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Chapter 43

THE TOPI CAMP.

At the next camp we stayed for nearly a week.

The country was charming. Mountains surrounded the long ellipse, near one edge of which we had pitched our tents. The ellipse was some ten miles long by four or five wide, and its surface rolled in easy billows to a narrow neck at the lower end. There we could just make out in the far distance a conical hill partly closing the neck. Atop the hill was a Masai manyatta, very tiny, with indistinct crawling red and brown blotches that meant cattle and sheep. Beyond the hill, and through the opening in the ellipse, we could see to another new country of hills and meadows and forest groves. In this clear air they were microscopically distinct. No blue of atmosphere nor shimmer of heat blurred their outlines. They were merely made small.

Our camp was made in the open above a tiny stream. We saw wonderful sunrises and sunsets, and always spread out before us was the sweep of our plains and the unbroken ramparts that hemmed us in. From these mountains meandered small stream-ways marked by narrow strips of trees and brush, but the most of the valley was of high green grass. Occasional ant hills ten feet tall rose conical from the earth; and the country was pleasingly broken and modelled, so that one continually surmounted knolls, low, round ridges, and the like. Of such conditions are surprises made.

The elevation here was some 7,000 feet, so that the nights were cold and the days not too warm. Our men did not fancy this change of weather. A good many of them came down with the fever always latent in their systems, and others suffered from bronchial colds.

At one time we had down sick eleven men out of our slender total. However, I believe, in spite of these surface symptoms, that the cold air did them good. It certainly improved our own appetites and staying power.

In the thirty or forty square miles of our valley were many herds of varied game. We here for the first time found Neuman's hartebeeste. The type at Narossara, and even in Lengetto, was the common Coke's hartebeeste, so that between these closely allied species there interposes at this point only the barriers of a climb and a forest. These animals and the zebra were the most plentiful of the game. The zebra were brilliantly white and black, with magnificent coats. Thompson's and Roberts' gazelles were here in considerable numbers, eland, Roosevelt's wildebeeste, giraffe, the smaller grass antelopes, and a fair number of topi. In the hills we saw buffalo sign, several cheetah, and heard many lions.

It had been our first plan that C. should return immediately to V.'s boma after supplies, but in view of the abundance of game we decided to wait over a day. We much desired to get four topi, and this seemed a good chance to carry some of them out. Also we wished to decide for certain whether or not the hartebeeste here was really of the Neuman variety.

We had great luck. Over the very first hill from camp we came upon a herd of about a dozen topi, feeding on a hill across the way. I knocked down the first one standing at just 250 paces. The herd then split and broke to right and left. By shooting very carefully and steadily I managed to kill three more before they were out of range. The last shot was at 325 paces. In all I fired seven shots, and hit six times. This was the best shooting I did in Africa--or anywhere else--and is a first-rate argument for the Springfield and the high velocity, sharp-pointed bullet.

Overjoyed at our luck in collecting these animals so promptly, so near camp, and at a time so very propitious for handling the trophies, we set to the job of skinning and cutting up. The able-bodied men all came out from camp to carry in the meat. They appeared, grinning broadly, for they had had no meat since leaving the Narossara. C. and I saw matters well under way, and then went on to where I had seen a cheetah the day before. Hardly were we out of sight when two lions sauntered over the hill and proceeded to appropriate the meat! The two men in charge promptly withdrew. A moment later a dozen porters on their way out from camp topped the hill and began to yell at the lions. The latter then slowly and reluctantly retreated.

We were very sorry we had not stayed. The valley seemed populated with lions, but in general they were, for some reason, strictly nocturnal. By day they inhabited the fastnesses of the mountain ranges. We never succeeded in tracing them in that large and labyrinthine country; nor at any time could we induce them to come to kills. Either their natural prey was so abundant that they did not fancy ready-killed food; or, what is more likely, the cold nights prevented the odour of the carcasses from carrying far. We heard lions every night; and every morning we conscientiously turned out before daybreak to crawl up to our bait through the wet, cold grass, but with no results. That very night we were jerked from a sound sleep by a tremendous roar almost in camp. So close was it that it seemed to each of us but just outside the tent. We came up all standing. The lion, apparently, was content with that practical joke, for he moved off quietly. Next morning we found where the tracks had led down to water, not ten yards away.

