Read LETTER TWO of Six Months at the Cape , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

HUNTING SPRINGBOKS ON THE KARROO

To start for the hunting-field at seven in the morning in a carriage and six, smacks of royalty and sounds luxurious, but in South Africa there are drawbacks connected therewith.

Hobson’s farm is, as I have said, on the Karroo-those vast plains which at some seasons resemble a sandy desert, and at others are covered with rich verdure and gorgeous flowers.  They are named after the small, succulent, Karroo-bush, which represents the grass of other plains, and is excellent food for cattle, sheep, and ostriches.

These plains embrace a considerable portion of the territory of the Cape.  The Karroo is pre-eminently lumpy.  Its roads in most places are merely the result of traffic.  They, also, are lumpy.  Our carriage was a native “cart,” by which is meant a plain and powerful machine with springs that are too strong readily to yield.  Five of our team were mules, the sixth was a pony.

Our party at starting numbered five, but grew as we progressed.  We took with us provisions and fodder for two days.  The driving was undertaken by Hobson’s nephew, assisted by his eldest son-“Six-foot Johnny.”  There was a double necessity for two drivers.  To hold the reins of five kicking mules and a prancing pony required both hands as well as all the strength of the cousin, though he was a powerful fellow, and the management of the whip claimed both arms, and all the strength, as well as the undivided attention of his assistant.  The whip was a salmon-rod in appearance, without exaggeration.  It had a bamboo handle somewhere between twelve and fourteen feet long, with a proportionate lash.  The operator sometimes found it convenient to stand when he made a cast with his fishing-rod weapon.  He was an adept with it; capable, it seemed to me, of picking a fly off one of the leader’s ears.

There was some trouble in keeping our team quiet while rifles, ammunition, provisions, etcetera, were being stowed in the cart.

At last the cousin gave the word.  Six-foot Johnny made a cast.  The lash grazed the leader’s flank with a crack that might have shamed a small revolver.  The mules presented first their noses, then their heels to the sky; the cart leaped from the ground, and we were off-bumping, rattling, crashing, swinging, over the wild Karroo, followed by some half-dozen horses led by two mounted Hottentot attendants.

My friend Hobson, greatly to our grief, did not accompany us, owing to inflamed eyes, but I shared the back seat of the cart with his brother Jonathan, a tall strapping man of middle age and modest mien, who seemed to me the perfect type of a colonial hero.

In an hour or so we came to the solitary farm of a Mr Green, who regaled us with a sumptuous breakfast, and lent me a spur.  I had the liberal offer of two spurs, but as, in hunting with the rifle, it is sometimes advisable to sit on one’s right heel, and memory during the excitement of the chase is apt to prove faithless, I contented myself with one spur,-feeling pretty confident that if I persuaded the left side of my horse to go, the right side could not well remain behind.

Mr Green joined us.  Thereafter we came to the residence of a Mr Priest, who also joined us with his son, and thus we sped on over the flat sandy plains, inhaling the sweet scent of mimosa blossom, glowing in the fervid sunshine, and picking up comrades here and there, until about noon we reached the scene of our intended operations.

This was a vast, almost level plain named the Plaat River Flats.  It lay between two rivers, was eight or ten miles wide and upwards of twenty miles in length-a mighty ocean, as it were, of short, compact Karroo, with a boundless horizon like the sea in all directions save one, where a great South African mountain range intercepted the view.  Here and there a few clumps of mimosa bushes rose like islets, and lent additional interest to the scene.

We “outspanned”, that is, we unyoked, and “off-saddled” here for luncheon, and found shelter from the sun under a mimosa, which was large enough to merit being styled a tree.  Its thorns were from four to six inches in length.

The party had now swelled to fourteen-all stout hardy descendants of the English, Scotch, or Dutch settlers, who had originally peopled the land; good rifle shots, and splendid horsemen.  One of them was conspicuous by his brawny arms, which were burnt to a deep brown in consequence of his preferring to hunt and work at all times with shirt sleeves rolled up above the elbows.  Another struck me as having the broadest pair of shoulders I ever saw in a man of his size.

“Capital water here,” said Green to me, on alighting beside the mimosa-thorn.

“Indeed,” said I, thirsting for some, “where is it?”

“Here! come; I’ll show you.”

He led me to a spot among the bushes where lay a small pond of thin mud the colour of weak tea with milk.

“There you are,” said Green.

I looked at him inquiringly.

He looked at me and smiled.

I laughed.

Green grinned, and assured me that it was “first-rate water.”

He dipped a cup, as he spoke, and drank it.  So did his comrades, with evident satisfaction, though the liquid was so opaque that I could not see the bottom of a tea-cup when it was full.

