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Chapter 17

AN OSTRICH FARM AT MACHAKOS.

This has to do with a lion hunt on the Kapiti Plains. On the veranda at Nairobi I had some time previous met Clifford Hill, who had invited me to visit him at the ostrich farm he and his cousin were running in the mountains near Machakos. Some time later, a visit to Juja Farm gave me the opportunity. Juja is only a day's ride from the Hills'. So an Africander, originally from the south, Captain D., and I sent across a few carriers with our personal effects, and ourselves rode over on horseback.

Juja is on the Athi Plains. Between the Athi and Kapiti Plains runs a range of low mountains around the end of which one can make his way as around a promontory. The Hills' ostrich farm was on the highlands in the bay on the other side of the promontory.

It was towards the close of the rainy season, and the rivers were up. We had to swim our horses within a half-mile of Juja, and got pretty wet. Shortly after crossing the Athi, however, five miles on, we emerged on the dry, drained slopes from the hills. Here the grass was long, and the ticks plentiful. Our horses' legs and chests were black with them; and when we dismounted for lunch we ourselves were almost immediately alive with the pests. In this very high grass the game was rather scarce, but after we had climbed by insensible grades to the shorter growth we began to see many hartebeeste, zebra, and gazelles, and a few of the wildebeeste, or brindled gnus. Travel over these great plains and through these leisurely low hills is a good deal like coastwise sailing--the same apparently unattainable landmarks which, nevertheless, are at last passed and left astern by the same sure but insensible progress. Thus we drew up on apparently continuous hills, found wide gaps between them, crossed them, and turned to the left along the other side of the promontory. About five o'clock we came to the Hills'.

The ostrich farm is situated on the very top of a conical rise that sticks up like an island close inshore to the semicircle of mountains in which end the vast plains of Kapiti. Thus the Hills have at their backs and sides these solid ramparts and face westward the immensities of space. For Kapiti goes on over the edge of the world to unknown, unguessed regions, rolling and troubled like a sea. And from that unknown, on very still days, the snowy peak of Kilimanjaro peers out, sketched as faintly against the sky as a soap bubble wafted upward and about to disappear. Here and there on the plains kopjes stand like islands, their stone tops looking as though thrust through the smooth prairie surface from beneath. To them meandered long, narrow ravines full of low brush, like thin, wavering streaks of gray. On these kopjes--each of which had its name--and in these ravines we were to hunt lions.

We began the ascent of the cone on which dwelt our hosts. It was one of those hills that seem in no part steep, and yet which finally succeed in raising one to a considerable height. We passed two ostrich herds in charge of savages, rode through a scattered native village, and so came to the farm itself, situated on the very summit.

The house consisted of three large circular huts, thatched neatly with papyrus stalks, and with conical roofs. These were arranged as a triangle, just touching each other; and the space between had been roofed over to form a veranda. We were ushered into one of these circular rooms. It was spacious and contained two beds, two chairs, a dresser, and a table. Its earth floor was completely covered by the skins of animals. In the corresponding room, opposite, slept our hosts; while the third was the living and dining room. A long table, raw-hide bottomed chairs, a large sideboard, bookcases, a long easy settee with pillows, gun racks, photographs in and out of frames, a table with writing materials, and books and magazines everywhere--not to speak of again the skins of many animals completely covering the floor. Out behind, in small, separate buildings, laboured the cook, and dwelt the stores, the bath-tub, and other such necessary affairs.

As soon as we had consumed the usual grateful lime juice and sparklets, we followed our hosts into the open air to look around.

On this high, airy hill top the Hills some day are going to build them a real house. In anticipation they have laid out grounds and have planted many things. In examining these my California training stood by me. Out there, as here, one so often examines his own and his neighbours' gardens, not for what they are but for what they shall become. His imagination can exalt this tiny seedling to the impressiveness of spreading noontime shade; can magnify yonder apparent duplicate to the full symmetry of a shrub; can ruthlessly diminish the present importance of certain grand and lofty growths to its true status of flower or animal. So from a dead uniformity of size he casts forward in the years to a pleasing variation of shade, of jungle, of open glade, of flowered vista; and he goes away full of expert admiration for "X.'s bully garden." With this solid training beneath me I was able on this occasion to please immensely.

From the house site we descended the slope to where the ostriches and the cattle and the people were in the late sunlight swarming upward from the plains pastures below. These people were, to the chief extent, Wakamba, quite savage, but attracted here by the justness and fair dealing of the Hills. Some of them farmed on shares with the Hills, the white men furnishing the land and seed, and the black men the labour; some of them laboured on wage; some few herded cattle or ostriches; some were hunters and took the field only when, as now, serious business was afoot. They had their complete villages, with priests, witch doctors, and all; and they seemed both contented and fond of the two white men.

As we walked about we learned much of the ostrich business; and in the course of our ten days' visit we came to a better realization of how much there is to think of in what appears basically so simple a proposition.

In the nesting time, then, the Hills went out over the open country, sometimes for days at a time, armed with long high-power telescopes. With these fearsome and unwieldy instruments they surveyed the country inch by inch from the advantage of a kopje. When thus they discovered a nest, they descended and appropriated the eggs. The latter, hatched at home in an incubator, formed the nucleus of a flock.

Pass the raising of ostrich chicks to full size through the difficulties of disease, wild beasts, and sheer cussedness. Of the resultant thirty birds or so of the season's catch, but two or three will even promise good production. These must be bred in captivity with other likely specimens. Thus after several years the industrious ostrich farmer may become possessed of a few really prime birds. To accumulate a proper flock of such in a new country is a matter of a decade or so. Extra prime birds are as well known and as much in demand for breeding as any blood horse in a racing country. Your true ostrich enthusiast, like the Hills, possesses trunks full of feathers not good commercially, but intensely interesting for comparison and for the purposes of prophecy. While I stayed with them came a rumour of a very fine plucking a distant neighbour had just finished from a likely two-year-old. The Hills were manifestly uneasy until one of them had ridden the long distance to compare this newcomer's product with that of their own two-year-olds. And I shall never forget the reluctantly admiring shake of the head with which he acknowledged that it was indeed a "very fine feather!"

But getting the birds is by no means all of ostrich farming, as many eager experimenters have discovered to their cost. The birds must have a certain sort of pasture land; and their paddocks must be built on an earth that will not soil or break the edges of the new plumes.

And then there is the constant danger of wild beasts. When a man has spent years in gathering suitable flocks, he cannot be blamed for wild anger when, as happened while I was in the country, lions kill sixty or seventy birds in a night. The ostrich seems to tempt lions greatly. The beasts will make their way through and over the most complicated defences. Any ostrich farmer's life is a constant warfare against them. Thus the Hills had slain sixty-eight lions in and near their farm--a tremendous record. Still the beasts continued to come in. My hosts showed me, with considerable pride, their arrangements finally evolved for night protection.

The ostriches were confined in a series of heavy corrals, segregating the birds of different ages. Around the outside of this group of enclosures ran a wide ring corral in which were confined the numerous cattle; and as an outer wall to this were built the huts of the Wakamba village. Thus to penetrate to the ostriches the enterprising lion would have to pass both the people, the cattle, and the strong thorn and log structures that contained them.

This subject brings me to another set of acquaintances we had already made--the dogs.

These consisted of an Airedale named Ruby; two setters called Wayward and Girlie; a heavy black mongrel, Nero; ditto brindle, Ben; and a smaller black and white ditto, Ranger. They were very nice friendly doggy dogs, but they did not look like lion hunters. Nevertheless, Hill assured us that they were of great use in the sport, and promised us that on the following day we should see just how.


Stewart Edward White

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