Hunting Elephants and Buffaloes
Hunting elephants and buffaloes.—A venomous serpent.—A snake charmer.—He is bitten.—He commits suicide.
It was midnight; the moon had risen, and I could look at the expanse of the prairies situated near Point Obenda, on the Gabon estuary. The moon threw just light enough to show me the great solitude, in the midst of which there was not a living soul with me. As my eyes gazed upon the broad expanse, I tried to see if I could perceive any wild beast. At last I spied far off what I thought to be a huge elephant; it stood still: the great beast neither walked nor fed.
I immediately put my old Panama hat flat on my bead and walked in a stooping posture toward the huge monster, who was far off. I approached nearer and nearer, when to I the big beast began to move toward me. A feeling of awe crept over me; there was not a hill near to hide myself; there was not a tree for me to climb upon; I thought how small I looked by the side of this, the largest of the animals of the forest!
Did the elephant see me?
Did he come to meet me and attack me?
Such were the questions that came at once to my mind. My courage began to quail. I was, as I said, quite alone; I had left all my men in the camp: these men were the slaves of some of my Mpongwes' friends, and they were, I knew, fast asleep; in case of accident I had no one to come to the rescue. At that time I was a young lad, and had no confidence in myself, and to fight an elephant which looked so big, seemed to me perfectly impossible. But very soon I got accustomed to face danger, and loved to hunt elephants. I was no more afraid of them. Well, the elephant kept still coming toward me as I lay flat on the ground. At last he stopped, and then I saw him raise his trunk; my heart began to beat terribly, for I thought he was coming down to charge upon me. Then he sniffed two or three times and suddenly ran away. I had shouldered my gun, resolved at any rate to try to kill him instead of being trampled down by his huge feet.
The sound of every one of his steps could be heard distinctly, as he ran away from me, and he was soon out of sight. He had gone into the forest, and nature fell back into its accustomed stillness. Now and then the voice of a frog resounded strangely from the prairie.
Suddenly a cloud came over the moon, and it grew almost dark; the wind blew strongly, for it was in the dry season and was quite chilly. After wandering a while I came at last to a large ant-hill and sheltered myself there, thinking at the same time that it would be a splendid place to hide and look for game.
How strange my shadow appeared by the side of that ant-hill, when the moon shone again!
I did not wait long for game. I had not lain long by the ant-hill before I saw coming out of the forest not far off a herd of Bos brachicheros, the wild bull of this part of Africa. How fantastic their bodies appeared, as one by one they came out of the forest: they were coming toward where I stood, and the wind blew toward me. I counted, I think, twenty of these wild buffaloes. They stopped for a while as if to determine what direction to take, and perhaps also to see if they might discover or smell the leopard, which is their most dangerous enemy, and then continued their march toward the ant-hill where I was. I became very excited, cocked my gun, and aimed at the bull which was heading the herd, then pulled the trigger; bang! and down he came. A general stampede followed, but just in the direction of the ant-hill. What did these fellows mean? Did they all want to charge me? No, they passed to the right and left of the ant-hill. After they had passed I turned round and fired another shot into the midst of them, but this time with less effect, for none fell, and this second shot made them run away with greater speed than before. At any rate I was glad, for I had knocked down the bull, the head of the herd.
I wished I had a horse and a lasso; how quickly I should have come to them, and killed enough of them to give meat to all my men for several days to come.
I went back and saw the bull lying on the ground, not dead, but moaning terribly from pain. As I approached he tried to get up, but in vain; so another bullet in the head finished him.
My men, who had been awakened by the shot, looked round for me, and finding that I had gone, made for the direction of the firing, and there was great rejoicing as they approached and saw the huge bull lying on the ground, for plenty was to enter the camp with his carcase.
The beast was at once cut to pieces; each man took a load, and we made for the camp; for it was too cold to linger. Besides, I was getting tired. We were afraid to leave the animal alone during the night for fear of leopards.
It was four o'clock in the morning when I reached the camp.
Our camp was protected by the forest and was situated on the edge of it. I immediately started a tremendous fire, and felt so tired that I fell asleep directly on the bare ground, telling my men to keep watch. The good fellows were in good spirits, and already began to roast pieces of meat on the bright charcoal fire, and were eating in such big mouthfuls that it would have made you laugh to see them.
As for me, as I said, I went to sleep, and my men the next morning said that I made a terrible noise snoring. I denied it and said I never snored, but they said I did. But after all, you know, I had no pillow, and I should not wonder if I did snore a little.
Next morning the sun rose brightly, the air was somewhat chilly, the breeze was fresh. I was happy, I remember. These were bright days for me: I was without care, and for some time the fever had left me. I was in good health and spirits. After an early breakfast I started for the hunt. I had with me my best gun; the slave that followed me had another gun; this one was loaded with bullets; I had my dinner with me, and that dinner was a piece of the bull I had killed the day before which had been roasted on charcoal. I intended to dine on the banks of some little rivulet so that I might have water to drink during my meal. I would have no plate except a leaf; the trunk of a fallen tree was to be my seat, and my knees were to be my table.
With a light step I left our camp. My spirits were buoyant; discoveries of new animals, or new birds, of new countries loomed up in the distance. How much I would have to tell my friends on my return from that strange and wild land I had come to see, if God granted me life and health!
