The watering hole at the edge of the swamp at Maun is called Riley's Hotel. It is one story tall and sprawls—but not far—under a corrugated iron roof. There is a fence around it to keep animals out, and the bleached skull of an old bull elephant lies in the gray sand beside the gate like a sentry. White hunters used to come in there on Saturday night and order a beer and shoot a hole in the ceiling, but in these more sophisticated times Riley's now knows some refinement. Moving pictures of fairly recent import are shown on Friday nights, and on Sunday the Methodist bishop sets up an altar and conducts services. But Saturday night remains reasonably unchallenged. The suspicion is that more beer per capita is consumed on a Saturday night at Riley's than anyplace in the world, and the white hunters in from the bush sit around and tell stories of climbing in and out of the tents of clients' wives, and stories that are closer—well, somewhat closer—to the truth. Viz.: Lionel Palmer was charged by three lions simultaneously. Calm as a judge, he gauged the distance and foot speed of each lion and shot them in scientific sequence, leading off with the fastest, and when he worked the bolt and pulled the trigger on No. 3 the barrel was down the beast's throat.
One Saturday night not long ago two young hunters named Daryl Dandridge and Dougie Wright got caught up in a hunters' debate on the terrors of the swamp—the Okavango Swamps in northern Botswana consist of 6,500 square miles of crocodiles, hyenas, lions, buffalo and tsetse flies—and, accepting a dare (no cash involved), set out straight away to tackle the 150-mile crossing from Maun to Shakawe with nothing more than the knives on their belts. They emerged six days later on the other side of the swamp, stone sober.
We had not come to Maun to find Riley's, of course. Riley's was a bonus. We had come to Maun to find Harry Selby, to hunt with him in a land most Americans have never heard of. Those who have would be hard put to lay a finger to it on a map. Harry Selby has been called the best of the great white hunters, and he may be the last in that classic sense, because the white-hunter business is not what it used to be. Raised on a farm in Kenya, Harry Selby shot his first antelope at 8, his first elephant at 14. He could speak Swahili in three dialects by early adolescence. He fought Mau Mau (between safaris) as a young white hunter and was panegyrized in books by Robert Ruark. Though still a young man, now 43, Selby had presumably migrated some 1,400 miles southwest to Botswana to shoot out his years keeping black-maned lions off the necks of his clients. Ruark had written in a column that Selby was thrown out of Kenya when the country gained independence and the Mau Mau faction sought reprisals against former enemies. Ruark was himself persona non grata in Kenya because of his book Uhuru. In any case, Selby had come to Botswana and set up a depot for Ker, Downey & Selby Safaris in Maun and had, in fact, nursed the white-hunter business there to a marginal prosperity. In light of the fading eminence of Kenya as the center of hunting in Africa, Botswana was virgin territory, rich in game—a bright prospect.
The porter at Riley's came for us at 6:30 a.m., came without knocking into the room, with just a gentle "good morning, morena, good morn-ning," bringing cups of steaming black liquid that could, if taken hastily, cauterize the throat—tea for Peter Hawthorne and coffee for me. It is a fine old African custom to be aroused before dawn with something to scald you into action. Peter Hawthorne, the arranger of our safari, had met Selby in Nairobi after the Mau Mau uprising. Hawthorne works out of Johannesburg, South Africa as a correspondent for an incongruous assortment of periodicals, a job that has caused him to develop the writing style of a chameleon.
February 12, 1968
We had made it up from Johannesburg to Maun by two-engine chartered plane the afternoon before, flying the 500 miles directly over the burning Kalahari Desert, the heat rising up to shake the small plane. The Kalahari is two-thirds of Botswana. It is a vast sandy scrubland, ugly as a bed sore. It is where the tiny crinkled yellow-brown aborigines known as Bushmen have made their last stand against encroaching civilization, speaking in the clucking tongue of turkeys, eating lizards, hunting with bows and arrows and enduring the probing of fascinated anthropologists. The Kalahari is so remote that single-engine aircraft coming from the south are required to take the milk route around, following the railroad tracks, checking in at Francistown on the fertile eastern edge of Botswana, and then on to Maun.
