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Chapter 38

THE LOWER BENCHES.

The Narossara is really only about creek size, but as it flows the whole year round it merits the title of river. It rises in the junction of a long spur with the main ranges, cuts straight across a wide inward bend of the mountains, joins them again, plunges down a deep and tremendous cañon to the level of a second bench below great cliffs, meanders peacefully in flowery meadows and delightful glades for some miles, and then once more, and most unexpectedly, drops eighteen hundred feet by waterfall and precipitous cascade to join the Southern Guaso Nyero. The country around this junction is some of the roughest I saw in Africa.

We camped at the spot where the river ran at about its maximum distance from the mountains. Our tents were pitched beneath the shade of tall and refreshing trees.

A number of Masai women visited us, laughing and joking with Billy in their quizzically humorous fashion. Just as we were sitting down at table an Englishman wandered out of the greenery and approached. He was a small man with a tremendous red beard, wore loose garments and tennis shoes, and strolled up, his hands in his pockets and smoking a cigarette. This was V., a man of whom we had heard. A member of a historical family, officer in a crack English regiment, he had resigned everything to come into this wild country. Here he had built a boma, or enclosed compound, and engaged himself in acquiring Masai sheep in exchange for beads, wire, and cloth. Obviously the profits of such transactions could not be the temptation. He liked the life, and he liked his position of influence with these proud and savage people. Strangely enough, he cared little for the sporting possibilities of the country, though of course he did a little occasional shooting; but was quite content with his trading, his growing knowledge of and intimacy with the Masai, and his occasional tremendous journeys. To the casual and infrequent stranger his attitude was reported most uncertain.

We invited him to tea, which he accepted, and we fell into conversation. He and C. were already old acquaintances. The man, I found, was shy about talking of the things that interested him; but as they most decidedly interested us also we managed to convey an impression of our sincerity. Thereafter he was most friendly. His helpfulness, kindness, and courtesy could not have been bettered. He lent us his own boy as guide down through the cañons of the Narossara to the Lower Benches, where we hoped to find kudu; he offered store-room to such of our supplies as we intended holding in reserve; he sent us sheep and eggs as a welcome variety to our game diet; and in addition he gave us Masai implements and ornaments we could not possibly have acquired in any other way. It is impossible to buy the personal belongings of this proud and independent people at any price. The price of a spear ordinarily runs about two rupees' worth, when one trades with any other tribe. I know of a case where a Masai was offered fifty rupees for his weapon, but refused scornfully. V. acquired these things through friendship; and after we had gained his, he was most generous with them. Thus he presented us with a thing almost impossible to get and seen rarely outside of museums--the Masai war bonnet, made of the mane of a lion. It is in shape and appearance, though not in colour, almost exactly like the grenadier's shako of the last century. In addition to this priceless trophy, V. also gave us samples of the cattle bells, both wooden and metal, ivory ear ornaments, bead bracelets, steel collars, circumcision knives, sword belts, and other affairs of like value. But I think that the apogée of his kindliness was reached when much later he heard from the native tribes that we were engaged in penetrating the defiles of the higher mountains. Then he sent after us a swift Masai runner bearing to us a bottle of whisky and a message to the effect that V. was afraid we would find it very cold up there! Think of what that meant; turn it well over in your mind, with all the circumstances of distance from supplies, difficulty of transportation and all! We none of us used whisky in the tropics, so we later returned it with a suitable explanation and thanks as being too good to waste.

Next morning, under guidance of our friend's boy, we set out for the Lower Benches, leaving N'gombe Brown and his outfit to camp indefinitely until we needed him for the return journey.

The whole lie of the land hereabout is, roughly speaking, in a series of shelves. Behind us were the high mountains--the Fourth Bench; we had been travelling on the plateau of the Loieta--the Third Bench; now we were to penetrate some apparently low hills down an unexpected thousand feet to the Second Bench. This was smaller, perhaps only five miles at its widest. Its outer rim consisted also of low hills concealing a drop of precipitous cliffs. There were no passes nor cañons here--the streams dropped over in waterfalls--and precarious game trails offered the only chance for descent. The First Bench was a mere ledge, a mile or so wide. From it one looked down into the deep gorge of the Southern Guaso Nyero, and across to a tangle of eroded mountains and malpais that filled the eye. Only far off in an incredible distance were other blue mountains that marked the other side of the great Rift Valley.

