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Monday 24 March 2014

Another extract from the Journal of Colonel Sterling Moustache (ret.)

Back in early February, we did the memorial game for Gareth, our club friend who tragically died on Boxing day last year. In memoriam
He so wanted to do another Safari game, to which end I had invested in some animals to extend Phil's lovely collection. Sadly, I only finished basing them almost to the hour when Gareth passed away.

So, we did this in his memory, Its a while being posted, but Phil wanted to get the write up just right....so over to Phil!...

(Phil is the one kicking the invisible football!)
For the previous episodes, please go toThe first instalment  then: The rest of the story... 

Chapter 3.

I remember we made an uncharacteristically subdued little group, standing on the rough timber wharf of Randini dock with the township still sleeping and the dawn mist drifting over the river.
Of late, our circle of acquaintance had been greatly enlivened by the occasional visits of a young chap whose pater held the diocese at Dorke’s Rift.  On his most recent trip upriver, it came out in conversation that our young friend had never been out on safari. Of course, we protested, this would not do at all, and must be remedied forthwith.  Over the course of the weeks, drunken promises became sober plans, arrangements were made and dates were set.
However, the long-prowed makoro which glided out of the mist that appointed morning bore no trace of our friend – only a sombre ferryman who wordlessly handed us a note:
“Fate has intervened, and I am called away. Bound for parts unknown – wish me luck!”
We asked the venerable boatman to elaborate, but no dialect in our repertoire elicited any spoken response. He merely gestured downstream, as if the quietly flowing river held some answer. I gave the ferryman a coin for his trouble, and we watched him and his craft fade into the distance.
Despite the breezy tone of the note, we couldn't help but harbour some doubt. Our friend had not been in the best of health, although it goes without saying that he bore his troubles so lightly you wouldn't have guessed. O’Balsam dutifully produced one of his hip flasks (left hip, the good stuff) and we greeted the golden African dawn with a toast to our absent friend – an adventurous young chap, bound for parts unknown.
So there we were – O’Balsam, still gently swaying from last night’s wretched degeneracy – the flinty-eyed Van Leerdammer, as inscrutable as ever - and your faithful correspondent. It wouldn't have been easy to summarize my emotions at that moment, but not being French or some sort of flouncing nancy-boy, I didn't try.
We had a safari ready to depart, a magnificent sunlit vista ahead of us and whatever our worries, we were sure to feel better once we’d shot something!

The architect of this, our most ambitious folly to date, was that irascible Boer, Toastie Van Leerdammer.  He had promised to guide us to a location unknown to all but himself. The best clue as to the distances involved was that he himself insisted on travelling astride a mule – a leathery, sway-backed creature which looked as if an amorous wildebeest had made merry in the holding pen of a glue factory.  I told him straight out that I doubted the benefits of such an ill-tempered and uncomfortable mount and he replied that if everything went to hell in a handbasket, mule made better eating than one of the porters. Given the amount of expeditions Van Leerdammer had returned from as sole survivor, I did not question further. Leading the mule and carrying the Boer’s well-used ’91 Mauser was a remarkably blue-eyed Masai lad, all of ten years old, with a commendable grasp of Afrikaans. (You know, conventional wisdom says the Boer have a harsh view of the native peoples, but Van Leerdammer positively doted on that young chap.)
Misadventure and sheer dumb luck had by now transformed Albert O’Balsam into a half-way decent safari manager, and he had learnt that it paid to engage a better class of askari. This meant that our little column was protected by a handful of competent fellows with breech-loaders, who could be left alone for five minutes without wandering off.  In the past, I had been as amused as anyone by the sight of O’Balsam, crimson-faced and sweating, running around herding the bearers like a human sheepdog while swearing fluently in English, Gaelic and Swahili.
I myself was glad to see the back of Randini for a while – in the midst, as it was, of its annual baboon infestation, when I – like anyone who could handle a gun without blowing their own toes off – could expect incessant knocks on the door from (a) people wanting me to deal with some godawful baboon-related situation or (b) baboons who’d got the hang of knocking on doors.
I shall spare the reader the details of our week-long march, save to say that under Van Leerdammer’s guidance and O’Balsam’s new-found organizational competence we made excellent progress, pausing only briefly to shoot for the pot.

