Watching For Elephants At Night In South Africa

By Isaac McLellan

For days the hunter over open plains
Fring’d by dense clumps of dwarfish forest-trees,
Where aromatic shrubs and grasses grew;
Had follow’d the red lion’s heavy track
And the great elephant’s majestic trail,
The spotted leopard and hyena gaunt,
And hippopotamus in sluggish pool,
The fleeing ostrich and the brindled gnu,
The nimble spring-bok and black antelope,
Pallah and zebra, and the tall giraffe,
And now he ceas’d the marsh and pitch’d the camp.

The panting ox from heavy yoke was loos’d,
The weary horse was tether’d on the plain,
The native tribesmen rais’d the sheltering tent,
And lit the evening fires for social feasts,
And all were glad in this secluded spot
To seek repose, or watch for prowling game.
‘Twas a wild ravine, parting the bare cliffs
With gulf impassable, where play’d a fount
Gushing from cavern’d rocks and pebbled slopes,
And pouring thro’ the shades a crystal stream,
That made the lonely glen enchanted ground.

Sometimes the vigils of the night began
At twilight hour, when sank the royal sun
Superb, to rest; when palm-trees droop’d in sleep,
And motionless the sandal-forests slept,
And came the hovering, gayly plumag’d flocks.
Brown partridges and mottled guinea-fowl,
The purple pigeon and the turtle-dove,
And the gay, green parrots, chattering in the grove,
To taste the limpid waters of the stream,
And fold in perfect peace their downy wings.
Then came the game, when midnight’s dusky shape,
Like weird enchantress, wav’d her ebon wand,
And steep’d the drowsy air in wizard glooms;
And oft the hunters watch’d, when thunders rav’d,
And flash’d the blue, swift lightnings in the sky,
Illuminating wide the desert space,
And peopling all the arcades of the grove
With glimmering, spectral lights and phantom shades.

Here came the elephant, the forest lord;
Mightiest of all the vast gregarious herds
That range o’er nature’s pasture-plains and woods.
He fears no challenge, save perchance at night
The tawny lion’s hollow-mutter’d roar
Or savage hulloo, where the swarming tribes
Of Bechuanas come with rattling spear.

Ranging the tangled wild, he snaps the trees
As on with ponderous bulk he ploughs his way,
Pausing at times with nice fastidious taste
To crop the juicy buds or spicy leaves;
He plucks the ripe fruits from the drooping bough,
He digs with ivory tusk the turfy ground,
Feeding on tubers sweet and bulbous root,
That in the fertile soil luxuriant grow,
Or in the grassy pastures stops to taste
The rinded melons, ripening in the heats.

Here in the dark ravine, by sluggish pool,
The hunter watches from the dusk till dawn,
Ambush’d in reeds and circled in with shades,
Trusting in valiant heart and rifled tube.
Waiting, he hears the heavy trampling step
Splash thro’ the mire and snap the rotting branch–
Hears the shrill trumpetings advancing near,
And drops of water, spurted from the trunk;
Discerns at last, like vast, gigantic shade,
The swaying elephant loom dim and large,
With flapping ears and high uplifted trunk–
And then the blinding flash and ringing steel!

Oft in the mid-day heats, in depth of woods,
Hunting with gallant horse and yelping pack
And shouting tribes, the forest roaming game,
He came where up-plough’d ground and broken boughs
Proclaim’d their spoor; and here he found the herd
Of big bull-elephants, a host at bay.
Then rose the shout of men, the yell of hound,
Whistled the spear and rang the volleying gun,
While panic-struck the herds charge frantic on,
Level the snapping tree-trunks in their course,
And fill with tails aloft and swinging tustks;
While here and there a bleeding victim reels
And staggering halts, then crashes to the ground

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