Botswana was called Bechuanaland, a protectorate of Great Britain, until granted independence in late 1966. It is now a republic, ruled by a black president, Sir Seretse Khama, with his white English-born wife, a former London secretary named Ruth Williams. The blacks call her Queen Ruth. Botswana is roughly the size of Kenya, but it is landlocked and its population is less than 600,000—about 2½ people per square mile. No more than 4,000 are white. The economy is red. In a continuing effort to improve it, Seretse Khama walks a diplomatic tightrope between white South Africa to the south, Rhodesia to the east and black Africa to the north. He seems to get along with them all, an extraordinary contortion on a confused and confusing continent. He is, in the bargain, a devout anti-Communist.
We did not really have to risk the Kalahari, Peter said. We could have chartered in from Salisbury in Rhodesia, or down from Livingstone in Zambia, to rendezvous with Harry at Victoria Falls, where that largest of the world's great cataracts tumbles out of the Zambezi River. "Or for some real adventure we could have come up from Francis-town on the new road which was built with a Yankee-dollar loan. It is a dirt road, like they all are. Yellow dust. There's one petrol pump the 320 miles of it, but you can make it through the Makarikari Salt Pans and the mo-pane trees now with nary a flat, and that's a very nice improvement. The old road was the worst I have ever seen. It could take 18 hours or three weeks, depending on conditions. I might have been able to show you the difference between a wildebeest and a camel-thorn tree en route, or maybe we would have stumbled onto some terrorists with Chinese guns on their way south."
Harry had met us when we put down at the flat grassy strip that serves as the Maun airport on the previous afternoon, checked us into Riley's, then returned later to take us home for dinner. There was immediate rapport. The presence of Harry rather than the appearance is reassuring. He is not tall, no more than 5'10", though his legs are thick and his hands and forearms ample. His handsome smile comes quickly, from a mouth turned down at the sides. He has the sloping, soulful eyes of a spaniel, and they miss nothing. He is capable of great charm, cultivated by many evenings at campfires explaining why Mr. Elephant is really king of beasts and Mr. Lion just a rogue. He rises to a discussion in fine style.
Selby's English has an East African-colonial polish, as opposed to the more slack-tongued South African or Australian. He is unfailingly courteous, and, as with most unfailingly courteous people, he is at times inscrutable. To illustrate. If I missed a shot I should have made—which was to happen in the days ahead—he would say, "Oh, bad luck," or, "just a hair too high." There is at least one white hunter in Botswana who would not let so fine an opportunity go by. This colorful character once abandoned a couple in the bush when they froze on a shot. "Are you paralyzed?" he shouted, and stalked off. They found their way back by the noise of his cursing—one of his boys had let a rhino bang into the car while they were gone. A client kept asking this hunter the same questions over and over. The hunter threw up his hands, "Why don't you buy yourself a bloody notebook and write these bloody answers down?" The impression is that Harry Selby would never snap, growl or abandon. Nor would he pass out gratuitous praise. The impression is of a man with a powerful engine room, but on the surface he is serene and smooth-sailing.
The Selby house is on the outskirts of Maun. It is part of the Ker-Downey-Selby compound, fence enclosed, where there are tool and supply sheds, heavy equipment, a cleaning-and-crating area for the shipment of trophies and skins to successful clients and the house of another K-D-S hunter, David Sandeburg. Selby came alone in 1963 to set up shop; he now has four associate white hunters. The compound was leased from an outfit that used it to process native labor for the gold mines in South Africa. The large house, with the familiar corrugated iron roof, backs onto the river, actually the edge of the swamp, and, like all rivers of the Okavango, it is clear and cool and inviting. The Selbys swim in it, being careful of the crocodiles.