On the morning of our eighth day’s marching, Van Leerdammer announced that we had reached our goal as we entered an unpromising area of scrubby bush, seeming at first much like any other. But the dreary scrub gradually grew thicker and more verdant until, by midday, we found ourselves in the sort of dark and primeval jungle beloved of the authors of lurid fiction. I’m sure you know the sort of thing – wildly exaggerated stuff, nature red in tooth and claw, dauntless Sons of Albion triumphant over the savage heathen.  

Not my cup of tea at all.
 It was in the very depths of the forest that our attention was drawn to a sinuous motion in the undergrowth.
Through overhanging boughs, rays of sunlight picked out the shimmering scales of an immense python. I immediately handed off my Lee-sporter and drew my Lanchester howdah pistol. (Far preferable to a revolver when it comes to big game – any trophy worth bagging is only going to be annoyed by revolver bullets.) The ghastly creature raised its head at my approach, and slithered into full view. The brute was a full thirty feet long!  Now, the boffins at the Natural History museum will be only too happy to tell you that the ‘thirty-foot python’ is a myth.  To which I say: thanks in no small part to myself. You’re welcome. From back on the trail, O’Balsam helpfully pointed out that this python was so long that, to be close enough for a good pistol shot, I would be within his striking range. (Frankly, I had become horribly aware of this as soon as I stepped off the trail, but death by slow, agonizing constriction seemed marginally preferable to backing down in front of assorted foreigners.)
It was almost as if the serpent understood heavily-accented English. It coiled to strike, jaws stretched wide… just in time to receive a generous handful of buck-and-ball, right through the brainpan. Never doubted it for a moment, of course!.
 Returning to the trail, I was beckoned forward by Van Leerdammer. Leaving the bearers to begin skinning the monster, O’Balsam and I followed the Boer perhaps twenty yards, to a point where the forest cleared to reveal a broad fertile valley, so shallow as to be little more than a depression, and teeming with game.
 This then, was the wily Boer’s secret hunting ground.  

He explained that he had first taken refuge there during the dark days of ‘01-‘02. Now, Toastie did have something of a reputation as a ‘Bitter-ender’, but the way he told it he, and many like him, had been in an impossible situation. He’d no strong feelings one way or the other towards either British rule or Independence, but living in isolation out on the veldt where Boer commandos roamed at will, it was inadvisable for any man to appear less than enthusiastic for the cause.  So he’d done his bit until the opportunity afforded itself for him to slip away and headed north with nothing more than his rifle, living on what he could shoot. 
One day, he crossed paths with a Samburu raiding party intent on carrying off a young Masai woman. Some brisk work with his Mauser left him with a bruised shoulder, a handful of pacified Samburu, and a rescued captive who, in her gratitude, had led him to this secluded spot.
A sluggish creek watered the vale, so shallow it failed to cover the scaly backs of numerous basking crocodiles. On either side, gently sloping grassland was thickly covered with antelope, wildebeest and zebra. 
Van Leerdammer explained that because the depression was so low-lying, there was always ground water, and so there was always game, even in the dry season. It was here he’d seen out the end of hostilities, in bucolic seclusion with his paramour, until she’d left him for a passing herdsman who had, Van Leerdammer admitted, enough cattle to turn any right-thinking Masai maiden’s head.
 Now this was all very well, Toastie coming over all nostalgic and O’Balsam engrossed in the marital customs of the Masai, but somebody had to address themselves to the matter in hand, which was how to most efficiently decimate the absolute surfeit of top-class trophies laid out before us. The answer was, I determined, to walk softly and carry a big gun.
Taking my Westley-Richards .470 double rifle, I edged slowly to the treeline.
As mistakes go, I would rank this second only to opening the front door to a troupe of baboons.
Taking advantage of the treeline’s shade whilst stuffing half a tree in his cake-hole was a splendid young adult bull elephant.  Now, there are those who favour a sociable luncheon, with company dropping in and so forth. And there are those who set great store on dining privately and without interruption. Evidently jumbo was of the latter persuasion, because the sight of a law-abiding Englishman minding his own heavily-armed business set him off good and proper. He came at me like a coal-wagon down a steep flight of stairs (Vienna, ’87, long story) and I barely had time to seat the .470 at my shoulder before letting fly at the furious beast. To my dying day, I swear I hit him right between the eyes, but it didn’t stop him!
  I remain able to relate this tale simply because the elephant’s charge was not, as it first seemed, a lethal attack. Rather, it was a ‘threat display’, calculated to pull up short of impact and scare off interlopers. So there he stood, rearing and trumpeting and generally being as objectionable as possible. 

