The Ibex and the Elephant
AFTER wintering in the tropics, it was a relief beyond anything that I can hope to describe to get up into the vale of Kashmir. From the heat-laden plains around Delhi to Rawal Pindi, — the jumping-off place for Kashmir, is less than twenty-four hours by train. A day and a half more by motor and one has reached the famous valley. Such a contrast to the dusty plains, such scenery, such fresh color, and such air are too much for mere words. In no time one is walking around with one’s head literally in the clouds, and one’s spirit soaring over the great mountains to the Tibetan steppes.
Shikaries and coolies were obtained and at last I was slipping away on the quiet waters of the Yelum in the shadows of the Himalaya range. At Bandipore we outfitted. The last dusts of civilization were printed in the snow of the virgin forest that surrounded the Dak Bungalow of Tragbal, and there, after a night’s rest and a little climb before dawn, I was standing on the summit of a 12,000-foot pass. Quite a contrast it was to the heat of Delhi. Forced marches carried us through the Burzil pass, fearful with its threat of snow slides, majestic in the silent grandeur of the moonlight. The only safe method at this time of year was to travel by night so as to cross the pass before the sun could awaken the tremendous power that lay hidden in the harmless-looking sheets of snow. Eventually we descended to the village of Los on the right bank of the Astor River and, after spending the night in the beautiful orchard of the Lombador, or headman of the village, we pushed on a half day’s march further to my nullah.
Within an hour after camp had been pitched I found myself in something of a predicament. We were just going to ‘take a little look’ on the markhor ground and therefore, without bothering to put on grass shoes, we started off following the chota-shikari, attired in the usual chaplis — hob-nailed sandals. Presently we came to some cliffs but, since no markhor were to be seen, Jumma Khan scrambled down. Even though the cliffs were precipitous it looked easy when the Dard went down. I therefore started to follow, but soon discovered that there was something radically wrong. The chaplis were useless so I took them off. Rahima, I noticed, did likewise. Then I continued the descent, getting into a worse and worse fix the further I went, until at last I found myself completely stopped. This was not any fun at all. I looked down and the view was distinctly good — so good, in fact, that I had to force myself to look away and study the cliffs at hand.
I failed to see any feasible cracks into which I could take a step either forward or back. This business of hanging onto a rock face I cannot call exactly boring, but long before Jumma Khan came up to my rescue I was quite convinced of the fact that I did not care for it a bit. When at last he arrived I was able, by dint of using his shoulders as a foot-step, to manoeuvre the descent, but it took a long time. Rahima also, I am glad to say, required help. On looking back up to the cliffs I said to him, ‘ Do we have to go on this sort of ground every day?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘every day little, little bad; every day not very bad.’ From the way he said it, I was not reassured, for I have never entertained any delusion that I was a mountaineer. On this sort of going I was as bad as a child learning how to walk.
A few minutes later we were creeping up very cautiously to look over some more cliffs. Just as I peeped over, I heard a strange sound, and saw two female markhor going down the mountain. Markhor going down a mountain are a sight worth seeing. It seemed to me that they went down over the rocks just as fast as antelope run on a level plain. I had no idea that any animal could go over such frightfully steep rough ground at such a pace without coming to grief, and, had I not seen it with my own eyes, I should not have believed it possible.
Markhor, although of the goat family, do not seek safety in height. On the contrary they will almost always run down hill, unless wounded. Rahima told me that quite frequently, even when shot at from below, they will come right down past the hunter, thereby giving him a chance for a second shot. Markhor are constantly on the watch, looking both up hill and down, and the smallest falling stone attracts their immediate attention. Furthermore they have good eyesight and good noses. A markhor is by far the most difficult animal to bag that I have ever hunted.
It is easy to see why an old solitary male, with his grand spiral horns, his long beard, and shaggy underlock, is the much prized trophy that he is. Among Kashmir big game the markhor ranks first, and quite rightly so. In the case mentioned above I do not believe that the two females got our wind. It was a good day, and in good weather, as a general rule, the wind blows up the mountain by day and down by night. In bad weather the wind may blow anywhere and everywhere and that line of Kipling, ‘Where the baffling mountain eddies chop and change,’ applies only too well.
