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The Great Hunters

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Vast Herds of Springbok in Northern Cape Province ... Alas No More

In December 1843, While still within the northern border of the Cape Colony, Cumming came across migrating springbok. His description brings out vividly what vast amounts of game the semi desert interior of Africa could once support Almost a year later, several hundred kilometers to the north, he went in pursuit of the rare Sable antelope. His efforts to stalk the animal and to hunt it with dogs led to confusion and loss.

I had the satisfaction of beholding, for the first time, what I had often heard the Boers allude to viz. a trekbokken, or grand migration of springboks. This was, I think, the most extraordinary and striking scene, as connected with beasts of the chase, that I have ever beheld. For about two hours before the day dawned I had been lying awake in my wagon, listening to the grunting of the bucks within two hundred yards of me, imagining that some large hers of springboks was feeding beside my camp; but on my rising when it was clear, and looking about me, I beheld the ground to the northward of my camp actually covered with a dense living mass of springboks, marching slowly and steadily along, extending from an opening in a long range of hills on the west, through which they continued pouring , like the flood of some great river, to a ridge about a mile to the north- east, over which they disappeared. The breadth of the ground they covered might have been somewhere about half a mile. I stood upon the fore chest(1) of my wagon for nearly two hours, lost in wonder at the novel and wonderful scene which was passing before me, and had some difficulty in convincing myself that it was reality which I beheld, and not the wild and exaggerated picture of a hunters dream. During this time their vast legions continued streaming through the neck in the hills in one unbroken compact phalanx. At length I saddled up, and rode into the middle of them with my rifle and after- riders(2), and fired into the ranks until fourteen had fallen, When I cried Enough. We then retraced our steps to secure from the ever voracious vultures the venison which lay strewed along my gory track. Having collected the springboks at different bushes, and concealed them with brushwood, we returned to camp, where I partook of coffe while my men were inspanning(3).

A person anxious to kill many springboks might have bagged thirty of forty that morning. I never, in all my subsequent career, fell into so dense a herd of these antelopes, nor found them allow me to ride so near them. Having inspanned, we proceeded with the wagons to take up the fallen game, which being accomplished, we held for the small periodical stream beside which the wandering Boers were encamped, that point being in my line of march for Beer Vlei (4) . Vast and surprising as was the herd of springboks which I had that morning witnessed, it was infinitely surpassed by what I beheld on the march from my vlei to old Sweirss (5) camp; for, on our clearing the low range of hills through which the springboks had been pouring, I beheld the boundless plains, and even the hill sides which stretched away on every side of me, thickly covered, not with herds, but with one vast herd of springboks; far as the eye could strain the landscape was alive with them, until they softened down into a dim red mass of living creatures.

To endeavour to form any idea of the amount of antelopes which I that day beheld were vain; but I have, nevertheless, no hesitation in stating that some hundreds of thousands of springboks were that morning within the compass of my vision. On reaching the encampment of the Boers I outspanned, and set about cutting up and salting my venison; the Boers had likewise been out with their roers, (6) and shot as many as they could carry home. Old Sweirs acknowledged that it was a very fair trekbokken, but observed that it was not many when compared with what he had seen. You this morning, he remaked, behold only one flat covered with springboks, but I give you my word that I have ridden a long days journey over a succession of flats covered with them, as far as I could see, as thick as sheep standing in a fold. I spent the following two days with Boers. Each morning and evening we rode out and  hunted the springboks, killing as many as we could bring home. The vast armies of the springboks, however, did not tarry long in that neighbourhood; having quickly consumed every green herb, they passed away to give other districts a benefit.

Notes

  • Fore chest. Translation of Afrikaans
  • voorkas, a fitting of the ox- wagon which did service both as a packing space and drivers seat.
  • After riders. Literal translation of Afrikaans
  • agter ryer (s). These were Cummings Hottentot servants on horseback.
  • Inspanning. i.e yoking the oxen to the wagon.
  • Beer Vlei. A well watered plain in the midst of desolate country west of Colesberg.
  • Old Sweirss camp. He was the leader of this Boer party. Such parties of Boer hunters pressed northward, penetrating as far as the Zambesi as the century grew older.
  • Roers. Afrikaans; muzzle loading guns. In his Portraits of Game and Wild Animals of South Africa Harris describes the Boer hunters each on his shoulder bearing a roer or gun of astounding bore and gigantic dimensions.
  • Mountain to the north- east. This was in the neighbourhood of the Limpopo River.
  • Sable antelope. (Hippotragus niger) One of the largest and most handsome antelopes. It has always been rare, and was in fact first reported to Western zoologists by Cummings great predecessor in the Southern African veld, Cornwallis Harris. Both male and female carry back curving horns which can be used with devastating effect in self defence. Very dangerous when injured and generally is attacked only by lions.
  • Ruyter. A young Bushman whom Cumming has taken into service. Ruyter later accompanied the hunter to the U.K.
  • Potaquaine. Erroneous form of Potaquane southern Bechuana name for the Sable antelope. Slipped. i.e let the hounds off their leashes.
  •  Opened a bay. Began a chorus of barking.
  • Perfect confidence of an immediate bay. Cumming expected the fleeing potoquane to turn and to face the hounds immediately.