The yard is shaded with poinsettia and oleander trees, frangipani and citrus. "Do you like grapefruit?" Harry said, pulling down one of brilliant color. "We will pick some for our breakfasts in camp." He was an attentive host, hopping up and down to replenish the cashews or pour another drink as we sat on the terrace to watch the sun splash through the acacia trees and into the swamp. For himself, it was always Coke. An ulcer put him on the wagon seven years ago and he stayed there.
Except for the huge carcass of a Kodiak bear Harry had shot in Alaska and laid out on the veranda floor, the place is missing the horns and heads you would expect in a great white hunter's house. Harry said he was never much for collecting. "Can you imagine sitting down to dinner and having those bloody things staring you in the face?" He said the good ones he had bagged in East Africa had been passed on for safekeeping to an American friend, John Mecom. Mecom owns the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League. He is one of Selby's regular clients. Others have been Walter O'Malley, Lauritz Melchior, the Maharaja of Jaipur, Prince Stanislaus Radziwill and ex-President Alemàn of Mexico. Mecom has been trying to talk Harry across the Atlantic to run a game farm in Texas. Harry has been to Texas.
The Selbys are four of the 60 whites who live in Maun. Harry married the tiny blond Miki during the Mau Mau emergency in Kenya. She was a stewardess for South African Airways when they met in Nairobi. There are two children—Mark, 13, a skinny big-eyed lad who just the week before had shot his first elephant, and Gail, 8, a tomboy who was growing a couple of teeth to fill a vacancy in front.
"Why Botswana?" I asked him as he circled again with the cashews.
"Well, in the first place, Donald Ker and Sid Downey knew its potential, and we couldn't just send anybody. We had to send a director. I was not averse to moving south." He sat down and crossed his legs and put a handful of nuts in his mouth. "I quite liked the idea, in fact. I had begun to think that there was not a whole lot of future in Kenya. The game was getting scarcer, and they had closed the Northern Frontier to hunting. Started controlling the tsetse fly and opening it up for farming. You eradicate the tsetse fly and the African moves in with his cattle, and the game goes. It would be wrong to say hunting is no longer good there, because it is good. Clients are being satisfied. But the game in East Africa has been under great pressure for the last 25, 26 years. For example, there are very few places you can still hunt rhino. People just have to accept it—you can't or won't get certain animals. On my first safari in 1946 we turned up 18 lions before we shot one. It wasn't being blasé. It was just what everyone did. You shopped around and picked the one you wanted. We do it here if we're looking for a good impala head. Lions used to be classified as vermin in East Africa and you shot all you wanted. Now they're on an expensive special license.
"I do miss Kenya, of course. It is a beautiful country, with its mountains and its great plains, and, of course, it is home. The country here, for the most part, is so flat you see a 20-foot rise and your ears pop. Still, it has its beauty, and we were fortunate in our transition that there was not a great change. Life is very similar. There is certainly no social life. If Miki missed that she would go absolutely mad, but she does not. She likes the bush. For someone dependent on others, Maun would be a disaster. We get by because we are self-sufficient. We make our own bricks from natural sand. I absolutely love carpentry and mechanics. I am happy breaking down an engine, grease to my elbows.
"The best thing about it is we see each other far more than we did in East Africa. We do not have those tremendous distances separating us. In Kenya sometimes, and in Tanganyika, a safari might be 1,700, 1,800 miles away, sometimes four days' traveling time. You might just as well be on the other side of the bloody world."
"Then you weren't thrown out of Kenya?"
"I promise you that is completely untrue. I don't know where Bob Ruark got that story. He could not have been more wrong. I left on my own free will. There was certainly no fear of Mau Mau reprisal. I can go back when I please. And I do. I still carry my British passport. K-D-S is still based in Nairobi. Seven-eighths of our business is there, including an interest in the Tree Tops Hotel, the game lodge built in a tree. My shares of the company are in Kenya. I was never asked to leave, and there is always the possibility I will someday go back."
