An Oasis In The Desert – This is chapter eleventh of the Book “Two Dianas in Somaliland: The Record of a Shooting Trip”, which is a narrative of a daring and victorious shooting expedition undertaken by two cousins, Agnes and Cecily, who carry the spirit of true sportswomen and the right attitude for this adventure.
A native Somali escort accompanies them during this expedition. British writer and big game hunter Agnes Herbert keep the reader hooked with her refreshing writing style throughout the novel. She wonderfully describes the beauty and austerity of the jungle and desert in the passages as the two ladies travel through the country.
The chapters of this book are started with one or more quotations from Shakespeare, thus revealing the author as a high-class Englishwoman of culture. The discussions in the book show that the author is highly skilled with guns.
This work beautifully and with great success presents a new perspective of a female British imperialist hunter bagging big game in the isolated jungle of Somaliland and Ethiopia, which is deserving of the reader’s interest and attention.
The Record of a Shooting Trip
By Agnes Herbert
With Twenty-Five Illustrations Reproduced from Photographs
London: John Lane
TWO DIANAS IN SOMALILAND
An Oasis In The Desert
Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me
Comedy of Errors
Things without all remedy
Should be without regard, what’s done is done
What’s gone and what’s past help
Should be past grief.
We were now having a great time trying to cure the skin of the rhino. I was so afraid something would go wrong with it that I was forever messing away. Clarence would have it that the wrong thing had been done from the first. He was rather pessimistic these days, mainly, I think, because he had a gathered hand and it pained very considerably.
The skins generally were menaced by the deadly beetle grub, and we had to resort to all sorts of drastic measures. Saltpetre I found of great use here, and we used it freely. The heads of rhino are very difficult to dry, as can well be imagined, and our trophy looked a hopeless mess. It was difficult to believe it would ever rise in glory, Phoenix-like, from the ashes, to be a thing of joy to anyone. Such great heads swarm with maggots in no time unless carefully watched. The monster we were tackling was no exception to the rule, and manufactured the enemy on the “whilst you wait” principle.
It now became a matter for our deep consideration as to how far our trip should extend.
We had known before we started that Somaliland is no longer the old time sportsman’s paradise. The shikar obtainable is not what it was, and every year lessens the chances. The truth is the country is fairly shot out.
Fifteen years ago the most excellent shooting was to be had all over; now, unless one penetrates right into the interior where a certain amount of danger from warlike tribes must be looked for, there is not much hope of a truly great and representative bag. The reserving of the Hargeisa and Mirso as entirely protected regions has also necessarily restricted the game area. The day of the sportsman in all Africa was in that Golden Age when he, all untrammeled, might stalk the more important fauna, to say nothing of the lesser, as he listed. Now he pays heavy toll, varying with the scarcity of the quarry, and the licences are not the least part of the expenses. Of course, the needful preservation of big game should, and inevitably must, lead to good results, since to husband the resources of anything is to accumulate in the long run. But the idea of artificial preservation and legislation seems to knock some of the elemental romance out of hunting. Anything cut and dried seems out of place in sport of big game variety, and brings it down to the nearer level of shooting pheasants that know you by sight, and which have been on terms of friendship with their slaughterers. The Ogaden country, in parts, like the curate’s egg, still possesses potentialities not to be sneered at, and if one is willing to penetrate the interior, getting clear away from the beaten track, the possibilities become certainties.
To go onwards through the Mijertain meant striking into, or crossing the “Mary Ann Desert,” as Cecily persisted in styling the Marehan. This was a somewhat daunting enterprise, but to put against any drawbacks there was the attraction and magnet of unlimited sport at the other side. We consulted our maps, and understood them sufficiently to plan a route and leave the rest to Providence, which useful commodity or personage we confidently hoped would be good enough to see us through.
We told Clarence and the caravan generally in an off-hand manner, very confidently, that we proposed trekking eventually to Joh in the Haweea country, but I cannot say they received the news in the same spirit of easy confidence. Clarence was and looked taken aback. He murmured something about its being a great journey, days and days, that he had never penetrated so far before. Even our shikari uncle had stopped at the Bun Arnwein. This rather settled the matter. Oh, to go one better than our relative!