There could be no further doubt on the point.  These reckless and jovial South Africans-European by extraction though they were, and without a drop of black blood in their veins-had actually accommodated themselves to circumstances so far as to consider liquid mud good water!  More than that, I found that most of the party deemed it a sufficient beverage, for they were all temperance men, if not total abstainers.  Still further, I followed their example, drank of that yellow pond, and actually enjoyed it.  Subsequently I made the discovery that there were small animals in it; after that I preferred it in the form of tea, which was quickly infused by our active Hottentots.

The discovery above referred to was made when Green, (or Brownarms, or Broadshoulders, I forget which), was quaffing a cup of the cold element.  Having drained it he spat out the last mouthful, and along with it a lively creature like a small shrimp, with something like a screw-propeller under its tail!

Enjoying our tea under the shade of the mimosa, we rested for an hour, and then, saddling our steeds and slinging on rifles and cartridge-pouches, we mounted, and sallied forth upon the plain.

A glorious sensation of freedom came over me as I felt my horse’s springy step,-a sensation which brought powerfully back the memory of those days when I first galloped over the American prairies.  Surely there must be a sympathy, a mesmeric influence, between a horse and his rider which sends a thrill through each.  Hobson had lent me his own favourite horse, Rob Roy.  He was a charming creature; well made, active, willing, and tender in the mouth, but, best of all, he “trippled” splendidly.

Trippling is a favourite gait in South Africa, especially among the Dutch farmers.  It is something between pacing and ambling, a motion so easy that one scarce rises at all from the saddle.  We trippled off into the vast plain towards the horizon, each horseman diverging a little from his comrades, like a fleet of fishing-boats putting out to sea.  Most of the party rode without coats, for the sky was cloudless, and we looked for a broiling day.  Brownarms, I observed, had his sleeves rolled up, as usual, to the shoulder.  Six-foot Johnny rode a cream-coloured pony, which, like himself, enjoyed itself intensely, and seemed ready for anything.  Each man grasped his rifle by the middle with the right hand, and rested the stock on his thigh.

Being a stranger to the work, I had been supplied with a Hottentot as well as a horse,-to guide me and carry my rifle; but I scorned to ride without my weapon, and did not at first see the necessity of a guide in the circumstances.  Ultimately I was only too glad to avail myself of his services!

The South Africans call Hottentots “boys,” whatever their age or size may be.  My “boy” was named Michael.  He was a small wiry man of twenty or thirty,-more or less,-with a dirty brown face, dirty brown garments, and a dirty brown horse.  Though a bad one to look at, it was a marvellous horse to go.  Michael had a cavernous red mouth, and magnificent white teeth.  Likewise he was gifted with a strong sense of the ludicrous, as I have reason to know.

We advanced slowly into the plain at first, and gradually scattered until some of the party began to look like mere specks in the distance.  Presently I saw two or three of them break into a gallop, and observed a few moving spots of white on the horizon.  I looked anxiously at my boy.  He returned the gaze with glittering eyes and said “bok.”

“Boks! are they?” said I, applying my spur and making a leap over an ant-bear hole.

Rob Roy stretched his legs with a will, but a howl from Michael caused me to look round.  He was trending off in another direction, and pointing violently towards something.  He spoke nothing but Dutch.  My acquaintance with that tongue was limited to the single word “Ja.”

He was aware of this, and his visage became all eyes and mouth in his frantic effort to assure me it would be wise were I to follow his lead.

I turned at once and galloped alongside of him in faith.

It soon became clear what he aimed at.  The horsemen on the far off horizon were driving the springboks towards the stream which bounded one side of the great plain, Mike was making for the bushes that bordered that stream in the hope of reaching them before the boks should observe us.

Oh! it was a glorious burst, that first race over the wild Karroo, on a spirited steed, in the freshness of early morning-

  With the silent bushboy alone by my side,

for he was silent, though tremendously excited.  His brown rags fluttered in the self-made breeze, and his brown pony scrambled over the ground quite as fast as Rob Roy.  We reached a clump of underwood in time, and pulled up, panting, beside a bush which was high enough to conceal the horses.

Anxiously we watched here, and carefully did I look to my rifle,-a double-barrelled breech-loading “Soaper-Henry,”-to see that it was loaded and cocked, and frequently did I take aim at stump and stone to get my hand and eye well “in,” and admiringly, with hope in every lineament, did Michael observe me.

“See anything of them, Mike?” I asked.

I might as well have asked a baboon.  Mike only grinned, but Mike’s grin once seen was not easily forgotten.

