THE FRINGE-EARED ORYX.
At ten o'clock the following morning we started. On the high front seat, under an awning, sat the German, F., and I. The body of the truck was filled with safari loads, Memba Sasa, Simba Mohammed, and F.'s boy, whose name I have forgotten. The arrangement on the front seat was due to a strike on the part of F.
"Look here," said he to me, "you've got to sit next that rotter. We want him to bring us back some water from the other side, and I'd break his neck in ten minutes. You sit next him and give him your motor car patter."
Therefore I took the middle seat and played chorus. The road was not a bad one, as natural mountain roads go; I have myself driven worse in California. Our man, however, liked to exaggerate all the difficulties, and while doing it to point to himself with pride as a perfect wonder. Between times he talked elementary mechanics.
"The inflammation of the sparkling plugs?" was one of his expressions that did much to compensate.
The country mounted steadily through the densest thorn scrub I have ever seen. It was about fifteen feet high, and so thick that its penetration, save by made tracks, would have been an absolute impossibility. Our road ran like a lane between two spiky jungles. Bold bright mountains cropped up, singly and in short ranges, as far as the eye could see them.
This sort of thing for twenty miles--more than a hard day's journey on safari. We made it in a little less than two hours; and the breeze of our going kept us reasonably cool under our awning. We began to appreciate the real value of our diplomacy.
At noon we came upon a series of unexpectedly green and clear small hills just under the frown of a sheer rock cliff. This oasis in the thorn was occupied by a few scattered native huts and the usual squalid Indian dukka, or trading store. At this last our German friend stopped. From under the seat he drew out a collapsible table and a basket of provisions. These we were invited to share. Diplomacy's highest triumph!
After lunch we surmounted our first steep grade to the top of a ridge. This we found to be the beginning of a long elevated plateau sweeping gently downward to a distant heat mist, which later experience proved a concealment to snowcapped Kilimanjaro. This plateau also looked to be covered with scrub. As we penetrated it, however, we found the bushes were more or less scattered, while in the wide, shallow dips between the undulations were open grassy meadows. There was no water. Isolated mountains or peaked hills showed here and there in the illimitable spaces, some of them fairly hull down, all of them toilsomely distant. This was the Serengetti itself.
In this great extent of country somewhere were game herds. They were exceedingly migratory, and nobody knew very much about them. One of the species would be the rare and localized fringe-eared oryx. This beast was the principal zoological end of our expedition; though, of course, as always, we hoped for a chance lion. Geographically we wished to find the source of the Swanee River, and to follow that stream down to its joining with the Tsavo. About half-past one we passed our safari boys. We had intended to stop and replenish their canteens from our water-drums; but they told us they had encountered a stray and astonishing shower, and did not need more. We left them trudging cheerfully across the desert. They had travelled most of the night before, would do the same in the night to come, and should reach our camping-place about noon of the next day.
We ourselves stopped about four o'clock. In a few hours we had come a hard three days' march. Over the side went our goods. We bade the German a very affectionate farewell; for he was still to fill our drums from one of the streams out of Kilimanjaro and deliver them to us on his return trip next day. We then all turned to and made camp. The scrub desert here was exactly like the scrub desert for the last sixty miles.
The next morning we were up and off before sunrise. In this job time was a very large element of the contract. We must find our fringe-eared oryx before our water supply gave out. Therefore we had resolved not to lose a moment.
The sunrise was most remarkable--lace work, flat clouds, with burnished copper-coloured clouds behind glowing through the lace. We admired it for some few moments. Then one of us happened to look higher. There, above the sky of the horizon, apparently suspended in mid-air half-way to the zenith, hung like delicate bubbles the double snow-cloud peaks of Kilimanjaro. Between them and the earth we could apparently see clear sky. It was in reality, of course, the blue-heat haze that rarely leaves these torrid plains. I have seen many mountains in all parts of the world, but none as fantastically insubstantial; as wonderfully lofty; as gracefully able to yield, before clouds and storms and sunrise glows, all the space in infinity they could possibly use, and yet to tower above them serene in an upper space of its own. Nearly every morning of our journey to come we enjoyed this wonderful vision for an hour or so. Then the mists closed in. The rest of the day showed us a grayish sky along the western horizon, with apparently nothing behind it.
In the meantime we were tramping steadily ahead over the desert; threading the thorn scrub, crossing the wide shallow grass-grown swales; spying about us for signs of game. At the end of three or four miles we came across some ostrich and four hartebeeste. This encouraged us to think we might find other game soon, for the hartebeeste is a gregarious animal. Suddenly we saw a medium-sized squat beast that none of us recognized, trundling along like a badger sixty yards ahead. Any creature not easily identified is a scientific possibility in Africa. Therefore we fired at once. One of the bullets hit his foreleg paw. Immediately this astonishing small creature turned and charged us! If his size had equalled his ferocity, he would have been a formidable opponent. We had a lively few minutes. He rushed us again and again, uttering ferocious growls. We had to step high and lively to keep out of his way. Between charges he sat down and tore savagely at his wounded paw. We wanted him as nearly perfect a specimen as possible, so tried to rap him over the head with a club. Owing to remarkably long teeth and claws, this was soon proved impracticable; so we shot him. He weighed about fifty pounds, and we subsequently learned that he was a honey badger, an animal very rarely captured.
We left the boys to take the whole skin and skull of this beast, and strolled forward slowly. The brush ended abruptly in a wide valley. It had been burnt over, and the new grass was coming up green. We gave one look, and sank back into cover.
The sparse game of the immediate vicinity had gathered to this fresh feed. A herd of hartebeeste and gazelle were grazing, and five giraffe adorned the sky-line. But what interested us especially was a group of about fifty cob-built animals with the unmistakable rapier horns of the oryx. We recognized them as the rarity we desired.
The conditions were most unfavourable. The cover nearest them gave a range of three hundred yards, and even this would bring them directly between us and the rising sun. There was no help for it, however. We made our way to the bushes nearest the herd, and I tried to align the blurs that represented my sights. At the shot, ineffective, they raced to the right across our front. We lay low. As they had seen nothing they wheeled and stopped after two hundred yards of flight. This shift had brought the light into better position. Once more I could define my sights. From the sitting position I took careful aim at the largest buck. He staggered twenty feet and fell dead. The distance was just 381 paces. This shot was indeed fortunate, for we saw no more fringe-eared oryx.
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