CHAPTER V. A primitive craft - Stalking the giraffes - My first giraffes - Rare sport with the finny tribe - Thieving elephants.

For many days, while at Sofi, we saw large herds of giraffes and antelopes on the opposite side of the river, about two miles distant. On September 2d a herd of twenty-eight giraffes tempted me at all hazards to cross the river. So we prepared an impromptu raft. My angarep (bedstead) was quickly inverted. Six water-skins were inflated, and lashed, three on either side. A shallow packing- case, lined with tin, containing my gun, was fastened in the centre of the angarep, and two towlines were attached to the front part of the raft, by which swimmers were to draw it across the river. Two men were to hang on behind, and, if possible, keep it straight in the rapid current. After some difficulty we arrived at the opposite bank, and scrambled through thick bushes, upon our hands and knees, to the summit.

For about two miles' breadth on this side of the river the valley was rough broken ground, full of gullies and ravines sixty or seventy feet deep, beds of torrents, bare sandstone rocks, bushy crags, fine grassy knolls, and long strips of mimosa covert, forming a most perfect locality for shooting.

I had observed by the telescope that the giraffes were standing as usual upon an elevated position, from whence they could keep a good lookout. I knew it would be useless to ascend the slope directly, as their long necks give these animals an advantage similar to that of the man at the masthead; therefore, although we had the wind in our favor, we should have been observed. I accordingly determined to make a great circuit of about five miles, and thus to approach them from above, with the advantage of the broken ground for stalking. It was the perfection of uneven country. By clambering up broken cliffs, wading shoulder-deep through muddy gullies, sliding down the steep ravines, and winding through narrow bottoms of high grass and mimosas for about two hours, we at length arrived at the point of the high table-land upon the verge of which I had first noticed the giraffes with the telescope. Almost immediately I distinguished the tall neck of one of these splendid animals about half a mile distant upon my left, a little below the table-land; it was feeding on the bushes, and I quickly discovered several others near the leader of the herd. I was not far enough advanced in the circuit that I had intended to bring me exactly above them, therefore I turned sharp to my right, intending to make a short half circle, and to arrive on the leeward side of the herd, as I was now to windward. This I fortunately completed, but I had marked a thick bush as my point of cover, and upon arrival I found that the herd had fed down wind, and that I was within two hundred yards of the great bull sentinel that, having moved from his former position, was now standing directly before me.

I lay down quietly behind the bush with my two followers, and anxiously watched the great leader, momentarily expecting that it would get my wind. It was shortly joined by two others, and I perceived the heads of several giraffes lower down the incline, that were now feeding on their way to the higher ground. The seroot fly was teasing them, and I remarked that several birds were fluttering about their heads, sometimes perching upon their noses and catching the fly that attacked their nostrils, while the giraffes appeared relieved by their attentions. These birds were of a peculiar species that attacks the domestic animals, and not only relieves them of vermin, but eats into the flesh and establishes dangerous sores. A puff of wind now gently fanned the back of my neck; it was cool and delightful, but no sooner did I feel the refreshing breeze than I knew it would convey our scent directly to the giraffes. A few seconds afterward the three grand obelisks threw their heads still higher in the air, and fixing their great black eyes upon the spot from which the warning came, they remained as motionless as though carved from stone. From their great height they could see over the bush behind which we were lying at some paces distant, and although I do not think they could distinguish us to be men, they could see enough to convince them of hidden enemies.

The attitude of fixed attention and surprise of the three giraffes was sufficient warning for the rest of the herd, who immediately filed up from the lower ground, and joined their comrades. All now halted and gazed steadfastly in our direction, forming a superb tableau, their beautiful mottled skins glancing like the summer coat of a thoroughbred horse, the orange-colored statues standing out in high relief from a background of dark-green mimosas.

This beautiful picture soon changed. I knew that my chance of a close shot was hopeless, as they would presently make a rush and be off; thus I determined to get the first start. I had previously studied the ground, and I concluded that they would push forward at right angles with my position, as they had thus ascended the hill, and that, on reaching the higher ground, they would turn to the right, in order to reach an immense tract of high grass, as level as a billiard-table, from which no danger could approach them unobserved.

