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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Hunting in Abyssinia
By Sir Samuel White Baker (1821–1893)
 
From ‘The Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia’

ON arrival at the camp, I resolved to fire the entire country on the following day, and to push still farther up the course of the Settite to the foot of the mountains, and to return to this camp in about a fortnight, by which time the animals that had been scared away by the fire would have returned. Accordingly, on the following morning, accompanied by a few of the aggageers, I started upon the south bank of the river, and rode for some distance into the interior, to the ground that was entirely covered with high withered grass. We were passing through a mass of kittar thorn bush, almost hidden by the immensely high grass, when, as I was ahead of the party, I came suddenly upon the tracks of rhinoceros; these were so unmistakably recent that I felt sure we were not far from the animals themselves. As I had wished to fire the grass, I was accompanied by my Tokrooris, and my horse-keeper, Mahomet No. 2. It was difficult ground for the men, and still more unfavorable for the horses, as large disjointed masses of stone were concealed in the high grass.  1
  We were just speculating as to the position of the rhinoceros, and thinking how uncommonly unpleasant it would be should he obtain our wind, when whiff! whiff! whiff! We heard the sharp whistling snort, with a tremendous rush through the high grass and thorns close to us; and at the same moment two of these determined brutes were upon us in full charge. I never saw such a scrimmage; sauve qui peut! There was no time for more than one look behind. I dug the spurs into Aggahr’s flanks, and clasping him round the neck, I ducked my head down to his shoulder, well protected with my strong hunting cap, and I kept the spurs going as hard as I could ply them, blindly trusting to Providence and my good horse, over big rocks, fallen trees, thick kittar thorns, and grass ten feet high, with the two infernal animals in full chase only a few feet behind me. I heard their abominable whiffing close to me, but so did my horse also, and the good old hunter flew over obstacles that I should have thought impossible, and he dashed straight under the hooked thorn bushes and doubled like a hare. The aggageers were all scattered; Mahomet No. 2 was knocked over by a rhinoceros; all the men were sprawling upon the rocks with their guns, and the party was entirely discomfited. Having passed the kittar thorn, I turned, and seeing that the beasts had gone straight on, I brought Aggahr’s head round, and tried to give chase, but it was perfectly impossible; it was only a wonder that the horse had escaped in ground so difficult for riding. Although my clothes were of the strongest and coarsest Arab cotton cloth, which seldom tore, but simply lost a thread when caught in a thorn, I was nearly naked. My blouse was reduced to shreds; as I wore sleeves only half way from the shoulder to the elbow, my naked arms were streaming with blood; fortunately my hunting cap was secured with a chin strap, and still more fortunately I had grasped the horse’s neck, otherwise I must have been dragged out of the saddle by the hooked thorns. All the men were cut and bruised, some having fallen upon their heads among the rocks, and others had hurt their legs in falling in their endeavors to escape. Mahomet. No. 2, the horse-keeper, was more frightened than hurt, as he had been knocked down by the shoulder, and not by the horn of the rhinoceros, as the animal had not noticed him: its attention was absorbed by the horse.  2
  I determined to set fire to the whole country immediately, and descending the hill toward the river to obtain a favorable wind, I put my men in a line, extending over about a mile along the river’s bed, and they fired the grass in different places. With a loud roar, the flame leaped high in air and rushed forward with astonishing velocity; the grass was as inflammable as tinder, and the strong north wind drove the long line of fire spreading in every direction through the country.  3
  We now crossed to the other side of the river to avoid the flames, and we returned toward the camp. On the way I made a long shot and badly wounded a tétel, but lost it in thick thorns; shortly after, I stalked a nellut (A. Strepsiceros), and bagged it with the Fletcher rifle.  4
  We arrived early in camp, and on the following day we moved sixteen miles farther up stream, and camped under a tamarind-tree by the side of the river. No European had ever been farther than our last camp, Delladilla, and that spot had only been visited by Johann Schmidt and Florian. In the previous year, my aggageers had sabred some of the Basé at this very camping-place; they accordingly requested me to keep a vigilant watch during the night, as they would be very likely to attack us in revenge, unless they had been scared by the rifles and by the size of our party. They advised me not to remain long in this spot, as it would be very dangerous for my wife to be left almost alone during the day, when we were hunting, and that the Basé would be certain to espy us from the mountains, and would most probably attack and carry her off when they were assured of our departure. She was not very nervous about this, but she immediately called the dragoman, Mahomet, who knew the use of a gun, and she asked him if he would stand by her in case they were attacked in my absence; the faithful servant replied, “Mahomet fight the Basé? No, Missus; Mahomet not fight; if the Basé come, Missus fight; Mahomet run away; Mahomet not come all the way from Cairo to get him killed by black fellers; Mahomet will run—Inshallah!” (Please God.)  5