 More fool him, I thought, and emptied my second barrel through his right eye. There was no mistaking the effect this time, and he toppled over like a portly duchess off a hotel balcony. (also Vienna, same story, it’s complicated)
At this point, I must ask the gentle reader to indulge me while I exercise a literary device, to whit; a small winding-back of the clock to the moment immediately after my first shot. At that moment, I was aware of a rattle of gunfire behind me, which had absolutely no effect whatsoever on the elephant. I drew the natural conclusion – that my ham-fisted entourage were expending ammunition with helpful intent. The truth of the matter, however, was somewhat more involved.  Upon clearing the treeline, my attention had been entirely engaged by the matter of the charging elephant.  Charging elephants do really have a knack for engaging one’s attention. This being the case, I was entirely oblivious to the sudden appearance of an equally infuriated rhinoceros, from the other direction!
“Hang about…” (I hear you protest) “Didn’t exactly the same thing happen last time out? Pull the other one, Sterling!”
Well, it’s gospel. I couldn’t fault anyone for finding their credence stretched, but there it is: for the second trip running, your humble correspondent found himself the intended filling in a pachyderm sandwich.  I swear, if I only ever shot animals which attacked me, I’d still come back with plenty to show for it. On this occasion, the combined musketry of the safari had felled the charging rhino no more than an arm’s length from me.  All I knew of the matter was a blast of hot breath on the back of my neck. Hello, I thought, it’s Toastie’s Masai strumpet. (Tropical heat and tales of romantic interlude do a heady mixture make!)

With both beasts dispatched, you’d think I’d earned at least a moment’s repose to collect myself.  But cries of consternation from the bearers signalled that such was not to be the case. O’Balsam had set them to removing the ivory from the fallen tusker, but the boys had discovered to their alarm, that a hunting party of lions had spotted the carcass, and decided to contest ownership!
 It fell to the formidable Van Leerdammer to scare the lions off my trophy with a couple of well-aimed shots.
Some semblance of normality restored, we turned our attention once again to the business of hunting. Our gunfire had startled some of the closest grazers,
 ...as had the activity of the lions, and scattered groups of wildlife were running to and fro, playing out their own little dramas.
 We picked out the most likely looking spots from which to shoot, and began to move out into the depression proper.
It is at this point that the sensible-minded reader who has, after all, picked up an account of big-game hunting in Africa, would have every right to expect an erudite passage on that very subject. And believe me, as a keen exponent of big-game hunting in Africa, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to write such an account, going into extensive detail on such topics as stalking techniques, windage and elevation, the correct use of a drop-cloth and the relative merits of the cock-on-opening as opposed to the cock-on-closing bolt action mechanisms....

Suffice to say, I bagged a zebra with a single well aimed shot!  
 However – as the safari proceeded toward the marshy margins of the stream, a ragged volley of rifle fire from the West gave us our first hint that sporting pursuits would have to take second place to the business of staying alive!
I directed O’Balsam to get the bearers safely out of sight, and to establish a firing line on the edge of the jungle. He hopped to it “all Sir Garnet”, and it occurred to me – not for the first time – that one of his Majesty’s regiments somewhere had gap in the ranks and a name (probably false) listed as Absent, Without Leave.

