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Chapter 42

SCOUTING IN THE ELEPHANT FOREST.

Here we were finally off at dawn. It was a very chilly, wet dawn, with the fog so thick that we could see not over ten feet ahead. We had four porters, carrying about twenty-five pounds apiece of the bare necessities, Kongoni, and Leyeye. The Masai struck confidently enough through the mist. We crossed neck-deep grass flats--where we were thoroughly soaked--climbed hills through a forest, skirted apparently for miles an immense reed swamp. As usual when travelling strange country in a fog, we experienced that queer feeling of remaining in the same spot while fragments of near-by things are slowly paraded by. When at length the sun's power cleared the mists, we found ourselves in the middle of a forest country of high hills.

Into this forest we now plunged, threading our way here and there where the animal trails would take us, looking always for fresh elephant spoor. It would have been quite impossible to have moved about in any other fashion. The timber grew on hillsides, and was very lofty and impressive; and the tropical undergrowth grew tall, rank, and impenetrable. We could proceed only by means of the kind assistance of the elephant, the buffalo, and the rhinoceros.

Elephant spoor we found, but none made later than three weeks before. The trails were broad, solid paths through the forest, as ancient and beaten as though they had been in continuous use for years. Unlike the rhino and buffalo trails, they gave us head room and to spare. The great creatures had by sheer might cut their way through the dense, tough growth, leaving twisted, splintered, wrecked jungle behind them, but no impediment.

By means of these beautiful trails we went quietly, penetrating farther and farther into the jungle. Our little procession of ten made no noise. If we should strike fresh elephant tracks, thus would we hunt them, with all our worldly goods at our backs, so that at night we could camp right on the trail.

The day passed almost without incident.

Once a wild crash and a snort told of a rhinoceros, invisible, but very close. We huddled together, our rifles ready, uncertain whether or not the animal would burst from the leafy screen at our very faces. The Masai stood side by side, the long spear poised, the bow bent, fine, tense figures in bronze.

Near sundown we found ourselves by a swift little stream in the bottom of a deep ravine. Here we left the men to make camp, and ourselves climbed a big mountain on the other side. It gave us a look abroad over a wilderness of hills, forested heavily, and a glimpse of the landfall far away where no white man had ever been. This was as far south as we were destined to get, though at the time we did not know it. Our plan was to push on two days more. Near the top of the ridge we found the unmistakable tracks of the bongo. This is interesting to zoologists in that it extends the southward range of this rare and shy beast.

Just at dark we regained our camp. It was built California fashion--for the first and last time in Africa: blankets spread on canvas under the open sky and a gipsy fire at our feet, over which I myself cooked our very simple meal. As we were smoking our pipes in sleepy content, Leyeye and the two Masai appeared for a shauri. Said the Masai,--

"We have taken you over the country we know. There are elephants there sometimes, but there are no elephants there now. We can take you farther, and if you wish us to do so, we will do so; but we know no more of the country than you do. But now if we return to the manyatta to-morrow, we can march two hours to where are some Wanderobo; and the Wanderobo know this country and will take you through it. If it pleases you, one of us will go get the Wanderobo, and the other will stay with you to show good faith."

We rolled our eyes at each other in humorous despair. Here at the very beginning of the reconnaissance we had run against the stone wall of African indirectness and procrastination. And just as we thought we had at last settled everything!

"Why," we inquired, "were not the Wanderobo sent at first, instead of yourselves?"

"Because," they replied, with truly engaging frankness, "our chief, Naiokotuku, thought that perhaps we might find elephant here in the country we know; and then we should get for ourselves all the presents you would give for finding elephant. But the elephant are not here now, so the Wanderobo will get part of the present."

That was certainly candid. After some further talk we decided there was no help for it; we must return to camp for a new start.

At this decision the Masai brightened. They volunteered to set off early with Leyeye, to push ahead of us rapidly, and to have the Wanderobo in camp by the time we reached there. We concealed somewhat cynical smiles, and agreed.

The early start was made, but when we reached camp we found, not the Wanderobo, but Leyeye and the Masai huddled over a fire. This was exasperating, but we could not say much. After all, the whole matter was no right of ours, but a manifestation of friendship on the part of Naiokotuku. In the early afternoon the sky cleared, and the ambassadors departed, promising faithfully to be back before we slept. We spent the day writing and in gazing at the vivid view of the hillside, the forest, and the distant miniature prospect before us. Finally we discovered what made it in essence so strangely familiar. In vividness and clarity--even in the crudity of its tones--it was exactly like a coloured photograph!

Of course the savages did not return that evening, nor did we really expect them. Just as a matter of form we packed up the next morning, and sat down to wait. Shortly before noon Leyeye and the Masai returned, bringing with them two of the strange, shy, forest hunters.

But by this time we had talked things over thoroughly. The lure of the greater kudu was regaining the strength it had lost by a long series of disappointments. We had not time left for both a thorough investigation of the forests and a raid in the dry hills of the west after kudu. Mavrouki said he knew of a place where that animal ranged. So we had come to a decision.

We called the Masai and Wanderobo before us. They squatted in a row, their spears planted before them. We sat in canvas chairs. Leyeye standing, translated. The affair was naturally of the greatest deliberation. In the indirect African manner we began our shauri.

We asked one simple question at a time, dealing with one simple phase of the subject. This phase we treated from several different points of view, in order to be absolutely certain that it was understood. To these questions we received replies in this manner:--

"Yes, the Wanderobo told us," they knew the forest; they knew how to go about in the forest; they understood how to find their way in the forest. They knew the elephant; they had seen the elephant many times in the forest; they knew where the elephant ranged in the forest--and so on through every piece of information we desired. It is the usual and only sure way of questioning natives.

Thus we learned that the elephant range extended south through the forests for about seven days' travel; that at this time of year the beasts might be anywhere on that range. This confirmed our decision. Then said we to Leyeye:--

"Tell the Masai that the bwana m'kubwa is most pleased with them, and that he is pleased with the way they have worked for him, and that he is pleased with the presents they have brought him. Tell them that he has no goods here with him, but that he has sent men back to the boma of bwana Kingozi[28] for blankets and wire and cloth, and when those men return he will make a good present to these Masai and to Naiokotuku, their chief.

"Tell the Wanderobo that the bwana m'kubwa is pleased with them, and that he thanks them for coming so far to tell him of the elephant, and that he believes they have told him the truth. Tell them the bwana m'kubwa will not fight the elephant now, because he has not the time, but must go to attend to his affairs. But later, when two years have gone, he will make another safari, and will come back to this country, and will again ask these men to lead him out where he can fight the elephant. And in the meantime he will give them rupees with which to pay their hut tax to the Government."

After various compliments the sitting rose. Then we packed up for a few hours' march. In a short time we passed the chief's village. He came out to say good-bye. A copper bronze youth accompanied him, lithe as a leopard.

"My men have told me your words," said he. "I live always in these mountains, and my young men will bring me word when you return. I am glad the white men have come to see me. I shall have the Wanderobo ready to take you to fight the elephant when you return."

He then instructed the young man to accompany us for the purpose of bringing back the presents we had promised. We shook hands in farewell, and so parted from this friendly and powerful chief.

FOOTNOTES:

[28] V.'s native name--the Master with the Red Beard.


Stewart Edward White

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