Suddenly Mike caught sight of something, and bolted.  I followed.  At the same moment pop! pop! went rifles in different parts of the plain.  We could not see anything distant for the bushes, but presently we came to the edge of an open space, into which several springboks were trotting with a confusedly surprised air.

“Now, Sar,-now’s you chance,” said Mike, using the only English sentence he possessed, and laying hold of the bridle of my horse.

I was on the ground and down on one knee in such a hurry, that to this day I know not by what process I got off the horse.

Usually, when thus taken by surprise, the springboks stop for a moment or two and gaze at the kneeling hunter.  This affords a splendid though brief chance to take good aim, but the springboks were not inquisitive that day.  They did not halt.  I had to take a running shot, and the ball fell short, to my intense mortification.  I had sighted for three hundred yards.  Sighting quickly for five hundred, while the frightened animals were scampering wildly away, I put a ball in the dust just between the legs of one.

The leap which that creature gave was magnificent.  Much too high to be guessed at with a hope of being believed!  The full significance of the animal’s name was now apparent.  Charging a breech-loader is rapid work, but the flock was nine hundred or a thousand yards off before I could again take aim.  In despair I fired and sent a bullet into the midst of them, but without touching one.

I now turned to look at the “boy,” who was sitting on his pony with both eyes nearly shut, and a smile so wide that the double row of his teeth were exposed to the very last grinders!

But he became extremely grave and sympathetic as I turned towards him, and made a remark in Dutch which was doubtless equivalent to “better luck next time.”

Remounting I rode to the edge of the clump of bushes and found several of my companions, some of whom carried the carcasses of springboks at their cruppers.  Hope revived at once, and I set off with them in search of another flock.

“You’ve failed, I see,” remarked my friend Jonathan Hobson in a sympathetic tone.

Ah! what a blessed thing is sympathy!

“Yes,” said I; “my shots fell short.”

“Don’t let that discourage you,” returned Jonathan, “you’re not used to the Karroo.  Distance is very deceptive.  Sighting one’s rifle is the chief difficulty in these regions, but you’ll soon come to it.”

Another flock of springboks was discovered at this moment on a distant knoll, towards which we trotted, trippled, and cantered.  We quickly scattered,-each man taking his own course.  Six-foot Johnny, already burdened with a buck, went off at reckless speed.  He soon came near enough to cause the game to look up inquiringly.  This made him draw rein, and advance with caution in a sidling and indirect manner.  In a few minutes the boks trotted off.  We were now within long range, and made a dash at racing-speed to head them.  The creatures absolutely played with us at first, and performed some of their astounding leaps, as if for our special amusement.  Had they set off at full speed at once we should not have had a chance, for they are fleeter than horses.  Their manner of leaping is a la indiarubber ball.  It is not a bound forwards, but a “stott” straight upwards,-six, eight, or nine feet, without apparent effort, and displaying at each bound a ridge, or fold, of pure white hair on their backs which at other times is concealed.

We now “put on a spurt,” and the leading men got near enough-between two and three hundred yards.  They dismounted, dropped their bridles, and kneeled to take aim.  Brownarms fired and brought one down-so did Broadshoulders.  Six-foot Johnny, in his eagerness, let the cream pony stumble, somehow, and went over its head-also over his own, and landed on his knees.  The bok he was after stopped to gaze at the catastrophe.  Johnny, profiting by his position, took aim and tumbled it over.

Mike was by this time leading me towards an animal.  We got within three hundred yards when it began to stretch out.  Further pursuit being useless, I pulled up, leaped off, kneeled, fired, and missed again-the ball, although straight, falling short.  With wild haste I scrambled on Rob Roy-who, by the way, stood as still as a stone when left with the bridle thrown over his head and hanging from his nose.  The horses were trained to this.

Loading as I ran we soon came to a bok which had been turned by some of the other hunters.  Again I raced, pulled up, leaped off, and fired.  The pop! pop! was now going on all over the plain, and balls were whistling everywhere.  Again my bok refused to stop to look at me-as he ought to have done-and again I missed.  Michael’s eyes were now quite shut, and his jaws visible to the wisdom teeth-supposing he possessed any.

Growing reckless under disappointment I now dashed away in pursuit of animals that had been scattered by the fusillade, and fired right and left at all ranges between two and ten hundred yards, but without any other effect than that of driving up the dust under two or three of them, and causing many of their astounding leaps.  Soon the rest of the party were scattered so far on the plain as to be utterly out of sight and hearing.  As far as sensation went, my “Tottie” and I were as lonely in that wilderness as was Mungo Park in days gone by.

All this time the sun was blazing in the sky with unclouded and fervent heat.  It had been 110 degrees in the shade at Ebenezer a day or two before, therefore I judged it to have been much the same on this occasion.  There was not a breath of wind.  Everything was tremulous with heat.