The sun was long down. The eating turned from cashews on the stoop to curry on the screen-enclosed veranda and the conversation to more immediate concerns. We asked what was out there waiting for us. There were all sorts of pleasant things, Harry said. He told of having just beaten off a debilitating case of bilharzia, contracted from a worm in the water. "You can get it just washing your hands," Miki said cheerfully. Harry said the sleeping-sickness scare from tsetse fly bites was quite overrated, that the two men who had died, the white hunter and the client, would have been all right if they'd been less stubborn and rushed on back to Maun. "The whole thing was blown up out of proportion because they were safari people. Actually we get far less sleeping sickness here than they do in Tanganyika, only 102 cases out of 550,000 people two years ago."
Miki said to be sure and pound our shoes on the ground in the morning, heels down, in case a stray scorpion moved in during the night. Harry said not to worry about malaria, that the whole Selby family had had malaria at one time or another and it was easy to shake. And the mamba? The little green snake that can kill you in five minutes? Don't give it a thought. You seldom see one. Besides, there was this terrific snakebite kit. "In fact," Harry said, "the doctor tells me we're better equipped in the field than the Maun hospital."
He said there hadn't been many man-eating lions around this part of the world since they built the railroad in Kenya. Then the lions used to come into the railroad shacks at night, put their back paws on the lower bunk, their front paws on the middle bunk, and lift the man of their choice off the top.
I asked Miki if scaring the daylights out of the clients was regular first-night fare or was this a special treat.
"Oh, my, no," she said sweetly. "We just don't consider you clients at all."
"Besides," said Harry, "you met our flying doctor, the big fellow at the airstrip who was wrestling with that stubborn gate?"
"Ripped the bloody gate off with his bare hands is what he did," said Peter.
"That's him," said Harry. "His specialty is flying 14 feet off the ground and taking the tops off trees on take-offs. He'll rescue you from anything."
"That's very comforting," said Peter.
We finished our early-morning tea and coffee, pounded our shoes, heels down, on the floor at Riley's and went out to meet Harry. The Land Rover was loaded with our gear and more supplies. The big lorry had gone on ahead with $18,000 worth of camp equipment, including a large refrigerator ("ice cubes for the gin and tonic!" Peter shouted) and a wide variety of comfort-makers—a shower tent, a toilet tent, tablecloths, silverware, etc.—that Harry distinguishes as "civilized living" and not luxuries. The lorry also carried the 12 porters who would set up and tend camp.
Lukas, a shiny-black little native with a floppy felt hat, loaded on the arsenal: a .416 Rigby and .458 Browning for elephant; a .375 Browning and .375 Winchester for buffalo and lion, or even an elephant; the comfortable 7 mm. Weatherby Magnum for medium-sized game (zebra, kudu, sable, sitatunga, impala, wildebeest); a 12-gauge shotgun for guinea fowl and a .22 for administration of coup de gr√¢ce. We had planned for a 10-day safari and, in order to see as much as possible of Harry and his new country, to do only a minimum of shooting—that which was allowed on the general license and was necessary for the pot, and, perhaps, a buffalo or a kudu. If presented the opportunity, we might try for a black-maned lion.
"We should see lions," Harry said as we moved out of the compound and onto the sand road leading north to his concession. "Whether we'll see a good male or not is problematical. Lions in Africa today are quite scarce. They're bad breeders. The females turn the cubs loose far too early and they are killed, or starve to death, before they can fend for themselves. The lion population is pretty rapidly declining. The lions here, what are very loosely called black-maned lions, are much fiercer than the ones in East Africa, and a little bigger, and I've noticed they're even aquatic when they get around the swamp. In 1965, when we had a dry year, actually the last year of a four-year drought in Botswana, there were a lot of lions down on the water. The pans back in the heavy woods had dried up. We got 19 lions that year. Last year it was wet, and they stayed back up in there. They wise up, you know. And we only got nine. But one's chances of getting a lion today are better in Botswana than any part of Africa."
The 75 miles to the concession took four hours. The sand is deep, and, as the wheels dug in, Harry dropped into four-wheel drive. In Kenya, where the plains are hard, cutting trails was not necessary. In Botswana the thickness of the mopane scrub, the grass and sand demand it. Setting a grass fire and letting it run is often necessary. He has cut 250 miles of crisscrossing trails through his concession since 1963, and as the game gets more wary he will have to cut more.