We mapped our homeward route so that it permitted of a day or more on the Bun Toyo with the new grass all a-blowing and a-growing to tempt out buck in dozens, even though it all meant going over much of our old shooting ground. We had not yet got a “sig,” Swayne’s hartebeest, among our trophies. We also intended to pass through a new—to us—part of the Golis, and try our luck there.
This Ogaden country is a God-forsaken spot, and the eye aches at last with the dull brown of everything. Even the haze of the early morning is khaki-tinted. As for ourselves, we matched the landscape. Our hands were sienna-colored, and our complexions———, but maybe the very word is out of place in connection with our sun-dried faces.
Cecily was very bent on shooting a rhino on her own,’ saying she would not count the one that fell to my rifle as anything to do with her. I offered half share in it enthusiastically, for I had no desire to meet another.
I had killed one, to say nothing of the Baron, and was more than sated. Cecily, however, would not be put off with any sophistry on my part, so we had the order on hand.
At last, we came on the oasis called Galadi, a very remarkable place, set like a jewel in a rim of iron. We could hardly believe our eyes. It was such a faceted gem. No more dingy brown landscape, but a peaceful sylvan scene of great trees, real turf, and a wealth of green vegetation. This patch of emerald extended for a mile or more and seemed like a little Heaven. I was very interested in the wells we came on here and there. They were of immense antiquity, very deep, cut in the solid rock. We could not but be impressed with the industry of the long-dead hewers. Naturally in some places, though the wells are deep, the work of excavation is rendered less difficult by the nature of the ground cut through, which is in most parts of red earth. There are always steps cut all the way down, on which the Somalis balance themselves with the greatest sang-froid, doing the necessary conjuring trick with-the buckets from hand to hand the while. They are made from the ubiquitous leather—in no country, I imagine, can leather be more pressed into service—and a number of Somalis often descend a deep well at one time, passing up the full buckets in continuous chain, receiving back the returning empty ones as the other leaves the hand. All the time the ever helpful songs are sung.
When a large number of camels have to be watered it means spending the best part of a day down the wells, which are often very foul, and full of noxious gases. Troughs for the cattle are made by the wells as a rule, again of the ever-helpful leather, or hollowed by hand, and lined with some sort of clay. We used the ordinary English method, much simpler, of procuring water, and a bucket and rope seemed to be as effectual and as expeditious, with certainly less waste than the Somali system.
We had hoped to have a splendid bath at Galadi, and a real good drink, but on trying well after well we found the water absolutely poisonous, and highly dangerous. The liquid was putrid. The birds of the air in their thousands made the place their own, and the smell when we disturbed the surface of the wells was simply abominable. Our men drank freely, but Cecily and I worried along on the short commons of our last water barrel. All the animals were watered, and it did not surprise me in the least when one of the camels shortly afterwards without a word of warning, sat down, and promptly died. Clarence said it died because its time to die had come, but I averred, and held to it, that even a camel cannot always swallow drainage with impunity, even if it can philosophically. Such big words baffled the shikari, and I left him pondering.
We were camped in a beautiful glade, the armo creeper, bright green, with large leaves, grew festooned on lofty guda trees, and the fairy web of the Hangeyu spider hung in golden threads from leaf to leaf. The camels were rejoicing in splendid grazing, and would be all the better for the change. It is always very rough on camels, I think, having to provide for themselves, after bringing them in so late at night, after a march, as one is so often compelled to do. If reasonable care is not taken of them they will cave in, and there’s the end. Grazing through the hot hours, as is the inevitable custom, does not permit of enough food being taken in, especially when the grass is more often than not conspicuous merely by its absence. They fed now in charge of the camel-men, wandering whithersoever, in reason, they listed. On trek camels are tied together in good going. In bad I always ordered them to go separately, because I observed how cruelly jerked the tail often was.
Here we had an apiary of wild bees. They are expected to live on flowers in Somaliland as elsewhere, I presume, but the flowers were not. And the insects, naturally, were a bit peckish and invaded my tent after a pot of marmalade. They ate away to their hearts content, for no human being thought of going in and interfering; but the brainy Clarence put some sugar in their official residence and the counterattraction caused them to return.