We spent the rest of that day spying on the game herds. It is fascinating work, to lie belly down on a tall ant hill, glasses steadied by elbows, picking out the individual animals and discussing them low-voiced with a good companion. C. and I looked over several hundred hartebeeste, trying to decide their identity. We were neither of us familiar with the animal, and had only recollections of the book distinctions. Finally I picked out one that seemed to present the most marked characteristics--and missed him clean at 280 yards. Then I took three shots at 180 yards to down a second choice. The poor shooting was forgotten, however, in our determination that this was indeed Neumanii.

A vain hunt for lions occupied all the next day. The third morning C. started for the boma, leaving Billy and me to look about us as we willed. Shortly after he had departed a delegation of Masai came in, dressed in their best, and bearing presents of milk. Leyeye was summoned as interpreter.

The Masai informed us that last night a lion had leapt the thorn walls of their boma, had pressed on through the fires, had seized a two-year-old steer, and had dragged the beast outside. Then the pursuit with spears and firebrands had become too hot for him, so that he had dropped his victim and retired. They desired (a) medicine for the steer, (b) magic to keep that lion away, (c) that I should assist them in hunting the lion down.

I questioned them closely, and soon discovered both that the lion must have been very bold, and also that he had received a pretty lively reception. Magic to keep him away seemed like a safe enough proposition, for the chances were he would keep himself away.

Therefore I filled a quart measure with clear water, passed my hand across its untroubled surface--and lo! it turned a clear bright pink!

Long-drawn exclamations of "Eigh! Eigh!" greeted this magic, performed by means of permanganate crystals held between the fingers.

"With this bathe the wounds of your steer. Then sprinkle the remainder over your cattle. The lion will not return," said I. Then reflecting that I was to be some time in the country, and that the lion might get over his scare, I added, "The power of this magic is three days."

They departed very much impressed. A little later Memba Sasa and I followed them. The manyatta was most picturesquely placed atop the conical hill at the foot of the valley. From its elevation we could see here and there in the distance the variegated blotches of red and white and black that represented the cattle herds. Innumerable flocks of sheep and goats, under charge of the small boys and youths, fed nearer at hand. The low smooth-plastered huts, with their abattis of thorn bush between, crowned the peak like a chaplet. Outside it sat a number of elders sunning themselves, and several smiling, good-natured young women, probably the spoiled darlings of these plutocrats. One of these damsels spake Swahili, so we managed to exchange compliments. They told us exactly when and how the lion had gone. Three nimble old gentlemen accompanied us when we left. They were armed with spears; and they displayed the most extraordinary activity, skipping here and there across the ravines and through the brush, casting huge stones into likely cover, and generally making themselves ubiquitous. However, we did not come up with the lion.

In our clinic that evening appeared one of the men claiming to suffer from rheumatism. I suspected him, and still suspect him, of malingering in advance in order to get out of the hard work we must soon undertake, but had no means of proving my suspicion. However, I decided to administer asperin. We possessed only the powdered form of the drug. I dumped about five grains on his tongue, and was about to proffer him the water with which to wash it down--when he inhaled sharply! I do not know the precise effect of asperin in the windpipe, but it is not pleasant. The boy thought himself bewitched. His eyes stuck out of his head; he gasped painfully; he sank to the ground; he made desperate efforts to bolt out into the brush. By main strength we restrained him, and forced him to swallow the water. Little by little he recovered. Next night I missed him from the clinic, and sent Abba Ali in search. The man assured Abba Ali most vehemently that the medicine was wonderful, that every trace of rheumatism had departed, that he never felt better in his life, and that (important point) he was perfectly able to carry a load on the morrow.


Stewart Edward White

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