Hippopotamus hunting.—We kill one.—The men eat it.—Poor beef.—What the tusks are for.
It was night; the moon had just risen, and threw a strange glare on every thing round; I was in the prairie, and had been there since ten o'clock in the morning, looking for wild beasts.
At last I saw five hippopotami grazing. I approached with cautious steps, or rather I crawled on the ground toward the huge beasts, till I came near enough to see the shadows their immense bodies threw around them.
The question was how to get within gunshot without being seen. There was nothing to protect me from their view, for the grass had been burned; there was nothing either to protect me against their assault. Supposing that I killed the one I should shoot at, the others might take it into their heads to charge upon me. Not a tree was within reach. Now I had been so accustomed to hunt wild beasts that I was not afraid of any of them, but I knew that I could not kill five hippopotami at once.
Suddenly the animals turned round and gradually approached a grove of trees; but what was to be done? The wind almost blew from that grove toward them! "At any rate I will try," said to myself, "to go there, but I must take a roundabout way." How careful I had to be in order not to be seen!
I felt very much excited, and when I reached the little island, or grove, of trees without being discovered I was mightily pleased with myself. It was, I thought, a splendid piece of woodcraft on my part. I fancied I was almost the equal of Aboko, who had killed the rogue elephant at Cape Lopez. I had reached the grove from the opposite side to that where I supposed the hippopotami to be. The only sure way for me to come close to them was to go through the grove and wait until they should come within gunshot from the other side.
The trees were not very thick, and I could pass through the underbrush without making much noise. I thought that perhaps there was a leopard there, and if so he would leap upon me before I was aware. It was just the time of the night when they were out, and they abounded in that region. I therefore entered the woods, looking to the left and to the right and ahead of me, in order not to be surprised, and met several hippopotami tracks.
Just as I was in the midst of the grove I suddenly heard a great crash in the direction I was going. Then followed several other crashes coming from other parts. I listened: they were the hippopotami: they had entered the grove by several paths converging toward me.
I kept still. I do believe my hair must have stood up on my head, for I was awfully excited. The hippopotami were coming just where I was.
I cocked my gun, hid myself behind a big tree, and waited. I heard the crash of branches in all directions except one, and finally saw the branches of the trees moving not far from me, and by the dim moonlight piercing through the not very thick foliage, I perceived a monster hippopotamus, the male of the herd, coming sideways so as to pass within a few yards of me. Suddenly he stopped; gave one of his sonorous grunts; and then advanced. What a monster he was! What a huge body! What short legs! At last, just as he had passed me, so that he could not face me without turning his unwieldy body, I fired into his ear, and the monster dropped on the spot with scarcely a struggle. But I wish you had been with me to hear the rush of the others. I thought all the trees were coming down! One in his fright came down in my direction. I thought he was charging me, so I fired, and I heard the bullet strike some part of his body, probably one of his tusks, for it made a great noise; but that was all; he passed on with a rapidity of which I thought these beasts perfectly incapable. I was glad when they were all out of the way.
It had been an exciting hunt and I was satisfied. So I returned to the camp, and the next day we all went to cut up the beast. Some of the married men cut long strips of the hide to make whips, which they use pretty freely on the backs of their wives; but I made them promise not to use these whips except in self-defense.
There was joy in the camp in the evening. We had music, and I enjoyed the broth amazingly; it was really good, and I wish I could say the same of the flesh; but he was an old fellow and the meat was exceedingly tough. I soon gave up the job of trying to eat it.
It did me good to see how my men enjoyed it. They had a dance in the evening.
In the book called "Stories of the Gorilla Country" I have not told how curious is the head of this great, unwieldy creature.
Look at the huge, crooked tusks! What are they for?
After watching a great many times the movements of the hippopotamus, I became assured that these huge, crooked tusks, which give its mouth such a savage appearance, are designed chiefly to hook up the long river-grasses on which these animals feed in great part. I have often seen one descend to the bottom, remain a few minutes, and reappear with its tusks strung with grass, which was then leisurely chewed up.
There are no large herds of hippopotami in the parts of Africa I have explored, like those found in South Africa, thirty being about the greatest number I have ever seen together.