There was a strong moon now, so magical that it set all the jackals for miles around a-baying and a-barking, and nearly distracted us whose vocal chords were not so susceptible. What this mysterious influence on the canine genus is no man can tell, but it had the effect of making me rouse some of the men to eject rocks at the offenders. The worship of Astarte was all very well in olden days, but the manner of it in Somaliland was intolerable.
A quaint insect made a loud tapping noise in the roof of my tent—probably his love signal. I tried to see him, but he hid from the light. Altogether I had a wakeful time.
I watched some weavers building next morning as I strolled about, the while the parody of a cook struggled with the kettle which seemed unable to boil. It really was very wonderful and astonishing. They snip off the threads of grass with their beaks, and actually tie knots, half-hitches. It was rather late for building, but the cock birds of this species, sensible little things, sometimes make nests for roosting purposes.
Whydah birds were flying about in large numbers. They have crimson bodies, black wings and tails about two feet long, which hamper them so in flight they can only lollop along. I pursued one, and could have caught it had I wished. They are finches, and so always to be found in damp green places. I saw a merry little sand-piper in grey, with no tail at all, but wagging as though he had one. He had rather a long beak and was very tame, eating the crumbs I threw him within a yard of my feet. Two birds that looked like sand-grouse crossed to the wells. The whole oasis was a paradise for birds.
Dik-dik was now our staple food, and very palatable we found it. We had it cooked up every imaginable way. The cook was a sombre individual, but in moments of roasting he could joke with ease. We had but little fat to cook with, as antelope have none on them to speak of. We put our meat on stones in the pot with a little water, and we grilled on a gridiron, or we boiled it. We made bread easily, but as a long course of baking powder is bad for one we made our yeast from hops, of which we had some packets with us. It was much nicer than dough bread, all sour.
The butler who had lived with the English family had an insinuating smile, and a vocabulary of English words, a moiety of which he had grasped the meaning of. He had no fairy footsteps nor airy nothingness, so valued in an attendant of his variety at home. On the contrary, he hit the ground with heavy beats in plantigrade fashion.
We felt quite regretful to leave this fairy place and turn back to the blistering hot red sand. But time was flying, and we were rather out of the way of big game here.
We struck camp and marched, seeing dibitag and oryx, which we vainly stalked, and as we progressed we passed through extraordinary changes. Every two or three miles or so we came on similar oases to Galadi and then, in between, burnt-up patches of familiar country. In one of these green gardens Cecily bagged a lesser koodoo, somewhat rare in these parts, and an exceedingly beautiful trophy.
Nearing another oasis, some two miles in extent, Clarence manifested the greatest desire for me to penetrate the place with him and see something that was bound to interest me. He was like a woman with a secret, longing to tell, telling a little, then feeling if he showed his hand entirely I might not trouble to go at all. Whatever could the mystery be? Animal, vegetable, or mineral? “Curiouser and curiouser.”
None of these things! So, following the shikari, his face all alight with eager interest and desire to surprise me, we pushed our way through the density of the foliage until we reached about the center of the place. It was a Titania’s bower, carpeted with green and shaded by lofty trees. I sat down and gazed upon the wonders of it, though it would have taken me hours to take in the many beauties in detail. They were so infinite in variety, the etchings, the color and the rainbow effects as the sun glinted through the lustrous fresh verdure. I sat on and marveled. To think that outside of this there existed only a waste of red sand, ugly and monotonous, and here—but it is ridiculous on my part to try and describe it. I should like some Shakespeare to see it and try his art.
This did not please Clarence at all, who has no love for the beauties of nature. We must push on. Then, of a sudden, he turned and running to a tree, proudly patted its trunk. I looked and there I saw in indistinct letters—my uncle’s initials. Clarence had evidently seen the deed of vandalism committed. I could not have believed my relative would do such a thing had I not seen the result with my own eyes. Not that I mean to say my uncle is anything but truly British to the backbone, but I thought he would have been the man to rise above the habits of his countrymen. I never looked on the stern old shikari as a man likely to give the lighter side of life the upper hand. Ex pede Herculem!
