine, rich or poor, provided that he is not a game butcher, to enjoy his share of good hunting, and the number of sportsmen and tourists attracted to the State adds very appreciably to the means of livelihood of the citizen. Game reserves should not be established where they are detrimental to the interests of large bodies of settlers, nor yet should they be nominally established in regions so remote that the only men really interfered with are those who respect the law, while a premium is thereby put on the activity of the unscrupulous persons who are eager to break it. Similarly, game laws should be drawn primarily in the interest of the whole people, keeping steadily in mind certain facts that ought to be self-evident to every one above the intellectual level of those well-meaning persons who apparently think that all shooting is wrong and that man could continue to exist if all wild animals were allowed to increase unchecked. There must be recognition of the fact that almost any wild animal of the defenseless type, if its multiplication were unchecked while its natural enemies, the dangerous carnivores, were killed, would by its simple increase crowd man off the planet; and of the further fact that, far short of such increase, a time speedily comes when the existence of too much game is incompatible with the interests, or indeed the existence, of the cultivator. As in most other matters, it is only the happy mean which is healthy and rational. There should be certain sanctuaries and nurseries where game can live and breed absolutely unmolested; and elsewhere the laws should so far as possible provide for the continued existence of the game in sufficient numbers to allow a reasonable amount of hunting on fair terms to any hardy and vigorous man fond of the sport, and yet not in sufficient numbers to jeopardize the interests of the actual settler, the tiller of the soil, the man whose well-being should be the prime object to be kept in mind by every statesman. Game butchery is as objectionable as any other form of wanton cruelty or barbarity; but to protest against all hunting of game is a sign of softness of head, not of soundness of heart.

In the creation of the great game reserve through which the Uganda Railway runs the British Government has conferred a boon upon mankind, and no less in the enactment and enforcement of the game laws in the African provinces generally. Of course experience will show where, from time to time, there must be changes. In Uganda proper buffaloes and hippos throve so under protection as to become sources of grave danger not only to the crops but to the lives of the natives, and they had to be taken off the protected lists and classed as vermin, to be shot in any numbers at any time; and only the great demand for ivory prevented the necessity of following the same course with regard to the elephant; while recently in British East Africa the increase of the zebras, and the harm they did to the crops of the settlers, rendered it necessary to remove a large measure of the protection formerly accorded them, and in some cases actually to encourage their slaughter; and increase in settlement may necessitate further changes. But, speaking generally, much wisdom, much foresight, highly creditable to both Government and people, has been shown in dealing with and preserving East African game while at the same time safeguarding the interests of the settlers.

On our train the locomotive was fitted with a comfortable seat across the cowcatcher, and on this, except at meal-time, I spent most of the hours of daylight, usually in company with Selous, and often with Governor Jackson, to whom the territory and the game were alike familiar. The first afternoon we did not see many wild animals, but birds abounded, and the scenery was both beautiful and interesting. A black-and-white hornbill, feeding on the track, rose so late that we nearly caught it with our hands; guinea-fowl and francolin, and occasionally bustard, rose nearby; brilliant rollers, sun-birds, bee-eaters, and weaver-birds flew beside us, or sat unmoved among the trees as the train passed. In the dusk we nearly ran over a hyena; a year or two previously the train actually did run over a lioness one night, and the conductor brought in her head in triumph. In fact, there have been continually mishaps such as could only happen to a railroad in the Pleistocene! The very night we went up there was an interruption in the telegraph service due to giraffes having knocked down some of the wires, and a pole, in crossing the track; and elephants have more than once performed the same feat. Two or three times, at night, giraffes have been run into and killed; once a rhinoceros was killed, the engine being damaged in the encounter; and on other occasions the rhino has only just left the track in time, once the beast being struck and a good deal hurt, the engine again being somewhat crippled. But the lions now offer, and have always offered, the chief source of unpleasant excitement. Throughout East Africa the lions continually take to man eating at the expense of the native tribes, and white hunters are continually being killed or crippled by them. At the lonely stations on the railroad the two or three subordinate officials often live in terror of some fearsome brute that has taken to haunting the vicinity; and every few months, at some one of these stations, a man is killed, or badly hurt by, or narrowly escapes from, a prowling lion. The stations at which the train stopped were neat and attractive; and besides the Indian officials there were usually natives from the neighborhood. Some of these might be dressed in the fez and shirt and trousers which indicate a coming under the white man’s influence, or which, rather curiously, may also indicate Mohammedanism. But most of the natives are still wild pagans, and many of them are unchanged in the slightest particular from what their when they alone were the heirs of the land —a land which they were utterly powerless in any way to improve. Some of the savages we saw wore red blankets, and in deference to white prejudice draped them so as to hide their nakedness. But others appeared—men and women—with literally not one stitch of clothing, although they might have rather elaborate hairdresses, and masses of metal ornaments on their arms and legs. In the region where one tribe dwelt all the people had their front teeth filed to sharp points; it was strange to see a group of these savages, stark naked, with oddly shaved heads and filed teeth, armed with primitive bows and arrows, stand gravely gazing at the train as it rolled into some station; and none the less strange, by the way, because the locomotive was a Baldwin, brought to Africa across the great ocean from our own country. One group of women, nearly nude, had their upper arms so tightly bound with masses of bronze or copper wire that their muscles were completely malformed. So tightly was the wire wrapped round the upper third of the upper arm, that it was reduced to about one-half of its normal size; and the muscles could only play, and that in deformed fashion, below this unyielding metal bandage. Why the arms did not mortify it was hard to say; and their freedom of use was so hampered as to make it difficult to understand how men or women whose whole lives are passed in one or another form of manual labor could inflict upon themselves such crippling and pointless punishment.

