Chapter 14: Finding of the man-eaters den
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There were some rocky-looking hills lying to the south-west of Tsavo which I was particularly anxious to explore, so on one occasion when work had been stopped for the day owing to lack of material, I set off for them, accompanied by Mahina and a Punjaubi coolie, who was so stout that he went by the name of Moota (i.e. "Fattie").
In the course of my little excursions round Tsavo I gradually discovered that I was nearly always able to make my way to any required point of the compass by following certain well-defined animal paths, which I mapped out bit by bit during my explorations. On this occasion, for instance, as soon as we had crossed the river and had struck into the jungle, we were fortunate enough to find a rhino path leading in the right direction, which greatly facilitated our progress. As we were making our way along this path through the dry bed of a nullah, I happened to notice that the sandy bottom sparkled here and there where the sunbeams penetrated the dense foliage. This at once filled my head with thoughts of precious stones, and as the spot looked likely enough, I started to dig vigorously at the gravel with my hunting knife. After a few minutes of this work, I came across what I at first took to be a magnificent diamond sparkling in the damp sand: it was about half an inch long, and its facets looked as if they had been cut by an Amsterdam expert. I tested the stone on my watch glass and found that it cut my initials quite easily, and though I knew that quartz would do this as well, it did not seem to me to have either the general appearance or angles of any quartz I had ever seen. For a moment or two I was greatly delighted with my discovery, and began to have rosy dreams of a diamond mine; but I am sorry to say that on closer examination and testing I was forced to the conclusion that my find was not a diamond, though unlike any other mineral I had ever come across.
My hopes of rapidly becoming a millionaire having thus been dashed to the ground, we proceeded on our way, getting further and further into the depths of a gloomy forest. A little distance on, I noticed through a break in the trees a huge rhino standing in full view near the edge of a ravine. Unfortunately he caught sight of us as well, and before I could take aim, he snorted loudly and crashed off through the tangled undergrowth. As I followed up this ravine, walking stealthily along in the delightful shade of the overhanging palms, I observed on my left a little nullah which opened out of the main channel through a confused mass of jungle and creeper. Through this tangle there was a well-defined archway, doubtless made by the regular passage of rhino and hippo, so I decided to enter and explore what lay beyond. I had not gone very far when I came upon a big bay scooped out of the bank by the stream when in flood and carpeted with a deposit of fine, soft sand, in which were the indistinct tracks of numberless animals. In one corner of this bay, close under an overhanging tree, stood a little sandy hillock, and on looking over the top of this I saw on the other side a fearsome-looking cave which seemed to run back for a considerable distance under the rocky bank. Round the entrance and inside the cavern I was thunderstruck to find a number of human bones, with here and there a copper bangle such as the natives wear. Beyond all doubt, the man-eaters den! In this manner, and quite by accident, I stumbled upon the lair of these once-dreaded "demons", which I had spent so many days searching for through the exasperating and interminable jungle during the time when they terrorised Tsavo. I had no inclination to explore the gloomy depths of the interior, but thinking that there might possibly still be a lioness or cub inside, I fired a shot or two into the cavern through a hole in the roof. Save for a swarm of bats, nothing came out; and after taking a photograph of the cave, I gladly left the horrible spot, thankful that the savage and insatiable brutes which once inhabited it were no longer at large.
Retracing my steps to the main ravine, I continued my journey along it. After a little while I fancied I saw a hippo among some tall rushes growing on the bank, and quickly signed to Mahina and Moota to stay perfectly still. I then made a careful stalk, only to discover, after all my trouble, that my eyes had deceived me and made me imagine a black bank and a few rushes to be a living animal. We now left the bed of the ravine, and advanced along the top. This turned out to be a good move, for soon we heard the galloping of a herd of some animal or other across our front. I rushed round a corner in the path a few yards ahead, and crouching under the bushes saw a line of startled zebras flying past. This was the first time I had seen these beautifully marked animals in their wild state, so I selected the largest and fired, and as I was quite close to them he dropped in his tracks stone-dead. When I stood over the handsome creature I was positively sorry for having killed him.
Not so Moota, however, who rushed up in ecstasy, and before I could stop him had cut his throat. This was done, as he remarked, "to make the meat lawful," for Moota was a devout follower of the Prophet, and no true Mohammedan will eat the flesh of any animal unless the throat has been cut at the proper place and the blood allowed to flow. This custom has often caused me great annoyance, for Mohammedan followers rush in so quickly when an animal is shot and cut the head off so short that it is afterwards quite useless as a trophy.
By the time the zebra was skinned, darkness was fast approaching, so we selected a suitable tree in which to pass the night. Under it we built a goodly fire, made some tea, and roasted a couple of quails which I had shot early in the day and which proved simply delicious. We then betook ourselves to the branches -- at least, Mahina and I did; Moota was afraid of nothing, and said he would sleep on the ground. He was not so full of courage later on, however, for about midnight a great rhino passed our way, winded us and snorted so loudly that Moota scrambled in abject terror up our tree. He was as nimble as a monkey for all his stoutness, and never ceased climbing until he was far above us. We both laughed heartily at his extraordinary haste to get out of danger, and Mahina chaffed him unmercifully.
The rest of the night passed without incident, and in the early morning, while the boys were preparing breakfast, I strolled off towards the rocky hills which I had seen from Tsavo, and which were now only about half a mile distant. I kept a sharp look-out for game, but came across nothing save here and there a paa and a few guinea-fowl, until, just as I was about half-way round the hill, I saw a fine leopard lying on a rocky ledge basking in the morning sun. But he was too quick for me, and made off before I could get a shot; I had not approached noiselessly enough, and a leopard is too wary a beast to be caught napping. Unfortunately I had no more time at my disposal in which to explor these hills, as I was anxious to resume work at Tsavo as soon as possible; so after breakfast we packed up the zebra skin and began to retrace our steps through the jungle. It was an intensely hot day, and we were all very glad when at length we reached the home camp.
