One of my earliest recollections of my much loved Mom, is of her sitting at the foot of my bed reading to me before I went to sleep. And then my oldest cousin, Pam, taught me to read before I went to school. A mixed blessing as I was apparently quite disruptive in class, bored out of my tree when the teacher tried to teach the others to read.
Even today, one of my fears is finding myself on one of the regular, long distance flights I take from Cape Town to London or London to Seattle, without at least three books. Not that I will in all likelihood finish all three on the flight but what if it is delayed or I find I do not like one of them?
I have become a fully fledged, self-confessed bookaholic and normally read three at a time – a novel, a non-fiction book and one on hunting. In the absence of books, I have been known to read the back of cereal boxes, those free brochures that arrive unasked for and unwanted in the post and even woman’s magazines, although I admit I quite frequently flip through my wife’s and daughter’s periodicals for stories that might interest me and often find them. And while I am making confessions, I should also admit to writing for a woman’s magazine, albeit on hunting.
No-one in my large family in living memory – and we have lived continuously in Cape Town for 247 years – has ever hunted however and, although my Dad and uncles all fought in WWII, my Dad as an artillery officer through North Africa, Greece, Crete and at Monte Casino in Italy – the last major battle in which he was involved – none of them owned a firearm in civilian life. So, other than books and my own inexperienced friends, I had no-one to teach me about hunting or rifles other than books.
Today, I have literally hundreds of them. They surround me in our home and I no longer have space for any more so, every now and then, as I cannot resist buying more, I am compelled to box up the ones that, after an agonising mental battle, I convince myself I can do without and donate them to one of the charity shops.
One of the first books I bought on hunting was Hunting on Safari in East and Southern Africa by Aubrey Wynn-Jones which was “designed to provide … all the basic information you will need for successful safaris in East and Southern Africa.” For a young boy who, up until then had thought that culling was hunting and whose experience was limited mainly to springbok and blesbok, this comprehensive, introductory book was an eye opener of Biblical proportions! I inhaled its contents, discussed them with my friends ad nauseam and looked around for more.
Then I started reading about the successful, early hunters themselves, hoping to glean the reasons for their success. High on the list are my all time favourites – Frederick Courtney Selous, Walter Darymple Maitland Bell, William Cornwallis Harris and William Cotton Oswell and I have read every book these great hunters ever wrote. I learned the vital importance of fitness from Selous, shooting skills from Bell, and practiced both assiduously all my hunting days. Cornwallis Harris awed me with his highly descriptive, beautifully written accounts of the first recreational hunter to visit Southern Africa and Oswell, with his unassuming, humble and generous nature, on the one hand, and his steely determination, on the other hand. In fact, whatever limited success I have had as a hunter can be attributed to their direct and indirect advice.
In this regard, I would just mention that I have not made the mistakes concerning these formidable hunters that certain academics (who should know better) and some youth (who are determined not to), make today, both by accident and design, and apply modern, woke – how I hate that word – views to totally different situations, cultures and circumstances and/or what was considered legal and ethical scores of years ago.
Given the value that I found in my first hunting book, I soon looked around for more pertinent advice on firearms. Someone recommended African Rifles and Cartridges by the controversial John (Pondoro) Taylor and I became an instant, lifelong convert to large calibre rifles. To me, the book became a bible and everything that Taylor wrote became law. Over time, of course, I learned of some of his foibles and, with my own growing practical knowledge, became sceptical of some of his claims. Regardless, I still think his ultimate, lonely death, as a pauper and night watchman in London, was a crying shame.
I have a friend who says that, in no other profession on earth, do so many of its foremost practitioners die so poor, unhappy and alone and I can think of a number of cases I know of personally where this has been the case.
Taylor’s book was dedicated to “to Ali Ndemanga who stood by me when times were mighty lean,” his gun bearer and friend who some people like to imply was more than just a friend. Be that as it may, in his foreword he wrote as follows about his reasons for writing, “Thirdly in the hope that it may be of assistance to American sportsmen who will be thinking of taking a run out here to Africa for a smack at the big fellows”.
Well, I was not an American, was already in Africa and, in those days, could only dream of the “big fellows” but I was already finding general advice concerning rifles and cartridges contradictory and was looking for someone with real, practical, hands on, field experience and Taylor was the right man at the right time for me.
As he himself wrote, “since I know from my own experience how difficult it is for the complete tyro to choose the best and most suitable guns, it occurred to me that if the whys and wherefores of the various weapons, and the requirements of the different species of game under widely varying types of country, were collected and published in one volume and discussed by a practical hunter, who could explain just exactly why this or that type of weapon was better than some other, it might help clarify matters.” And it did for me and, as soon as I had saved enough money, on my 30th birthday, I added a Brno .375 H&H to my solitary rifle, a Musgrave 30-06, followed soon after by a Brno .458.
Now, properly armed, I began to try and learn more about the different species of game I was hunting and those who had successfully pursued them in an attempt to avoid amateur mistakes. Most of the books of the early writers seemed to focus on the big and hairy. Those animals that could stand on you or chew you and their tales of derring do as they came to terms with them. Even in my total inexperience, many of their tales seemed far fetched, even for someone like me who had cut his teeth on Peter Capstick’s Death in the Long Grass.
So it is that books like The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion and Jonathan Kingdon’s Mammals of Africa, revolutionised my knowledge of the animals I hunted. I enjoyed learning about them, where they could be found, what they ate, when they reproduced, what their habits were. Not only did the knowledge help my hunting but, somehow, knowing more about my prey was satisfying.
