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The Rifle and Hound in Ceylon.

by Samuel White Baker


Newera Ellia - The Turn-out for Elk-Hunting - Elk-Hunting - Elk turned to Bay - The Boar.

Where shall I begin? This is a momentous question, when, upon glancing back upon past years, a thousand incidents jostle each other for precedence. How shall I describe them? This, again, is easier asked than answered. A journal is a dry description, mingling the uninteresting with the brightest moments of sport. No, I will not write a journal; it would be endless and boring. I shall begin with the present as it is, and call up the past as I think proper.

Here, then, I am in my private sanctum, my rifles all arranged in their respective stands above the chimney-piece, the stags' horns round walls hung with horn-cases, powder-flasks and the various weapons of the chase. Even as I write the hounds are yelling in the kennel.

The thermometer is at 62 degrees Fahr., and it is mid-day. It never exceeds 72 degrees in the hottest weather, and sometimes falls below freezing point at night. The sky is spotless and the air calm. The fragrance of mignonettes, and a hundred flowers that recall England, fills the air. Green fields of grass and clover, neatly fenced, surround a comfortable house and grounds. Well-fed cattle of the choicest breeds, and English sheep, are grazing in the paddocks. Well-made roads and gravel walks run through the estate. But a few years past, and this was all wilderness.

Dense forest reigned where now not even the stump of a tree is standing; the wind howled over hill and valley, the dank moss hung from the scathed branches, the deep morass filled the hollows; but all is changed by the hand of civilisation and industry. The dense forests and rough plains, which still form the boundaries of the cultivated land, only add to the beauty. The monkeys and parrots are even now chattering among the branches, and occasionally the elephant in his nightly wanderings trespasses upon the fields, unconscious of the oasis within his territory of savage nature.

The still, starlight night is awakened by the harsh bark of the elk; the lofty mountains, grey with the silvery moonlight, echo back the sound; and the wakeful hounds answer the well-known cry by a prolonged and savage yell.

This is 'Newera Ellia,' the sanatorium of Ceylon, the most perfect climate of the world. It now boasts of a handsome church, a public reading-room, a large hotel, the barracks, and about twenty private residences.

The adjacent country, of comparatively table land, occupies an extent of some thirty miles in length, varying in altitude from 6,200 to 7,000 feet, forming a base for the highest peaks in Ceylon, which rise to nearly 9,000 feet.

Alternate large plains, separated by belts of forest, rapid rivers, waterfalls, precipices, and panoramic views of boundless extent, form the features of this country, which, combined with the sports of the place, render a residence at Newera Ellia a life of health, luxury, and independence.

The high road from Colombo passes over the mountains through Newera Ellia to Badulla, from which latter place there is a bridle road, through the best shooting districts in Ceylon, to the seaport town of Batticaloa, and from thence to Trincomalee. The relative distances of Newera Ellia are, from Galle, 185 miles; from Colombo, 115 miles; from Kandy, 47 miles; from Badulla, 36 miles; from Batticaloa, 148 miles. Were it not for the poverty of the soil, Newera Ellia would long ago have become a place of great importance, as the climate is favourable to the cultivation of all English produce; but an absence of lime in the soil, and the cost of applying it artificially, prohibit the cultivation of all grain, and restrict the produce of the land to potatoes and other vegetables. Nevertheless, many small settlers earn a good subsistence, although this has latterly been rendered precarious by the appearance of the well-known potato disease.

Newera Ellia has always been a favourite place of resort during the fashionable months, from the commencement of January to the middle of May. At that time the rainy season commences, and visitors rapidly disappear.

All strangers remark the scanty accommodation afforded to the numerous visitors. To see the number of people riding and walking round the Newera Ellia plain, it appears a marvel how they can be housed in the few dwellings that exist. There is an endless supply of fine timber in the forests, and powerful sawmills are already erected; but the island is, like its soil, 'poor.' Its main staple, 'coffee,' does not pay sufficiently to enable the proprietors of estates to indulge in the luxury of a house at Newera Ellia. Like many watering-places in England, it is overcrowded at one season and deserted at another, the only permanent residents being comprised in the commandant, the officer in command of the detachment of troops, the government agent, the doctor, the clergyman, and our own family.