I accordingly with a gentle movement of my hand directed my people to follow me, and I made a sudden rush forward at full speed. Off went the herd, shambling along at a tremendous pace, whisking their long tails above their hind quarters, and, taking exactly the direction I had anticipated, they offered me a shoulder shot at a little within two hundred yards' distance. Unfortunately, I fell into a deep hole concealed by the high grass, and by the time that I resumed the hunt they had increased their distance; but I observed the leader turned sharply to the right, through some low mimosa bush, to make directly for the open table-land. I made a short cut obliquely at my best speed, and only halted when I saw that I should lose ground by altering my position. Stopping short, I was exactly opposite the herd as they filed by me at right angles in full speed, within about a hundred and eighty yards. I had my old Ceylon No. 10 double rifle, and I took a steady shot at a large dark-colored bull. The satisfactory sound of the ball upon his hide was followed almost immediately by his blundering forward for about twenty yards and falling heavily in the low bush. I heard the crack of the ball of my left-hand barrel upon another fine beast, but no effects followed. Bacheet quickly gave me the single two-ounce Manton rifle, and I singled out a fine dark-colored bull, who fell on his knees to the shot, but, recovering, hobbled off disabled, apart from the herd, with a foreleg broken just below the shoulder. Reloading immediately, I ran up to the spot, where I found my first giraffe lying dead, with the ball clean through both shoulders. The second was standing about one hundred paces distant. Upon my approach he attempted to move, but immediately fell, and was despatched by my eager Arabs. I followed the herd for about a mile to no purpose, through deep clammy ground and high grass, and I returned to our game.

These were my first giraffes, and I admired them as they lay before me with a hunter's pride and satisfaction, but mingled with a feeling of pity for such beautiful and utterly helpless creatures. The giraffe, although from sixteen to twenty feet in height, is perfectly defenceless, and can only trust to the swiftness of its pace and the extraordinary power of vision, for its means of protection. The eye of this animal is the most beautiful exaggeration of that of the gazelle, while the color of the reddish-orange hide, mottled with darker spots, changes the tints of the skin with the differing rays of light, according to the muscular movement of the body. No one who has merely seen the giraffe in a cold climate can form the least idea of its beauty in its native land.

Life at Sofi was becoming sadly monotonous, and I determined to move my party across the river to camp on the uninhabited side. The rains had almost ceased, so we should be able to live in a tent by night, and to form a shady nook beneath some mimosas by day. On the 15th of September the entire male population of Sofi turned out to assist us across the river. I had arranged a raft by attaching eight inflated skins to the bedstead, upon which I lashed our large circular sponging bath. Four hippopotami hunters were harnessed as tug steamers. By evening all our party, with the baggage, had effected the crossing without accident - all but Achmet, Mahomet's mother's brother's cousin's sister's mother's son, who took advantage of his near relative, when the latter was in the middle of the stream, and ran off with most of his personal effects.

The life at our new camp was charmingly independent. We were upon Abyssinian territory, but as the country was uninhabited we considered it as our own. Our camp was near the mouth of a small stream, the Till, tributary to the Atbara, which afforded some excellent sport in fishing. Choosing one day a fish of about half a pound for bait, I dropped this in the river about twenty yards beyond the mouth of the Till, and allowed it to swim naturally down the stream so as to pass across the Till junction, and descend the deep channel between the rocks. For about ten minutes I had no run. I had twice tried the same water without success; nothing would admire my charming bait; when, just as it had reached the favorite turning-point at the extremity of a rock, away dashed the line, with the tremendous rush that follows the attack of a heavy fish. Trusting to the soundness of my tackle, I struck hard and fixed my new acquaintance thoroughly, but off he dashed down the stream for about fifty yards at one rush, making for a narrow channel between two rocks, through which the stream ran like a mill-race. Should he pass this channel, I knew he would cut the line across the rock; therefore, giving him the butt, I held him by main force, and by the great swirl in the water I saw that I was bringing him to the surface; but just as I expected to see him, my float having already appeared, away he darted in another direction, taking sixty or seventy yards of line without a check. I at once observed that he must pass a shallow sandbank favorable for landing a heavy fish; I therefore checked him as he reached this spot, and I followed him down the bank, reeling up line as I ran parallel with his course. Now came the tug of war! I knew my hooks were good and the line sound, therefore I was determined not to let him escape beyond the favorable ground; and I put upon him a strain that, after much struggling, brought to the surface a great shovel-head, followed by a pair of broad silvery sides, as I led him gradually into shallow water. Bacheet now cleverly secured him by the gills, and dragged him in triumph to the shore. This was a splendid bayard, of at least forty pounds' weight.

I laid my prize upon some green reeds, and covered it carefully with the same cool material. I then replaced my bait by a lively fish, and once more tried the river. In a very short time I had another run, and landed a small fish of about nine pounds, of the same species. Not wishing to catch fish of that size, I put on a large bait, and threw it about forty yards into the river, well up the stream, and allowed the float to sweep the water in a half circle, thus taking the chance of different distances from the shore. For about half an hour nothing moved. I was just preparing to alter my position, when out rushed my line, and, striking hard, I believed I fixed the old gentleman himself, for I had no control over him whatever. Holding him was out of the question; the line flew through my hands, cutting them till the blood flowed, and I was obliged to let the fish take his own way. This he did for about eighty yards, when he suddenly stopped. This unexpected halt was a great calamity, for the reel overran itself, having no checkwheel, and the slack bends of the line caught the handle just as he again rushed forward, and with a jerk that nearly pulled the rod from my hands he was gone! I found one of my large hooks broken short off. The fish was a monster!