Next morning we were in the game country, and as we sat on the seat over the cowcatcher it was literally like passing through a vast zoological garden. Indeed no such railway journey can be taken on any other line in any other land. At one time we passed a herd of a dozen or so of great giraffes, cows and calves, cantering along through the open woods a couple of hundred yards to the right of the train. Again, still closer, four waterbuck cows, their big ears thrown forward, stared at us without moving until we had passed. Hartebeests were everywhere; one herd was on the track, and when the engine whistled they bucked and sprang with ungainly agility and galloped clear of the danger. A long-tailed straw-colored monkey ran from one tree to another. Huge black ostriches appeared from time to time. Once a troop of impala, close by the track, took fright; and as the beautiful creatures fled we saw now one and now another bound clear over the high bushes. A herd of zebra clattered across a cutting of the line not a hundred yards ahead of the train; the whistle hurried their progress, but only for a moment, and as we passed they were already turning round to gaze. The wild creatures were in their sanctuary, and they knew it. Some of the settlers have at times grumbled at this game reserve being kept of such size; but surely it is one of the most valuable possessions the country could have. The lack of water in parts, the prevalence in other parts of diseases harmful to both civilized man and domestic cattle, render this great tract of country the home of all homes for the wild creatures of the waste. The protection given these wild creatures is genuine, not nominal; they are preserved, not for the pleasure of the few, but for the good of all who choose to see this strange and attractive spectacle; and from this nursery and breeding-ground the overflow keeps up the stock of game in the adjacent land, to the benefit of the settler to whom the game gives fresh meat, and to the benefit of the whole country because of the attraction it furnishes to all who desire to visit a veritable happy hunting ground. Soon after lunch we drew up at the little station of Kapiti Plains, where our safari was awaiting us; “safari” being the term employed throughout East Africa to denote both the caravan with which one makes an expedition and the expedition itself. Our aim being to cure and send home specimens of all the common big game—in addition to as large a series as possible of the small mammals and birds—it was necessary to carry an elaborate apparatus of naturalists’ supplies; we had brought with us, for instance, four tons of fine salt, as to cure the skins of the big beasts is a herculean labor under the best conditions; we had hundreds of traps for the small creatures; many boxes of shot-gun cartridges in addition to the ordinary rifle cartridges which alone would be necessary on a hunting trip; and, in short, all the many impedimenta needed if scientific work is to be properly done under modern conditions. Few laymen have any idea of the expense and pains which must be undergone in order to provide groups of mounted big animals from far-off lands, such as we see in museums like the National Museum in Washington and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The modern naturalist must realize that in some of its branches his profession, while more than ever a science, has also become an art. So our preparations were necessarily on a very large scale; and as we drew up at the station the array of porters and of tents looked as if some small military expedition was about to start. As a compliment, which I much appreciated, a large American flag was floating over my own tent; and in the front line, flanking this tent on either hand, were other big tents for the members of the party, with a dining tent and skinning tent; while behind were the tents of the two hundred porters, the gun-bearers, the tent boys, the askaris or native soldiers, and the horse boys or saises. In front of the tents stood the men in two lines; the first containing the fifteen askaris, the second the porters with their head men. The askaris were uniformed, each in a red fez, a blue blouse, and white knickerbockers, and each carrying his rifle and belt. The porters were chosen from several different tribes or races to minimize the danger of combination in the event of mutiny. Here and there in East Africa one can utilize ox wagons, or pack trains of donkeys; but for a considerable expedition it is still best to use a safari of native porters, of the type by which the commerce and exploration of the country have always been carried on. The backbone of such a safari is generally composed of Swahili, the coast men, negroes who have acquired the Moslem religion, together with a partially Arabicized tongue and a strain of Arab blood from the Arab warriors and traders who have been dominant in the coast towns for so many centuries. It was these Swahili trading caravans, under Arab leadership, which, in their quest for ivory and slaves, trod out the routes which the early white explorers followed. Without their work as a preliminary the work of the white explorers could not have been done; and it was the Swahili porters themselves who rendered this work itself possible. To this day every hunter, trader, missionary, or explorer must use either a Swahili safari or one modeled on the Swahili basis. The part played by the white-topped ox wagon in the history of South Africa, and by the camel caravan in North Africa, has been played in middle Africa by the files of strong, patient, child-like savages, who have borne the burdens of so many masters and employers hither and thither, through and across, the dark heart of the continent.

