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The Great Hunters

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The Hippopotamus, the Sea Cow or River Horse

In July 1862, Chapman and Baines were at the Victoria Falls. Chapman tried his hand at photography while Baines completed some striking drawings. The local tribesmen, anxious for meat, invited Chapman to go hunting on the Zambesi.

I have now been labouring hard here for a fortnight without getting a decent picture, owing to various difficulties, of a most provoking nature, with my chemical apparatus. Baines , in the meanwhile, is industriously engaged in making sketches from various points of view. In this state of affairs I was offered a boat by the chief, if I wished to go sea-cow hunting; so, leaving Baines here, I went up the river with some natives as far as Kalai.

Passing up in the middle of the stream, between two islands two or three miles in length, we observed a troop of hippopotami rising at intervals to breathe. As we approached them they gave their loud startling snort. We at first approached them, thinking to get a shot; but as they proved very wary, and I was in the expectation of seeing some asleep out of the water, I did not fire. As we advanced, before us were little islands densely covered with vegetation. The banks were everywhere defended by the roots of trees, spread like a boarding – net around, so that when behemoth has made a path there is no access but over the ladder of roots, seven or eight feet high, from beneath which the sand has been washed away.

Let the reader figure himself a canoe, holding three persons, in the foreground, gliding with stealthy strokes to a quiet nook in which five or six small black spots are seen floating on the surface. These are hippopotami. On a nearer approach down goes every one with a splash, and now, with desperate stroke, our canoe is urged across the stream for two or three minutes. We halt opposite the spot where they disappeared. Some time elapses, and I fear they have gone off; but a startling snort close by makes me look round, and here, staring me in the face, with the most inquisitive wicked expression, a hippopotamus shakes his red ears, puffs the water through his red nostrils, and, with a loud, gruff, inquiring grunt, which seems to say, “What do you want here?” disappears with a splash before my gun can be brought to bear upon him.

In this manner, one after the other; but before I can pull the trigger they have dropped under the surface, and my arm at length can hold the rifle no longer in the air. But as I must rest, the hippopotami also must breath; up goes the gun to the shoulder again, while up and down pops one head and then another. At length a loud and re-echoing report bursts over the water; this time behemoth is struck, and the purple tide rolls down his massive neck as he rises from the flood, plunging and ploughing the waves with distended jaws in a most furious manner. Woe to any beast that now comes into his path! The smell of blood has created a sensation amongst the amphibious group; they disappear again, and, looking a mile or two off, we detect them, and again give chase. Three or four shots fired under the same circumstances convinced me at length that one of these animals at least must have been killed. I heard the bullet strike him on the temple, and opening wide his mouth, a few ripples alone remained to indicate where he had sank beneath the stream.

Next day I returned in the same boat, and, coming near the spot where I had shot the hippopotamus, I found it had drifted up against a submerged shelf of rocks; where, leaving people from the banks to look after the flesh, I proceeded farther up the river in search of new sport.

We entered the rapids at Kalai, in which, to judge from their appearance, I had no idea a canoe could live. Sometimes the men dragged her through between sharp, projecting rock; but the first rapids passed, we rounded a small island, gliding close under its side. I was not thinking of sea -cows then, but suddenly there was the sound of sticks and branches crushed behind the reeds on the bank, and then a rush towards the water.

The boatmen were pulling hard to get passed the danger, and in another moment I thought the huge monster would have leaped into the boat. Indeed its plunge, within two feet of the bows, fairly lifted us three feet into the air, and nearly filled the boat with water. The men now tried to stop the boat, but she had such way on her as brought us right over the animal, and we expected every minute to be dashed to pieces, but the beast had been carried down by the swift current, and protruded his head some distance off, and we passed on. Within 100 yards was another islet, and the boatmen, observing a number of young snake -birds in their nest, were in eager consultation how to take them. Pulling to the bank, they were in the act of climbing the mattered creepers overlacing it, when a grunt was heard close before us, and we found that we had entered a creek which was the path of the hippopotami, and here they stood before us, visible through the bushes, in the act of rushing towards us. I could not see plainly enough to shoot, but in another moment they changes their course, retreating to the side of the island, and plunged into the stream by another path. While my men were watching the others, one huge fellow audaciously popped his head up behind. In an instant my bullet struck him in the temple, and he rolled over and over, carried along by the rapid stream.

His dying struggles were tremendous; but still he gained the creek in which we were, and we had to get out of the way, while the huge monster lay on his side in a shallow, breathing his last. To make doubly sure, I gave him another shot. I could not prevail on the rascally boatmen to drag the carcase to the south shore of the river, though we were within a few yards of it; and not until I threatened to pitch them out of the boat did they make any attempt at all – but one which they intended should fail. I was in the power, and they were not going to place the meat out of their own reach. I had to give up the point, and, heartily disgusted, I determined to shoot no more in the river, but to return to camp. I now gave orders that the flesh of the sea -cow should be brought to camp, as it was wanted for my people.

Instead of bringing the flesh to our camp, I heard in the afternoon that the boatmen were taking it to the other side of the river, and Madzakaza (5), Baines’s old acquaintance, was crossing in a new canoe with some of the stolen meat as his share, when a sea-cow, doubtless smelling the flesh, in a fit of rage tossed the boat over, the men getting out of his way by diving to the bottom. The brute then seized the boat in his mouth and bit it in two. Fortunately I had just sent one of my people across in another boat to get some milk. This had just reached the shore when the accident happened, and, being ready to put back at the moment’s notice, it picked up the exhausted swimmers.

The hippopotamus utters a very loud startling snort and grunt. The snort of the war-horse is nothing to the majestic swagger of behemoth, as he rises triumphant from the whirling wave. These animals go over rocks without any seeming inconvenience, and travel two or three miles away from the water during the night in quest of grass, which is scarce just now. The high and rocky hills here seem to be no impediment to them, for they appear to climb with cat–like facility. They are easily killed with the aid of dogs during the night. When these attack them they become quite stupefied, and stand still. They are one of the animals doomed to early extinction when fire -arms are introduced, yet not so soon, one would think, as the elephant and rhinoceros. 

  • Baines. John Thomas Baines (1820 – 1875). Artist, explorer and map – maker. He has an established reputation for the vividness and liveliness of his art – work.
  • A troop of hippopotami. (Hippopotamus amphibious.) Once found throughout South Africa, even on the shores of Table Bay. Related to the domestic pig, they are good eating. The bull is about 1,22 metres in height and 4,27 metres in length.
  • Behemoth. Fantastic animal mentioned in Job 40: 15-24.
  • Snake-birds. (Anhinga rufa ). This bird resembles the well-known Cape Duiker. It is found  on the inland waters of Southern Africa. Lives on fish.
  • Madzakaza. A spokesman of the local chief, Mashotlaan. He had been on an expedition with Dr. Livingstone to the West Coast. Chapman found him “a great nuisance”.