An Elephant Chase
IF you could have visited me, you would have found me on the banks of the Ovenga River, at the village of my Bakalai friend Obindji.On the Ofoubou river.—Elephants bathing.—Pursuit through the swamp.—Escape of the elephants.
Numbers of canoes, made each from the trunk of a single tree, are on the river-bank. My friend Quengueza is giving his orders for the comfort of Ntangani: "his friend Paul" is going away with him.
We are going to leave, for there is nothing more to eat at friend Obindji's. Game has become scarce, elephants and gorillas have destroyed their plantations, and disappeared. We are too kind-hearted, however, to tell good Obindji that we are obliged to leave his village because we are hungry every day.
We are going to ascend the Ofoubou River, which is one of the affluents of the Ovenga, and are bound for the village of Njali-Coudiť. This is a strange name to give to a town, but there are many strange names in this country. I hope you will be able to pronounce them according to the African standard, and that you will remember them.
Obindji is on the beach, beating his kendo (the royal sceptre) and invoking the spirits of his ancestors to protect his friend Quengueza, and his Ntanga (white man). He is covered with fetiches, and has rubbed his body with the chalk of the Alumbi.
The kendo is the badge of royalty in some of these tribes of Africa. I will give you a description of the kendo. It is a rude ball of iron, fashioned with a long handle, also of iron, and of the same piece. The sound which with us announces the vicinity of a herd of cows or sheep, in Africa precedes the advent of the sovereign, who uses the kendo only when on visits of state or on business of importance.
When they wear the kendo it is on the shoulder, and there is put over it the skin of a genetta, in which some of the Alumbi powder is kept.
In this case friend Obindji thought it was very important that the spirits of his ancestors should follow us. He wanted good wishes to precede us. Hence he said, he hoped we would have plenty to eat, and that I would kill all the game I wanted.
Obindji was really in earnest, and jabbered away in a manner and with an eagerness that was laughable; he had certainly plenty of faith in the powers he was invoking.
The canoes were ready, and soon friend King Quengueza gave the order for our departure. His Majesty was in his royal travelling costume. He had on a coat which I had given him, but no shirt; he had a cravat round his neck, and instead of pantaloons, which, by the way, I had never been able to make him wear, he had a cloth round his waist. His bag hung over his shoulder, and in this was his ogana (idol); there also he had a good supply of tobacco, his pipes, and several other things, among which were articles for the toilet of his Majesty, such as a little calabash of palm-oil to rub on his skin to soften it, and to give to some of his wives when he wished to be particularly amiable.
In this journey his Majesty thought he would have ten wives to accompany him, and to provide for his comfort; and though King Quengueza was, I should judge, at least seventy-five, the oldest among these ten wives could not have been more than fourteen years of age, and he had left a few behind still younger than these.
Quengueza and I, with two of the favorite wives, including a Bakalai one, were in the royal canoe, at the head of which was a drummer. I fired a salute, and soon a bend of the river hid us from Obindji's view. The drums were beating, and all the men were singing. All the other canoes paddled in front of us except one, which kept in the rear.
The starry flag floated gracefully in the royal canoe. Quengueza was wonderfully pleased with the flag. We entered the Ofoubou River and fired another gun, the echo of which resounded from hill to hill, and started the roar of a gorilla, which could not have been half a mile distant from where we were. That fellow was certainly a large male gorilla.
The Ofoubou was a narrow river, but deep at that time of the year: trees and palm lined its banks, which it had overflowed, spreading its waters over the strip of lowlands which bounded it, and which separated it from the hills.
Njali-Coudiť was situated about ten miles distant from the banks of the Ofoubou. By-and-by the singing ceased, and we paddled silently along, when suddenly one of the canoes ahead made us a sign to be very quiet. "What is going on?" I whispered to Quengueza. Quengueza in a low voice replied, "I know not." Every man looked carefully at his gun. The canoe ahead had stopped, neither retreating or advancing. What could it be? We pulled with the utmost care; our paddles, as they dipped into the water, made no noise at all, and at last we all met.
Then Adouma, the king's nephew, came and whispered low—"Elephants are here, they are bathing in the river. I have heard them."
"Are you sure they are elephants?"
"Are they not hippopotami?" I asked.
"No," he replied, "they are elephants."
The countenances of all the fellows brightened up; the ivory tusks of the noble beast were, they thought, already in their possession—they were selling the skin of the fox before having killed the animal.
We let all our canoes pass down the stream a little way, in order that we might hold a grand palaver. Adouma, Quabi, Rapero, all Quengueza's nephews, were present. Querlaouen and Malaouen, the two most redoubtable warriors of the Bakalai of the Ovenga, were also there; these five, with Quengueza and myself, formed the Grand Council.
Quengueza, being an old man, was to remain where he was with all the party, while myself and the five others were to move in a canoe and make land near where the elephants were.
Immediately the fellows covered themselves with their fetiches; Querlaouen and Malaouen bled their hands, and then we looked carefully at our guns. Though we were more than one hundred men altogether, the falling of a leaf could have been heard by any one of us, the silence was so profound.
The canoe that was to take us came. Adouma and Quabi paddled, and onward we went until we reached a bend of the river, and I could distinctly hear the elephants. So we thought best to land inside of the bend, which we did without uttering a whisper for fear of alarming the elephants. After landing the great difficulty was how to gain the other side. The country was overflowed, it was all bog-land, yet to the elephants we must go. We could not possibly follow the edges of the forest that bordered the Ofoubou, for we should have soon found ourselves in twenty feet of water, and in the middle of a strong current. These bog-lands are always dangerous things on the banks of the overflowed African rivers.
I hung my powder-flask close to my neck, and also my watch, in case the water should be deep, for I am not tall. My men took the same precaution with their bags, and then Malaouen took the lead. Where we landed there was no dry spot, and as we advanced through the woods we immediately found ourselves entangled in the midst of the roots of the trees, with the water above our waists, sinking knee deep into the mud, ignorant at every step whether the next might bring us into water up to our necks or above our heads. That was about as difficult a tramp as I ever had had in all my travels. Suddenly Querlaouen's foot caught under some roots, and down he went into the water, gun and all. He immediately swore in Bakalai that somebody had bewitched him, and did not want him to kill an elephant. Finally we came to a place where the water reached my neck, I being the shortest of all; so I took my watch and powder in one hand and my gun in the other, raising both arms as high as I could, and at every moment I fully expected to go down. One step more and the water just reached my mouth, but happily the next step took me on higher ground.
At last we succeeded in crossing the bend, and came in sight of the elephants, who did not observe our approach.
They were seven altogether. What a huge beast the male was! The other six were all females, so said Malaouen. They were perfectly unconscious of our presence, and swam to and fro in the narrow river. Unfortunately they were very far from us, being very nearly half a mile off, and to come to a good shooting distance in this awful swamp would take some time.
Their large ears contrasted singularly with the small ears of their Asiatic brethren; they were also somewhat smaller. Several of them had huge tusks of ivory; those of the bull were gigantic. They were bathing, and evidently enjoying themselves.
We now followed with great care the banks of the river about ten or fifteen yards inside of them, until at last the water became so deep that we came to a halt. How sorry we felt! I would have given much if I could have come near the elephants; but as we approached the banks we saw the elephants leaving the river. What monsters they seemed! I shouldered my long-range rifle, aimed at the big male, with but little hope of killing it, as I must have been several hundred yards off. I fired, heard the bullet strike one of the tusks, when the animals plunged into the forest, breaking down every thing before them.