We turned to get back to the caravan, taking a different route and found it stiffish going. In a little shady dingle I came on the remains of a jungle king dead and turned to dust. The oasis had been his sepulchre these many years, and there was little of him left to tell us of long-passed monarchy. His skull, which I looked at, was practically eaten away, and was not worth taking.
A venomous snake struck at me here, but was turned by the top of my shooting boot. It was a near shave, and I was off and out of the place in quick time after that.
I missed a fine lion in this thick forest that evening, and followed him in fear and trembling without getting him. On the way back to camp however, disconsolate, I bagged a small oryx for the pot, which turned a somersault like a hare does when shot in the head. I thought I had lost him when I saw him leap about seven feet into the air, and then again and again until I despatched him.
On another early morning here, having only a collector’s gun with me, I put a charge into an old wart-hog, but failed to do more than prick him into a great annoyance and send him off into the wilderness without getting him. I was vexed with myself for hurting him.
Just here, too, we came on a kill which had been a jungle tragedy indeed: the spoor of two oryx all about the outskirts of a green oasis, where succulent bushes flourished, and confused pugs of a large lion. The pugs had no beginning, only an ending, and a return path. Therefore the devastator leaped from out his lair and struck down his prey all suddenly. We measured the spring from where it is certain the great cat must have taken off to the spot where lay the half-consumed oryx, lying as he fell, and it came out at nineteen feet.
Somalis are exceedingly fond of giving nicknames to one another, more or less personal, and the European does not escape his satire in this direction. All the men in our caravan answered to names of the most irritatingly personal variety, though they all took the for the most part rude attention to some unfortunate peculiarity quite good-humouredly. I asked Clarence one day, as we were sitting under a shady guda tree waiting for what might chance to cross our line of fire, what the men had been pleased to christen me. He assented diffidently to the assumption that I had a nickname but gave me to understand he would rather not mention it, if indeed he had not forgotten it, and a lapse of memory seemed imminent. This piqued my curiosity naturally, and I gave him no peace until I extracted what I wanted to know more than anything else just then. Prepared for any mortal thing, for the Somali nicknames are nothing if not deadly descriptive, I learned I was called by the men “Daga-yera,” small ears. This was not so bad, and at least not uncomplimentary. Clarence looked at me keenly to see if he noted any signs of offence but I was smiling broadly, so he smiled too. I told him that with us small ears are not considered a drawback, whatever they may be in Somaliland.
Almost on every march we came on graves, some together, here and there one alone, marking the spot where some traveler had fallen by the way. An important head-man, or chief, has a perfect stockade of thorn bushes and stones piled atop of him to keep off the jackals and hyænas. The women, however, less important in death as in life, have merely thorn piled casually on their tombs with some such relic as a bit of an old shield or worse for wear ham strung aloft to act as a deterrent to the scratchings of wild beasts. When we passed by graves the men would cross their hands and say a prayer, whether for themselves or for the dead I do not know. They would be solemn for a moment, brooding, and then set off a-chanting again. They are a strange romantic people, whose sun ever follows on the silver mist of rain.
A perfect avalanche of water fell after this for two whole days and kept us in our drenched tents. And again everything was wet through. Rain is a very real terror to the poor camper out. Fires are off and many little comforts, that passed unnoticed before, go with them. We had our spirit lamp, and had economized with it all along, only using it on hopeless occasions like the present. Cecily again fled to her warm whisky and water cure, and I drank ammoniated quinine until my brain reeled. My tent, after a night of deluge which more resembles the bursting of a reservoir than anything else I can think of, collapsed altogether, and was a perfect wreck. Since mine own doors refused to entertain me I migrated to Cecily’s, after digging out my belongings from the débris, and, packed like sardines, we had to go on until I got my flattened home set to rights, which I did after a lot of trouble.
Two black-backed jackals came close around the tents several times during the torrential rains. I think they winded the rhino, who was by now exceedingly “niffy.” About six one evening, when the rain ceased for a short five minutes, I had a shot at one venturesome jackal and caught him in the shoulder. I had to rush after him and follow quite a long way before I got within range again, when I finished the job with a long shot. Clarence and one of the hunters brought his skin and head to camp. I admire the black-backed jackal, next to the koodoo, more than any other trophy to be found in Somaliland. It is quite unique in coloring. A veritable admixture of the beaux arts and the bizarre.