Equatorial Africa is in most places none too healthy a place for the white man, and he must care for himself as he would scorn to do in the lands of pine and birch and frosty weather. Camping in the Rockies or the North Woods can with advantage be combined with “roughing it”; and the early pioneers of the West, the explorers, prospectors, and hunters, who always roughed it, were as hardy as bears, and lived to a hale old age, if Indians and accidents permitted. But in tropic Africa a lamentable proportion of the early explorers paid in health or life for the hardships they endured; and throughout most of the country no man can long rough it, in the Western and Northern sense, with impunity.

At Kapiti Plains our tents, our accommodations generally, seemed almost too comfortable for men who knew camp life only on the Great Plains, in the Rockies, and in the North Woods. My tent had a fly which was to protect it from the great heat; there was a little rear extension in which I bathed—a hot bath, never a cold bath, is almost a tropic necessity; there was a ground canvas, of vital moment in a land of ticks, jiggers, and scorpions; and a cot to sleep on, so as to be raised from the ground. Quite a contrast to life on the round-up! Then I had two tent boys to see after my belongings, and to wait at table as well as in the tent. Ali, a Mohammedan negro, was the chief of the two, and spoke some English, while under him was “Bill,” a speechless black boy; both of them faithful and efficient. Two other Mohammedan negroes, clad like the askaris, reported to me as my gun-bearers, Muhamed and Bakari; seemingly excellent men, loyal and enduring, no trackers, but with keen eyes for game, and the former speaking a little English. My two horse boys, or saises, were both pagans. One, Hamiri, must have had in his veins much Galla or other non-negro blood; derived from the Hamitic, or bastard Semitic, or at least non-negro, tribes which, pushing slowly and fitfully southward and south-westward among the negro peoples, have created an intricate tangle of ethnic and linguistic types from the middle Nile to far south of the equator. Hamiri always wore a long feather in one of his sandals, the only ornament he affected. The other sais was a silent, gentle-mannered black heathen; his name was Simba, a lion, and as I shall later show he was not unworthy of it. The two horses for which these men cared were stout, quiet little beasts; one, a sorrel, I named Tranquillity, and the other, a brown, had so much the cob-like build of a zebra that we christened him Zebra-shape. One of Kermit’s two horses,’ by the way, was more romantically named after Huandan, the sharp-eared steed of the Mabinogion. Cuninghame, lean, sinewy, bearded, exactly the type of hunter and safari manager that one would wish for such an expedition as ours, had ridden up with us on the train, and at the station we met Tarleton, and also two settlers of the neighborhood, Sir Alfred Pease and Mr. Clifford Hill. Hill was an Africander. He and his cousin, Harold Hill, after serving through the South African war, had come to the new country of British East Africa to settle, and they represented the ideal type of settler for taking the lead in the spread of empire. They were descended from the English colonists who came to South Africa in 1820; they had never been in England, and neither had Tarleton. It was exceedingly interesting to meet these Australians and Africanders, who typified in their lives and deeds the greatness of the English Empire, and yet had never seen England.

As for Sir Alfred, Kermit and I were to be his guests for the next fortnight, and we owe primarily to him, to his mastery of hunting craft and his unvarying and generous hospitality and kindness, the pleasure and success of our introduction to African hunting. His life had been one of such varied interest as has only been possible in our own generation. He had served many years in Parliament; he had for some years been a magistrate in a peculiarly responsible post in the Transvaal; he had journeyed and hunted and explored in the northern Sahara, in the Soudan, in Somaliland, in Abyssinia, and now he was ranching in East Africa. A singularly good rider and one of the best game shots I have ever seen, it would have been impossible to have found a kinder host or a hunter better fitted to teach us where to begin our work with African big game.

