Back when the word “safari” hadn’t entered the sporting lexicon, the British had “shooting trips” – and some of these trips sound pretty near impossible today. One of them is described in “Two Dianas in Somaliland” by Agnes Herbert, published in 1908. The book is a lively and witty account of how the authoress and her cousin Cecily, accompanied by a Somali hunter, whose name they pronounced as Clarence, a team of servants and a camel caravan, crossed the territories of modern Somali, Ethiopia and Sudan in search of big game. Here we give you a story of the ladies’ first close encounter with lions.
In one tense second I realized I had seen two monstrous moving beasts, yellowish and majestic. They were very close, and moved at a slow pace from the bush ahead into a patch of still thicker cover to the left. I remember that though the great moment for which we had planned and longed and striven was really at hand, all my excitement left me, and there was nothing but a cold tingling sensation running about my veins. Clarence in a moment showed the excellent stage management for which he was famous, and I heard as in a dream the word of command that sent our hunters, the Baron included, dashing after our quarry shouting and yelling and waving spears. Again I caught a glimpse of the now hurrying beasts. How mighty they looked! In form as unlike a prisoned lion as can well be imagined. They hardly seemed related to their cousins at the Zoo. The mane of the wild lion is very much shorter. No wild lion acquires that wealth of hair we admire so much. The strenuous life acts as hair-cutter. And yet the wild beast is much the most beautiful in his virile strength and suggestion of enormous power.
The lions being located, we crept on warily towards the bush, a citadel of khansa and mimosa scrub, a typical bit of jungle cover. The lions sought it so readily, as they had dined so heavily that they were feeling overdone. The men went around the lair and shouted and beat at the back. Whether the cats were driven forward or not with the din, or whether they had not penetrated far within the retreat at first, I cannot, of course, tell, but I saw from thirty-five yards off, as I stood with my finger on the trigger, ferocious gleaming eyes, and heard ugly short snarls, breaking into throaty suppressed roars every two or three seconds. The jungle cover parted, and with lithe stretched shoulders a lioness shook herself half free of the density, then crouched low again. Down, down, until only the flat of her skull showed, and her small twitching ears. In one more moment she would be on us. I heard Cecily say something. I think it may have been “Fire!” Sighting for as low as I could see on that half arc of yellow I pulled the trigger, and Cecily’s rifle cracked simultaneously. The head of the lioness pressed lower, and nothing showed above the ridge of grass and thorn. The lioness must be dead. And yet, could one kill so great a foe so simply ? We stood transfixed. The sun blared down, a butterfly flickered across the sand, a cricket chirruped in long drawn, twisting notes. These trifles stamped themselves on my memory as belonging for ever to the scene, and now I cannot see a butterfly or hear a cricket’s roundelay without going back to that day of days and wonder unsurpassed.
Then I did an inanely stupid thing. It was my first lion shoot, and my ignorance and enthusiasm carried me away. I ran forward to investigate, with my rifle at the trail. I don’t excuse such folly, and I got my deserts. Worse remains behind. It was my rule to reload the right barrel immediately after firing, and the left I called my emergency supply. My rule I say, and yet in this most important shoot of all it was so in theory only ! I had forgotten everything but the dead lioness. I had forgotten the bush contained another enemy.
A snarling quick roar, and almost before I could do anything but bring up my rifle and fire without the sights, a lion broke from the side of the brake. I heard an exclamation behind me, and my cousin’s rifle spoke. The bullet grazed the lion’s shoulder only, and lashed him to fury. All I can recollect is seeing the animal’s muscles contract as he gathered himself for a springing charge, and instinct told me the precise minute he would take off. My nerves seemed to relax, and I tried to hurl myself to one side. There was no power of hurling left in me, and I simply fell, not backwards nor forwards, but sideways, and that accident or piece of luck saved me. For the great cat had calculated his distance, and had to spring straight forward. He had not bargained for a victim slightly to the right or left. His weight fell on my legs merely, and his claws struck in. Before he had time to turn and rend me, almost instantaneously my cousin fired. I did not know until later that she did so from a distance of some six yards only, having run right up to the scene in her resolve to succour me. The top of the lion’s head was blown to smithereens, and the heavy body sank. I felt a greater weight ; the blood poured from his mouth on to the sand, the jaws yet working convulsively. The whole world seemed to me to be bounded north, south, east, and west by Lion. The carcass rolled a little and then was still. Pinned by the massive haunches I lay in the sand.
Clarence, Cecily, and all the hunters stood around. I noticed how pale she was. Even the tan of her sunburnt face could not conceal the ravages of the last five minutes. The men pulled the heavy carcass away, taking him by the fore-paws, his tail trailing, and exquisite head all so hideously damaged. Only his skin would be available now, still I sat up in a minute, feeling indescribably shaky, ad measured the lion with my eye. He could be gloriously mounted, and “He will just do for that space in the billiard room,” my voice tailed off. I don’t remember anything else until I found myself in my tent with my cousin rendering first aid, washing the wounds and dressing them with iodoform. Only one gash was of any moment. It was in the fleshy part of the thigh. We had not sufficient medical skill to play any pranks, so kept to such simple rules as extreme cleanliness, antiseptic treatment, and nourishing food. Indeed, our cook did well for me those days, and made me at intervals the most excellent mutton broth, which he insisted on bringing to me himself, in spite of the obvious annoyance of the butler, who had lived in the service of an English family and so knew what was what.
The days and nights were very long just then. Clarence came to see me often. His occupation was gone. Cecily did not leave meat all at first. I believe our good fellow wondered if we should ever require him to hunt again. He did not know the proverb, “Once bitten, twice shy,” but you could see he felt it.
Do you like tales from days long gone by? Check out these tiger hunting stories by Maharaja Cooch-Behar.