THE forests of the low-country are so dense and pathless, that it is easy for a sportsman to lose his way when eagerly following game, even though accompanied by a native who has lived all his life in that locality. Almost every man who has done any shooting to speak of, has at some time or other, felt that unpleasant thrill following the sudden realisation of the fact that he had not the least idea in what direction the camp lay, and that it was getting dark ! So many have had the disagreeable experience of passing a night in the forest without food or sleep, that a few hints as to how such a predicament may be avoided or its inconveniences minimized will probably not be considered out of place here.
It is an excellent plan for a sportsman, on arrival at his shooting ground, to carefully study the best map of the district he has been able to procure, and to fix in his mind the position of all the natural and artificial features of the country in the neighbourhood of his camp. It is then fairly easy for him at any time, when he has lost his bearings in dense forest, to decide in what direction he should go to be sure of striking, sooner or later, some particular road or river or stretch of paddy-fields.
Every man going on a shooting-trip to the low-country should provide himself with a good pocket compass, a " day and night" one for choice, that is one, the half of the revolving card of which is coloured black, making it possible, even on a dark cloudy night, to distinguish the north and south Iine. It should be always worn like a watch when out shooting. The probability is, however, that after being taken out fifty times without being required, it will be found to have been left in camp on the occasion when it is at last urgently wanted !
As a rule, any villager acting as guide, can be depended upon so long as his employer does not go more than a few miles from the village, and sticks to paths, stream-beds and game-tracks familiar to him, but should the sportsman plunge into the deep forest, say in pursuit of a wounded animal, the guide will probably shew before long by his hesitation and nervous manner that he does not know where he is. There are, of course, natives, notably Veddahs, possessed of highly-developed "bumps of locality," who will unerringly make their way, almost in a bee line, to any desired spot, but they are the exception. It is generally safer for a European who has not learnt much wood-craft, to leave his native guide to find a way out when lost, however small his confidence in the man may be. In any case, no good whatever will result from frightening the fellow with threats and curses.
On realizing that one is lost, the first thing to be done, in the absence of a compass, is to glance at the sun and fix the west as near as possible, which may be some degrees to the north or south of the point where the sun sinks below the tree tops, according to the time of the year. Many men while out after game make mental note, almost instinctively, of the direction in which they are going, and if the belated sportsman has done this, he should be able with his knowledge of the surrounding country derived from his map, and of the position of the west, to decide approximately in what direction the camp lies. If it is possible to get a view over the forest from some high rock or lofty tree near by, he will be able to fix his position better, but such rocks are rarely at hand when wanted, and the taller kinds of trees rising above the forest have usually trunks too straight and smooth to be climbed even by a native.
When the probable direction of the camp has been decided on, no time should be lost in making straight for it through the forest as fast as possible, blazing trees and breaking twigs on the way as guiding marks in case it is discovered that the direction taken is entirely wrong, and it is necessary to return to the starting point. It is very difficult without a compass, to keep on a straight course when hurrying through darkening forest, dodging the trees and pushing through the undergrowth, especially if it is a cloudy evening and the position of the sinking sun is uncertain. A circuitous or zigzaggy line is sure to be taken unless the compass is constantly consulted, or the sun frequently glanced at.
If after a time it seems pretty evident that there is little chance of making his way to camp, the sportsman should turn his attention to finding some good place to spend the night in. If he comes across a well-defined game track he should follow it, as it will probably lead to some drinking place where he can get water, or to some rocks or open place where he can stay till daylight, with greater comfort and feeling of security than in the dense forest.
It is of little use for a belated sportsman to continue his efforts to find his way back to the camp after night fall. He will only go wandering about in circles in the dark and become exhausted with fatigue, anxiety and thirst. It is much better to resign oneself to the prospect of a night in the forest and to trust to one's friends or followers. The native guide should be sent up the nearest high tree and ordered to fire signals of distress at intervals of from ten minutes to half an hour according to number of cartridges available. So fired, the reports will be heard more distinctly and at a greater distance, than if fired at ground level, the forest having the effect of deadening the sounds. If ammunition is all spent it is a good plan to blow through the barrel of one's gun like a bugle, if the trick has been learned. With a little practice sounds may be produced which will be audible a mile or two away on a still night. Shouting is of little use, unless there is reason to believe that there are natives at some paddy-field or chena not far off, or that a rescue party is near. Guides, however, on these occasions invariably yell themselves hoarse, and as it serves to employ their energies and to keep up their spirits, they should be allowed to exercise their voices as they please.
When an hour or two have passed, and no answering shots or cries have been heard, there is nothing to be done but to make oneself as comfortable as circumstances permit. If matches are available, a big fire should be lit. One of the party should stay awake to keep the fire burning and listen for indications of the coming of the search party, while the rest sleep as well as the mosquitoes and ticks will let them. There is little fear of attack by wild beasts, as real rogue-elephants and man-eating leopards are exceedingly rare, and other animals, if they happen to come near, will bolt at once on smelling human beings or seeing the fire. It is only inflicting useless discomfort on oneself to climb into trees, and the danger of dropping asleep and falling down, to the risk of life and limb, is not slight.
Should a shower be heard coming up it is a good plan to strip, to roll up one's clothes into a ball and place them in the hollow of a tree, or under a stone, or in any other dry place, to be resumed when the rain is over. It is safer and less disagreeable to stand naked in the rain for a time than to spend the night in wet clothes.
On reaching camp next day the unlucky sportsman should take a hot bath, a dose of quinine, and have a good sleep, and if he is a man of ordinary physic and constitution the probabilities are that he will be none the worse for the night spent in the warm, dry forest.