Chapter 40 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

Driving in the Eland.

Of all the family Hendrik was the hunter par excellence. It was he who habitually stored the larder; and upon days when they were not engaged in the chase of the elephant, Hendrik would be abroad alone in pursuit of antelopes, and other creatures, that furnished their usual subsistence. Hendrik kept the table well supplied.

Antelopes are the principal game of South Africa—for Africa is the country of the antelope above all others. You may be surprised to hear that there are seventy different species of antelopes over all the earth—that more than fifty of these are African, and that thirty at least belong to South Africa—that is, the portion of the continent lying between the Cape of Good Hope and the Tropic of Capricorn.

It would require the space of a whole book, therefore, to give a fair account—a monograph—of the antelopes alone; and I cannot afford that space here. At present I can only say that Africa is the great antelope country, although many fine species exist also in Asia—that in America there is but one kind, the prong-horn, with which you are already well acquainted—and that in Europe there are two, though one of these, the well-known “chamois,” is as much goat as antelope.

I shall farther remark, that the seventy species of animals, by naturalists classed as antelopes, differ widely from one another in form, size, colour, pelage, habits; in short, in so many respects, that their classification under the name of Antelope is very arbitrary indeed. Some approximate closely to the goat tribe; others are more like deer; some resemble oxen; others are closely allied to the buffalo; while a few species possess many of the characteristics of wild sheep!

As a general thing, however, they are more like to deer than any other animals; and many species of them are, in common parlance, called deer. Indeed, many antelopes are more like to certain species of deer than to others of their own kind. The chief distinction noted between them and the deer is, that the antelopes have horny horns, that are persistent or permanent, while those of the deer are osseous or bony, and are annually cast.

Like the deer the different species of antelopes possess very different habits. Some frequent the wide open plains; some the deep forest; some wander by the shady banks of streams; while others love to dwell upon the rocky steep, or the dry ravines of the mountains. Some browse upon the grass; while others, goat-like, prefer the leaves and tender twigs of trees. In fact, so different are these creatures in habits, that whatever be the natural character of a district of country, it will be found the favourite home of one or more species. Even the very desert has its antelopes, that prefer the parched and waterless plain to the most fertile and verdant valley.

Of all antelopes the “eland,” or “caana” (Antelope oreas) is the largest. It measures full seventeen hands at the shoulder—being thus equal in height to a very large horse. A large eland weighs one thousand pounds. It is a heavily formed animal, and an indifferent runner, as a mounted hunter can gallop up to one without effort. Its general proportions are not unlike those of a common ox, but its horns are straight and rise vertically from the crown, diverging only slightly from one another. These are two feet in length, and marked by a ridge that passes spirally around them nearly to the tips. The horns of the female are longer than those of the male.

The eyes of the eland, like those of most antelopes, are large, bright, and melting, without any expression of fierceness; and the animal, though so very large and strong, is of the most innocuous disposition—showing fight only when driven to desperation.

The general colour of this antelope is dun, with a rufous tinge. Sometimes ashy grey touched with ochre is the prevailing hue.

The eland is one of those antelopes that appear to be independent of water. It is met with upon the desert plains, far from either spring or stream; and it even seems to prefer such situations—perhaps from the greater security it finds there—though it is also a denizen of the fertile and wooded districts. It is gregarious, the sexes herding separately, and in groups of from ten to a hundred individuals.

The flesh of the eland is highly esteemed, and does not yield in delicacy to that of any of the antelope, deer, or bovine tribes. It has been compared to tender beef with a game flavour; and the muscles of the thighs when cured and dried produce a bonne bouche, known under the odd appellation of “thigh-tongues.”

Of course the eland affording such excellent meat, and in so large a quantity, is zealously hunted for his spoils. Being only a poor runner and always very fat, the hunt is usually a short one; and ends in the eland being shot down, skinned, and cut up. There is no great excitement about this chase, except that it is not every day an eland can be started. The ease with which they can be captured, as well as the value of their venison, has led to the thinning off of these antelopes; and it is only in remote districts where a herd of them can be found.

Now since their arrival, no elands had been seen, though now and then their spoor was observed; and Hendrik, for several reasons, was very desirous of getting one. He had never shot an eland in his life—that was one reason—and another was, that he wished to procure a supply of the fine venison which lies in such quantities over the ribs of these animals.