One of the early books which concentrated on a single species was Butch Smuts’s book called simply, Lion, still the most comprehensive and seminal work on these iconic cats. This was followed by similar books, including Gus Mills’s book Kalahari Hyenas, A Comparative Behavioural Ecology of Two Species. I bought the latter because most of the early hunting books spoke so disparagingly and insultingly about hyena and my suspicions that these views might be incorrect proved accurate as the book showed. Far from being the cowardly scavengers they were made out to be, hyena mostly caught their own prey and, in one scientific study, more than 70% of the time. In fact, more often than not, it was lions who drove hyena off their prey, not the other way around.
It was at about this time that the record books started to attract my attention and if, as a meat hunter, I was not consumed by inches and trophy quality, I was not immune to its influence and remember the first time I heard an Afrikaans friend talking about Rowland Awards. Of course, this was soon corrected and it was pointed out that he was talking about Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game.
Still later, I was able to speak to the then chairman of Rowland Ward, Robin Halse, on a number of occasions and learned from this highly competent hunter, successful commercial game rancher and ardent conservationist that there was more to The Book, as it was called by most hunters, than first met the novice’s eye. Firstly, the book was about recording information about animals as opposed to records in the sense of biggest and best. Secondly, that it served a most useful conservation purpose because, where trophy standards were increasing, there was very good reason to conclude that conservation of those species was flourishing, while the converse was equally true. This persuaded me to enter my own animals in The Book and, in time, I was honoured to accept the role of chairman for some years.
As I grew older and my disposable income increased, I gave full reign to my passion for books on all things hunting and bought those by the lesser known hunting lights and found, in many cases, that the ignorance and exaggerations of some of the older hunters was not confined to a particular age.
In recent days, I have collected almost every book I could lay my hands on by modern African hunters both professional and amateur. If anything, I learned more from these than their older predecessors. And, apart from my all time favourites by authors like Selous, Bell, Cornwallis Harris and Oswell, prefer them. I have learned so much from my current favourites – Fred Everett, Ian Nysschens, Wayne Grant, Lou Hallamore, Craig Boddington, Robin Hurt and Kai-Uwe Denker to name but a few.
Still others have kindly and generously contributed to my own humble efforts and, while many of these have not written books, certainly have the wherewithal to do so should they wish. I hope they will.
Which brings me to magazines. In the early days they were also a source of much useful information, wisdom and teaching but, as the years have rolled by, increasingly less so. In many modern hunting magazines, the increasingly abbreviated stories – down from over 3 000 words in my youth to barely over one third of that today – serve as minor buffers between adverts, are often confined to those dreadful “I came, I saw, I killed, look at me” stories and I have stopped subscribing to them. For the most part, I only receive those magazines which come as part of my membership of hunting organisations.
Then there are the famous four “Ms” – Maydon, Millais, Mellon and Meinertzhagen, although the latter, after whom the giant forest hog was named, Hylochoeros meinterzhageni, does not write exclusively about hunting animals. As a soldier and intelligence officer in WWII, he also hunted two legged species. And Millais is there not only as the author of Far and Away Up the Nile and the beautifully illustrated, Breath from the Veld, but as Selous’ biographer.
But the two main Ms begin with Major Hubert Conway Maydon, whose book, Big Game Shooting in Africa, which covered every country on the continent in which it was possible to hunt, inspired “Snakeman” Ionides in his search for “rarities”. It also lived on James Mellon’s bedside table and, as he told me, became his hunting bible. In turn, James’s magnum opus, African Hunter, lived on my desk and I have read it again and again, not only for its in depth information and excellent, envy inducing photos but, originally, for its sheer entertainment value and, later, because it became the template for African Hunter II, which Craig Boddington and I both wrote and edited for Safari Press. This latter book was a full colour attempt to bring its predecessor’s one up to date and had his blessing as his preface confirmed. James wrote, “For many years the shooting fraternity has lacked an up-to-date safari guidebook. African Hunter II neatly fills this void. It is in every sense a worthy successor to its predecessors, and I am convinced that it will remain the standing work in its field for decades to come. Anyone who hunts the Dark Continent, especially for the first time, without prior recourse to this mine of information makes a grievous error.”
Despite his fulsome praise, Mellon’s African Hunter remains, in my humble opinion, the best African hunting book bar none and, if you are only going to buy one book on hunting in Africa, this should be it, despite the fact that it is now somewhat outdated. At the time it was written, there were some 30 odd African countries in which you could hunt. Today, the number of countries is closer to a third of that.
On this note, I close with what James wrote earlier in the same preface, “Some forty years ago, when I was living in Kenya, I met the storied “white hunter” Philip Percival, who in the reckless heyday of his youth had galloped lions on horseback with President Theodore Roosevelt. At the end of our talk, I admitted how deeply I envied him and his friend Teddy for having experienced the unspoilt Africa of that day.
“We didn’t think of Africa as unspoiled!” the old man retorted. “We envied Livingstone and Stanley for their Africa.”
Without doubt the fabled Dark Continent continues to transform itself at a faster pace and more adversely than any region on earth. We need no reminder of the fact that wild game has suffered a holocaust from commercial poaching and habitat destruction, nor do we need to be reminded that countries recently accessible to sportsmen have lapsed into savage disorder. But let us take heart from the enduring truth encapsulated in Percival’s reply: that those who go on safari in the future will envy us for “the good old days” we presently enjoy and that the time to hunt Africa is always now.”