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.