 Van Leerdammer and I intitially advanced toward the sound of the guns – but soon found that the fighting was approaching us, and rapidly at that!
Coming into view over the crest of the depression was a section of our local champions of the Pax Britannica: the Randini & District Mounted Constabulary. 
(It should be noted that this august body does not possess a single horse, and –outside of suspiciously inexpensive meat rations - never has. Rumour has it that they came by their equestrian nomenclature in an attempt to secure enough funding to establish a cavalry battalion, actually establishing an infantry battalion, and looking all innocent when the District Commissioner enquired as to the whereabouts of the monetary difference between the two. I’m not complaining. I was once down on their books as ‘Vetinary Officer, reserve’ at a stipend of two guineas per annum, and may still be so, as far as I know. )
The askaris paused in their flight, and performed a fair approximation of an open-order firing line facing back the way they’d come,  giving fire as a second section retreated through their ranks. They repeated the process, while behind them the skyline darkened with a dense crowd of charging native spearmen!  Their ostrich-feathered headdresses marked them as Samburu warriors in full fighting rig. The reputation of the Samburu is overshadowed by their more famous neighbours, the Masai – but out on the frontier they’re known to be almost as tough and a good deal less predictable! Anyway, even if they’d been the Cheltenham Ladies Temperance Association, there were more than enough of the beggars to overwhelm the retreating askaris. 
 In command of this valiant ‘advance in a rearwards direction’ was the gangly figure of Subaltern Granville Percy, solar topee askew, just about managing not to fall flat on his face.  Percy was a dreadful duffer, it must be admitted. The victim of the only documented case of abduction by baboons, the experience had left him with a deathly fear of performing ablutions unescorted, and he insisted a member of the battalion accompany him on visits to the unmentionables, thence to remain decently out of sight but to signal his continued presence by singing. The first time O’Balsam and I came across an askari at port arms in the middle of the bush, belting out ‘The Minstrel Boy’ in a pleasant baritone, we naturally assumed the fellow was touched, but being sociable chaps we joined in with a will, and ordered our entire safari to do likewise, before moving on to ‘Who Would True Valour See’, ‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’, and a selection by Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan. It was close on an hour before Percy decided that he had no choice but to emerge from the bushes and explain, and to this day he maintains we did it with mischievous intent. Don’t know what he was complaining about – if anything, I imagine we helped things along, as it were.
Quite apart from anything else, he was one of those chaps who has a surname for a Christian name, and a Christian name for a surname. For some reason, this always gets my back up – just one of those things. 
Anyway, to return to the course of events: Van Leerdammer volunteered to intercept Percy and guide him to our positions. I agreed, warning the Boer to be careful the damn’ fool didn't shoot him by accident, and headed for the treeline myself.
 O’Balsam had the bearers in cover and our askaris deployed in an efficient but frighteningly short firing line. I took up my Lee-sporter and began to pick off individual Samburu with long-range shots, while Randini’s finest approached our position. As the range closed, our askaris opened fire,  Van Leerdammer shepherding the Constabulary in so that they didn’t mask our guns.