A fine day again, and with everything steaming like boiling water we trekked on. Two or three of the camels were suffering terribly from sore backs, and had to be placed hors de combat and unloaded, thus disorganizing everything. We can take the average load at 250 pounds, though it frequently exceeds this, because naturally, loads vary with the nature of the things to be carried, bulky or compact, easy or difficult. On being required to walk, one sick animal refused to budge another inch. It is very hard to judge the extent of the illness of a camel. They do not act any differently, ill or well, as far as my small experience goes. Clarence and the head camel-man made certain that the creature was sick unto death, and finally, it had to be shot. It would not walk, we could not tow it, and humanity forbade our leaving it to fend for itself. All the camels were bothered no end by a small fly, a species of gadfly, I think, not very large, but most mischievous.
One or two of the animals were so overcome with the attentions of these pests of insects they took to rolling, which, all encumbered as the camels were, could not but be exceedingly detrimental to the load. These troubles continued for some days, and the camel we lost may have been too badly bitten to go on. This fly is a cause of great loss to the Somali herds. Another joined the attack, a fearsome creature too—much larger again—and he seemed to prefer people to camels. We, Cecily and myself, kept him off by bathing the exposed parts of our skin in solution of carbolic, and this seemed to him an anathema-maranatha and was to us a godsend. We only wished we had sufficient to tub all the camels. I think our precautions against these annoying flies helped to keep off the fearful ticks also. Our ponies were much affected by them, and the camels, poor things, lived in a chronic state of providing nourishment for the hateful little insects, which grew and fattened by what they fed on. Some of the antelopes we shot had these ticks very badly too, and in one or two cases the skin was marred thereby, being pitted with small pin-head spots all over the even surface.
There was now such an abundance of water we decided to camp for a day and have a washing of ourselves and our clothes. It was not clear water as we use the word, but limpidly translucent compared to most of the water holes we had struck lately. Game was plentiful again, but very, very shy.
We went out at dawn and saw spoor of many varieties of game and rhino; of the last a perfect maze of tracks. I had privately no intention, however, I may have play-acted to Cecily with a view of keeping up appearances, of being in at another battue; but Fate, that tricksy dame, ordained otherwise. As we were spooring for the leopard, and hard on him, we suddenly came on a vast rhino calmly lying down by a patch of guda thorn. The idea of another fracas with an infuriated animal of the genus was too much for me, and I shamelessly turned on my heel, taking the precaution, however, to grab my rifle from my hunter as I passed him.
I put myself behind a little adad tree, and turned to see what was going on. The great lumbering bulk stood up, winded us, saw us too, I should think, and sniffed the air. There was very poor cover immediately around the pachyderm, but a thick belt of khansa and mimosa jungle lay to our left and the country behind us was fairly thick.
All this unexpected treat was joy untold to Cecily, I suppose; it was an absolute horror to me. If she could have had the affair all to herself it wouldn’t have mattered, but how are you to know which hunter the rhino may select to chase? His sight is so poor, his charge goes this way or that, and has, in my experience, next to nothing to do with the way of the wind; and all this makes it quite impossible to reduce the possibilities of his onslaught to a mathematical calculation beforehand. Another moment and the huge animal was rushing straight at my poor bit of thorn bush, a mere broken reed of a shelter. What was I to do? Anger the brute with a useless frontal shot, or fly on the wings of terror? The wings of terror had it. I abandoned my untenable position and gained another very little better. I let the rhino have the right barrel just as I installed it myself, and looked for Cecily to finish the affair. She was doing a scientific stalk on the flank.