Suddenly I beheld, with the deepest interest, a magnificent lake with beautiful islets scattered over its crystal breast.  Often had I read of the mirage of African deserts, and much had I thought about it.  Now, for the first time, it was before me.  Never was deception more perfect.  If I had not known that no such lake existed in the region I should have been almost ready to stake my life on the reality of what I saw.  No wonder that thirsty travellers in unknown regions should have so often pushed forward in eager pursuit of this beautiful phantom.

“Things are not what they seem,” truly!  This applies to many terrestrial things, but to none of them more thoroughly than to the mirage.

While I was looking at it, the form of the lake altered sufficiently to have dispelled the illusion, if I had been labouring under it.  In a few minutes it passed away altogether, but only to reappear elsewhere.

Another curious effect, and rather absurd mistake, resulted from the different densities in the super-heated atmosphere which caused this mirage.  Fancying that I saw two springboks on the horizon I pointed them out to my boy.

“Ja!” said Mike, nodding his head and riding towards them at a smart canter.  As we advanced I observed that the boks began to grow rather larger than life, and that Mike slackened his pace and began to grin.  It turned out that the objects were two carts with white canvas hoods, and when we came up to them we found they belonged to a party who had come out to join us, but who, up to that hour, had been unable to discover us in the vast hunting-field!

After directing them to our camp we proceeded on our way.  That is to say Mike did.  For myself, I was completely lost, and if left to myself should have been quite unable to return to camp.

While galloping along, revelling in the sunshine-in the love of which I will not yield to cats-we came suddenly on the largest snake I had yet seen.  It was, I believe, a cobra, must have been fully six feet long, if not more, and was gliding with an easy sinuous motion over the plain as fast apparently, as a man’s ordinary running-pace.  I observed that it did not get out of the way of small bushes, but went straight through them without the smallest check to its speed.  It suddenly dived into a hole and disappeared.  It is said that when snakes take to a hole to escape pursuit, some of them have a habit of causing their heads to stop abruptly at the entrance, and allowing their bodies and tails to flip past like the lash of a whip, so that if the pursuer were to thrust in his hand to grasp the tail he would be met by the fangs!  As the bite of most South African snakes means death, if the part be not cut out, or otherwise effectually treated, handling them is carefully avoided.  Nevertheless my friend Jonathan-when a younger man, let us hope!-was in the habit of occasionally catching deadly snakes by the tail, swinging them round his head, and dashing out their brains on a stone or tree!

Soon we perceived two of our comrades driving a flock of springboks towards the river.  Mike at once diverged towards a clump of bushes which it seemed probable they would pass.  In ten minutes we were down in a hollow, with the horses hid behind a mimosa-thorn.  The boks had not seen us, being too much taken up with their pursuers; they came straight towards us.

“Now, sar,” whispered Mike once again, while his eyes glared with glee, “now’s you chance!”

I went down on one knee, carefully sighted the rifle, and looked up.  The foremost bok was within good range.  I fired and missed!  “Desolation!” said I, cramming in another cartridge while the flock diverged to the left.

There was no hope now of anything but a running shot.  I aimed carefully.  The smoke cleared off, the flock dashed on, but-one bok lay prone upon the earth.  Bang! went my second barrel, and another bok, leaping into the air, fell, rose, fell again, then rose and ran on.

Mike was now jubilant.  The whole internal structure of his mouth was disclosed to view in his satisfaction, as he viewed the prostrate animal.  I may add that although we did not find the wounded bok that evening, we found him next day.

With our prize strapped behind Mike’s saddle we rode in triumph into camp, a little before sunset, and found most of our companions assembled, busy preparing supper and making other arrangements for camping out on the veldt-as they call the plain.  Some had been successful, some had failed, but a good many springboks had been killed, and all were hearty as crickets and hungry as hyenas.

To kindle fires, boil tea, roast venison steaks, spread blankets on the ground, and otherwise attend to the duties of the bivouac, was now the order of the hour.  The moon rose while we were thus engaged, and mingled her pale light with the ruddy blaze of camp-fires.  We spoke little and ate much.  Then followed the inevitable pipe and the pleasant chat, but we were all too ready for rest to care about keeping it up long.  I was constrained to take the bed of honour in the cart.  The others stretched their limbs on the Karroo, and in ten minutes every man was in the land of nod.

Next day we mounted at daybreak and renewed the hunt, but I will say no more about it than that we bagged twenty-six springboks amongst us, and that Six-foot Johnny, having killed the greatest number of animals, returned home “King of the hunt,” with a scrap of ostrich feather in his cap.