The vast K-D-S concession covers 4,800 square miles on the northwest edge of Botswana, near the Chobe Game Reserve. Harry spent 20 hours on reconnaissance flights over the concession before moving in in 1963. The principal landmark is the River Kwaai, where the game flocks. Harry could not resist building a bridge over the Kwaai a couple of years ago but did not bother to rebuild it when it collapsed. The Land Rover can ford the river without a bridge.
By estimates, his is the best hunting area in Botswana. It has all the requirements: plenty of water, plenty of grazing land, plenty of tsetse flies. On the road up we passed the government outpost for tsetse fly control, and it was not long before the tsetses had joined us in the cabin and were digging in. At first contact, Peter reached for the aerosol can. "You aren't begrudging the famine-ridden Botswana tsetse fly a little blood, are you?" Harry said.
"Listen, Harry, you've overrated the tsetse," I said. "It does not pack the wallop of the Bahamian flea or the Florida mosquito and, being larger, it is easier to swat."
"Wait'll one gets you blind, through your pants," Harry said. "But after a while you won't even notice, so please do not kill them all. We worry enough about losing them as it is. When they start putting pressure on this country to kill the tsetse it'll be that much more wilderness gone. Look there, see that village? That wasn't here when I first came. There are four or five through the concession now.
"You can't have a wilderness forever because the land is too valuable. The thing to do, of course, is to make game more valuable than the scruffy cattle they bring in. Make game pay for itself. Last year game licenses alone brought $150,000 into the tribal treasuries, which isn't much to a highly developed country, but to a poor one it is a bundle."
The camp was set up in a wooded area near the Kwaai. We settled in, and in the late afternoon went out to look for a decent impala to shoot for the pot. Except perhaps for springbok, there is no sweeter venison in Africa. With the sun going down, there was a great surge of activity around us. Five o'clock rush hour in the bush. Great herds of wildebeest and sassaby and impala momentarily stopped to stare as the cream-colored intruder blundered past. We saw giraffe and, moving far off, a herd of zebra; in a short span we caught glimpses of waterbuck, sable and sitatunga, of lechwe, warthog and a small sewing circle of lovely kudu females.
Harry had me try out the 7 mm. on a mark on a tree. On the recoil the edge of the scope banged against my forehead, leaving a crescent-shaped canal of blood. "It'll make an impressive scar," he said. He gave me two trial shots and said that would be sufficient. We eventually picked out an impala and went after it on foot. I followed Harry, trying to imitate that stooping, mincing, pigeon-toed walk he goes into when he is stalking game. He can walk that way for hours. We got into position and I bloodied my forehead again. The shot was high, and there was a flurry of vanishing camp meat. "Bad luck," said Harry. We went further into the bush, and Harry stopped and pointed. "There. That one. Plunk it." This one I hit in the jaw, being more careful of the recoil than the aim, and, when it stopped a way off to see what devil had suddenly brought the fire into its life, I put another in its side, and we had our meat. I said I was not proud of that kind of shooting. "It's the little quick ones that are hardest to hit," said Harry. He looked at my forehead. "At least you've quit wounding yourself."
The camp was a reflection of Harry Selby's good taste and efficiency. The individual tents were of a comfortable size and could be zipped tight. The cots were sturdy, and there were always fresh sheets. Laundry service in a boiling pot every day. The cook, Mukoma, knew his business. In the days ahead the impala and others like it would come to the mess tent as steak and gingery stew.
The nights were cool enough for blankets, and stray hyenas came regularly to render a serenade or two. Occasionally buffalo or elephant splashed into a nearby pan and you could hear them bruiting about. On the third day we came across our first good herd of Cape buffalo and tracked them for three miles, hoping to get a shot. They were too skittish and the bush too dense, and we settled for the pleasure of seeing a couple of small elephants drinking and bathing at a pan. "Still a lot of water up here," said Harry. "Much better hunting when it's dry and they have to move down to the river."
