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The Great Hunters

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The Magnificent and Rare Sable Antelope | Hunted by Cumming

Almost a year later, several hundred kilometers to the north, Roualeyn George Gordon Cumming went in pursuit of the rare Sable antelope.

At an early hour I left my wagons with some provisions, and ascended the mountain to the north-east (7) to seek sable antelope(8). Soon  after gaining the upper heights of the mountain I had the satisfaction to detect a fine herd of these feeding among the trees on the table summit of a ridge of mountain, which stretched away to the east. I determined to stalk them in true Highland fashion, and to use my very best endeavours to ensure success; accordingly, having surveyed the ground, I made a cast to leeward, and approached the herd upon my belly. When I got within two hundred yards of them I found it was impossible  to approach nearer on that side so I was obliged to creep away back again, and try to come upon them from another quarter. When next I crept in the herd had vanished, and I could not find them for some time. At length, however, I came suddenly upon them, when the herd rushed in a semi-circle round me. I ran forward as hard as I could , and, pulling suddenly up, fired at the big black buck as he dashed past me at top speed; the ball told loudly, and the buck bent up his back to the shot.

They now charged for the southern ridge of the mountain, and dispappeared over it at a tremendous pace. I quickly loaded, and proceede to take up the spoor, and at once had the satisfaction to find great spouts of blood all along the spoor of the patriarchal old black buck. This gave me high hopes of success; I waited a few minutes, and whistled for the Bechuanas, who immediately came up to me with the Bles  and Affriar, two right dogs. When the wounded buck had proceeded a short distance down the mountains face, he left the herd and slanted away by himself. In a few minutes, however, I esoied him; he stood about three hundred yards from me, under a low tree on the rocky mountain side, with drooping head and outstretched tail, which he kept constantly whisking from side to side, and he was evidently extremely sick. As he exhibited no intention of going farther, and as the wagons were near, I thought it would be a fine opportunity to give all the dogs blood; so I dispatched Ruyter(9) to camp to fetch them, and I remained stationary and watched the wounded potaquaine(10).  After standing in one spot for some time, he made a few tottering steps, then lay heavily down in the grass as if dead, and nothing was visible but his side.

This was most satisfactory; there, on the side of his native rugged mountain, lay the ever-wary, the scarce, the lovely, long-sought sable antelope, and a most noble specimen perhaps the finest buck in all the district. His ever watchful eye was now sunk in the long grass; and as he was lying beside a little ravine, and a stiff breeze was blowing, I could , if I had chosen, have crept in within thirty yards of him and shot him dead on the spot; but, so far from doing this, I rather lamented that he was thus badly wounded, for I feared that he would not have life enough left to show a good fight when the dogs came up. It was been truly said that there is many a slip between the cup and the lip, and the truth of this old saying I was about most bitterly to experience. In half an hour the Bushman came on with three Bachuanas, leading all my best dogs. I went up to the potaquaine. He had arisen, and was looking at us as we came on; when I approached within a hundred and fifty yards of him he disappeared over the ridge. I did not, however, slip the trustless dogs until they should be on his scent or see him. When I gained the ridge I again beheld him standing within a hundred yards of me. I now slipped(11) all my trustiest hounds; they ran forward towards the buck, and then took away up the hill, where, finding nothing, they presently came down again, and, after snuffing about for a little, followed up the scent of the buck.

All this time the potaquaine remained utterly motionless, regarding the dogs with a wicked eye. They, however, did not observe him until they were within about ten yards of him, when he stamped his foot, and turned as if to fight with them. The dogs opened a bay(12), and the next instant the potaquaine bounded through the middle of them, and, holding down the mountain side, was out of my sight in two seconds, the dogs all at his heels. I pressed forward in the most perfect confidence of an immediate bay(13),  but when I obtained  a view of the open forest around the mountains base, nor dog nor potaquaine could I see; neither could I hear a sound. I thought the chase must have led up wind, so I held on all my best pace along the rugged mountains side.

I gained shoulder after shoulder, and opened fresh ground, but nothing living could I see, nor could I hear a sound. To make matters worse, it was blowing half a gale of wind. Most thoroughly confounded, I now in haste retraced my steps to the natives. I found them sitting just where I had slipped the dogs. In vain I asked them whither they were gone; they only put me wrong, and lost me the day; for they declared that they had watched the ground below to leeward, and that no dog  had gone in that course. They had, however, gone that way, and were at the moment baying a fresh buck very near me, but the unlucky wind prevented me from hearing them. I hastily retraced my steps once more up wind, and after proceeding a little farther than I had been before, I saw Alert, a very uncertain animal which I had long possessed, returning towards me.

The dogs have then gone up wind, I thought to myself, and they have the buck at bay in advance. Next moment, however, to my utter amazement, I beheld my wounded potaquaine standing in the forest below me, and not a single dog near him. I was not aware that my dogs had fallen in with some other bucks which I was not aware of , and were gone I knew not whither. After waiting an hour for them, I endeavoured to stalk in on the potaquaine; it was bad ground, and he saw me and made off. He went but a short distance, however, and stood again in a drooping attitude beneath a tree; the Bechuanas tried to drive him to a position which I took up, when He left the ground, and I never saw him again.

When I returned to my camp, my people told me that the dogs had bayed a buck for a long time under the mountain, within hearing of the wagons, and that the sounds had died away, as if they had pulled him down and killed him. On hearing this I at once saddled up two steeds, and rode in that direction to seek my dogs, but saw nothing of them, and night setting in, I returned to camp. Next day three of the dogs returned; they were covered with blood of the potaquaine they had killed, and one of them was wounded by his horns. I however, never found the remains of either this buck or the one I had shot, nor did I see more of my three good dogs.


  • 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.