 Between shots, O’Balsam drew my attention to the native’s ‘regimental colours’ – Sergeant Hoskin’s magnificently side-whiskered head on a pole, bobbing above the surging horde.  Our fire took its toll, but we were far too few to turn the tide. All depended on how the Constabulary would behave when they reached the treeline. If they joined our ranks in good order, we had a fighting chance – but if they kept running, or even hesitated, the Samburu would be in amongst us and we’d all be enjoying the view from a pole.
 I needn’t have worried. As the first section of Constabulary reached our position, O’Balsam gave them the Hard Word in fine parade-ground style, chivvying them into our firing line seamlessly, bellowing that they had a “real NCO now, bigod,  not some English ninny who’d fall for the owld ‘head on a pole trick”.  Percy ran up with his second section, who fell naturally into formation alongside their comrades.  Between volleys, Percy breathlessly explained that ‘the Samburu were up’. (See? Not just a policeman, but detective material, that lad.) I asked him where Van Leerdammer was, and Percy said he had stayed out.  Well, ‘out’, as it were, was nothing but Samburu from creek to treeline! 
 I was fearing the worst when Van Leerdammer’s scheme - of course, he had a scheme - became apparent. He had spotted the hunting lions going to ground in front of the approaching Samburu, and started them from cover with rifle fire then legged it TOWARDS the natives!
  Bursting from the undergrowth , the lions had attacked the nearest prey from sheer instinct, mauling several of the natives before they had a chance to defend themselves! including a native about to skewer Leerdammer!!! 
 It was too much for the Samburu… our volley fire was crashing into their ranks with devastating effect, and the lions were running amok in their midst. 

  As one, the survivors broke and fled.
As we took stock and dressed the ranks, Toastie came in at the trot, wearing an expression dangerously close to an actual smile. Iaske O’balsam if he’d ever been a sergeant, and he said; “Sev’ral toimes, Sor, sev’ral toimes.” I told him he’d done a bang-up job, and he replied; “Sure, ‘twas easy as teachin’ baboons tae knock on doors, Sor”.
Percy expanded on his explanation: it transpired that a Samburu hunting party, formed to rid the Um Bongo river valley of a particularly large and troublesome pride of lions, had located their quarry and were engaged in the hunt, when they were, it is alleged, ambushed without provocation by white hunters.
Well.  Here’s the thing, gentle reader. This was not the first time I had inadvertently started a war*.  Well, perhaps it was the first time I’d inadvertently started a war, since I was being paid for the whole Ashanti business, although, in my defence, I was planning on just taking the money and disappearing. Anyway my point is, starting a war, or being suspected of starting a war, is a complete and utter chiz, with forms to fill in, stories to get straight and evidence to be got rid of.
Being IN a war, however – a war which nobody suspects you of starting, with nobody looking at you funny like it’s all your fault and reading you the riot act – that’s another case of yam gin entirely.  Life under canvas, reveille at six, a good sharp skirmish, and home for tea and medals.  Beats clearing soapy baboons out of Chandi Patel’s bath-house at two-bob per monkey, that’s for sure. And you’re off to a flyer if you’re the Man Who Saved the Lost Patrol, what?
(Although, when I said this, Percy piped up that the patrol wasn’t technically ‘lost’ on account of how he knew exactly where they were, which just goes to show that in addition to having a stupid name, the man’s got no sense of poetry, dammit.)
So back it was to blush modestly at the attention, with the prospect of a good bloody war in the offing, and the less said about the circumstances the better. Advice for life, that is.
Strangest thing, though; the youngster whose intention to go on safari started this whole adventure? Years later, I heard from old Raymond (who became something called an ‘Air Commodore’ whatever that is, in the Big Show) that our young friend was last seen flying a Sopwith Camel over Flanders in ’17. 

You can’t keep a good man down.

*Publishers note: this statement has given rise to much debate among historians of the early 20th century. It is beyond the remit of this publication to even begin to unravel the tangled threads of competing theories concerning to what extent Moustache was responsible – if that is indeed the appropriate term – for exactly what hostilities. However, the following should be borne in mind when considering the Colonel’s choice of words:
1:Technicality: the ‘Pioneer Column’ debacle wasn’t generally referred to as a ‘War’.
2: Moustache was writing in 1912, long before the extent of his involvement in the Malaboch War had come to light.
3: Given that his part in the affair occurred whilst, by his own admission, ‘magnificently drunk’, it is unlikely Moustache ever realised the role he played in the Bambatha Rebellion.


  1. Rollicking good tale, although somehow I manged to read chapter 3 before chapter 2.

  2. Excellent writeup! I read it sat in the airport yesterday and it made me chuckle! Mr NDL has a way with words!