There are many stories in which some grand old animal, usually with a head of heads, is hunted for days or weeks or months or, sometimes, even for years; and the interest in the story and the value of the animal increase in direct ratio with the time required to bring him to bag. For example, an English sportsman a good many years ago located a record markhor in the Kajnag. On a two months’ leave he failed to get him though he hunted nothing else. The following year, on a three months’ leave, he was no more successful. The third year, determined to get that markhor, he came back on a six months’ leave. On the last day, when it was due only to the persuasive powers of his shikari that he went out at all, he shot the markhor. It had a sixty-inch head. That, where one has the opportunity, is the real sport in hunting; spying out some grand old wary king and going after him. Be it deep in the jungle or up among the crags, it. makes no difference; the prize is worth the chase.
Following my markhor hunt we went after ibex; for two weeks we had been after one strange-looking, solitary old ibex with a wild head, and my shikari had ceased to eat. (This apparently is a shikari superstition in Kashmir as well as in China.) ‘Too many days going behind this ibex’ he said. ‘Never before I see ibex like this.’ By which he meant that ibex are as a general rule easy to get. It is well known that in the Rocky Mountains it is simply a question of climbing to get your old ‘Billy.’ The same to a lesser degree is true of ibex. They have the Billy’s instinct of going up in case of danger so strongly developed that if you can get above them and shoot down, even though they be out of range, they are apt to come up to you. The difficulty that we had with the old ibex was due both to his unusual craftiness and to the frightful ground that he inhabited. Abadabur Nullah is a markhor nullah, and markhor ground is almost certain to be bad ground; but, whereas markhor stay comparatively low down, the ibex goes right up among the peaks. Thus it is pretty safe to say that when you propose to hunt ibex in a markhor nullah you have your work cut out for you.
Rather than go through the painful account of the two weeks’ chase I will simply tell of the last three days, for they are typical of the others. A certain evening is very memorable chiefly on account of Rahima’s great faith in a benevolent God. The usual fruitless attempts had been made throughout the day. Jumma Khan had been sent away early with orders to move camp, so we had no local guide to take us down one of the few possible routes by which we could get to camp, and Rahima was on this occasion, I thought, a very poor substitute. Already the virgin slopes and the forbidden pinnacles of ever beautiful Nanga Parbat were bathed in a flush of color by the evening sun. There she was, serene and perfect, raising her head above all worldly things. I could have sat and looked at her for hours, but even now the deep chasm below was growing darker. Rahima plunged ahead over the rocks and before I knew it we were in trouble, so that I soon forgot all about the beauties of Nanga.
I shall always remember that descent of two thousand feet over what seemed to be an endless series of cliffs. Several times the thought flashed across my mind that it was all up with little me, but always the tiffin coolie who was clambering dexterously around in bare feet would come to my aid. Sometimes I did not think it possible even for the tiffin coolie to effect a descent. These particular ledges wore all shelving at a rather steep dip. Also, the rock was friable and therefore likely to give way at any moment, and that was the worst of it. I have already stated that I did not care at all about hanging around the edge of cliffs and I repeat it now. At best it is not too pleasant a sensation to be flattened out against a wall of rock and to realize that one little slip means that you must say good-bye. Nevertheless, although I was frightened, I found that my mind was perfectly calm, and when studying the ground for the next step it worked carefully and deliberately. Also I could look down without the slightest feeling of dizziness. But my legs behaved very badly. Several times as I hung stretched out along the rock face, carefully balancing on bent knees while preparing for the next move, my knees would begin to shake most horribly as if they had the ague. I saw that Rahima and the tiffin coolie noticed my ailment, and it was most embarrassing: for although I realize now that I must have been very frightened, yet at the time I was sure that I was not scared. Whenever I had a good grip with my hands I was all right. Rahima on the other hand had to get a sure footing before he felt safe, so that in some places where I had great difficulty Rahima found no trouble, and others which were comparatively easy for me caused Rahima considerable embarrassment. It was all easy for the tiffin coolie.
