THE OLD CHEST OF TALES by Jacqueline Dowling



     The chest was Zanzibari; glowing mahogany embellished with exotic handbeaten brass arabic scrolls, whirls, studs and a huge ornate hasp and staple, for locking. It had stood in the entrance hall of my Grandmother’s house forever and contained objects of great interest. Ivory tusks and primitive African musical instruments, silk flags of various nations, several old parachutes; dusty albums and scrapbooks of ancient photographs where formidable and buxom bustled great-great-aunts posed rigidly grim-faced beside an aspidistra. Scrapbooks of war, of men who fought and were wounded, or never returned. And of pioneering sons who blazed trails across the length and breadth of Britannia’s Empire; many of them choosing the African continent to satisfy their hunger for pleasure and adventure.

     Above it hung an oil painting; an explosion of Flamboyant flowers in blue majolica; the frame, whimsical gold braid and faded velvet, evocative of past theatrical glory. In fact, if you stood on the chest, closed your eyes and sniffed, it was possible to magic up the elusive scents of stale grease-paint and hot, dusty lights. A chest full of tales; one of which is Tom’s. My father.

     I opened the lid and a musty smell of age and exotic trapped scents arose and settled around me. The hinges creaked arthritically; a family of fishmoths rustled up from the depths and disappeared into a dark corner. I reached down and searched around under the ivory and mildewed garments, a pith helmet filled with glossy black-speckled cowrie shells, a huge game fishing reel and strings of shell necklaces. There was a scraping of sand, the crisp brittleness of age old seaweed, dried and long forgotten; fragments of coral which chimed when shaken conjuring up images of sleek pirogues skimming malachite lagoons, foam slipping across their wakes, rapier thin bowsprits scything the bow-waves; and at night, the sigh of surf prowling through coraline beaches beneath softly clicking palms. Then, in a corner, a bulky package.

     A series of black and white photographic enlargements slid into my hands, somewhat yellowed with age, of lions at rest on the African savannah, somnolent in thorn tree’d shade; studies of great dignity and beauty. I could hear the whisper of Trade winds in long tawny grass which rustled and rippled through the aching afternoon heat; the air above shimmering silver white as storm-bruised cumulus gathered billowing on the horizon. In the distance, a lone Masai herdsman stood tall and impassive, his herd of long-horned cattle grazing unaware of the sleeping pride. These photographs told a different tale of a different country, where smugness, conformity and provincialism knew no place. A place of vast dry open spaces where thousands of animals roamed the plains, where ancestral spirits spiralled through dust, ochred and ancient, raised by myriad hooves; and in the infinity of cerulean brilliance which was the sky, hovering vultures wheeled and squabbled over fresh carcases. An ancient land of hardship, cruelty and indescribable majesty and beauty, raw, earthy and elemental. This was the land of Simba, the undisputed lord of the savannah, predator of man and beast.

     I withdrew a bundle of yellowed and brittle pages; the edges mothwing-soft and torn beyond their sepia edges. Tiny creatures crawled from the folds which crumbled into a fine powder in my hand as I smoothed them. They read like an ancient map, ravaged by insects, heat and humidity. But the stories were still just legible and, as I read, I heard again the trumpeting of elephants, the malevolent hiss of a coiled python disturbed from its sleep in a darkened hut, the ululations and drumbeats of a village ceremony and, overall, the sounds of the African night; cicadas chirring in thorntrees, blood curdling hyena cries ripping the silence, and the low throated growl of stalking lions. And so Tom’s tale begins.

     My first appointment in Tanganyika in 1922 was to a sisal estate on the Central Line 90 miles from Dar es Salaam. The surrounding country literally teemed with game of every description and night after night I could hear the roaring of lions from my bungalow which lay just off the old slave road from Bagamoyo to Lake Tanganyika, the route followed by Stanley in his quest for Dr Livingstone.

     Every Sunday was spent tramping miles in that hot fevery country in search of trophies. Although I had on many occasions followed up fresh spoor, I seemed fated never to make actual contact with a lion and found it tantalizing in the extreme. One night I was awakened by roaring so close to my bungalow that I leapt out of bed, seized my shotgun and, feeling far from heroic, stepped outside. In a confrontation a 12 bore loaded even with AAA shot is a poor weapon at night against a prowling lion. From the verandah I could see nothing but the sisal dimly outlined against the starlit sky; from the far corners of the Shamba came the stirring of passing elephants, but no further roars. After a while, disappointed at a missed opportunity, I retired once more to bed, my shotgun fully loaded close at hand.

     One day, when supervising new clearing three miles from the factory our old blacksmith ‘Ngoma suddenly appeared and asked if I was still interested in shooting a lion; I replied "yes",’ at the same time asking if he had one tied up for me! "No" he replied, "not tied up Bwana but it is lying up in long grass near to our huts.’ This sounded to me not so good, for only a short time before, a maneater had ravaged the district, accounting for the death of sixteen villagers in as many days, and although he had been killed eventually, there seemed no reason why he should not have possessed a mate or friend equally cannabalistic in its habits. However, I wanted my lion and this was it.

