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The Great Hunters

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A Dangerous Lion Hunt by "The Lion Hunter", Roualeyn George Gordon Cumming

In March 1844 Cumming and his party arrived at a deserted Boer house in the neighbourhood of the Riet River, present day Orange Free State. On the night of the 19th, the hunter heard an animal cry not known to him before. As if accustomed to the sound from infancy he recognized it at once as a lions roaring, and resolved to hunt the animal.

About two miles north of the bushy mountain where I had heard the lion roar, far in the vast level plain, were some bushy mimosa trees. Within a few hundred yards of these we discovered an old bull wildebeest, newly killed by a lion and half-eaten. His large and striking footprints were deeply embedded in the sand, and so fresh that they seemed to have been imprinted only a few minutes before. Moreover, there was not a single vulture (1) near the carcase. We therefore felt convinced that the lion must be lying somewhere near us, having hidden himself on our approach. We searched for some time in the adjacent hollows, where the grass was very rank, but in vain. On reaching camp I suddenly resolved to take men and horses with me and spend the night in the vicinity of the lion and search early for him on the following morning. Accordingly, while dinner was preparing, I occupied myself in cleaning and loading my three double barreled rifles (2), after which, having dined, I rode with Kleinboy and John Stofolus(3) to my hole by the vlei, where my bedding lay day and night. This spot was within a few miles of where we expected to fall in with the lion in the morning. We secured the three horses to one another, as there was no tree or bush within miles of us; but these I could dispense with, for I knew very well by the looks of the Hottentots that they would not sleep much, but would keep a vigilant eye over our destinies. I spent a most miserable night. The wind, which had been blowing so fresh in the height of the day, had subsided to a calm when the sun went down, and now succeeded by an almost death-like stillness, which I too well knew was the harbinger of a coming tempest. We had not lain down an hour when the sky to leeward became black as pitch. Presently the most vivid flashes of lightning followed by terrific peals of thunder. The wind, which, during the day, had been out of the north-east, now, as is usual on such occasions, veered right round, and came whistling up from the south-west, where the tempest was brewing; and in a few minutes more it was upon us in all its fury, the rain descending in torrents on our devoted heads, while vivid flashes of lightning momentarily illumined, with the brilliancy of day, the darkness that reigned around. In a very few minutes the whole plain was a sheet of water, and every atom of my clothes and bedding was thoroughly saturated. My three rifles had excellent holsters, and with the help of two sheep - skins which I used instead of saddle -cloths I kept them quite dry. In two hours the tempest had past away, but light rain fell till morning, until which time I lay on the wet ground, soaked to the skin. About midnight we heard the lion roar a mile or so to the northward; and a little before the day dawned I again heard him in the direction of the carcase which we had found on the preceding day. Soon after this I gave the word to march. We then arose and saddled our horses. I found my trousers lying in a pool of water, so I converted a blanket into a long kilt by strapping it round my waist with my shooting belt. The costume of my followers was equally unique. We held for the north end of the lions mountain at a sharp pace, which we gained before it was clear enough to see surrounding objects. As the light broke in upon us we reduced our pace, and rode slowly up the middle of the vast level plain toward the carcase of the wildebeest, with large herds of wildebeests, springbok, blesbok, and quaggas on every side of us, which were this day as tame as they had been wild on the previous one. This is generally the case after a storm. The morn was cloudy; misty vapours hung on the shoulders of the neighbouring mountains, and the air was loaded with balmy perfume, emitted by the grateful plants and herbs. As we approach the carcase, I observed several jackals (4) steal away, and some half-drowned-looking vultures were sitting round it. But there was no appearance of the lion. I spent the next half-hour in riding across the plain looking for his spoor; but I sought in vain. Being cold and hungry, I turned my horses head for camp, and rode slowly along through the middle of the game, which would scarcely move out of rifle range on either side of me.

Suddenly I observed a number of vultures seated on the plain about a quarter of a mile ahead of us, and close beside them stood a huge lioness, consuming a blesbok which she had killed. She was assisted in her repast by about a dozen jackals, which were feasting along with her in the most friendly and confidential manner. Directing my followers attention to the spot, I remarked, I see the lion; to which they replied, Whar? whar? Yah! Almagtig! dat is he(5) and instantly reining in their steeds and wheeling about they pressed their heels to their horses sides, and were preparing to betake themselves to flight. I asked them what they were doing to do? To which they answered, We have not yet placed caps on our rifles (6). This was true; but while this short conversation was passing the lioness had observed us. Raising her full round face, she overhauled us for a few seconds, and then set off at a smart canter towards a range of mountains some miles to the northward; the whole troop of jackals also started off in another direction; there was, therefore, no time to think of caps. The first move was to bring her to bay and not a second was to be lost. Spurring my good and lively steed, and shouting to my men to follow, I flew across the plain, and, being fortunately mounted on Colesberg, the flower of my stud, I gained upon her at every stride. This was to me a joyful moment, and I at once made up my mind that she or I must die.

