Chapter 37 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

The Wild-Asses of Africa.

Notwithstanding the success of the day’s hunt the mind of Von Bloom was not at rest. They had “bagged” their game, it was true, but in what manner? Their success was a mere accident, and gave them no earnest of what might be expected in the future. They might go long before finding another “sleeping-tree” of the elephants, and repeating their easy capture.

Such were the not very pleasant reflections of the field-cornet, on the evening after returning from their successful hunt.

But still less pleasant were they, two weeks later, at the retrospect of many an unsuccessful chase from which they had returned—when, after twelve days spent in “jaging” the elephant, they had added only a single pair of tusks to the collection, and these the tusks of a cow-elephant, scarce two feet in length, and of little value!

The reflection was not the less painful, that nearly every day they had fallen in with elephants, and had obtained a shot or two at these animals. That did not mend the matter a bit. On the contrary, it taught the hunter how easily they could run away from him, as they invariably did. It taught him how small his chances were of capturing such game, so long as he could only follow it afoot.

The hunter on foot stands but a poor chance with the elephant. Stalking in upon one is easy enough, and perhaps obtaining a single shot; but when the animal trots off through the thick jungle, it is tedious work following him. He may go miles before halting, and even if the hunter should overtake him, it may be only to deliver a second shot, and see the game once more disappear into the bushes—perhaps to be spoored no farther.

Now the mounted hunter has this advantage. His horse can overtake the elephant; and it is a peculiarity of this animal, that the moment he finds that his enemy, whatever it be, can do that thing, he disdains to run any farther, but at once stands to bay; and the hunter may then deliver as many shots as he pleases.

Herein lies the great advantage of the hunter on horseback. Another advantage is the security the horse affords, enabling his rider to avoid the charges of the angry elephant.

No wonder Von Bloom sighed for a horse. No wonder he felt grieved at the want of this noble companion, that would have aided him so much in the chase.

He grieved all the more, now that he had become acquainted with the district, and had found it so full of elephants. Troops of an hundred had been seen; and these far from being shy, or disposed to make off after a shot or two. Perhaps they had never heard the report of a gun before that of his own long roer pealed in their huge ears.

With a horse the field-cornet believed he could have killed many, and obtained much valuable ivory. Without one, his chances of carrying out his design were poor indeed. His hopes were likely to end in disappointment.

He felt this keenly. The bright prospects he had so ardently indulged in, became clouded over; and fears for the future once more harassed him. He would only waste his time in this wilderness. His children would live without books, without education, without society. Were he to be suddenly called away, what would become of them? His pretty Gertrude would be no better off than a little savage—his sons would become not in sport, as he was wont to call them, but in reality a trio of “Bush-boys.”

Once more these thoughts filled the heart of the father with pain. Oh! what would he not have given at that moment for a pair of horses, of any sort whatever?

The field-cornet, while making these reflections, was seated in the great nwana-tree, upon the platform, that had been built on the side towards the lake, and from which a full view could be obtained of the water. From this point a fine view could also be obtained of the country which lay to the eastward of the lake. At some distance off it was wooded, but nearer the vley a grassy plain lay spread before the eye like a green meadow.

The eyes of the hunter were turned outward on this plain, and just then his glance tell upon a troop of animals crossing the open ground, and advancing towards the vley.

They were large animals—nearly of the shape and size of small horses—and travelling in single file; as they were, the troop at a distance presented something of the appearance of a “cafila,” or caravan. There were in all about fifty individuals in the line; and they marched along with a steady sober pace, as if under the guidance and direction of some wise leader. How very different from the capricious and eccentric movements of the gnoos!

Individually they bore some resemblance to these last-named animals. In the shape of their bodies and tails, in their general ground colour, and in the “brindled” or tiger-like stripes that could be perceived upon their cheeks, neck, and shoulders. These stripes were exactly of the same form as those upon a zebra; but far less distinct, and not extending to the body or limbs, as is the case with the true zebra. In general colour, and in some other respects, the animals reminded one of the ass; but their heads, necks, and the upper part of their bodies, were of darker hue, slightly tinged with reddish-brown. In fact, the new-comers had points of resemblance to all four—horse, ass, gnoo, and zebra—and yet they were distinct from any. To the zebra they bore the greatest resemblance—for they were in reality a species of zebra—they were quaggas.

Modern naturalists have divided the Equidae, or horse family, into two genera—the horse (equus) and the ass (asinus)—the principal points of distinction being, that animals of the horse kind have long flowing manes, full tails, and warty callosities on both hind and fore limbs; while asses, on the contrary, have short, meagre, and upright manes, tails slender and furnished only with long hairs at the extremity, and their hind limbs wanting the callosities. These, however, are found on the fore-legs as upon horses.

