Chapter 30 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The missing hunter, and the Wildebeests.

A well-known proverb says that “misfortunes seldom come single.”

On nearing the camp, the hunters could perceive that all was not right there. They saw Totty with Trüey and Jan standing by the head of the ladder; but there was something in their manner that told that all was not right. Where was Hans?

As soon as the hunters came in sight, Jan and Trüey ran down the rounds, and out to meet them. There was that in their glances that bespoke ill tidings, and their words soon confirmed this conjecture.

Hans was not there—he had gone away hours ago—they knew not where, they feared something had happened to him,—they feared he was lost!

“But what took him away from the camp?” asked Von Bloom, surprised and troubled at the news.

That, and only that, could they answer. A number of odd-looking animals—very odd-looking, the children said,—had come to the vley to drink. Hans had taken his gun and followed them in a great hurry, telling Trüey and Jan to keep in the tree, and not come down until he returned. He would be gone only a very little while, and they needn’t fear.

This was all they knew. They could not even tell what direction he had taken. He went by the lower end of the vley; but soon the bushes hid him from their view, and they saw no more of him.

“At what time was it?”

It was many hours ago,—in the morning in fact,—not long after the hunters themselves had started. When he did not return the children grew uneasy; but they thought he had fallen in with papa and Hendrik, and was helping them to hunt; and that was the reason why he stayed so long.

“Had they heard any report of a gun?” No—they had listened for that, but heard none. The animals had gone away before Hans could get his gun ready; and they supposed he had to follow some distance before he could overtake them—that might be the reason they had heard no shot.

“What sort of animals were they?” They had all seen them plain enough, as they drank. They had never seen any of the kind before. They were large animals of a yellow brown colour, with shaggy manes, and long tufts of hair growing out of their breasts, and hanging down between their fore-legs. They were as big as ponies, said Jan, and very like ponies. They curvetted and capered about just as ponies do sometimes. Trüey thought that they looked more like lions!

“Lions!” ejaculated her father and Hendrik, with an accent that betokened alarm.

Indeed, they reminded her of lions, Trüey again affirmed, and Totty said the same. “How many were there of them?”

“Oh! a great drove, not less than fifty.” They could not have counted them, as they were constantly in motion, galloping from place to place, and butting each other with their horns.

“Ha! they had horns then?” interrogated Von Bloom, relieved by this announcement.

Certainly they had horns, replied all three.

They had seen the horns, sharp-pointed ones, which first came down, and then turned upwards in front of the animals’ faces. They had manes too, Jan affirmed; and thick necks that curved like that of a beautiful horse; and tufts of hair like brushes upon their noses; and nice round bodies like ponies, and long white tails that reached near the ground, just like the tails of ponies, and finely-shaped limbs as ponies have.

“I tell you,” continued Jan, with emphasis, “if it hadn’t been for their horns and the brushes of long hair upon their breasts and noses, I’d have taken them for ponies before anything. They galloped about just like ponies when playing, and ran with their heads down, curving their necks and tossing their manes,—ay, and snorting too, as I’ve heard ponies; but sometimes they bellowed more like bulls; and, I confess, they looked a good deal like bulls about the head; besides I noticed they had hoofs split like cattle. Oh! I had a good look at them while Hans was loading his gun. They stayed by the water till he was nearly ready; and when they galloped off, they went in a long string one behind the other with the largest one in front, and another large one in the rear.”

“Wildebeests!” exclaimed Hendrik.

“Gnoos!” cried Swartboy.

“Yes, they must have been wildebeests,” said Von Bloom; “Jan’s description corresponds exactly to them.”

This was quite true. Jan had correctly given many of the characteristic points of that, perhaps, the most singular of all ruminant animals, the wildebeest or gnoo (Catoblepas gnoo). The brushlike tuft over the muzzle, the long hair between the fore-legs, the horns curving down over the face, and then sweeping abruptly upward, the thick curving neck, the rounded, compact, horse-shaped body, the long whitish tail, and full flowing mane—all were descriptive of the gnoo.

Even Trüey had not made such an unpardonable mistake. The gnoos, and particularly the old bulls, bear a very striking resemblance to the lion, so much so that the sharpest hunters at a distance can scarce tell one from the other.