The lioness having had a long start of me, we went over a considerable extent of ground before I came up with her. She was a large full-grown beast, and the bare and level nature of the plain added to her imposing appearance. Finding that I gained upon her, she reduced her pace from a canter to a trot, caring her tail stuck out behind her, slewed a little to one side. I shouted loudly to her to halt, as I wished to speak with her, upon which she suddenly pulled up, and sat on her haunches like a dog, with her back towards me, not even deigning to round. She then appeared to say to herself, Does this fellow know who he is after? Having thus set for half a minute, as if involved in thought, she sprang to her feet, and, facing about, stood looking at me for a few seconds, moving her tail slowly from side to side, showing her teeth, and growling fiercely. She next made a short run forwards, making a loud rumbling noise like thunder. This she did to intimidate me; but, finding that I did not flinch an inch nor seem to heed her hostile demonstrations, she quietly stretched out her massive arms, and lay down on the grass. My Hottentots now coming up, we all three dismounted, and, drawing our riffles from the holsters, we look to see if the powder was up in the nipples (7) and put on our caps. While this was doing the lioness set up, and showed evident symptoms of uneasiness, she looked first at us, and then behind her, as if to see if the coast were clear; after which she made a short run towards us, uttering her deep-drawn murderous growls. Having secured the three horses to one another by the rheims (8), we led them on as if we intended to pass her, in the hope of obtaining a broadside. But this she carefully avoided to expose, presenting only her full front. I had given Stofulus my Moore rifle, with orders to shoot her if she should spring upon me, but on no account to fire before me. Kleinboy was to stand ready to hand me my Purdey rifle, in case the two- grooved Dixon should not prove sufficient. My men as yet had been steady, but they were in a precious stew, their faces having assumed a ghastly paleness; and I had a painful feeling that I could place no reliance on them.

Now, then, for it, neck or nothing! She is within sixty yards of us, and she keeps advancing. We turned the horses tails to her. I knelt on one side, and, taking a steady aim to her breast, let fly. The ball cracked loudly on her tawny hide, and crippled her in the shoulder, upon which she charged with an appalling roar, and in the twinkling of an eye she was in the midst of us. At this moment Stofuluss rifle exploded in his hand, and Kleinboy, whom I had ordered to stand ready by me, danced about like a duck in a gale of wind. The lioness sprang upon Colesberg, and fearfully lacerated his ribs and haunches with her horrid teeth and claws; the worst wound was on his haunch, which exhibited a sickening yawning gash, more than twelve inches long, almost laying bare the very bone. I was very cool and steady, and did not feel in the least degree nervous, having fortunately great confidence in my own shooting; but I must confess, when the whole affair was over I felt that it was a very awful situation, and attended with extreme peril, as I had no friend with me on whom I could rely.

When the lioness sprang on Colesberg, I stood out from the horses, ready with my second barrel for the first chance she should give me of a clear shot. This she quietly did; for, seemingly satisfied with the revenge she had now taken, she quitted Colesberg, and slewing her tail to one side, trotted silkily past within a few paces of me, taking one step to the left. I pitched my rifle to my shoulder, and in another second the lioness was stretched on the plain a lifeless corpse. In  the struggles of death she half turned on her back, and stretched her neck and for arms convulsively, when she fell back to her former position; her mighty arms hung powerless by her side, her lower jaw fell, blood streamed from her mouth, and she expired. At the moment I fired my second shot, Stofulus, who hardly knew whether he was alive or dead, allowed the three horses to escape. These galloped frantically across the plain; on which he and Kleinboy instantly started after them, leaving me standing alone and unarmed within a few paces of the lioness, which they, from their anxiety to be out of the way, evidently considered quite capable of doing further mischief.

Having skinned the lioness and cut of her head, we placed her trophies upon Beauty, and held for camp. Before we had proceeded a hundred yards from the carcase, upwards of sixty vultures, whom the lioness had often fed, were feasting on her remains. We led poor Colesberg slowly home, where having washed his wounds, and carefully stitched them together, I ordered the cold water cure(9) to be adopted. Under this treatment his wounds rapidly healed, and he eventually recovered. The sky remain overcast throughout the day. When the shades of evening set in, terror seemed to have taken possession of the minds of my followers, and they swore that the mate of the lioness, on finding her bones, would follow on her spoor and revenge her death. Under this impression they refuse to remain about the wagons or in the tent after the sun went down; and having cut down the rafters and cupboards of the Boers house for fuel, they kindled a large fire in the kitchen, where they took up their quarters for the night.


  • Vulture. There are seven varieties of vulture (Aegypiidae) in Southern Africa. These carrion seekers soar high in the sky, searching the veld for dead or injured animals. Very soon they congregate in great numbers around their prey.
  • Loading my three double barreled rifles. These were muzzle loading weapons and the loading process was relatively complicated. A charge of powder was inserted into the barrel followed (sometimes) by a pad, and finally by the ball. The whole was forced into position with a ramrod. When the trigger was pulled a sharp hammer came down upon a percussion cap which detoned the power. Such weapons made hunting a more hazardous venture than it has since become.
  •  Kleinboy and John Stofolus. Cummings Hottentot servants.
  • Several jackals. To-day a sheep killer. Fox-like animal. Frequently a scavenger, hunting in packs.
  • Whar? Whar? Yah Almagtig dat is he.  Where? Where? Yes! God almighty, thats him. The skill with which Cumming reproduces the colloquial speech of his servants in one of the delights of this books.
  • Caps on our rifles. The percussion cap was fitted to a metal proturberance or nipple at the trigger end of the rifle.
  • If the powder was up in the nipples. Fire from the percussion cap was transmitted through a hole bored in the nipple to the charge within the barrel
  • Rheims. A more usual spelling is riems(s). Afrikaans word to describe the leather thongs used for a hundred different purposes in the pioneering life.
  • The cold water cure. Repeated applications of moistened cloth to the wound. William Oswel used the treatment once on himself when he had been gored by a rhinoceros.