After this bad luck I had no run until the evening, when, putting on a large bait, and fishing at the tail of a rock between the stream and still water, I once more had a fine rush, and hooked a big one. There were no rocks down stream, all was fair play and clear water, and away he went at racing pace straight for the middle of the river. To check the pace I grasped the line with the stuff of my loose trousers, and pressed it between my fingers so as to act as a brake and compel him to labor for every yard; but he pulled like a horse, and nearly cut through the thick cotton cloth, making straight running for at least a hundred yards without a halt. I now put so severe a strain upon him that my strong bamboo bent nearly double, and the fish presently so far yielded to the pressure that I could enforce his running in half circles instead of straight away. I kept gaining line until I at length led him into a shallow bay, and after a great fight Bacheet embraced him by falling upon him and clutching the monster with hands and knees; he then tugged to the shore a magnificent fish of upward of sixty pounds. For about twenty minutes lie had fought against such a strain as I had never before used upon a fish; but I had now adopted hooks of such a large size and thickness that it was hardly possible for them to break, unless snapped by a crocodile. My reel was so loosened from the rod, that had the struggle lasted a few minutes longer I must have been vanquished. This fish measured three feet eight inches to the root of the tail, and two feet three inches in girth of shoulders ; the head measured one foot ten inches in circumference. It was of the same species as those I had already caught.

Over a month was passed at our camp, Ehetilla, as we called it. The time passed in hunting, fishing, and observing the country, but it was for the most part uneventful. In the end of October we removed to a village called Wat el Negur, nine miles south-east of Ehetilla, still on the bank of the Atbara.

Our arrival was welcomed with enthusiasm. The Arabs here had extensive plantations of sesame, dhurra, and cotton, and the nights were spent in watching them, to scare away the elephants, which, with extreme cunning, invaded the fields of dhurra at different points every night, and retreated before morning to the thick, thorny jungles of the Settite. The Arabs were without firearms, and the celebrated aggageers or sword-hunters were useless, as the elephants appeared only at night, and were far too cunning to give them a chance. I was importuned to drive away the elephants, and one evening, about nine o'clock, I arrived at the plantations with three men carrying spare guns. We had not been half an hour in the dhurra fields before we met a couple of Arab watchers, who informed us that a herd of elephants was already in the plantation; we accordingly followed our guides. In about a quarter of an hour we distinctly heard the cracking of the dhurra stems, as the elephants browsed and trampled them beneath their feet.

Taking the proper position of the wind, I led our party cautiously in the direction of the sound, and in about five minutes I came in view of the slate-colored and dusky forms of the herd. The moon was bright, and I counted nine elephants; they had trampled a space of about fifty yards square into a barren level, and they were now slowly moving forward, feeding as they went. One elephant, unfortunately, was separated from the herd, and was about forty yards in the rear; this fellow I was afraid would render our approach difficult. Cautioning my men, especially Bacheet, to keep close to me with the spare rifles, I crept along the alleys formed by the tall rows of dhurra, and after carefully stalking against the wind, I felt sure that it would be necessary to kill the single elephant before I should be able to attack the herd. Accordingly I crept nearer and nearer, well concealed in the favorable crop of high and sheltering stems, until I was within fifteen yards of the hindmost animal. As I had never shot one of the African species, I was determined to follow the Ceylon plan, and get as near as possible; therefore I continued to creep from row to row of dhurra, until I at length stood at the very tail of the elephant in the next row. I could easily have touched it with my rifle, but just at this moment it either obtained my wind or it heard the rustle of the men. It quickly turned its head half round toward me; in the same instant I took the temple-shot, and by the flash of the rifle I saw that it fell. Jumping forward past the huge body, I fired the left-hand barrel at an elephant that had advanced from the herd; it fell immediately! Now came the moment for a grand rush, as they stumbled in confusion over the last fallen elephant, and jammed together in a dense mass with their immense ears outspread, forming a picture of intense astonishment! Where were my spare guns? Here was an excellent opportunity to run in and floor them right and left!

Not a man was in sight! Everybody had bolted, and I stood in advance of the dead elephant calling for my guns in vain. At length one of my fellows came up, but it was too late. The fallen elephant in the herd had risen from the ground, and they had all hustled off at a great pace, and were gone. I had only bagged one elephant. Where was the valiant Bacheet - the would-be Nimrod, who for the last three months had been fretting in inactivity, and longing for the moment of action, when he had promised to be my trusty gun-bearer? He was the last man to appear, and he only ventured from his hiding-place in the high dhurra when assured of the elephants' retreat. I was obliged to admonish the whole party by a little physical treatment, and the gallant Bacheet returned with us to the village, crestfallen and completely subdued. On the following day not a vestige remained of the elephant, except the offal; the Arabs had not only cut off the flesh, but they had hacked the skull and the bones in pieces, and carried them off to boil down for soup.