The descent lasted several hours so that it was some time after dark when we came down around under a ledge of rock into camp. Then I sat down by the fire and told Rahima just what I thought of him for bringing me down over those cliffs. ‘Damn foolishness’ I called it. Then I explained to him that I came all the way to Astor to hunt and to have a good time and not to break my neck. To which he replied by way of a mild compliment — meant to appease— ‘God always taking care of good sahibs. Sahib not falling.’ I answered in no unmistakable terms that God had had nothing to do with my not falling from the cliffs and that on no account was he to take me again over such ground. Then Rahima tactfully changed the subject to the ibex which it appeared had been seen just before dark. The ibex, they said, was now lying down about two thousand feet above camp where he could keep a good eye on the enemy.
Before daylight next morning we crept up after the ibex, but it was all wasted energy for he had slipped away, and, when we got there, only his fresh tracks were to be seen. These we followed about a mile into the snow and then saw him about a thousand feet above us circling back. He saw us too and turned. This time he selected a position from which he commanded a wonderful view of all the ground, and then lay down. Any attempt at a stalk was useless, so we sat behind some rocks and watched him. Late in the afternoon he got up to feed and we made another attempt. He looked up and caught us in the act of crossing a snowslide; so we just sank slowly down in the snow, hoping that he would begin to feed again. But he had no such intention and stood with his eyes glued on us. So we waited and waited there in the snow until I thought I should go distracted.
After about an hour of this absurd performance the ibex did not interest me in the least. The only things I could think of were — how cold I was, and a couple of lines from Kipling:
While the head of heads is feeding out of range?’
And yet for a long time I held myself in, for there was Jumma Khan lying motionless in front of me, with bare feet in the snow and the goose flesh standing out all over him; and I marveled at the toughness of the man. At last I told my shikari what I had been wanting to tell him for a long time and I can leave it to anyone’s imagination as to what was said. Long since have I been convinced that at least as far as patience is concerned man cannot compete with a wild animal. When we did finally get up I lost all dignity and reserve and began jumping around and poking Jumma Khan. The latter was fairly beside himself from the painful wait and at each poke exploded as if all the pent-up forces of a volcano were inside. In this way we restored ourselves to normal human beings and then made our way slowly back to camp.
The following day we got up before daylight again. It was always the same — this getting up before daylight — and I loathed it. Russléon, the tiffin coolie, had found out that the only way to wake up the sahib was to bring him a cup of tea and to sit there till he drank it. Russléon would hold my clothes ready for me to put on, so then I would simply have to get up and dress by candle light. It was awful getting out of a nice warm furry sleeping-bag into the cold air and darkness and in a minute I would have to rush to the fire. Coolies would immediately spread blankets for me to sit on and so I would snuggle up to the fire, yawning and shivering, and getting smoke into my eyes until I cursed the day that I ever came on an ibex hunt. Meantime one coolie would be massaging my legs, another would be tying on my grass shoes while yet a third would bring me a breakfast that I was almost too sleepy to eat, and after all that the day’s hunt proved to be merely a repetition of the last.
We made a very long detour and would have gotten very close to the ibex but he heard the crunch of the snow and from below us he circled unseen and then suddenly peeped down at us over a ledge about four hundred yards away. I looked at him through the telescope for about the one-hundredth time, and wondered, as I gazed at the curious horns, if I would ever have the pleasure of seeing them in camp. Then he went right up to the very summit of the mountain. I sank back into the snow, very disgusted with it all for it looked well-nigh hopeless. From below the roar of unseen waters racing down the chasm suddenly came up strong on the wind. For a moment the sound filled the air. Then it grew fainter and fainter and was swallowed up again in endless space just as the voice of a child is swept away and lost in a storm. The mountain-side was in silence.
Rahima did not want to look at me. He kept his eyes turned away and fingered his stick. I took out my field glasses. The ibex was struggling through deep snow up near the summits. I watched him till he lay down on a slab of bare rock. ‘Rahima,’ I said, ‘what doing now?’ ‘See dem, see dem,’ was his characteristic reply. ‘Pleases now sitting,’ he went on. ‘Evening kail down coming for fooding.’ And the ibex did come down that evening, and, though we were ready for him, he fooled us again. We had waited for him too long and as a result we had to descend a very steep mountain in the dark — a somewhat hazardous proceeding.
