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II. Elephant His not all Roses

Count Zsigmond Széchenyi – Land of Elephants

Kitui Forest. November, 1932.

“ELEPHANT-HUNTER.” It sounds fine there in the yielding arm-chair of civilisation, beside the crackling fire and the hot cups of tea, and under cover of a distance of four or five thousand miles. I can almost hear those sighs at home: “Ah! Old So-and-so (me, for instance), has a good time of it, going off again and leaving us here in the mess and muddle of all our worries and troubles, not caring a hoot about anybody else.

Off he goes into the jungle,

forgetting all about us and having but one care in the world; how much the tusks of the elephant he’s after may weigh. Lucky blighter. That’s the life.”

Well, as a matter of fact, it is. We live the life of the elephant-hunter. That, I will not deny it, is most desirable and attractive to me, but it is not perhaps so fearfully enviable, perhaps not even that ne plus ultra which the experts at home imagine. On the contrary: not only perhaps not, but quite definitely not. I would go as far as to say that it is quite unrecognisably different.

For the elephant-hunter’s life,

his daily lot is: useless exhaustion, privation, regrets,ever-repeated failure and ever-reiterated strain on his endurance, his nerves and, above all, his patience. His days are work-days, robot-days, with every now and again a Sunday, but very rarely. Yesterday was such, to-morrow will not be any different; for three weeks all has been quiet on the elephant front. It is a common saying hereabouts that no hunter is entitled to a big bull elephant till he has done two hundred solid miles on foot. As far as I am concerned, I qualified a long time ago.

But before talking about to-day’s happenings, here is a little sketch of the position.

A quarter-acre clearing in a vast thorn forest. In the clearing a dark-brown, evil-smelling, knee-deep bog: our drinking-water, cooking-water, washing-water, as occasion arises. On the edge of the bog, a large fig tree; under it, my tent. Farther off, under another fig tree, my men’s quarters: for tent, the shade of the tree above them, and for beds, the earth below them.

There are about twenty of them.

Two “Kirongozi.” The wandering guides of the district poachers in their spare time. Insignia: bow, quiver, spear, loin-cloth.

One “gunbearer.”

The individual responsible for the rifles, ammunition and photographic apparatus. Insignia: the ruins of a pair of canvas trousers, one tennis shoe (there were two when we started, but the other has dissolved since), a woollen beret with a tassel.

The “cook.” Insignia: one eye, trousers, bunch of keys on a belt as he is also the treasurer responsible for the provisions in the locked chests.

The “butler.” Insignia: yellow-brown shoes with big toes sticking out of both of them, shorts, a rainbow-hued pullover, a straw boater minus its brim and a little film-star moustache.

The rest are porters for my belongings; unaspiring savages without even distinguishing marks.

For the rest, they are all as black as the others, and the less they wear the honester they are, and vice versa. He of the Pullover, therefore, is the biggest ruffian of the lot.

Now: past five o’clock and not a sign of the butler- valet, though he ought to call me at five o’clock prompt. The good nigger reckons time by guess-work, not by the possession of a wrist-watch.

Luckily, or rather unluckily, I have already been awake for some time to-day, as the rain is pouring down and my tent is already soaked.

A fumbling hunt for my electric torch.

It ought to be under my pillow, but has fallen down in the night. So I go groping for it, and find it in a pool of mud under my bed. It won’t light. I dredge up the matches, but the box is so damp that after breaking the heads off ten of them there is still no sign of a light. And then how dank and damp are one’s shirt and trousers and stockings, with yesterday’s rain not dried from them. A pleasure to get into them. Refreshing. In my boots some migrating ants have bivouacked for the night.

They take bloody vengeance on me for disturbing them so early.

But such things are mere bagatelles. These are mere aperitif contributions to getting up, little morning reminders in case one should by any chance make a mistake, and, I suppose, set off for the day in a really good humour.

