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The Great Hunters

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Riding Down Giraffe To Exhaust them Before Shooting

In 1936 in the neighbourhood of what are today called the Magaliesburg Mountains, Harris and his companion solved what had long been a difficult problem – the successful hunting of giraffe.

To the sportsman, the most thrilling passage in my adventures is how to be recounted. In my own breast, it awakens a renewal of past impressions, more lively than any written description can render intelligence; and far abler pens than mine, dipped in more glowing tints, would still fall short of the reality, and leave much to be supplied by the imagination. Three hundred gigantic elephants (1), browsing in majestic tranquillity amidst the wild magnificence of an African landscape, and a wide stretching plain, darkened far as the eye can reach, with a moving phalanx of gnoos (2), and quaggas (3) whose numbers literally baffle computation, are sights but rarely to be witnessed; but who amongst our brother Nimrods (4) shall hear of riding familiarly by the side of a troop of colossal giraffes, (5) and not feel his spirit stirred within him? He that would behold so marvellous a sight must leave the haunts of man, and dive, as we did, into wide wastes, where the grim lion (6) prowls, monarch of all he surveys, and where the gaunt hyaena (7) and wild dog (8) fearlessly pursue their prey.

Many days had now elapsed since we had even seen the cameleopard (9) - and the only in small numbers, and under the most unfavourable circumstances. The blood coursed through my veins like quicksilver, therefore, as one morning, from the back of Breslar, my most trusty steed, with a firm wooded plain before me, I counted thirty-two of these animals, industriously stretching their peacock necks to crop the tiny leaves triously which fluttered above their heads, in a mimosa (10) grove that beautified the scenery.

They were within a hundred yards of me, but having previously determined to try the boarding system (11), I reserved my fire. Although I had taken four of the Hottentots on horseback, all excepting Piet had as usual slipped off unperceived in pursuit of a troop off koodoos (12). Our stealthy approach was soon opposed by an ill tempered rhinoceros (13),  which with her ugly calf, stood directly in the path; and the twinkling of her bright little eyes, accompanied by a restless rolling of the body, giving earnest of her intention to charge, I directed Piet to salute her with a broadside, at the same moment putting spurs to my horse.

At the report of the gun, and the sudden clattering of hoofs, away bounded the giraffes in grotesque confusion – clearing the ground by a succession of frog-like hops, and soon leaving me far in the rear. Twice were their towering forms concealed from view by a park of trees, which we entered almost at the same instant; and twice on emerging from the labyrinth (14), did I perceive them tilting over an eminence immeasurably in advance. A white turban, that I wore round my hunting cap, being dragged off by a projecting bough, was instantly charged by three rhinoceroses; and looking over my shoulder, I could see them long afterwards, fagging themselves to overtake me. In the course of five minutes, the fugitive arrived at a small river, the treacherous sands of which receiving their long legs, their was greatly retarded; and after floundering to the opposite side, and scrambling to the top of the bank, I perceived that their race was run.

Patting the steaming neck of my good steed, I urged him again to his utmost, and instantly found myself by the side of the herd. The stately bull, being readily distinguishable from the rest by his dark chestnut robe, and superior stature, I applied the muzzle of my rifle behind his dappled shoulder, with the right hand, and drew both triggers; but he still continued to shuffle along, and being afraid of losing him, should I dismount, among the extensive mimosa groves, with which the landscape was now obscured, I sat in my saddle, loading and firing behind the elbow, and then placing myself across his path frame until, the tears trickling from his full brilliant eye, his lofty frame began to totter, and at the seventeenth discharge from the deadly grooved bore, bowing his graceful head from the skies his proud form was prostrate in the dust. Never shall I forget the tingling excitement of that moment!

Alone, in the wild wood, I hurried with bursting exultation, and unsaddling my steed, sank exhausted beside the noble prize I had won.

When I leisurely contemplated the massive frame before me, seeming as though it had been cast in a mould of brass, and protected by a hide of an inch and a half in thickness, it was no longer a matter of astonishment that a bullet discharged from a distance of eighty or ninety yards should have been attended with little effect upon such amazing strength. The extreme height from the crown of the elegantly moulded head to the hoof of this magnificent animal, was eighteen feet; the whole being equally divided into neck, body, and leg.

Two hours were passed in completing a drawing; and Piet still not making his appearance, I cut off the tail, which exceeded five feet in length, and was measurelessly the most estimable trophy I had gained; but proceeding to saddle my horse, which I had left quietly grazing by the side of a running brook, my chagrin may be conceived, when I discovered that he had taken advantage of my occupation to free himself from his halter, and abscond.

Being ten miles from the wagons, and in a perfectly strange country, I felt convinced that the only chance of recovering my pet, was by following the trail, whilst doing which with infinite difficulty, the ground scarcely deigning to receive a foot – print, I had the satisfaction of meeting Piet and Mohanycom, who had fortunately seen and recaptured the truant. Returning to the giraffe, we all feasted heartily upon the flesh, which although highly scented at this season, with the rank Mokaala blossoms (15),  was far from despicable; and after losing our way in consequence of the twin-like resemblance of two scarped hills, we regained the wagons after sunset.