The next day at last luck was with us. We found the old ibex asleep in the terrible chasm that divides the right wall of Abadabur Nullah into two halves. That place is a veritable gorge of death into which rocks are forever hurling themselves down the shelving gneiss that acts as a floor of the chasm. The ibex was lying down, some three hundred yards away, almost vertically beneath me. To shoot I literally had to lean over the edge, my shikari holding onto my legs as I fired, and, to say the least, I surprised myself by killing him. Several other ibex ran across the floor of the chasm when I fired. One male was almost hit by a falling rock and I saw him jump skillfully behind a projecting ledge as the rock went crashing by. Then for some time I watched them climb the wall on the far side. Now and then they got into very tight places that necessitated a careful study of the ground, followed by three or four flying leaps that nearly made my hair stand on end to see, and I burst out with a‘Gee! Did you see that Rahima?’ Two small ibex were following their mother at the end of the line, until they came to a spot which they simply could not manoeuvre. When they were getting left far behind, they showed some initiative and, turning back down into the chasm again, they came up by another route, going all the time just as fast as they could go until they caught up with the others.
When the excitement was over and I looked back at the fallen ibex, I hardly knew what to think. It would be impossible to describe the many, varied, and conflicting emotions that I have experienced in shooting game. Sometimes it is great glee, sometimes regret, sometimes a combination of pity and sorrow and a strong distaste for the whole business. On this occasion I think there was a certain satisfied feeling of ‘Well, at last.’ At the same time a natural feeling of regret, for it seems that the longer the chase continues, the more of a friend the object of the chase becomes. You get to know him pretty well — his little tricks and habits, his favorite haunts and feeding grounds — and it is impossible therefore that one should experience only a feeling of glee when the big head has fallen and his battle is at an end.
In Peking I heard of Defosse, whose reputation as a man, guide, and hunter has traveled far. I set about then and there to try to secure his services and was so fortunate that by the first week of January, 1923, I was setting out with the great hunter for the jungles of Indo-China. Defosse is an old man of the jungle. For eighteen years he has made his living as a hunter, and he has a knowledge of the jungle that few men of to-day possess. A typical white man of the tropics, he has fought the fever all his life. He is thin and drawnlooking, and his eyes are heavy. Only his tremendous feet and hands tell of the man he might have been. But when his rifle is at his shoulder, steady as a rock, he is beautiful to see. As a young man he was ‘first shot’ of the French regiment in which he came to Indo-China, and his skill with the rifle has been increasing ever since. In the early days of his hunting he had many an accident. He has been on the horns of wild buffaloes, he has been caught by an elephant, he has been gored by a wild boar, and he has had to run for his life from a wounded tiger; yet these and other experiences have simply made him a more clever and a more skillful hunter. On two occasions I had the rare pleasure of seeing Defosse in action and it is something I can never forget.
It was to Defosse that the Moys came with their troubles, for he spoke Annamite, Moy, English, and French with remarkable fluency. For the two months in the jungle we were always more or less surrounded by Moys who served us as coolie porters and trackers, and they were a constant source of interest. They are the original Malays of Indo-China and as far back as their traditions go they have lived in the interior. To the Moys the jungle is the whole world. In olden days a tribal war caused the erection of a mud wall as a boundary for the Moys and a defense against the Annamites who were invading the sea coast. The wall still exists and so successfully has it landlocked the Moys that even to-day, although some tribes live within 50 kilometres of the coast, they have absolutely no knowledge of the sea.
The Moys have one great god of the jungle, and subordinate gods for each different species of animal. In the event that they make a killing with their crossbows and poisoned arrows, a propitiation to the God of that species is necessary. In the case of an elephant, the propitiation lasts eight days and the ceremony takes on the form of a ‘Kaniau,’ or drunken debauch. It is held about the carcass of the dead animal. A Moy will never give any information as to the whereabouts of dangerous game, for surely the animal would know and revenge himself on that Moy. Thus at one of our camps, although the Moys found a fresh tiger’s kill a short distance away, they never told us a thing about it till three days later when the kill was devoured and the tiger gone. To the Moys a tiger is ‘Ong Cop’ — Mr. Tiger — and is spoken of quietly and with great respect; but Mr. Elephant — ‘Ong Bô’ — is rarely even mentioned.