  This frank avowal of his military tactics was very reassuring. There was a high hill of basalt, something resembling a pyramid, within a quarter of a mile of us; I accordingly ordered some of my men every day to ascend this look-out station, and I resolved to burn the high grass at once, so as to destroy all cover for the concealment of an enemy. That evening I very nearly burned our camp; I had several times ordered the men to clear away the dry grass for about thirty yards from our resting-place; this they had neglected to obey. We had been joined a few days before by a party of about a dozen Hamran Arabs, who were hippopotami hunters; thus we mustered very strong, and it would have been the work of about half an hour to have cleared away the grass as I had desired.  6
  The wind was brisk, and blew directly toward our camp, which was backed by the river. I accordingly took a fire-stick, and I told my people to look sharp, as they would not clear away the grass. I walked to the foot of the basalt hill, and fired the grass in several places. In an instant the wind swept the flame and smoke toward the camp. All was confusion; the Arabs had piled the camel-saddles and all their corn and effects in the high grass about twenty yards from the tent; there was no time to remove all these things; therefore, unless they could clear away the grass so as to stop the fire before it should reach the spot, they would be punished for their laziness by losing their property. The fire traveled quicker than I had expected, and, by the time I had hastened to the tent, I found the entire party working frantically; the Arabs were slashing down the grass with their swords, and sweeping it away with their shields, while my Tokrooris were beating it down with long sticks and tearing it from its withered and fortunately tinder-rotten roots, in desperate haste. The flames rushed on, and we already felt the heat, as volumes of smoke enveloped us; I thought it advisable to carry the gunpowder (about 20 lbs.) down to the river, together with the rifles; while my wife and Mahomet dragged the various articles of luggage to the same place of safety. The fire now approached within about sixty yards, and dragging out the iron pins, I let the tent fall to the ground. The Arabs had swept a line like a high-road perfectly clean, and they were still tearing away the grass, when they were suddenly obliged to rush back as the flames arrived.  7
  Almost instantaneously the smoke blew over us, but the fire had expired upon meeting the cleared ground. I now gave them a little lecture upon obedience to orders; and from that day, their first act upon halting for the night was to clear away the grass, lest I should repeat the entertainment. In countries that are covered with dry grass, it should be an invariable rule to clear the ground around the camp before night; hostile natives will frequently fire the grass to windward of a party, or careless servants may leave their pipes upon the ground, which fanned by the wind would quickly create a blaze. That night the mountain afforded a beautiful appearance as the flames ascended the steep sides, and ran flickering up the deep gullies with a brilliant light.  8
  We were standing outside the tent admiring the scene, which perfectly illuminated the neighborhood, when suddenly an apparition of a lion and lioness stood for an instant before us at about fifteen yards distance, and then disappeared over the blackened ground before I had time to snatch a rifle from the tent. No doubt they had been disturbed from the mountain by the fire, and had mistaken their way in the country so recently changed from high grass to black ashes. In this locality I considered it advisable to keep a vigilant watch during the night, and the Arabs were told off for that purpose.  9
  A little before sunrise I accompanied the howartis, or hippopotamus hunters, for a day’s sport. There were numbers of hippos in this part of the river, and we were not long before we found a herd. The hunters failed in several attempts to harpoon them, but they succeeded in stalking a crocodile after a most peculiar fashion. This large beast was lying upon a sandbank on the opposite margin of the river, close to a bed of rushes.  10
  The howartis, having studied the wind, ascended for about a quarter of a mile, and then swam across the river, harpoon in hand. The two men reached the opposite bank, beneath which they alternately waded or swam down the stream toward the spot upon which the crocodile was lying. Thus advancing under cover of the steep bank, or floating with the stream in deep places, and crawling like crocodiles across the shallows, the two hunters at length arrived at the bank or rushes, on the other side of which the monster was basking asleep upon the sand. They were now about waist-deep, and they kept close to the rushes with their harpoons raised, ready to cast the moment they should pass the rush bed and come in view of the crocodile. Thus steadily advancing, they had just arrived at the corner within about eight yards of the crocodile, when the creature either saw them, or obtained their wind; in an instant it rushed to the water; at the same moment, the two harpoons were launched with great rapidity by the hunters. One glanced obliquely from the scales; the other stuck fairly in the tough hide, and the iron, detached from the bamboo, held fast, while the ambatch float, running on the surface of the water, marked the course of the reptile beneath.  11
  The hunters chose a convenient place, and recrossed the stream to our side, apparently not heeding the crocodiles more than we should pike when bathing in England. They would not waste their time by securing the crocodile at present, as they wished to kill a hippopotamus; the float would mark the position, and they would be certain to find it later. We accordingly continued our search for hippopotami; these animals appeared to be on the qui vive, and, as the hunters once more failed in an attempt, I made a clean shot behind the ear of one, and killed it dead. At length we arrived at a large pool, in which were several sandbanks covered with rushes, and many rocky islands. Among these rocks were a herd of hippopotami, consisting of an old bull and several cows; a young hippo was standing, like an ugly little statue, on a protruding rock, while another infant stood upon its mother’s back that listlessly floated on the water.  12