The next morning he decided we would do some hard tracking for the buffalo, and we arrived at the pan early to pick up the tracks. Harry moved after them, and I tried to keep up with him, remembering that he had said to stay close ("I am very uneasy if my client wanders, especially with buffalo"). We had gone about two miles when we began to hear them moving ahead of us, grazing and favoring one another with resonant grunts. They seemed to be near, always over the next rise, but the bush was thick, and it was nearly another mile before we finally got a look at them. By that time my mouth was chalk, the sand was running out the tops of my shoes and I was silently cursing Harry for being able to avoid the camel thorns that were grabbing at my flesh. Suddenly he motioned me to him behind a tree. A couple of bulls at the rear of the herd had turned and were making tentative moves as if to charge. "If they stampede, stick behind the tree and they'll run right past us," he said. There was ho charge, however, and the bulls were not of a size Harry would like to shoot, but another 50 yards and there was a large bull with a nice horn presenting a fairly close shot.
The bull's shoulder was obscured by a thorn bush. "Plunk it," Harry said. I lowered the .375 until the post scope was on what figured to be the shoulder, and, almost on its own, the gun went off, and a little bit of hell broke loose. The herd crashed away as one, and our buffalo with it, running left to right. Harry fired, and I fired again. "We put two in him at least," he said. "Should be sufficient." "I think my first one was a little high," I said, dismayed. Carefully, very carefully, with Mrewa and Jacob, two of the trackers, joining in, Harry moved up ahead, looking for spoor on the ground and the branches, careful lest we have a wounded buffalo down our tonsils before we could see it. Three hundred yards more and it was there in the sand, lying in a great heap. "Quite dead," said Harry. He checked and found the first shot had hit just above the shoulder, his backup shot in the neck, my throwaway shot on the rump as the beast fled. "First shot killed it," he said. "Well done." My relief was immense.
It came to me then, as we headed back to the Land Rover, my horn aloft on the makeshift stretcher and dripping blood. It came to me what had been dawning from the beginning. With Harry it was simple. With Harry it was a walk in the park. With Harry I had experienced no fear, not even a conventional down-to-earth apprehension. It was no newly discovered bloom on my manhood; it was the competency of his. The novice client in the bush is like a novice in the chair of a deep-sea charterboat. Never mind those pictures of the 600-pound tuna that took two hours to land. Like the charterboat captain, the white hunter, if he is good, does all the work; he wrestles with that Land Rover for 10 or 12 hours a day, his eyes everywhere looking for signs. He tracks the game. He finds it. He leads you up to it. And you, the tagalong, squeeze the trigger. If there is danger, he is the catalyst that dispels it. Sometimes he dispels it with a bullet.
I recall what Selby said one evening by the fire. He said clients make safaris, make them memorable or miserable, and the secret of pleasing the clients is to make them do what you want without their realizing you're telling them to do it. "Many of these people are used to giving orders, not taking them," he went on. "Sometimes, very rarely, but occasionally, you get a fellow on his second or third safari who before very long is teaching you. You approach an animal on foot and fail. The chap says, 'Well, we should have used the Land Rover.' You know damn well if we'd failed in the Land Rover he'd say we should have gone on foot. Sometimes it's just a guy that rubs. You don't want to say 'no,' certainly not all the time. You say, 'Well, I think this is better,' but you can't keep saying that either. The best way to stop that nonsense is to get the fellow into a hell of a good fight, into a big herd of buffalo or elephant. Other times it might be 20 miles of tracking in one day. I had a chap here with a young son, a spoiled brat actually, and it had been this way. He shot a buffalo rather easily and his daddy said later, 'So-and-so doesn't think there's much to this. Thinks it's rather like shooting a cow,' and I said, 'Oh, does he?' The next day we chanced to get a herd in this short scrub after a long walk, and this time they didn't turn tail and run. A big old bull took a couple of steps toward him, and I thought the kid was going to shoot himself. His father said that night that So-and-so had changed his mind about buffalo.