The white man is something the Moys as yet cannot explain quite satisfactorily. He is a born master, can do anything he likes, and, for the reason that he does not have to trouble himself with propitiations, he is almost a sort of semi-god himself. And yet nothing that the white man does do the Moys consider wonderful. Any people who can build a contrivance that wood and water will cause to run at great speed, hauling any number of wagons, can do anything; and with that their wonder ceases. A rifle, a telescope, and such things do not even cause curiosity. ‘Why!’ they say simply,with a shrug of their shoulders, ‘white man’s work,’ and that is the end of it. The Moys believe that a compass points to the game, and that when you want to return it points directly back to camp. No wonder the white man can find game and no wonder he can go straight back home through the jungle. There is nothing remarkable about it. It is ‘white man’s work.’
We had moved camp into good elephant country where there was plenty of ‘sign’ and for several days we had been hard at work burning down the long grass. During the night we had heard elephants trumpeting, and Defosse had expressed a feeling that on the morrow an elephant would be shot.
Elephants are very numerous in Indo-China, but, owing to the thick jungle they inhabit, it is extremely difficult to get them, unless you are so fortunate as to catch them in the open early or late. They come out to the watering holes during the night but usually beat a hasty retreat to the cool of the forest at the first sign of day. This is especially true in the dry season. So I must ask my reader to step with me for a moment into the jungle and to picture himself regretfully crawling out of bed into the pitch darkness of a cold misty morning. A dreary breakfast and we are glad to get under way. Dawn has just broken and the mist lies black and heavy over the forest. A few tall trees out in the open lift their heads above its surface. They are the trees of a dream, weird and unsupported, and their great black trunks disappear into the blacker mist below. The trail leads a way through the accursed elephant grass. It is wet and the cold clammy dew soaks us to the skin. We see fresh tiger tracks. The fellow has passed camp during the night.
As Kipling says, ‘the dawn comes up like thunder,’ and in a few minutes a sickly green disk arises over the rim of the great forest. The mist begins to move this way and that and the sun turns to livid orange and to pale yellow. The jungle cocks are crowing and the long-tailed peacocks are hurling their raucous notes over the open spaces as we step into the jungle. It is dark there, and cool, and dripping, and we cannot see our rifle-sights. Of a sudden there is a great shaking of branches overhead, and a flock of little gray monkeys runs away like squirrels through the tree tops; and so we push on through the jungle, the vines and giant creepers and thorny bushes catching at our clothing.
Very soon we come on the fresh tracks of a large elephant herd and the sensation and thrill that creep over us as we step gingerly about, examining these great tracks, is wonderful. For a long time the elephants had just been milling around this way and that. Then they separated into two herds, one going back deep into the jungle, the other circling out over the open spaces, through the elephant grass. These we follow and on the way we see the dancing-place of the elephants which Kipling describes in the Jungle Book story of ‘Little Tumai.’ Grass and earth alike have been stamped to the hardness of cement. On and on we follow till the sun swings high, white and blistering. As we pass a narrow island of jungle that is surrounded by open grass I say to Defosse, ‘ Let’s step into the shade and rest a while.’
It is an idea that, I must confess, is ever present when the sun is up and it merely requires a good opportunity as an excuse to effect it. Well, we do, and I have hardly lifted my canteen to my lips when we hear loud crashing close by. ‘The elephants,’ whispers Defosse, in a tone which fairly sets me tingling inside. The two Moy natives show great alacrity in getting up a tree and then turn and grin down at us from their perch like a pair of monkeys. We make our way toward the sound.
