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Chapter 15: Unsuccesful rhino hunts

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Although the jungle round Tsavo was a network of rhino paths I had never so far been successful in my efforts to obtain one of these animals, nor was my ambition yet to be realised. One day I was out exploring in the dense bush some six or seven miles away from camp, and found my progress more than usually slow, owing to the fact that I had to spend most of my time crawling on all-fours through the jungle.

I was very pleased, therefore, to emerge suddenly on a broad and well-beaten track along which I could walk comfortably in an upright position. In this were some fresh rhino footprints which seemed barely an hour old, so I determined to follow them up. The roadway was beaten in places into a fine white dust by the passage of many heavy animals; and as I pushed cautiously forward I fully expected to come face to face with a rhino at every corner I turned. After having gone a little way I fancied that I really did see one lying at the foot of a tree some distance ahead of me, but on approaching cautiously found that it was nothing more than a great brown heap of loose earth which one of the huge beasts had raised by rolling about on the soft ground. This, however, was evidently a resting-place which was regularly used, so I made up my mind to spend a night in the overhanging branches of the tree.

The next afternoon, accordingly, Mahina and I made our way back to the place, and by dusk we were safely but uncomfortably perched among the branches directly over the path. We had scarcely been there an hour when to our delight we heard a great rhino plodding along the track in our direction. Unfortunately the moon had not yet risen, so I was unable to catch sight of the monster as he approached; I knew, however, that there was light enough for me to see him when he emerged from the bushes into the little clearing round the foot of our tree. Nearer and nearer we heard him coming steadily on, and I had my rifle ready, pointing it in the direction in which I expected his head to appear. But, alas, just at that moment the wind veered round and blew straight from us towards the rhino, who scented us immediately, gave a mighty snort and then dived madly away through the jungle. For some considerable time we could hear him crashing ponderously through everything that came in his way, and he must have gone a long distance before he recovered from his fright and slowed down to his usual pace. At any rate we neither heard nor saw anything more of him, and spent a wakeful and uncomfortable night for nothing.

My next attempt to bag a rhino took place some months later, on the banks of the Sabaki, and was scarcely more successful. I had come down from Tsavo in the afternoon, accompanied by Mahina, and finding a likely tree, within a few yards of the river and with fresh footprints under it, I at once decided to take up my position for the night in its branches. Mahina preferred to sit where he could take a comfortable nap, and wedged himself in a fork of the tree some little way below me, but still some eight or ten feet from the ground. It was a calm and perfect night, such as can be seen only in the tropics; everything looked mysteriously beautiful in the glorious moonlight, and stood out like a picture looked at through a stereoscope. From my perch among the branches I watched first a water-buck come to drink in the river; then a bush-buck; later, a tiny paa emerged from the bushes and paused at every step with one graceful forefoot poised in the air -- thoroughly on the alert and looking round carefully and nervously for any trace of a possible enemy. At length it reached the brink of the river in safety, and stooped to drink. Just then I saw a jackal come up on its trail and begin carefully to stalk it, not even rustling a fallen leaf in its stealthy advance on the poor little antelope. All of a sudden, however, the jackal stopped dead for a second, and then made off out of sight as fast as ever he could go. I looked round to discover the cause of this hurried exit, and to my surprise saw a large and very beautiful leopard crouching down and moving noiselessly in the direction of our tree. At first I thought it must be stalking some animal on the ground below us, but I soon realised that it was Mahina that the brute was intent on. Whether, if left to himself, the leopard would actually have made a spring at my sleeping gun-bearer, I do not know; but I had no intention of letting him have a chance of even attempting this, so I cautiously raised my rifle and levelled it at him. Absolutely noiseless as I was in doing this, he noticed it -- possibly a glint of moonlight on the barrel caught his eye -- and immediately disappeared into the bush before I could get in a shot. I at once woke Mahina and made him come up to more secure quarters beside me.

For a long time after this nothing disturbed our peace, but at last the quarry I had hoped for made his appearance on the scene. Just below us there was an opening in the elephant grass which lined the river’s edge, and through this the broad stream shone like silver in the moonlight. Without warning this gap was suddenly filled by a huge black mass -- a rhino making his way, very leisurely, out of the shallow water. On he came with a slow, ponderous tread, combining a certain stateliness with his awkward strides. Almost directly beneath us he halted and stood for an instant clearly exposed to our view. This was my opportunity; I took careful aim at his shoulder and fired. Instantly, and with extraordinary rapidity, the huge beast whirled round like a peg-top, whereupon I fired again. This time I expected him to fall; but instead of that I had the mortification of seeing him rush off into the jungle and of hearing him crash through it like a great steam-roller for several minutes. I consoled myself by thinking that he could not go far, as he was hard hit, and that I should easily find him when daylight arrived. Mahina, who was in a wild state of excitement over the burra janwar (great animal), was also of this opinion, and as there was no longer any reason for silence, he chatted to me about many strange and curious things until the grey dawn appeared. When we got down from our perch, we found the track of the wounded rhino clearly marked by great splashes of blood, and for a couple of miles the spoor could thus be easily followed. At length, however, it got fainter and fainter, and finally ceased altogether, so that we had to abandon the search; the ground round about was rocky, and there was no possibility of telling which way our quarry had gone. I was exceedingly sorry for this, as I did not like to leave him wounded; but there was no help for it, so we struck out for home and arrived at Tsavo in the afternoon very tired, hungry and disappointed.

Rhinos are extraordinary animals, and not in any way to be depended upon. One day they will sheer off on meeting a human being and make no attempt to attack; the next day, for no apparent reason, they may execute a most determined charge. I was told for a fact by an official who had been long in the country that on one occasion while a gang of twenty-one slaves, chained neck to neck as was the custom, was being smuggled down to the coast and was proceeding in Indian file along a narrow path, a rhinoceros suddenly charged out at right angles to them, impaled the centre man on its horns and broke the necks of the remainder of the party by the suddenness of his rush.

These huge beasts have a very keen sense of smell, but equally indifferent eyesight, and it is said that if a hunter will only stand perfectly still on meeting a rhino, it will pass him by without attempting to molest him. I feel bound to add, however, that I have so far failed to come across anybody who has actually tried the experiment. On the other hand, I have met one or two men who have been tossed on the horns of these animals, and they described it as a very painful proceeding. It generally means being a cripple for life, if one even succeeds in escaping death. Mr. B. Eastwood, the chief accountant of the Uganda Railway, once gave me a graphic description of his marvellous escape from an infuriated rhino. He was on leave at the time on a hunting expedition in the neighbourhood of Lake Baringo, about eighty miles north of the railway from Nakuru, and had shot and apparently killed a rhino. On walking up to it, however, the brute rose to its feet and literally fell on him, breaking four ribs and his right arm.

Not content with this, it then stuck its horn through his thigh and tossed him over its back, repeating this operation once or twice. Finally, it lumbered off, leaving poor Eastwood helpless and fainting in the long grass where he had fallen. He was alone at the time, and it was not for some hours that he was found by his porters, who were only attracted to the spot by the numbers of vultures hovering about, waiting in their ghoulish manner for life to be extinct before beginning their meal. How he managed to live for the eight days after this which elapsed before a doctor could be got to him I cannot imagine; but in the end he fortunately made a good recovery, the only sign of his terrible experience being the absence of his right arm, which had to be amputated.

 

 


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