The turn-out for elk-hunting during the fashionable season at Newera Ellia is sometimes peculiarly exciting. The air is keen and frosty, the plains snow-white with the crisp hoar frost, and even at the early hour of 6 A.M. parties of ladies may be seen urging their horses round the plain on their way to the appointed meet. Here we are waiting with the anxious pack, perhaps blessing some of our more sleepy friends for not turning out a little earlier. Party after party arrives, including many of the fair sex, and the rosy tips to all countenances attest the quality of the cold even in Ceylon.
There is something peculiarly inspiriting in the early hour of sunrise upon these mountains - an indescribable lightness in the atmosphere, owing to the great elevation, which takes a wonderful effect upon the spirits. The horses and the hounds feel its influence in an equal degree; the former, who are perhaps of sober character in the hot climate, now champ the bit and paw the ground: their owners hardly know them by the change.
We have frequently mustered as many as thirty horses at a meet; but on these occasions a picked spot is chosen where the sport may be easily witnessed by those who are unaccustomed to it. The horses may, in these instances, be available, but as a rule they are perfectly useless in elk-hunting, as the plains are so boggy that they would be hock-deep every quarter of a mile. Thus no person can thoroughly enjoy elk-hunting who is not well accustomed to it, as it is a sport conducted entirely on foot, and the thinness of the air in this elevated region is very trying to the lungs in hard exercise. Thoroughly sound in wind and limb, with no superfluous flesh, must be the man who would follow the hounds in this wild country - through jungles, rivers, plains and deep ravines, sometimes from sunrise to sunset without tasting food since the previous evening, with the exception of a cup of coffee and a piece of toast before starting. It is trying work, but it is a noble sport: no weapon but the hunting-knife; no certainty as to the character of the game that may be found; it may be either an elk, or a boar, or a leopard, and yet the knife and the good hounds are all that can be trusted in.
It is a glorious sport certainly to a man who thoroughly understands it; the voice of every hound familiar to his ear; the particular kind of game that is found is at once known to him, long before he is in view, by the style of the hunting. If an elk is found, the hounds follow with a burst straight as a line, and at a killing pace, directly up the hill, till he at length turns and bends his headlong course for some stronghold in a deep river to bay. Listening to the hounds till certain of their course, a thorough knowledge of the country at once tells the huntsman of their destination, and away he goes.
He tightens his belt by a hole, and steadily he starts at a long, swinging trot, having made up his mind for a day of it. Over hills and valleys, through tangled and pathless forests, but all well known to him, steady he goes at the same pace on the level, easy through the bogs and up the hills, extra steam down hill, and stopping for a moment to listen for the hounds on every elevated spot. At length he hears them! No, it was a bird. Again he fancies that he hears a distant sound - was it the wind? No; there it is - it is old Smut's voice - he is at bay! Yoick to him! he shouts till his lungs are well-nigh cracked, and through thorns and jungles, bogs and ravines, he rushes towards the welcome sound. Thick-tangled bushes armed with a thousand hooked thorns suddenly arrest his course; it is the dense fringe of underwood that borders every forest; the open plain is within a few yards of him. The hounds in a mad chorus are at bay, and the woods ring again with the cheering sound. Nothing can stop him now - thorns, or clothes, or flesh must go - something must give way as he bursts through them and stands upon the plain.
There they are in that deep pool formed by the river as it sweeps round the rock. A buck! a noble fellow! Now he charges at the hounds, and strikes the foremost beneath the water with his fore-feet; up they come again to the surface - they hear their master's well-known shout - they look round and see his welcome figure on the steep bank. Another moment, a tremendous splash, and he is among his hounds, and all are swimming towards their noble game. At them he comes with a fierce rush. Avoid him as you best can, ye hunters, man and hounds!