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Armchair Safari – Hunting Hippo with Col. J.H. Patterson, Author of The Man-eaters of Tsavo

Jul 22, 2016

Patterson Man-Eaters of TsavoWe all agree that the story of Patterson hunting the man-eating lions of Kenya is remarkable. But what about his other hunting adventures? Well, F.C. Selous read the entire manuscript before publication and declared that “the time passed like magic…and my interest was held from the first page to the last and I felt like every word I read was true. But when Patterson was not after the man-eaters he went hunting on his own. Let us join him now on a night hunt for hippo.

During my stay at Tsavo, I made many little excursions into the surrounding country and went off on shooting or exploring expeditions whenever I had the opportunity. I was especially anxious to bag a hippopotamus so I made up my mind to try my luck on the banks of the Sabaki. Unfortunately, I possessed no heavy rifle, which is almost a necessity for hippo shooting but it occurred to me to make up for the deficiency by manufacturing a few cartridges for my smoothbore with heavy charges of powder and a hardened bullet made of lead mixed with one-eighth part tin. I remember the anxiety with which I fired that first round of my homemade ammunition. As I more than half expected the barrel would burst, I lashed the gun in the fork of a tree, tied a piece of string 100-feet long to the trigger and took shelter behind a friendly stump, and pulled the trigger. The barrel withstood the test. More important, the bullets would penetrate a steel plate an eighth of an inch thick at 30 yards’ range. This was good enough for my purposes and gave me confidence in the weapon.

crossbow-hippo-yawnAll preparations having been made, I set out for the Sabaki with my Indian gun bearer, Mahina, my cook, a water carrier and a couple of natives to carry odds and ends. On these occasions I usually carried no tent, but bivouacked in the open. We took bread and a few provisions and hoped to bag guinea fowl or rock-rabbit on the march. These rock-rabbits are more like rats (although they have no tail) but not bad eating.

Our route lay along the always interesting Tsavo River. Along the banks everything within reach of its moisture is always delightfully fresh and green. Everything flourishes along its course. However, if one is tempted to stray away from the river, even if only for a few yards, one comes immediately to the parched, thorny wilderness of stunted, leafless trees where the sun beats down pitilessly and makes the nyika of the Tsavo almost intolerable. The Tsavo River flows north for 80 miles from the base of Kilimanjaro until it joins the Athi River, about seven miles below Tsavo station. From this point, the united streams are called Sakabi and flow eastward to the Indian Ocean. A narrow and tortuous Masai warpath winds along its entire length.

Our journey was slow owing to the overhanging branches and creepers from which we had constantly to be disengaged. It was not long before we came upon fresh tracks of hippo and rhino. At the halfway mark we met a major obstacle in the form of barren, rugged rock which extended upward 100 feet and for about a mile on either side of the river. I was determined to detour around this, but Mahina said he could walk along in the river itself (obviously not worried about crocodiles). He went into the water and for a few minutes, all went well. Then, in an instant, he was lifted off his feet by the rush of water and whirled away. The river took a sharp bend and he was around and out of sight in no time. Our last sight of him was as he tried in vain to clutch an overhanging branch. We made our way as quickly as possible around the ridge. I had almost given up hope of seeing Mahinda again, but when we reached the riverside again we found him safe and sound, only a little worse for his adventure. Luckily, he had been dashed up against a “rushy” bank and managed to scramble out with only minor bruises.

Sabaki River Kenya
The Banks of the Sabaki are lined with trees.

Eventually we reached the Sabaki (against which the Tsavo looks insignificant). There are islands dotted about in midstream, which are overgrown with tall reeds and rushes and in which hippo find good cover all year round. The banks are lined with trees that provide welcome shade from the heat of the sun. Skirting the river is a caravan road from the interior, still used, I believe, to smuggle slaves and ivory to the coast and then to Persia and Arabia.

I left my followers in a safe boma about a mile from the river and tried to find a suitable tree near the “hippo run” in which to spend the night. Having some difficulty in finding a likely spot, we crossed to the other side of the river, a risky thing to do on account of the number of crocodile. However, we found a shallow ford and managed to cross safely. There, on what evidently was an island during flood time, we found many traces of hippo and rhino. In fact, the problem was to decide which track was the best and freshest. Finally, I picked out a tree close to the river and commanding a stretch of sand which was all flattened down and looked as if at least one hippo rolled there regularly every night.