In Defosse’s language — I know that we are ‘attacking the elephants.’ Working into the interior of the patch of jungle we find that it opens up a bit for a distance of about forty yards. The elephants are not thirty yards from one end of this little glade. We can see the trees shaking, hear the breaking branches, and the dull flap of elephant ears, but to see the elephants is impossible. We make a circle back through the jungle behind to assure ourselves that we are not surrounded, and then return to the edge of the thick section of the jungle in which the elephants are browsing. Then Defosse explains that, since this strip of jungle is surrounded by open grass, my first shot will bring them racing back through the jungle in our direction as they will not dare to risk crossing the open. ‘Therefore,’ he says, ‘as soon as you shoot, we will run back to that big tree and that will give us thirty yards of clear jungle to kill in. Don’t stop shooting until there are no more elephants facing us and remember: not below the line of the eyes! ‘
It is getting exciting and I wait resting against a tree trying in vain to make out a head to shoot at. To be sure, I can occasionally see a trunk or a bit of a flapping ear, but it would be folly to risk a shot, especially as it seems to be merely a matter of time until a good opportunity presents itself. Then the wind changes. Just a puff of air is wafted through the jungle toward the elephants. Defosse swears. Suddenly there is tremendous crashing and all the trees in the jungle seem to be shaking. The crashing ceases and we hear the swishing of tall grass. ‘Shoot in the air and run to the big tree.’ I obey and Defosse and I run for the tree. At sound of the shots the elephants wheel and hurl themselves back into the jungle.
The terrific crashing grows louder. Defosse and I stand by the tree tense and ready. The elephants stop. ‘They are looking for trouble,’ whispers Defosse. One moves on. He is not coming straight for us. He circles around and passes directly beneath the tree the Moys are sitting in. We can see the Moys, but so thick is the mass of creepers below that we cannot see the elephant and we do not dare go into the thick jungle and try to ‘head’ them. I can see the Moys looking straight down. If we shoot the elephant where he stands the Moys will have to step on his back getting down off the tree. For a moment I have visions of the elephant reaching up with his trunk and grabbing them. It would be so easy for him. Then he passes around us in a circle leaving an open trail behind him where before there was an impenetrable mass of creepers.
Now the other elephants come on. There is loud crashing in front and behind as the elephants smash their way through the forest. But they have located us perfectly by that first puff of wind and they all circle by and move on and we do not get in one shot. The strip of jungle at this point is not more than seventy yards wide, and we are in the middle of it, and yet five elephants pass us in that narrow strip and we are unable to get in a single shot.
There is no use to follow the elephants on foot, so we start for camp. The sun is hotter than ever and the miles are long. I cannot help thinking how quickly things change. We were having such fun a short time ago and now it is back to the same old story of sweating along through the accursed sword grass under the doubly accursed broiling sun. Defosse stops to light his pipe and I hate him for stopping. How any man can stop to light a pipe under that sun I cannot understand. Then he shows me where he and a Belgian had been forced to kill five elephants; but I am not a bit interested in the elephants that somebody else has shot. Our elephants have slipped right through our fingers and the idea rankles.
Nevertheless I have had my first real elephant hunt and have enjoyed it tremendously. I have seen gigantic bodies that for all the world might have been mastodons smashing their way through a primeval forest and as I look back on the scene I know that it is an impression that will not soon be forgotten. But we are getting near camp now and I hurry on ahead.
‘What’s the hurry?’ asks Defosse. ‘Beer,’ I answer, and hurry faster and at the same time I laugh at myself. Such is the human being, I thought. But a few minutes before my whole system was concentrated on elephants and now — how ignominious — it seems to be equally concentrated on beer.
To-night as I write, the jungle moon is sailing a cloudy sea, and the Southern Cross stands over there on the rim of the great forest. The soft air flowing in among the black tree-trunks brings in the noises of the jungle — the bell of the sambur stag, the yelp of the hog deer, the sharp bark of the muntjac, the songs of night birds and crickets and lizards, and now in the distance the roar of angry elephants, Kipling’s ‘pin prick of sound in the darkness.’ And Defosse — l’empereur des forêts,’ as the French call him, an old man of the jungle, with ninety-eight elephants and forty-five tiger notches on his gun — waves a careless hand out into the night.
‘And I have all that just for the asking,’ he says. ‘And I do not have to pay.’