Jan, however, had observed them better than Trüey; and had they been nearer, he might have further noticed that the creatures had red fiery eyes and a fierce look; that their heads and horns were not unlike those of the African buffalo; that their limbs resembled those of the stag, while the rest corresponded well enough to his “pony.” He might have observed, moreover, that the males were larger than the females, and of a deeper brown. Had there been any “calves” with the herd, he would have seen that these were still lighter-coloured—in fact, of a white or cream colour.

The gnoos that had been seen were the common kind called by the Dutch colonists “wildebeests” or wild-oxen, and by the Hottentots “gnoo” or “gnu,” from a hollow moaning sound to which these creatures sometimes give utterance, and which is represented by the word “gnoo-o-oo.”

They roam in vast flocks upon the wild karoos of South Africa; are inoffensive animals, except when wounded; and then the old bulls are exceedingly dangerous, and will attack the hunter both with horns and hoot. They can run with great swiftness, though they scarce ever go clear off, but, keeping at a wary distance, circle around the hunter, curvetting in all directions, menacing with their heads lowered to the ground, kicking up the dust with their heels, and bellowing like bulls, or indeed like lions—for their “rout” bears a resemblance to the lion’s roar.

The old bulls stand sentry while the herd is feeding, and protect it both in front and rear. When running off they usually go in single file, as Jan had represented.

Old bulls hang between the rear of the herd and the hunter; and these caper back and forward, butting each other with their horns, and often fighting apparently in serious earnest! Before the hunter comes within range, however, they drop their conflict and gallop out of his way. Nothing can exceed the capricious antics which these animals indulge in, while trooping over the plain.

There is a second species of the same genus common in South Africa, and a third inhabits still farther to the north; but of the last very little is known. Both species are larger than the wildebeest, individuals of either being nearly five feet in height, while the common gnoo is scarce four.

The three kinds are quite distinct, and never herd together, though each of them is often found in company with other animals. All three are peculiar to the continent of Africa, and are not found elsewhere.

The “brindled gnoo” (Catoblepas gorgon) is the other species that inhabits the South of Africa. It is known among the hunters and colonists as “blauw wildebeest” (blue wild-ox). It is of a bluish colour—hence the name, and “brindled,” or striped along the sides. Its habits are very similar to those of the common gnoo, but it is altogether a heavier and duller animal, and still more eccentric and ungainly in its form.

The third species (Catoblepas taurina) is the “ko-koon” of the natives. It approaches nearer to the brindled gnoo in form and habits; but as it is not found except in the more central and less-travelled portions of Africa, less is known about it than either of the others. It is, however, of the same kind; and the three species, differing widely from any other animals known, are entitled to form a distinct and separate genus.

They have hitherto generally been classed with the antelopes, though for what reason it is hard to tell. They have far less affinity with the antelope than with the ox; and the everyday observations of the hunter and frontier boor have guided them to a similar conclusion—as their name for these animals (wild-oxen) would imply. Observation of this class is usually worth far more than the “speculations” of the closet-naturalist.

The gnoo has long been the favourite food of the frontier farmer and hunter. Its beef is well flavoured, and the veal of a gnoo-calf is quite a delicacy. The hide is manufactured into harness and straps of different sorts; and the long silky tail is an article of commerce. Around every frontier farm-house large piles of gnoo and springbok horns may be seen—the remains of animals that have been captured in the chase.

“Jaging de wildebeest” (hunting the gnoo) is a favourite pastime of the young boors. Large herds of these animals are sometimes driven into valleys, where they are hemmed in, and shot down at will. They can also be lured within range, by exhibiting a red handkerchief or any piece of red cloth—to which colour they have a strong aversion. They may be tamed and domesticated easily enough; but they are not favourite pets with the farmer, who dreads their communicating to his cattle a fatal skin-disease to which the gnoos are subject, and which carries off thousands of them every year.

Of course Von Bloom and his companions did not stay to talk over these points. They were too anxious about the fate of the missing Hans, to think of anything else.

They were about to start out in search of him, when just at that moment my gentleman was seen coming around the end of the lake, trudging very slowly along, under the weight of some large and heavy object, that he carried upon his shoulders.

A shout of joy was raised, and in a few moments Hans stood in their midst.