Meanwhile He of the Pullover materialises. As a matter of fact, at such times he discards his insignia, not liking to expose them to the rain and preferring to get it straight on to his skin. He brings breakfast: a plate of rain-swollen porridge, and tea. While I am consuming this, the more essential members of the hunt assemble: the Kirongozi, the gunbearer and the water-carrier.

All shivering, their lower jaws fairly rattling. The good nigger is always cold at dawn, but in such a wretched, soaking dawn he is as smitten with ague.

We set off into the forest.

We are off to search for fresh spoor of the old, solitary, bull elephant, to pursue and just possibly to come up with him.

Yes, just like that. Except that we have already been doing it for three weeks with no result. He is hereabouts for all that, or he comes every now and again; for on several occasions we have come across his days old spoor; but he disappears again and wanders off to other pastures.

The rain has stopped. At such times it is child’s-play to follow the spoor if there is any. Those eighteen-inch feet drive holes the size of buckets in the soaked, yielding soil; a blind man could make no mistake about it. We proceed along a network of varied elephant tracks wriggling through the forest. The foliage is bent with the weight of rain, and so matted together that we can only cut our way through the thick wicker-work with the “panga,” the broad-bladed bill-hook of the natives.

In half no time we are looking like drowned rats. There will be plenty of opportunity to dry; nor need we wait long. By nine o’clock the sun is blazing so that we would take to the soaked thickets with pleasure if only there were any just there. Every now and again we come to a swamp and plunge knee-deep into the nauseously exhalant bog, or sometimes go in up to the middle in the morass that hides an old elephant track. But we don’t greatly care; it is refreshingly cool to our lower halves.

Plenty worse to come.

The sun climbs up the sky. It grows and grows in merciless strength, pours down on us a hard rain of fiery darts, beats with glowing hammers on my head, dulling, dizzying, maddening my throbbing brain.

The Sun in full rage.

The same benignant, health-giving, welcomed Sun, for which we wait impatiently at home; that refreshing, encouraging, fuel-saving, plant-forcing, cold-routing Sun! Who has done it wrong that now I must protect myself against it and flee before its face? What heals at home here threatens my life.

At noon, with our bodies throwing not a finger’s breadth of shade, and with the Sun hurling his fiery bolts perpendicularly upon us, we stop and tumble stupidly under the shade of some thicket for a short noonday rest. After a tin of sardines, the bubbling oil of which nearly scorches my fingers, and a pannikin of tepid water, my mind, which had in the last three hours completely given up work, begins to stir once more.

There is trouble with the chocolate again. Chocolate is my one little luxury. A little slab of chocolate properly done up in silver paper. But when the sun’s wrath has been at it, it undergoes strange metamorphoses. Sometimes it has been squashed to a rhomboid, sometimes to a trapezoid, sometimes a polygon which no geometry could define. And in some incomprehensible fashion, the silver paper on such occasions gets innermost, aijd the chocolate on the outside. Every day I can await my midday meal with the pleasure of an almost uncontrollable curiosity as to what new guise my chocolate will adopt this time.

But to-day I was in for a nasty shock; for the heat had been too much for it, and it had run clean out of the haversack. All it had left behind in remembrance was the silver paper.

To heave myself out of the short after-dinner doze, is like waking from a drugged slumber. What exactly am I after? Oh, of course. Elephant

tracks. Come on, then. Once again I surrender my carefully cooled head

to the unbridled sun, and my ragged clothes and bleeding skin to the thorns for further treatment. But of elephant tracks fresh and big, such as I search for there is not the slightest sign.

Three hours later I turn back so as to reach camp before darkness comes on, for the natives are as helpless by night as they are brilliant guides by day. Their guide and Kirongozi is the Sun.

Now, on the way back,

the flame of the celestial Kirongozi is at last on the decrease. He has exhausted most of his ammunition, put forth his strength, knows he is defeated, and in impotent wrath thereat flushes redder and redder. And the more the blood rushes to his head, the more innocuous he becomes. After five o’clock he is so tamed that one can look him straight in the face. But he still goes on trying, getting more and more apoplectic till about six, when he suddenly bursts and his blood spurts out over the low western sky.