Our present task was to drop from the Third Bench to the Second. For some distance we followed the Narossara; then, when it began to drop into its tremendous gorge, we continued along the hillsides above it until, by means of various "hogs' backs" and tributary cañons, we were able to regain its level far below. The going was rough and stony, and hard on the porters, but the scenery was very wild and fine. We met the river bottom again in the pleasantest oval meadow with fine big trees. The mountains quite surrounded us, towering imminent above our heads. Ahead of us the stream broke through between portals that rose the full height of the ranges. We followed it, and found ourselves on the Second Bench.

Here was grass, high grass in which the boys were almost lost to sight. Behind us the ramparts rose sheer and high, and over across the way were some low fifty-foot cliffs that marked a plateau land. Between the plateau and the ranges from which we had descended was a sort of slight flat valley through which meandered the forest trees that marked the stream.

We turned to the right and marched an hour. The river gradually approached the plateau, thus leaving between it and the ramparts a considerable plain, and some low foothills. These latter were reported to be one of the feeding grounds of the greater kudu.

We made a most delightful camp at the edge of great trees by the stream. The water flowed at the bottom of a little ravine, precipitous in most places, but with gently sloping banks at the spot we had chosen. It flowed rapidly over clean gravel, with a hurrying, tinkling sound. A broad gravel beach was spread on the hither side of it, like a spacious secret room in the jungle. Here too was a clear little slope on which to sit, with the thicket all about, the clean, swift little stream below, the high forest arches above, and the inquisitive smaller creatures hovering near. Others had been here before us, the wild things, taking advantage of the easy descent to drinking water--eland, buffalo, leopard, and small bucks. The air was almost cloyingly sweet with a perfume like sage-brush honey.

Our first task was to set our boys to work clearing a space; the grass was so high and rank that mere trampling had little effect on it. The Baganda, Sabakaki, we had been compelled to leave with the ox team. So our twenty-seven had become twenty-six.

Next morning C. and I started out very early with one gunbearer. The direction of the wind compelled us to a two hours' walk before we could begin to hunt. The high grass was soaked with a very heavy dew, and shortly we were as wet as though we had fallen into the river. A number of hornbills and parrots followed us for some distance, but soon left us in peace. We saw the Roberts' gazelle and some hartebeeste.

When we had gained a point of vantage, we turned back and began to work slowly along the base of the mountains. We kept on a general level a hundred feet or so up their slope, just high enough to give us a point of overlook for anything that might stir either in the flat plateau foothills or the plains. We also kept a sharp lookout for signs.

We had proceeded in this manner for an hour when in an opening between two bushes below us, and perhaps five hundred yards away, we saw a leopard standing like a statue, head up, a most beautiful spectacle. While we watched her through the glasses, she suddenly dropped flat out of sight. The cause we discovered to be three hartebeeste strolling sociably along, stopping occasionally to snatch a mouthful, but headed always in the direction of the bushes behind which lay the great cat. Much interested, we watched them. They disappeared behind the screen. A sudden flash marked the leopard's spring. Two badly demoralized hartebeeste stamped out into the open and away; two only. The kill had been made.

We had only the one rifle with us, for we were supposed to be out after kudu only, and were travelling as light as possible. No doubt the Springfield would kill a leopard, if the bullet landed in the right place. We discussed the matter. It ended, of course, in our sneaking down there; I with the Springfield, and C. with his knife unsheathed. Our precautions and trepidations were wasted. The leopard had carried the hartebeeste bodily some distance, had thrust it under a bush, and had departed. C. surmised it would return towards evening.

Therefore we continued after kudu. We found old signs, proving that the beasts visited this country, but nothing fresh. We saw, however, the first sing-sing, some impalla, some klipspringer, and Chanler's reed-buck.

At evening we made a crafty stalk atop the mesa-like foothills to a point overlooking the leopard's kill. We lay here looking the place over inch by inch through our glasses, when an ejaculation of disgust from Kongoni called our attention. There at another spot that confounded beast sat like a house cat watching us cynically. Either we had come too soon, or she had heard us and retired to what she considered a safe distance. There was of course no chance of getting nearer; so I sat down, for a steadier hold, and tried her anyway. At the shot she leaped high in the air, rolled over once, then recovered her feet and streaked off at full speed. Just before disappearing over a slight rise, she stopped to look back. I tried her again. We concluded this shot a miss, as the distance and light were such that only sheer luck could have landed the bullet. However, that luck was with us. Later developments showed that both shots had hit. One cut a foreleg, but without breaking a bone, and the other had hit the paunch. One was at 380 paces and the other at 490.