The rhino was now spinning about and knocking up the dust in clouds. I played Brer Rabbit and “lay low.” I saw Cecily expose herself to the full view of the wounded animal, and her 12-bore spoke. We were spared another charge, thank goodness; and as the dust subsided I saw the rhino ambling quickly towards the thick cover, blood pouring from its shoulder. We followed, discreetly, I assure you, as far as I’m concerned, on the blood trail until we reached the fringe of the jungle. The men volunteered to beat, but I was set against this; so we wandered about on the edge of this natural zareba awaiting developments, my heart in my mouth the whole time. Intrepid Cecily was all for penetrating the thorn, and at last, came on a place she could at least peer into. There was not a sound nor rustle, nor crackle of twig. Then Clarence, in evil minute, suggested firing the place, and under Cecily’s directions at once set about the business with his fire stick. I had often tried to acquire the knack of summoning the spirit of flame thus but had long since given it up as an accomplishment impossible for me to learn.
The thorn was damp and took some time to ignite, but in half an hour the blaze got a fair start and simply ate up all before it. We had to back farther and farther away each moment. Volumes of smoke rolled away to the northward, and the heat grew insufferable. It had been about as much as we could stand before we began operations. The flames roared away, licking up every trace of vegetation. I was so surprised no small affrighted animals broke cover, but this was explained to my wondering mind a moment later, when, to my amazement, a tawny lioness sprang from the burning bush and, terror-stricken, passed close to me—so close almost I could have touched her. I ran straight to my waiting pony held by my syce at some distance, mounted, and calling to a couple of men to follow, galloped on the track of the lioness. Occasionally I caught glimpses of her as she cantered between the low-lying bushes. Then she disappeared suddenly and precipitately. There was a small nullah hereabouts, and I made certain the great cat had brought up there; so I rode on and then settled down on the verge to wait for the shikaris to come up. When they arrived, they surrounded the place in most daring fashion and began to prod with their spears into the thickest grass and thorn, keeping up a hideous yelling the while.
A choking, gurgling roar, and the lioness was out and off. I hastily brought up my rifle and fired. It was a shaky shot enough, and I only got her in the hind quarter. Things looked a bit nasty as she turned on us, ears laid back, mouth curled up in a furious snarl, and tail working up and down like a clockwork toy. She sprang, as a set-off, several feet into the air. Such mighty bounds with a sideway twist about them, and I did not delay longer.
Seeing the great head over my sights, I pulled the trigger. Still, she came on a few yards, worrying the ground with her mouth. Then the game and magnificent creature crashed forward and never moved again-She was a young lioness, in the heyday of beauty, and I sat down quivering all over at the sight of so wondrous a prize. After directing the three men who had followed to skin and decapitate my lioness, I worked back to the retreat of the rhino. On my way I sighted a dibatag and a couple of graceful oryx, but saw them disappear on the horizon without an attempt to annex one of them. It was not only late, but the men had all they could manage.
I imagined the rhino would be by now accounted for. It was—thoroughly! Cicely met me as I neared the blackened waste, and explained they had waited and waited for the rhino to break cover, expecting the rush every second, and the flames and heat drove them almost out of range. Nothing happened, and it was not until the whole brake of thorn was a heap of ashes that they came on the pachyderm at last. His charred bulk lay in the smoldering embers, and until the place cooled it was impossible to retrieve his horns. What a pity and what a waste! We both cursed the fire stick and our haste. One bullet, Cecily’s, I surmise, must have penetrated the rhino’s heart, and after careering on for a short way the stricken animal settled down silently to die. We were intensely put out. Not even the beautiful lioness allayed our disappointment and chagrin.
After a rest and a meal in camp we returned to the scene of the still-smoking barbecue. The vultures rose in a slothful lazy mass and perched again around us. The hide of the rhino was too roasted to be of any use, and the men commenced sawing off the horns, a slow, weary job which we left them to finish. Bed was what I prayed for just then. I was wearied out. It had been our biggest, hottest day yet, and next morning, Sunday too, I deliberately and carefully detained Morpheus—what a loophole for a Somali scandal—until 9 a.m.
Chapter XII will follow
- The UNIQUE Case For The International Recognition Of Somaliland
- Somaliland: The Little Country That Could By David Shinn
- The World Can Learn From How Somaliland Overcame Militias
- Masuuliyiinta Xidh-Xidhan Iyo Dareemada Dhagarta Xambaarsan Ee Laga Soo Werinayo Dhinaca Madaxtooyada
- KOIGI: Acknowledge Somaliland To Cure Festering Wound On Africa
- Somaliland Declaration On The Origin Of African Borders