A Strange Happening
When I was down in the Masai Reserve, doing transport for the Government, I one day saw a strange thing, such as no one I know has ever seen. It took place in the middle of the day, while we were trekking over grass-country.
The air in Africa is more significant in the landscape than in Europe, it is filled with loomings and mirages, and is in a way the real stage of activities. In the heat of the midday the air oscillates and vibrates like the string of a violin, lifts up long layers of grass-land with thorn-trees and hills on it, and creates vast silvery expanses of water in the dry grass.
We were walking along in this burning live air, and I was, against my habit, a long way in front of the waggons, with Farah, my dog Dusk and the Toto who looked after Dusk. We were silent, for it was too hot to talk. All at once the plain at the horizon began to move and gallop with more than the atmosphere, a big herd of game was bearing down upon us from the right, diagonally across the stage.
I said to Farah: “Look at all these Wildebeests.” But a little after, I was not sure that they were Wildebeests; I took up my field-glasses and looked at them, but that too is difficult in the middle of the day. “Are they Wildebeests, Farah, do you think?” I asked him.
I now saw that Dusk had all his attention upon the animals, his ears up in the air, his far-seeing eyes following their advance. I often used to let him have a run after the gazelles and antelopes on the plains, but today I thought that it would be too hot, and told the Toto to fasten his lead to his collar. At that same moment, Dusk gave a short wild yell and jumped forward so that the Toto was thrown over, and I snatched the lead myself and had to hold him with all my might. I looked at the game. “What are they?” I asked Farah.
It is very difficult to judge distances on the plains. The quivering air and the monotony of the scenery make it so, also the character of the scattered thorn-trees, which have the exact shape of mighty old forest trees, but are in reality only twelve feet high, so that the Giraffes raise their heads and necks above them. You are continually deceived as to the size of the game that you see at a distance and may, in the middle of the day, mistake a jackal for an Eland, and an ostrich for a Buffalo. A minute later Farah said: “Memsahib, these are wild dogs.”
The wild dogs are generally seen three or four at a time, but it happens that you meet a dozen of them together. The Natives are afraid of them, and will tell you that they are very murderous. Once as I was riding in the Reserve close to the farm I came upon four wild dogs which followed me at a distance of fifteen yards. The two small terriers that I had with me then kept as close to me as possible, actually under the belly of the pony, until we came across the river and on to the farm. The wild dogs are not as big as a Hyena. They are about the size of a big Alsatian dog. They are black, with a white tuft at the tip of the tail and of the pointed ears. The skin is no good, it has rough uneven hair and smells badly.
Here there must have been five hundred wild dogs. They came along in a slow canter, in the strangest way, looking neither right nor left, as if they had been frightened by something, or as if they were travelling fast with a fixed purpose on a track. They just swerved a bit as they came nearer to us; all the same they hardly seemed to see us, and went on at the same pace. When they were closest to us, they were fifty yards away. They were running in a long file, two or three or four side by side, it took time before the whole procession had passed us. In the middle of it, Farah said: “These dogs are very tired, they have run a long way.”
When they had all gone by, and were disappearing again, we looked round for the Safari. It was still some way behind us, and exhausted by our agitation of mind we sat down where we stood in the grass, until it came up to us. Dusk was terribly upset, jerking his lead to run after the wild dogs. I took him round the neck, if I had not tied him up in time, I thought, he would by now have been eaten up.
The drivers of the waggons detached themselves from the Safari and came running up to us, to ask us what it had all been. I could not explain to them, or to myself, what had made the wild dogs come along in so great a number in such a way. The Natives all took it as a very bad omen,—an omen of the war, for the wild dogs are carrion-eaters. They did not afterwards discuss the happening much among themselves, as they used to discuss all the other events of the Safari.
I have told this tale to many people and not one of them has believed it. All the same it is true, and my boys can bear me witness.