We found blood on the trail, and followed it a hundred yards and over a small ridge to a wide patch of high grass. It was now dark, the grass was very high, and the animal probably desperate. The situation did not look good to us, badly armed as we were. So we returned to camp, resolved to take up the trail again in the morning.

Every man in camp turned out next day to help beat the grass. C., with the ·405, stayed to direct and protect the men; while I, with the Springfield, sat down at the head of the ravine. Soon I could hear the shrieks, rattles, shouts, and whistles of the line of men as they beat through the grass. Small grass bucks and hares bounded past me; birds came whirring by. I sat on a little ant hill spying as hard as I could in all directions. Suddenly the beaters fell to dead silence. Guessing this as a signal to me that the beast had been seen, I ran to climb a higher ant hill to the left. From there I discerned the animal plainly, sneaking along belly to earth, exactly in the manner of a cat after a sparrow. It was not a woods-leopard, but the plains-leopard, or cheetah, supposed to be a comparatively harmless beast.

At my shot she gave one spring forward and rolled over into the grass. The nearest porters yelled, and rushed in. I ran, too, as fast as I could, but was not able to make myself heard above the row. An instant later the beast came to its feet with a savage growl and charged the nearest of the men. She was crippled, and could not move as quickly as usual, but could hobble along faster than her intended victim could run. This was a tall and very conceited Kavirondo. He fled, but ran around in circles in and out of his excited companions. The cheetah followed him, and him only, with most single-minded purpose.

I dared not shoot while men were in the line of fire even on the other side of the cheetah, for I knew the high-power bullet would at that range go right on through, and I fairly split my throat trying to clear the way. It seemed five minutes, though it was probably only as many seconds, before I got my chance. It was high time. The cheetah had reared to strike the man down.[23] My shot bowled her over. She jumped to her feet again, made another dash at the thoroughly scared Kavirondo, and I killed her just at his coat-tails.

The cheetahs ordinarily are supposed to be cowards, although their size and power are equal to that of other leopards. Nobody is afraid of them. Yet this particular animal charged with all the ferocity and determination of the lion, and would certainly have killed or badly mauled my man.[24] To be sure it had been wounded, and had had all night to think about it.

In the relief from the tension we all burst into shrieks of laughter; all except the near-victim of the scrimmage, who managed only a sickly smile. Our mirth was short. Out from a thicket over a hundred yards away walked one of the men, who had been in no way involved in the fight, calmly announcing that he had been shot. We were sceptical, but he turned his back and showed us the bullet hole at the lower edge of the ribs. One of my bullets, after passing through the cheetah, had ricocheted and picked this poor fellow out from the whole of an empty landscape. And this after I had delayed my rescue fairly to the point of danger in order to avoid all chance of hurting some one!

We had no means of telling how deeply the bullet had penetrated; so we reassured the man, and detailed two men to assist him back to camp by easy stages. He did not seem to be suffering much pain, and he had lost little strength.

At camp, however, we found that the wound was deep. C. generously offered to make a forced march in order to get the boy out to a hospital. By hitting directly across the rough country below the benches it was possible to shorten the journey somewhat, provided V. could persuade the Masai to furnish a guide. The country was a desert, and the water scarce. We lined up our remaining twenty-six men and selected the twelve best and strongest. These we offered a month and a half's extra wages for the trip. We then made a hammock out of one of the ground cloths, and the same afternoon C. started. I sent with him four of my own men as far as the ox-wagon for the purpose of bringing back more supplies. They returned the next afternoon bringing also a report from C. that all was well so far, and that he had seen a lion. He made the desert trip without other casualty than the lost of his riding mule, and landed the wounded man in the hospital all right. In spite of C.'s expert care on the journey out, and the best of treatment later, the boy, to my great distress, died eleven days after reaching the hospital. C. was gone just two weeks.