  This was an admirable place for the hunters. They desired me to lie down, and they crept into the jungle out of view of the river; I presently observed them stealthily descending the dry bed about two hundred paces above the spot where the hippos were basking behind the rocks. They entered the river, and swam down the centre of the stream toward the rock. This was highly exciting:—the hippos were quite unconscious of the approaching danger, as, steadily and rapidly, the hunters floated down the strong current; they neared the rock, and both heads disappeared as they purposely sank out of view; in a few seconds later they reappeared at the edge of the rock upon which the young hippo stood. It would be difficult to say which started first, the astonished young hippo into the water, or the harpoons from the hands of the howartis! It was the affair of a moment; the hunters dived directly they had hurled their harpoons, and, swimming for some distance under water, they came to the surface, and hastened to the shore lest an infuriated hippopotamus should follow them. One harpoon had missed; the other had fixed the bull of the herd, at which it had been surely aimed. This was grand sport! The bull was in the greatest fury, and rose to the surface, snorting and blowing in his impotent rage; but as the ambatch float was exceedingly large, and this naturally accompanied his movements, he tried to escape from his imaginary persecutor, and dived constantly, only to find his pertinacious attendant close to him upon regaining the surface. This was not to last long; the howartis were in earnest, and they at once called their party, who, with two of the aggageers, Abou Do and Suleiman, were near at hand; these men arrived with the long ropes that form a portion of the outfit for hippo hunting.  13
  The whole party now halted on the edge of the river, while two men swam across with one end of the long rope. Upon gaining the opposite bank, I observed that a second rope was made fast to the middle of the main line; thus upon our side we held the ends of two ropes, while on the opposite side they had only one; accordingly, the point of junction of the two ropes in the centre formed an acute angle. The object of this was soon practically explained. Two men upon our side now each held a rope, and one of these walked about ten yards before the other. Upon both sides of the river the people now advanced, dragging the rope on the surface of the water until they reached the ambatch float that was swimming to and fro, according to the movements of the hippopotamus below. By a dexterous jerk of the main line, the float was now placed between the two ropes, and it was immediately secured in the acute angle by bringing together the ends of these ropes on our side.  14
  The men on the opposite bank now dropped their line, and our men hauled in upon the ambatch float that was held fast between the ropes. Thus cleverly made sure, we quickly brought a strain upon the hippo, and, although I have had some experience in handling big fish, I never knew one pull so lustily as the amphibious animal that we now alternately coaxed and bullied. He sprang out of the water, gnashed his huge jaws, snorted with tremendous rage, and lashed the river into foam; he then dived, and foolishly approached us beneath the water. We quickly gathered in the slack line, and took a round turn upon a large rock, within a few feet of the river. The hippo now rose to the surface, about ten yards from the hunters, and, jumping half out of the water, he snapped his great jaws together, endeavoring to catch the rope, but at the same instant two harpoons were launched into his side. Disdaining retreat and maddened with rage, the furious animal charged from the depths of the river, and, gaining a footing, he reared his bulky form from the surface, came boldly upon the sandbank, and attacked the hunters open-mouthed. He little knew his enemy; they were not the men to fear a pair of gaping jaws, armed with a deadly array of tusks, but half a dozen lances were hurled at him, some entering his mouth from a distance of five or six paces, at the same time several men threw handfuls of sand into his enormous eyes. This baffled him more than the lances; he crunched the shafts between his powerful jaws like straws, but he was beaten by the sand, and, shaking his huge head, he retreated to the river. During his sally upon the shore, two of the hunters had secured the ropes of the harpoons that had been fastened in his body just before his charge; he was now fixed by three of these deadly instruments, but suddenly one rope gave way, having been bitten through by the enraged beast, who was still beneath the water. Immediately after this he appeared on the surface, and, without a moment’s hesitation, he once more charged furiously from the water straight at the hunters, with his huge mouth open to such an extent that he could have accommodated two inside passengers. Suleiman was wild with delight, and springing forward lance in hand, he drove it against the head of the formidable animal, but without effect. At the same time, Abou Do met the hippo sword in hand, reminding me of Perseus slaying the sea-monster that would devour Andromeda, but the sword made a harmless gash, and the lance, already blunted against the rocks, refused to penetrate the tough hide; once more handfuls of sand were pelted upon his face, and again repulsed by this blinding attack, he was forced to retire to his deep hole and wash it from his eyes. Six times during the fight the valiant bull hippo quitted his watery fortress, and charged resolutely at his pursuers; he had broken several of their lances in his jaws, other lances had been hurled, and, falling upon the rocks, they were blunted, and would not penetrate. The fight had continued for three hours, and the sun was about to set, accordingly the hunters begged me to give him the coup de grace, as they had hauled him close to the shore, and they feared he would sever the rope with his teeth. I waited for a good opportunity, when he boldly raised his head from water about three yards from the rifle, and a bullet from the little Fletcher between the eyes closed the last act.  15
 
 
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