Most of my little trips of this sort, however, were made in a northerly direction, towards the ever-interesting Athi or Sabaki rivers. After a long and tiring walk through the jungle what a pleasure it was to lie up in the friendly shelter of the rushes which line the banks, and watch the animals come down to drink, all unconscious of my presence. I took several photographs of scenes of this kind, but unfortunately many of the negatives were spoiled. Often, too, on a brilliant moonlight night have I sat on a rock out in the middle of the stream, near a favourite drinking place, waiting for a shot at whatever fortune might send my way. How exasperating it was, when the wind changed at the critical moment, and gave me away to the rhino or other animal I had sat there for hours patiently awaiting! Occasionally I would get heartily tired of my weary vigil and would wade ashore through the warm water, to make my bed in the soft sand regardless of the snap, snap of the crocodiles which could plainly be heard from the deeper pools up and down the river. At the time, being new to the country, I did not realise the risks I ran; but later on -- after my poor Wa Kamba follower had been seized and dragged under, as I have already described -- I learned to be much more cautious.
The shortest way of reaching the Athi river from Tsavo was to strike through the jungle in a north-westerly direction, and here there was luckily a particularly well-defined rhino path which I always made use of. I discovered it quite by accident on one occasion when I had asked some guests, who were staying with me at Tsavo, to spend a night on the banks of the river. As we were making our way slowly and painfully through the dense jungle, I came across this well-trodden path, which appeared to lead in the direction in which I wished to go, and as I felt convinced that at any rate it would bring us to the river somewhere, I followed it with confidence. Our progress was now easy, and the track led through fairly open glades where traces of bush-buck and water-buck were numerous; indeed once or twice we caught glimpses of these animals as they bounded away to the shelter of the thicket, warned by the sound of our approach. In the end, as I anticipated, the old rhino path proved a true guide, for it struck the Athi at an ideal spot for a camping ground, where some lofty trees close to the bank of the river gave a most grateful and refreshing shade. We had a delightful picnic, and my guests greatly enjoyed their night in the open, although one of them got rather a bad fright from a rhino which suddenly snorted close to our camp, evidently very annoyed at our intrusion on his domain.
In the morning they went off as soon as it was light to try their luck along the river, while I remained in camp to see to breakfast. After an hour or more, however, they all returned, empty-handed but very hungry; so when they had settled down to rest after a hearty meal, I thought I would sally forth and see if I could not meet with better success. I had gone only a short distance up the right bank of the river, when I thought I observed a movement among the bushes ahead of me. On the alert, I stopped instantly, and the next moment was rewarded by seeing a splendid bush-buck advance from the water in a most stately manner. I could only make out his head and neck above the undergrowth, but as he was only some fifty yards off, I raised my rifle to my shoulder to fire. This movement at once caught his eye, and for the fraction of a second he stopped to gaze at me, thus giving me time to aim at where I supposed his shoulder to be. When I fired, he disappeared so suddenly and so completely that I felt sure that I had missed him, and that he had made off through the bush. I therefore re-loaded, and advanced carefully with the intention of following up his trail; but to my unbounded delight I came upon the buck stretched out dead in his tracks, with my bullet through his heart. I lost no time in getting back to camp, the antelope swinging by his feet from a branch borne by two sturdy coolies: and my unlucky friends were very much astonished when they saw the fine bag I had secured in so short a time. The animal was soon skinned and furnished us with a delicious roast for lunch; and in the cool of the evening we made our way back to Tsavo without further adventure.
Some little time after this, while one of these same friends (Mr. C. Rawson) happened to be again at Tsavo, we were sitting after dark under the verandah of my hut. I wanted something from my tent, and sent Meeanh, my Indian chaukidar, to fetch it. He was going off in the dark to do so, when I called him back and told him to take a lantern for fear of snakes. This he did, and as soon as he got to the door of the tent, which was only a dozen yards off, he called out frantically, "Are, Sahib, burra sanp hai!" ("Oh, Master, there is a big snake here!)
"Where?" I shouted.
"Here by the bed," he cried, "Bring the gun, quickly."
I seized the shot-gun, which I always kept handy, and rushed to the tent, where, by the light of the lantern, I saw a great red snake, about seven feet long, gazing at me from the side of my camp-bed. I instantly fired at him, cutting him clean in half with the shot; the tail part remained where it was, but the head half quickly wriggled off and disappeared in the gloom of the tent. The trail of blood, however, enabled us to track it, and we eventually found the snake, still full of fight, under the edge of the ground-sheet. He made a last vicious dart at one of the men who had run up, but was quickly given the happy despatch by a blow on the head. Rawson now picked it up and brought it to the light. He then put his foot on the back of its head and with a stick forced open the jaws, when suddenly we saw two perfectly clear jets of poison spurt out from the fangs.
An Indian baboo (clerk), who happened to be standing near, got the full benefit of this, and the poor man was so panic-stricken that in a second he had torn off every atom of his clothing. We were very much amused at this, as of course we knew that although the poison was exceedingly venomous, it could do no harm unless it penetrated a cut or open wound in the flesh. I never found out the name of this snake, which, as I have said, was of a dark brick-red colour all over; and I only saw one other of the same kind all the time I was in East Africa. I came upon it suddenly one day when out shooting.
It was evidently much startled, and stood erect, hissing venomously; but I also was so much taken aback at its appearance that I did not think about shooting it until it had glided off and disappeared in the thick undergrowth.
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