In the meantime I sent out my best trackers in all directions to look for kudu signs, conceiving this the best method of covering the country rapidly. In this manner I shortly determined that chances were small here, and made up my mind to move down to the edge of the bench where the Narossara makes its plunge. Before doing so, however, I hunted for and killed a very large eland bull reported by Mavrouki. This beast was not only one of the largest I ever saw, but was in especially fine coat. He stood five feet six inches high at the shoulder; was nine feet eight inches long, without the tail; and would weigh twenty-five hundred pounds. The men were delighted with this acquisition. I now had fourteen porters, the three gunbearers, the cook, and the two boys. They surrounded each tiny fire with switches full of roasting meat; they cut off great hunks for a stew; they made quantities of biltong, or jerky.

Next day I left Kongoni and one porter at the old camp, loaded my men with what they could carry, and started out. We marched a little over two hours; then found ourselves beneath a lone mimosa tree about a quarter-mile from the edge of the bench. At this point the stream drops into a little cañon preparatory to its plunge; and the plateau rises ever so gently in tremendous cliffs. I immediately dispatched the porters back for another load. A fine sing-sing lured me across the river. I did not get the sing-sing, but had a good fight with two lions, as narrated elsewhere.[A]

In this spot we camped a number of days; did a heap of hard climbing and spying; killed another lion out of a band of eight;[25] thoroughly determined that we had come at the wrong time for kudu, and decided on another move.

This time our journey lasted five hours, so that our relaying consumed three days. We broke back through the ramparts, by means of another pass we had discovered when looking for kudu, to the Third Bench again. Here we camped in the valley of Lengeetoto.

This valley is one of the most beautiful and secluded in this part of Africa. It is shaped like an ellipse, five or six miles long by about three miles wide, and is completely surrounded by mountains. The ramparts of the western side--those forming the walls of the Fourth Bench--rise in sheer rock cliffs, forest crowned. To the east, from which direction we had just come, were high, rounded mountains. At sunrise they cut clear in an outline of milky slate against the sky.

The floor of this ellipse was surfaced in gentle undulations, like the low swells of a summer sea. Between each swell a singing, clear-watered brook leapt and dashed or loitered through its jungle. Into the mountains ran broad upward-flung valleys of green grass; and groves of great forest trees marched down cañons and out a short distance into the plains. Everything was fresh and green and cool. We needed blankets at night, and each morning the dew was cool and sparkling, and the sky very blue. Underneath the forest trees of the stream beds and the cañon were leafy rooms as small as a closet, or great as cathedral aisles. And in the short brush dwelt rhinoceros and impalla; in the jungles were buffalo and elephant; on the plains we saw giraffe, hartebeeste, zebra, duiker; and in the bases of the hills we heard at evening and early morning the roaring of lions.

In this charming spot we lingered eight days. Memba Sasa and I spent most of our time trying to get one of the jungle-dwelling buffalo without his getting us. In this we were finally successful.[26] Then, as it was about time for C. to return, we moved back to V.'s boma on the Narossara; relaying, as usual, the carrying of our effects. At this time I had had to lay off three more men on account of various sorts of illness, so was still more cramped for transportation facilities. As we were breaking camp a lioness leaped to her feet from where she had been lying under a bush. So near was it to camp that I had not my rifle ready. She must have been lying there within two hundred yards of our tents, watching all our activities.

We drew into V.'s boma a little after two o'clock. The man in charge of our tent did not put in an appearance until next day. Fortunately V. had an extra tent, which he lent us. We camped near the river, just outside the edge of the river forest. The big trees sent their branches out over us very far above, while a winding path led us to the banks of the river where was a dingle like an inner room. After dark we sat with V. at our little camp fire. It was all very beautiful--the skyful of tropical stars, the silhouette of the forest shutting them out, the velvet blackness of the jungle flickering with fireflies, the purer outlines of the hilltops and distant mountains to the left, the porters' tiny fires before the little white tents; and in the distance, from the direction of V.'s boma, the irregular throb of the dance drum and the occasional snatch of barbaric singing borne down on the night wind from where his Wakambas were holding an n'goma. A pair of ibis that had been ejected when we made camp contributed intermittent outraged and raucous squawks from the tiptop of some neighbouring tree.

FOOTNOTES:

[23] This is an interesting fact--that she reared to strike instead of springing.

[24] It must be remembered that this beast had the evening before killed a 350-pound hartebeeste with ease.

[25] "The Land of Footprints."

[26] "The Land of Footprints."


Stewart Edward White

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