With still an hour before sundown we walked around to see if there was any other game. Soon Mahina signaled me that there was a fine waterbuck standing in a shallow pool of the river. It was the first time I saw one of these antelope. I might have got closer but decided not to risk moving, so I aimed at the shoulder and fired. The buck gave one leap into the air, then turned and fled quickly behind an island that completely blocked him from our view. We waited for him to clear the rushes at the other side of the island. But when he did not reappear, we plunged into the river (again not thinking about crocodiles). On rounding the river, he was nowhere to be seen so he must have turned off and gained the opposite bank. I was disappointed in my failure, but it was impossible to follow up. This showed me the main drawback to the .303. It has very little knockdown effect unless it strikes a vital organ (whereas an animal wounded with a hard bullet is likely to make a speedy recovery, which is a great blessing).

Mahina was even more upset at the escape of the buck. And as we trudged back through the sand to our tree, he was full of gloomy forebodings of an unlucky night. By the light of a splendid full moon, we settled ourselves on a great outspreading branch and commenced our vigil. Soon the night came aloud with jungle sounds: a crocodile shut his jaws with a snap, a hippo or rhino crashed through the bushes on its way to water, a lion roared in the distance. We could hear, but there was nothing to be seen.

hippo-112712After waiting some considerable time, a great hippo at last made his appearance and came splashing along in our direction. Unfortunately, he took up his position behind a tree which completely hid him from view. He stood hooting and snorting and splashing to his heart’s content. For what seemed hours, I watched for this ungainly creature to emerge from his covert. But as he seemed determined not to show himself, I lost patience and decided to go down after him. I handed my rifle to Mahina to lower it to me after I reached the ground. Then I began to descend carefully, holding on by the creepers which encircled the tree. To my intense vexation and disappointment, just as I was in this helpless condition, half way to the ground, the great hippo suddenly came out form his shelter and calmly lumbered along right underneath me. I bitterly lamented my ill luck and want of patience for I could almost have touched his back as he passed. It was under these exasperating conditions that I saw a hippo for the first time. Without doubt, he was the ugliest and most foreboding looking brute that I have ever beheld.

The moment the great beast passed our tree he scented us, snorted and dived into the bushes close by, smashing through them like a tractor. In screwing myself around to watch him go, I broke the creepers by which I was holding on and landed on my back in the sand at the foot of the tree. None the worse for my short drop, but however startled at the thought that the hippo might return, I climbed back to my perch again. Evidently, the hippo was as frightened as I was; he returned no more.

Shortly after this, two rhino came to drink at the river. They were too far away to shoot. They gradually waddled upstream and out of sight. Then we heard the awe-inspiring roar of a lion close by and soon another hippo gave forth his tooting challenge a little way down the river. As there seemed little chance of getting a shot at him from our tree, I decided to stalk him on foot. Mahina and I descended from our perch and made our way slowly through the trees in semi-darkness. There were a number of animals about and I am sure neither of us felt comfortable as we crept along in the direction of the splashing hippo. For my own part, I fancied every moment that I saw in front of me the form of a rhino or lion ready to charge from the shadow of the bush.

Crossbow-Hippo-lurkingIn this manner, with nerves strung to the highest pitch, we reached the edge of the river in safety, only to find that we were again confronted by a small rush-covered island, on the other side of which our quarry could be heard. There was a good breeze blowing directly from him so I thought the best thing would be to attempt to get on the island and to shoot from there. Mahina was eager, so we let ourselves quietly into the water (which was quite shallow and reached only to our knees) and waded slowly across. Once on the island, I was surprised to find that I could see nothing of the hippo, but I soon realized that I was looking too far ahead, for on lowering my eyes, there he was, not 25 yards away. He was lying down in the shallow water, only half covered and practically facing us. His closeness to us made me rather anxious for our safety, more especially as just then he rose to his feet and gave forth the peculiar challenge or call which we had already heard so often during the night.

All the same, as he raised his head, I fired at it. He whirled round, made a plunge forward, staggered and fell, and then lay quite still. To make doubly sure, I gave him a couple more bullets. We found afterwards that they were not needed as my first shot had been a very lucky one and had penetrated the brain. We left him where he fell and returned to our perch, glad and relieved to be safe once more.

Hippo-Hunting-Patterson-hippo-and-guide-072216As soon as it was daylight, we were joined by my own men and several Wa Kamba natives who had been hunting in the neighborhood. The natives cut out the tusks of the hippo, which were rather good ones, and feasted ravenously on the flesh while I turned my attention and gratitude to the hot coffee and cakes which my cooks had meanwhile prepared.

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