The tropical night is no tactful lingerer. It shuts down suddenly, before dusk can get a look in, sweeping clean in a matter of minutes the sun’s blood-stained couch, curtaining, darkening the world, while it lights, not one by one, but with one mighty main switch, its host of starry lamps. It is in a hurry for fear it should lose one single moment of its twelve-hour reign.

I reach home just, so to speak, at closing time. Dead tired, hungry, dirty, ragged. Not that it matters now, for before me is the whole gamut of pleasure.

In front of the tent, in the light of the lamp, my canvas bath is waiting to embrace me. The water in it is a brown and stinking soup but cool,  brown soup. And moreover it is dark in it, the lamp’s light not reaching so far, and there is such a thing as illusion. At such times one conjures up every bit of it.

Then a proper hot supper.

The first course is, perhaps, not up to much being the daily dose of quinine. But after that come all sorts of things. True that it is accompanied by an abundance of mosquitoes, moths and winged ants. More than one really desires at dinner-time.

So many that the soup heaves with them, and the glass rings with their flatterings. Rings softly like some little crystal bell. One could attribute to oneself a special virtue in fishing out the smothering suicides one by one. One could break all records for life-saving. The boatman who lies in wait for his prey under the Chain Bridge in Budapest could have a perfect orgy here. But it being a question of rescuing my supper besides the bugs and beetles, I must needs cover my plate with another plate; then, with  extreme caution, slip a fork and spoon between the two, extract a morsel of food, and hastily snap the two plates together again, quick as a mouse- trap. Like hooking pearls out of a half-open shell.

After supper, surgery hours.

Every evening five or six patients squat behind my tent in their open-air waiting-room. This, however, I can scarcely count among the pleasures for pulling out thorns from horny nigger feet, washing and binding up filthy, mattery wounds and scorpion bites, administering quinine and castor oil my two universal medicines does not exactly contribute to the enjoyment of the evening.

Then comes the usual evening “sauri” (the evening conference). The  whole council of elders comes to my tent: two Kirongozi, the gunbearer and an interpreter. This last individual is necessary because the Kirongozi only understand the Wakamba tongue, and I only understand Swahili as much as I understand anything. I, on this occasion, lie on my bed, and the council squats all round me.

The Council of War

on to-morrow’s operations proceeds at great length and with terrific solemnity. Everybody explains in great detail his own opinion, and proves the Tightness of it with examples. A vote settles the differences, and when at last we have succeeded in deciding exactly how I am going to shoot the big’ elephant to-morrow, the conference breaks up. “Sauri ne kwisa, kwaheri!” the departing elders say. (“The sitting is ended, farewell.”)

And finally, a little tailoring. Not much. Only the absolutely, inescapably necessary. The tattered legs of my trousers already reach no farther than my calves, and soon will have turned into shorts. The shirt is pretty decrepit by now, too; stuff for patches has always had to be cut away from the bottom, shortening it progressively till now it will hardly reach down to the trousers. I never had any great love for tailoring. Nor am I very good at it. My only consolation is an Arab proverb: ‘Thy beauty lies not in thy dress.”

And last of all the “mpisi” (cook) appears with his large alarm clock which I must set for the time when he is to get up next day, and which, at night-time, in the case of every proper safari reposes under the “mpisi’s” head. All very nice. But there were no elephant tracks to-day either. And how much longer is that going on?

* * *

That is the daily life of the elephant-hunter.

There are some exceptional days, when you find tracks, follow them, but do not succeed in over-taking the elephant before night. And then, without tent and without food, you can spend the night on the track, open to the attacks of mosquitoes and all the vagaries of the weather. I hope that after all this my reader may feel a proper pity for me. I think I already see tears of compassion in his eyes.

Enough of moaning; down with this half-glass of whisky and swamp water, and huddle under the mosquito net. Inside is quite a different world from outside the net. All the ardour  evaporated in the course of the day wells up again. With a good book one is at peace with the world; even with elephants. And meanwhile, hope, as it has every night for three weeks, springs up again.

To-morrow, perhaps. . . .