Dull enough! some persons may exclaim; and so it would be to any but a sportsman; but the jungles teem with large game, and Newera Ellia is in a central position, as the best sporting country is only three days' journey, or one hundred miles, distant. Thus, at any time, the guns may be packed up, and, with tents and baggage sent on some days in advance, a fortnight's or a month's war may be carried on against the elephants without much trouble.

The turn-out for elk-hunting during the fashionable season at Newera Ellia is sometimes peculiarly exciting. The air is keen and frosty, the plains snow-white with the crisp hoar frost, and even at the early hour of 6 A.M. parties of ladies may be seen urging their horses round the plain on their way to the appointed meet. Here we are waiting with the anxious pack, perhaps blessing some of our more sleepy friends for not turning out a little earlier. Party after party arrives, including many of the fair sex, and the rosy tips to all countenances attest the quality of the cold even in Ceylon.

There is something peculiarly inspiriting in the early hour of sunrise upon these mountains--an indescribable lightness in the atmosphere, owing to the great elevation, which takes a wonderful effect upon the spirits. The horses and the hounds feel its influence in an equal degree; the former, who are perhaps of sober character in the hot climate, now champ the bit and paw the ground: their owners hardly know them by the change.

We have frequently mustered as many as thirty horses at a meet; but on these occasions a picked spot is chosen where the sport may be easily witnessed by those who are unaccustomed to it. The horses may, in these instances, be available, but as a rule they are perfectly useless in elk-hunting, as the plains are so boggy that they would be hock-deep every quarter of a mile. Thus no person can thoroughly enjoy elk-hunting who is not well accustomed to it, as it is a sport conducted entirely on foot, and the thinness of the air in this elevated region is very trying to the lungs in hard exercise. Thoroughly sound in wind and limb, with no superfluous flesh, must be the man who would follow the hounds in this wild country--through jungles, rivers, plains and deep ravines, sometimes from sunrise to sunset without tasting food since the previous evening, with the exception of a cup of coffee and a piece of toast before starting. It is trying work, but it is a noble sport: no weapon but the hunting-knife; no certainty as to the character of the game that may be found; it may be either an elk, or a boar, or a leopard, and yet the knife and the good hounds are all that can be trusted in.

It is a glorious sport certainly to a man who thoroughly understands it; the voice of every hound familiar to his ear; the particular kind of game that is found is at once known to him, long before he is in view, by the style of the hunting. If an elk is found, the hounds follow with a burst straight as a line, and at a killing pace, directly up the hill, till he at length turns and bends his headlong course for some stronghold in a deep river to bay. Listening to the hounds till certain of their course, a thorough knowledge of the country at once tells the huntsman of their destination, and away he goes.

He tightens his belt by a hole, and steadily he starts at a long, swinging trot, having made up his mind for a day of it. Over hills and valleys, through tangled and pathless forests, but all well known to him, steady he goes at the same pace on the level, easy through the bogs and up the hills, extra steam down hill, and stopping for a moment to listen for the hounds on every elevated spot. At length he hears them! No, it was a bird. Again he fancies that he hears a distant sound--was it the wind? No; there it is--it is old Smut's voice--he is at bay! Yoick to him! he shouts till his lungs are well-nigh cracked, and through thorns and jungles, bogs and ravines, he rushes towards the welcome sound. Thick-tangled bushes armed with a thousand hooked thorns suddenly arrest his course; it is the dense fringe of underwood that borders every forest; the open plain is within a few yards of him. The hounds in a mad chorus are at bay, and the woods ring again with the cheering sound. Nothing can stop him now--thorns, or clothes, or flesh must go--something must give way as he bursts through them and stands upon the plain.