It was, therefore, with great delight, that Hendrik one morning received the report that a herd of elands had been seen upon the upper plain, and not far off. Swartboy, who had been upon the cliffs, brought this report to camp.

Without losing any more time than sufficed to get the direction from Swartboy, Hendrik mounted his quagga, shouldered his rifle, and rode off in search of the herd.

Not far from the camp there was an easy pass, leading up the cliff to the plain above. It was a sort of gorge or ravine; and from the numerous tracks of animals in its bottom, it was evidently much used as a road from the upper plain to that in which were the spring and stream. Certain animals, such as the zebras and quaggas, and others that frequent the dry desert plains from preference, were in the habit of coming by this path when they required water.

Up the gorge rode Hendrik; and no sooner had he arrived at its top, than he discovered the herd of elands—seven old bulls—about a mile off upon the upper plain.

There was not cover enough to have sheltered a fox. The only growth near the spot where the elands were, consisted of straggling aloe-plants, euphorbias, with some stunted bushes, and tufts of dry grass, characteristic of the desert. There was no clump large enough to have sheltered a hunter from the eye of his game; and Hendrik at once came to the conclusion, that the elands could not be “stalked” in the situation they then occupied.

Now, though Hendrik had never hunted this antelope, he was well acquainted with its habits, and knew how it ought to be chased. He knew that it was a bad runner; that any old horse could bring up with it; and that his quagga—the fastest of the four that had been tamed—could do the same.

It was only a question of “start,” therefore. Could he get near enough the bulls to have a fair start, he would run one of them down to a certainty. The result might be different should the elands take the alarm at a long distance off, and scour away over the plain.

To get within fair starting distance, that was the point to be attempted.

But Hendrik was a wary hunter, and soon accomplished this. Instead of riding direct for the elands, he made a grand circuit—until he had got the herd between him and the cliff—and then, heading his quagga for them, he rode quietly forward.

He did not sit erect in the saddle, but held himself bent down, until his breast almost touched the withers of the quagga. This he did to deceive the elands, who would otherwise have recognised him as an enemy. In such a fashion they could not make out what kind of creature was coming towards them; but stood for a long while gazing at Hendrik and his quagga with feelings of curiosity, and of course some little alarm.

They, however, permitted the hunter to get within five hundred yards distance—near enough for him—before they broke off in their heavy lumbering gallop.

Hendrik now rose in his saddle, put spurs to his quagga, and followed the herd at full speed.

As he had designed, so it came to pass. The elands ran straight in the direction of the cliff—not where the pass was, but where there was none—and, on reaching the precipice, were of course forced to turn into a new direction, transverse to their former one. This gave Hendrik the advantage, who, heading his quagga diagonally, was soon upon the heels of the herd.

It was Hendrik’s intention to single out one of the bulls, and run him down—leaving the others to gallop off wherever they wished.

His intention was carried out; for shortly after, the fattest of the bulls shot to one side, as if to escape in that way, while the rest ran on.

The bull was not so cunning as he thought himself. Hendrik’s eye was upon him; and in a moment the quagga was turned upon his track.

Another burst carried both game and pursuer nearly a mile across the plain. The eland had turned from a rufous dun colour to that of a leaden blue; the saliva fell from his lips in long streamers, foam dappled his broad chest, the tears rolled out of his big eyes, and his gallop became changed to a weary trot. He was evidently “blown.”

In a few minutes more the quagga was close upon his heels; and then the huge antelope, seeing that farther running could not serve him, halted in despair, and faced round towards his pursuer.

Now Hendrik had his loaded rifle in his hand, and you expect to hear that he instantly raised it to his shoulder, took aim, fired, and brought down the eland.

I must disappoint you, then, by telling you that he did no such thing.

Hendrik was a real hunter—neither rash nor wasteful of his resources. He knew a better plan than to kill the eland upon the spot. He knew that the animal was now quite in his power; and that he could drive him wherever he pleased, just like a tame ox. To have killed the creature on the spot would have been a waste of powder and shot. More than that, it would have rendered necessary all the trouble of transporting its flesh to camp—a double journey at least—and with the risk of the hyenas eating up most of it in his absence. Whereas he could save all this trouble by driving the eland to camp; and this was his design.

Without firing a shot, therefore, he galloped on past the blown bull, headed him, turned him round, and then drove him before him in the direction of the cliff.

The bull could make neither resistance nor opposition. Now and again, he would turn and trot off in a contrary direction; but he was easily headed again, and at length forced forward to the top of the pass.