At Kapiti Station there was little beyond the station buildings, a “compound” or square enclosure in which there were many natives, and an Indian store. The last was presided over by a turbaned Mussulman, the agent of other Indian traders who did business in Machakos-boma, a native village a dozen miles distant; the means of communication being two-wheeled carts, each drawn by four humped oxen, driven by a well-nigh naked savage.

For forty-eight hours we were busy arranging the outfit, and the naturalists took much longer. The provisions were those usually included in an African hunting or exploring trip, save that, in memory of my days in the West, I included in each provision box a few cans of Boston baked beans, California peaches, and tomatoes; we had plenty of warm bedding, for the nights are cold at high altitudes, even under the equator. While hunting I wore heavy shoes, with hobnails or rubber soles; khaki trousers, the knees faced with leather, and the legs buttoning tight from the knee to below the ankle, to avoid the need of leggings; a khaki-colored army shirt; and a sun helmet, which I wore in deference to local advice, instead of my beloved and far more convenient slouch hat. My rifles were an army Springfield, 30-calibre, stocked and sighted to suit myself; a Winchester 405; and a double-barreled 500- 450 Holland, a beautiful weapon presented to me by some English friends.

Kermit’s battery was of the same type, except that instead of a Springfield he had another Winchester shooting the army ammunition, and his double-barrel was a Rigby. In addition I had a Fox No. 12 shot-gun; no better gun was ever made. There was one other bit of impedimenta, less usual for African travel, but perhaps almost as essential for real enjoyment even on a hunting trip, if it is to be of any length.

This was the “pigskin library,” so called because most of the books were bound in pigskin. They were carried in a light aluminum and oilcloth case, which, with its contents, weighed a little less than sixty pounds, making a load for one porter. Including a few volumes carried in the various bags, so that I might be sure always to have one with me, and Gregorovius, read on the voyage outward, the list was as printed on page 406. It represents in part permit’s taste, in part mine; and, I need hardly say, it also represents in no way all the books we most care for, but merely those which, for one reason or another, we thought we should like to take on this particular trip.

I used my Whitman tree army saddle and my army field-glasses; but, in addition, for studying the habits of the game, I carried a telescope given me on the boat by a fellow traveler and big-game hunter, an Irish hussar captain from India—and incidentally I am out in my guess if this same Irish hussar captain be not worth watching should his country ever again be engaged in war. I had a very ingenious beam or scale for weighing game, designed and presented to me by my friend, Mr. Thompson Seton. I had a slicker for wet weather, an army overcoat, and a mackinaw jacket for cold, if I had to stay out over night in the mountains. In my pockets I carried, of course, a knife, a compass, and a waterproof matchbox. Finally, just before leaving home, I had been sent, for good luck, a gold-mounted rabbit’s foot, by Mr. John L. Sullivan, at one time ring champion of the world.

Our camp was on a bare, dry plain, covered with brown and withered grass. At most hours of the day we could see round about, perhaps a mile or so distant, or less, the game feeding. South of the track the reserve stretched for a long distance; north it went for but a mile, just enough to prevent thoughtless or cruel people from shooting as they went by in the train. There was very little water; what we drank, by the way, was carefully boiled. The drawback to the camp, and to all this plains region, lay in the ticks, which swarmed, and were a scourge to man and beast. Every evening the saises picked them by hundreds off each horse; and some of our party were at times so bitten by the noisome little creatures that they could hardly sleep at night, and in one or two cases the man was actually laid up for a couple of days, and two of our horses ultimately got tick fever, but recovered.

In mid-afternoon of our third day in this camp we at last had matters in such shape that Kermit and I could begin our hunting; and forth we rode, he with Hill, I with Sir Alfred, each accompanied by his gun bearers and sais, and by a few porters to carry in the game. For two or three miles our little horses shuffled steadily northward across the desolate flats of short grass until the ground began to rise here and there into low hills, or koppies, with rock-strewn tops. It should have been the rainy season, the season of “the big rains”; but the rains were late, as the parched desolation of the landscape bore witness; nevertheless there were two or three showers that afternoon. We soon began to see game, but the flatness of the country and the absence of all cover made stalking a matter of difficulty; the only bushes were a few sparsely scattered mimosas; stunted things, two or three feet high, scantily leaved, but abounding in bulbous swellings on the twigs, and in long, sharp spikes of thorns. There were herds of hartebeest and wildebeest, and smaller parties of beautiful gazelles. The last were of two kinds, named severally after their discoverers, the explorers Grant and Thompson; many of the creatures of this region commemorate the men—Schilling, Jackson, Neuman, Kirke, Chanler, Abbot—who first saw and hunted them and brought them to the notice of the scientific world. The Thompson’s gazelles, or Tommies as they are always locally called, are pretty, alert little things, half the size of our prongbuck; their big brothers, the Grant’s, are among the most beautiful of all antelopes, being rather larger than a whitetail deer, with singularly graceful carriage, while the old bucks carry long lyre-shaped horns. Distances are deceptive on the bare plains under the African sunlight. I saw a fine Grant, and stalked him in a rain squall; but the bullets from the little Springfield fell short as he raced away to safety; I had underestimated the range. Then I shot, for the table, a good buck of the smaller gazelle, at two hundred and twenty-five yards; the bullet went a little high, breaking his back above the shoulders.