     ‘Ngoma and I set off at a fast pace back to my bungalow to collect my armament and my gun bearer Rogito who, for some misdemeanour had served a stretch in the Hotel ya Kingi (His Majesty’s Prison), but who nevertheless was a likeable rogue and a stout fellow.

     Fully equipped we forded the river and, after another long walk, arrived at the scene after 3pm. The natives lived in communities, the huts forming the circumference of a circle with a radius of about 200 yards, each hut being sited in the middle of its owner’s shamba (garden). In the centre of the circle was an extensive area of very high elephant grass, on one edge a solitary anthill rising to 6 feet and on the east side, what appeared to be a narrow path leading into the grassy jungle. It seemed an unpromising situation, and after a quick survey I found a single lion’s spoor leading into but definitely no corresponding spoor emerging from the grass. By this time the entire village community had gathered, the men armed with spears the women followed by countless children.

     We waited for some time but no sound came from the grass so I climbed the anthill hoping to be able to look down and perhaps spot the lion, but the grass proved quite impenetrable. I realised that, unless I did succeed in shooting the lion, he would take toll of the villagers as, in the absence of cattle due to it’s being tsetse country, it could only have sneaked in for one purpose, human flesh.

     The village headman, "Ngoma and I talked matters over, the headman"s solution being that as I was armed, it would be easy for me to push my way through the elephant grass and, when I came on the lion, just shoot it. I replied, somewhat sarcastically that, although for sheer bravery I had not yet met my equal, I preferred to see my quarry in time to take aim and shoot to kill. If I followed his suggestion I should probably provide a human if somewhat malarial meal for the lion, thereby whetting his appetite.

     We then got down to serious tactics, and concluded that the real solution lay in the men going in and driving the lion out towards me. For this plan there was a complete lack of enthusiasm; instead they cut bushes and advanced half heartedly towards the edge of the grass and, on reaching it brought down their branches with an almighty thwack accompanied by a hearty yell. At this there was an ominous roar from the centre of the grass but no movement and, on looking round I found that the audience now consisted only of the headman, "Ngoma, Rongito and myself, the villagers having vanished into thin air on hearing the roar.

     As there was now no time to lose if the lion was to be despatched before dark, I sent the headman to round up the men and, on their arrival, told them precisely what I thought of them, emphasising the fact that as they had no cattle to offer, this lion was lying up in the middle of their village for one purpose only, food. If they could not drive it out before dark it would have to remain there to eat them. They understood!

     I now firmly believed that we had to deal with a potential if not an established maneater. In East Africa there is no twilight, day suddenly becomes night, and as it was after 5pm there was little if any, time to lose. The men dug out large clods of black cotton soil telling me that they intended to lob them into the grass when I gave the signal. This seemed a fair alternative to their driving through that impenetrable jungle with the possibility of one or more being mauled or killed in the process, so I agreed, and having posted Rongito with my spare gun at a vantage point from which he could cover me, with strict instructions to fire only if I was in trouble, I paced off twenty yards from the point of entry of the path and, pausing just for a moment to check over my .375 Express, I raised my left arm wondering what the immediate future held in store for us.

     The line of natives advanced slowly and, when within range, lobbed the clods high into the air and well into the grass. One in particular landed with a hollow thud. Immediately, breaking the deathly silence which now reigned, came the stealthy and sinister swish swish swish of grass being parted. My heart missed a few beats and I raised the gun slowly to my shoulder expecting the lion to emerge from along the path but actually he broke cover 30 yards from me moving across my front. I sighted and fired in a split second hitting him an inch too low behind the shoulder and he went off at a steady lope with the left shoulder down. I fired again and dropped him with a bullet in the spine, then approached cautiously and administered the coup de grace.

     At this there was a shout from the excited natives and on closer examination I established that it was not a lion but a lioness, emaciated, very old and in all probability as I had thought seeking easier prey than fast moving game.

     It was all over, I left the skinning to ‘Ngoma, recrossed the river and walked slowly up the hill to my bungalow, to the accompaniment of the now distant shouts and the beating of drums ;but it was not until I sat down to a much needed drink that I realised how tired I was and what a strain that long period of waiting had placed on my nerves. In the ensuing fifteen years in that country I saw many more lions but never again did I shoot one; I had had my thrill and next when opportunity afforded, I used my camera in preference to a more lethal weapon.’

     There was one photograph left; I turned it over. Out there, in the tawny whispering savannah, a magnificent lioness stood completely relaxed, looking straight at the camera. There were no close-up lenses at that time and she showed no fear.

     The photographer was Tom, my father.


ENDS © Jacqueline Dowling