There they are in that deep pool formed by the river as it sweeps round the rock. A buck! a noble fellow! Now he charges at the hounds, and strikes the foremost beneath the water with his fore-feet; up they come again to the surface--they hear their master's well-known shout--they look round and see his welcome figure on the steep bank. Another moment, a tremendous splash, and he is among his hounds, and all are swimming towards their noble game. At them he comes with a fierce rush. Avoid him as you best can, ye hunters, man and hounds!

Down the river the buck now swims, sometimes galloping over the shallows, sometimes wading shoulder-deep, sometimes swimming through the deep pools. Now he dashes down the fierce rapids and leaps the opposing rocks, between which, the torrent rushes at a frightful pace. The hounds are after him; the roaring of the water joins in their wild chorus; the loud holloa of the huntsman is heard above every sound as he cheers the pack on. He runs along the bank of the river, and again the enraged buck turns to bay. He has this time taken a strong position: he stands in a swift rapid about two feet deep; his thin legs cleave the stream as it rushes past, and every hound is swept away as he attempts to stem the current. He is a perfect picture: his nostrils are distended, his mane is bristled up, his eyes flash, and he adds his loud bark of defiance to the din around him. The hounds cannot touch him. Now for the huntsman's part; he calls the stanchest seizers to his side, gives them a cheer on, and steps into the torrent, knife in hand. Quick as lightning the buck springs to the attack; but he has exposed himself, and at that moment the tall lurchers are upon his ears; the huntsman leaps upon one side and plunges the knife behind his shoulder. A tremendous struggle takes place--the whole pack is upon him; still his dying efforts almost free him from their hold: a mass of spray envelopes the whole scene. Suddenly he falls--he dies--it is all over. The hounds are called off, and are carefully examined for wounds.

The huntsman is now perhaps some miles from home, he, therefore, cuts a long pole, and tying a large bunch of grass to one end, he sticks the other end into the ground close to the river's edge where the elk is lying. This marks the spot. He calls his hounds together and returns homeward, and afterwards sends men to cut the buck up and bring the flesh. Elk venison is very good, but is at all times more like beef than English venison.

The foregoing may be considered a general description of elk-hunting, although the incidents of the sport necessarily vary considerably.

The boar is our dangerous adversary, and he is easily known by the character of the run. The hounds seldom open with such a burst upon the scent as they do with an elk. The run is much slower; he runs down this ravine and up that, never going straight away, and he generally comes to bay after a run of ten minutes' duration.

A boar always chooses the very thickest part of the jungle as his position for a bay, and from this he makes continual rushes at the hounds.

The huntsman approaches the scene of the combat, breaking his way with difficulty through the tangled jungle, until within about twenty yards of the bay. He now cheers the hounds on to the attack, and if they are worthy of their name, they instantly rush in to the boar regardless of wounds. The huntsman is aware of the seizure by the grunting of the boar and the tremendous confusion in the thick jungle; he immediately rushes to the assistance of the pack, knife in hand.

A scene of real warfare meets his view--gaping wounds upon his best hounds, the boar rushing through the jungle covered with dogs, and he himself becomes the immediate object of his fury when observed.

No time is to be lost. Keeping behind the boar if possible, he rushes to the bloody conflict, and drives the hunting-knife between the shoulders in the endeavour to divide the spine. Should he happily effect this, the boar falls stone dead; but if not, he repeats the thrust, keeping a good look-out for the animal's tusks.

If the dogs were of not sufficient courage to rush in and seize the boar when halloaed on, no man could approach him in a thick jungle with only a hunting-knife, as he would in all probability have his inside ripped out at the first charge. The animal is wonderfully active and ferocious, and of immense power, constantly weighing 4 cwt.

The end of nearly every good seizer is being killed by a boar. The better the dog the more likely he is to be killed, as he will be the first to lead the attack, and in thick jungle he has no chance of escaping from a wound.

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The Project Gutenberg Etext prepared by Garry Gill (garrygill@hotmail.com)