But what I really wanted were two good specimens, bull and cow, of the wildebeest. These powerful, ungainly beasts, a variety of the brindled gnu or blue wildebeest of South Africa, are interesting creatures of queer, eccentric habits. With their shaggy manes, heavy forequarters, and generally bovine look, they remind me somewhat of our bison, at a distance, but of course they are much less bulky, an old bull in prime condition rarely reaching a weight of five hundred pounds. They are beasts of the open plains, ever alert and wary; the cows, with their calves, and one or more herd bulls, keep in parties of several score; the old bulls, singly, or two or three together, keep by themselves, or with herds of zebra, hartebeest, or gazelle; for one of the interesting features of African wild life is the close association and companionship so often seen between two totally different species of game. Wildebeest are as savage as they are suspicious; when wounded they do not hesitate to charge a man who comes close, although of course neither they nor any other antelopes can be called dangerous when in a wild state, any more than moose or other deer can be called dangerous; when tame, however, wildebeest are very dangerous indeed, more so than an ordinary domestic bull. The wild, queer looking creatures prance and rollick and up its mind to flee from a stranger’s approach; and even a solitary bull will sometimes plunge and buck as it starts to gallop off; while a couple of bulls, when the herd is frightened, may relieve their feelings by a moment’s furious battle, occasionally dropping to their knees before closing. At this time, the end of April, there were little calves with the herds of cows; but in equatorial Africa the various species of antelopes seem to have no settled rutting time or breeding time; at least we saw calves of all ages.

Our hunt after wildebeest this afternoon was successful; but though by velt law each animal was mine, because I hit it first, yet in reality the credit was communistic, so to speak, and my share was properly less than that of others. I first tried to get up to a solitary old bull, and after a good deal of maneuvering, and by taking advantage of a second rain squall, I got a standing shot at him at four hundred yards, and hit him, but too far back. Although keeping a good distance away, he tacked and veered so, as he ran, that by much running myself I got various other shots at him, at very long range, but missed them all, and he finally galloped over a distant ridge, his long tail switching, seemingly not much the worse. We followed on horseback; for I hate to let any wounded thing escape to suffer. But meanwhile he had run into view of Kermit; and Kermit—who is of an age and build which better fit him for successful breakneck galloping over unknown country dotted with holes and bits of rotten ground—took up the chase with enthusiasm. Yet it was sunset, and after a run of six or eight miles, that he finally ran into and killed the tough old bull, which had turned to bay, snorting and tossing its horns.

Meanwhile I managed to get within three hundred and fifty yards of a herd, and picked out a large cow which was unaccompanied by a calf. Again my bullet went too far back; and I could not hit the animal at that distance as it ran. But after going half a mile it lay down, and would have been secured without difficulty if a wretched dog had not run forward and put it up; my horse was a long way back but Pease, who had been looking on at a distance, was mounted, and sped after it. By the time I had reached my horse Pease was out of sight; but riding hard for some miles I overtook him, just before the sun went down, standing by the cow which he had ridden down and slain. It was long after nightfall before we reached camp, ready for a hot bath and a good supper. As always thereafter with anything we shot, we used the meat for food and preserved the skins for the National Museum. Both the cow and the bull were fat and in fine condition; but they were covered with ticks, especially wherever the skin was bare. Around the eyes the loathsome creatures swarmed so as to make complete rims, like spectacles; and in the armpits and the groin they were massed so that they looked like barnacles on an old boat. It is astonishing that the game should mind them so little; the wildebeest evidently dreaded far more the biting flies which hung around them; and the maggots of the bot-flies in their nostrils must have been a sore torment. Nature is merciless indeed.

The next day we rode some sixteen miles to the beautiful hills of Kitanga, and for over a fortnight were either Pease’s guests at his farm—ranch, as we should call it in the West—or were on safari under his guidance.


(Source: UNZ.org, https://www.unz.com/print/Scribners-1909oct-00385/)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s