We went through prairies, swamps, and forest. At last we came to a spot where once a plantation stood; it was intersected by several little brooks of clear water. My man shouted, "Omemba ompolo!" (a large snake), and I saw at the same moment an enormous black shining snake (a species of naja), one of the most dangerous species. I knew he was coming in our direction and belonged to that species that when bullied raises itself erect and wants to fight. He was a terribly big fellow, one of the largest I had ever seen; he looked loathsome and horrid; I could see distinctly his triangular head. I fired in haste, hoping to break his spine, but missed the reptile, and immediately he erected himself to a few feet in height and whistled in the most horrid manner, his tongue coming out sharp and pointed like an arrow. I fired again right into his head, and I do not know why, but I missed him again. Then the fellow gave a spring; I really do not know if he came toward me, for I fled panic-stricken, and when at a safe distance reloaded my gun with small shot, and returned to the spot where I had shot at him. I spied something just getting out of a little rivulet. It was the very snake itself which had crossed the water, and before he was entirely out I fired and killed him, or rather I succeeded in breaking his spine and making him helpless for attack or for running away. But he was not dead, and when I approached him he again gave a sharp whistle. I cut a branch of a tree for a stick to kill him with, and then examined his fangs: they were of enormous size, and almost an inch in length.
This snake was about ten feet long. We left it on the spot, taking its head and tail with us, which we carefully packed in leaves, for we wanted to show to our fellows of the camp what a big snake we had killed.
This species of naja is the only one I have ever seen which could erect itself.
One day I witnessed a fearful scene. A man, a native of Goree, an island on the coast of Senegambia, who had the reputation of being a snake-charmer and was then at the Gabon, had succeeded in capturing one of these large naja. He was a bold man, and prided himself on never being afraid of any snake, however venomous the reptile might be; nay, not only was he not afraid of any of them, but he would fight with any of them and get hold of them.
I had often seen him with snakes in his hands. He was careful, of course, to hold them just by the neck below the head, in such a manner that the head could not turn on itself and bite him.
That day he brought into a large open place, perfectly bare of grass, one of these wild naja that he had just captured, and was amusing himself by teasing the horrid and loathsome creature when I arrived. It was a huge one!
Most of the people of the village had fled, and those natives who like myself were looking on, kept a long way off. Not a Mpongwe man, not a single inhabitant of the whole region I have explored, would have ever dared to do what the Goree man did.
Two or three times, as the snake crawled on the ground, we made off in the opposite direction with the utmost speed, myself, I am afraid, leading off in the general stampede; though I had provided myself with a gun.
It was perfectly fearful, perfectly horrid and appalling to see that man making a plaything of this monster; laughing, as we may say, at death, for it could be nothing else, I thought.
At first when I saw him he had the snake around his body, but he held it firmly just below the neck, and I could see by the muscles of his arm that he had to use great strength. As long as this part of the body is held firmly the snake loses much of its great power of crushing one to death as the boa-constrictor or python does with larger animals, and as small snakes do with smaller game; but with this naja the danger would have been the venomous bite.
Then with his other hand he took the tail of the snake, and gave it a swing and gradually unfolded the reptile from his black body, which was warm and shining with excitement, but always holding the head. On a sudden he threw the snake on the ground. Then the creature began to crawl away, when suddenly the Goree man came in front of it with a light stick and instantly the monster erected itself almost to half its full length, gave a tremendous whistle, which we all heard, looked glaringly and fiercely in the man's face with its sharp, pointed tongue out, and then stood still as if it could not move. The Goree man, with his little stick in his left hand, touched it lightly as though to tease it. It was a fearful sight—and if he had been near enough the snake would no doubt have sprung upon its antagonist. The man, as he teased and infuriated the snake with the rod he held in his left hand, drew the attention of the reptile toward the stick; then suddenly and in the wink of an eye, almost as quick as lightning, with his right hand he got hold of the creature just under his head.
The same thing that I have just described again took place. The snake folded itself round his body; then he unfolded the snake, which was once more let loose, and now this horrid serpent got so infuriated that as soon as he was thrown on the ground he erected himself, and the glare of his eyes was something terrific. It was indeed an appalling scene; the air around seemed to be filled with the whistling sound of the creature.
Alas! a more terrible scene soon took place! The man became bolder and bolder, more and more careless, and the snake probably more and more accustomed to the mode of warfare of his antagonist, and just as the monster stood erect, the man attempted to seize its neck as he had done many and many a time before, but grasped the body too low, and before he had time to let it go the head turned on itself and the man was bitten! I was perfectly speechless, the scene had frozen my blood, and the wild shrieks of all those round rent the air. The serpent was loose and crawling on the ground, but before it had time to go far a long pole came down upon its back and broke its spine, and in less time than I take to write it down the monster was killed. To the French doctor who had charge of the little colony the man went (happily he was just at hand); all the remedies were prompt and powerful; the man suffered intensely, his body became swollen, his mind wandered, and his life was despaired of; but at last he got better, and though complaining of great pain near the heart, he was soon able to go out again. A short time after this accident, having an axe in his hand, going as he said to cut wood, he suddenly split his own heart in two. He had become insane!