The spell was now broken, and the secret of cameleopard hunting discovered. The next day Richardson (16) and myself killed three; one, a female, slipping upon muddy ground, and falling with great violence, before she had been wounded, a shot in the head despatching her as she lay.

From this time we could reckon confidently upon two out of each troop that we were fortunate enough to find, always approaching as near as possible, in order to ensure a good start, galloping into the middle of them, boarding the largest, and riding with him until he fell.

The rapidity with which these awkwardly formed animals can move, is beyond all things surprising, our best horses being unable to close with them under two miles. Their gallop is a succession of jumping strides, the fore and hind leg on the same side moving together instead of diagonally, as in most other quadrupeds, the former being kept close together, and the latter so wide apart, that in riding by the animals side, the hoof may be seen striking on the outside of the horse, momentarily threatening to overthrow him.

Its motion altogether, reminded me rather of the pitching of a ship, or rolling of a rocking horse, than of any thing living; and the remarkable gait is rendered still more automatonlike, by the switching, at regular intervals, of the long black tail, which is invariably curled above the back, and by the corresponding action of the neck, swinging as it does like a pendulum, and literally imparting to the animal the appearance of a piece of machinery in motion. Naturally gentle, timid, and peaceable, the unfortunate giraffe has no means of protecting itself but with its heels; but even when hemmed into a corner, it seldom resorted to this mode of defence.

The colossal height, and apparent disproportions of this extraordinary animal, long classed it with the unicorn (17) ,  and the Sphinx (18),  of the ancients, and induced a belief that it belonged rather to the group of chimeras (19) with which the regions of imagination are tenanted, than existed amongst the actual works of nature.

Notes

  • Three hundred gigantic Elephants. The African elephant ( Loxodonta Africana ) is the largest animal on the Continent. Its tusks reach tremendous sizes and were inevitable sought after by hunters for their valuable ivory.
  •  Gnoos. A more usual spelling is gnu(s). This is the Hottentot name for the wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou or Connochaetes taurines). A large antelope about the size of a pony.
  • Quaggas. ( Equus quagga) Striped like the zebra on head and neck, otherwise plain brown. This animal which, according to Harris and others, was so plentiful is now extinct, the last having died in 1872 in the London Zoo. Its meat was greatly favoured by African tribesmen.
  • Nimrods. Nimrod was a mighty Cushite hunter referred to in the Old Testament. Genesis 10:8, 1 Chronicles 1:10.
  • Colossal giraffes. The name of this animal derives from the Arabic zirafa meaning “one who walks swiftly”.
  •  Giraffa camelopardalis is the tallest animal on earth. The male stands about 5,50 metres high.
  • The grim lion. Panthera leo, the African lion, was regarded, together with the elephant, as the hunter’s greatest challenge.
  • Hyaena. Several varieties. A carnivorous animal related to the wolf. Can be very fierce in attack. Wild dog.
  • (Lyacaon pictus venaticus). Wild dogs hunt in packs and have been known to bring down a lion.
  • Cameleopard. A traditional name for the giraffe. c.f. Afrikaans kameelperd.
  • A mimosa grove. (Acacia giraffae). Also known as the Camel-thorn or
  • Kameeldoring tree. The leaves and pods are browsed by the giraffe in spite of the adjacent thorns.
  • The boarding system. An allusion to contemporary naval tactics when ships in battle were brought alongside each other and attacking forces transferred.
  • Koodoos. A more usual spelling is kudu (s). Tragelaphus strepsiceros is an impressive antelope standing about 1,52 metres high. The bull is unmistakable with its great spiralling horns.
  •  Rhinoceros. The largest land animal in Southern Africa after the elephant. There are two African types – the Black ( Diceros bicornis) and the White or Square-lipped Ceratotherium simum).
  • Labyrinth. Originally an intricate building of chambersand passages, often constructed so as to perplex the people within. The most famous was a labyrinth in Crete built, according to Greek myth, by Daedalus to house the Minotaur.
  • Rank Mokaala blossoms. The flowers of the Camel-thorn tree.
  • Richardson. William Richardson of the Bombay Civil Service, Harris’s companion on his adventures.
  • Unicorn. A fabulous equine beast. It was often considered as a composite creature, made up of various animals.
  • Sphinx. A mythical beast of Ancient Egypt. In Ancient Greek mythology and art it figures as a winged monster.
  • Chimeras with which the regions of imagination are tenanted. In Greek mythology the creature of the imagination; a mere wild fancy. Harris was the first of many writers to be stirred to descriptive energy by the giraffe. Roy Campbell has perhaps provided the most brilliantly imaginative description to date of a troop of giraffe feeding in his Dreaming Spires:

“The City of Giraffes! – a people

Who live between the earth and skies,

Each in his lone religious steeple

Keeping a lighthouse with his eyes.

 

Each his own stairway, tower and stylite,

Ascending on his saintly way

Up rungs of gold into the twilight

And leafy ladders to the day…

 

Muezzins that form airy pylons

Peer out above the golden trees

Where the mimosas fleece the silence

Or slumber on the drone of bees”.