Although there are many varieties of the horse genus—scores of them, widely differing from each other—they can all be easily recognised by these characteristic marks, from the “Suffolk Punch,” the great London dray-horse, down to his diminutive little cousin the “Shetland Pony.”

The varieties of the ass are nearly as numerous, though this fact is not generally known.

First, we have the common ass (Asinus vulgaris), the type of the genus; and of this there are many breeds in different countries, some nearly as elegant and as highly prized as horses. Next there is the “onagra,” “koulan,” or “wild-ass” (Asinus onager), supposed to be the origin of the common kind. This is a native of Asia, though it is also found in the north-eastern parts of Africa. There is also the “dziggetai,” or “great wild-ass” (Asinus hemionus), of Central and Southern Asia, and another smaller species the “ghur” (Asinus Hamar) found in Persia. Again, there is the “kiang” (Asinus kiang) met with in Ladakh, and the “yo-totze” (Asinus equulus), an inhabitant of Chinese Tartary.

All these are Asiatic species, found in a wild state, and differing from one another in colour, size, form, and even in habits. Many of them are of elegant form, and swift as the swiftest horses.

In this little book we cannot afford room for a description of each, but must confine our remarks to what is more properly our subject—the wild-asses of Africa. Of these there are six or seven kinds—perhaps more.

First, there is the “wild-ass” (Asinus onager), which, as already stated, extends from Asia into the north-eastern parts of Africa, contiguous to the former continent.

Next there is the “koomrah,” of which very little is known, except that it inhabits the forests of Northern Africa, and is solitary in its habits, unlike most of the other species. The koomrah has been described as a “wild horse,” but, most probably, it belongs to the genus asinus.

Now there are four other species of “wild-asses” in Africa—wild horses some call them—and a fifth reported by travellers, but as yet undetermined. These species bear such a resemblance to one another in their form, the peculiar markings of their bodies, size, and general habits, that they may be classed together under the title of the zebra family. First, there is the true zebra (Equus zebra), perhaps the most beautiful of all quadrupeds, and of which no description need be given. Second, the “dauw,” or “Burchell’s zebra,” as it is more frequently called (Equus Burchellii). Third, the “Congo dauw” (Equus hippotigris), closely resembling the dauw. Fourth, the “quagga” (Equus quagga); and fifth, the undetermined species known as the “white zebra” (Equus Isabellinus), so-called from its pale yellow, or Isabella colour.

These five species evidently have a close affinity with each other—all of them being more or less marked with the peculiar transversal bands or “stripes,” which are the well-known characteristics of the zebra. Even the quagga is so banded upon the head and upper parts of its body.

The zebra proper is “striped” from the tip of the nose to its very hoofs, and the bands are of a uniform black, while the ground colour is nearly white, or white tinged with a pale yellow. The “dauws,” on the other hand, are not banded upon the legs; the rays are not so dark or well defined, and the ground colour is not so pure or clean-looking. For the rest, all these three species are much alike; and it is more than probable that either “Burchell’s” or the “congo dauw”, was the species to which the name of “zebra” was first applied; for that which is now called the “true zebra” inhabits those parts of Africa where it was less likely to have been the first observed of that genus. At all events, the “congo dauw” is the “hippotigris,” or tiger-horse, of the Romans; and this we infer from its inhabiting a more northerly part of Africa than the others, all of which belong to the southern half of that continent. The habitat of the zebra is said to extend as far north as Abyssinia; but, perhaps, the “congo dauw,” which certainly inhabits Abyssinia, has been mistaken for the true zebra.

Of the four species in South Africa, the zebra is a mountain animal, and dwells among the cliffs, while the dauw and quagga rove over the plains and wild karoo deserts. In similar situations to these has the “white zebra” been observed—though only by the traveller Le Vaillant—and hence the doubt about its existence as a distinct species.

None of the kinds associate together, though each herds with other animals! The quagga keeps company with the gnoo, the “dauw” with the “brindled gnoo,” while the tall ostrich stalks in the midst of the herds of both!

There is much difference in the nature and disposition of the different species. The mountain zebra is very shy and wild; the dauw is almost untameable; while the quagga is of a timid docile nature, and may be trained to harness with as much facility as a horse.

The reason why this has not been done, is simply because the farmers of South Africa have horses in plenty, and do not stand in need of the quagga, either for saddle or harness.

But though Von Bloom the farmer had never thought of “breaking in” a quagga, Von Bloom the hunter now did.