"When I was in Alaska hunting that bear you saw on the veranda, I did exactly what I was told. What's the use of hiring a professional if you're not going to listen to him? As it happens, the worst thing that builds up is the tension. You're not getting shots. The client doesn't speak for a week. Then, suddenly, he kills a lion, and all at once he's slapping your back and telling you you're the best damn white hunter in Africa. I suppose that's why I like the Americans best. I can understand the Americans. They are colonials like we are. They're uncomplicated. They want to hunt, period. You know exactly where you stand, and you go ahead and do your best and they recognize it right away. I've had Continentals sulk for two days after missing a shot. Well, that's not going to help them make the next one.
"Of course, most people have the wrong idea about the white hunter," Harry was saying now as we headed back to camp with the buffalo horn. "They picture him as a great big bruiser with bullets in his belt and a leopard skin around his hat, swigging whiskey and making passes at women all day, which could not be further from the truth. You certainly couldn't keep a client long by engaging in that kind of foolishness. We get applicants writing to us all the time, from the States, from Europe, everywhere, young fellows supposing what a lot of glamour there is, when in actual fact it's just a hell of a lot of hard work—16, 18 hours a day. Just learning the game and the country takes eight or 10 years. So most of these chaps we don't bother to answer, but last year I had this boy from England who was desperately keen on getting on safari. I'll-work-for-nothing sort of thing. Against my better judgment, I took him on, and he turned out to be absolutely hopeless. His idea of a safari was to sit around behaving like a client, drinking beer and letting some other junior hunter repair the truck or cut the trail. Oh, father, will you have a look at that!"
He had stopped the Land Rover and was looking far off into the scrub. About a mile away was a small gray mountain, browsing peacefully. Harry called for his .416. and I had the .375. We went to have a closer look.
"See here? He's been eating here," Harry said, pointing to the bare tips of mopane scrub. We were close enough now. "Will you look at the size of that tusk? It must be 130 pounds." We had no intention of shooting the elephant, just looking. But as it turned to face the small interruption, the huge animal revealed a broken left tusk.
"Insurance policy," Harry said. "Good for you, old fellow. Nobody will shoot you now. You're safe to a ripe old age." Harry was plainly taken by the beast. "Look at that wily old rascal raise his trunk at us." Harry raised his head. "You wouldn't think a mossy chap like that could show such expression, but just look at him. Truly the king of beasts. Huge, afraid of nothing. Wanders around the countryside minding his own business, knowing every water hole for miles around. Gets fed up with an area, just picks up and goes a hundred miles and knows every inch of the way. You could see the way they'd go across the Northern Frontier of Kenya. You'd see tracks on the road a while, then they'd be gone, then back on again. What he'd done was cut the corner where the road bends. Never one foot farther than he needs to."
We were back in the Land Rover and Peter said it seemed to him old Harry Selby had an uncommon crush on elephant meat.
"It's not that I admire him so much as an adversary," said Harry. "He's not so highly dangerous. I admire him as an animal. I think he's a wonderful animal, and of course a fine pair of tusks is a wonderful trophy. But to understand a white hunter's respect for the elephant you must read Bell's books. I have them back in Maun. Old Karamoja Bell. He hunted around 1900, 1910 in Uganda, for the ivory. He shot thousands of elephants, I suppose, using nothing but that .275, which is plenty enough if you use it right. All through those books, though he's hunting them and killing them, you could sense that he adored elephants.
"Now, your impression of an elephant is to drive along a road and spot one and just walk on over to it. This was just a lucky break. Usually you pick up the tracks at a water hole, then it's hour after hour of tracking. You would swear he was deliberately staying a couple of miles ahead. Every mile is bloody horrible. Incredibly dirty. You swear you don't ever want to see an elephant again, and this can go on week after week. In Kenya we reckoned a good elephant would walk you a hundred miles. Then one day you track one out and there is a magnificent pair of tusks, right down to the ground, and suddenly it all becomes worthwhile. It's the greatest hunting of all."
After that the days went by quickly. Harry found zebra for Peter and me, and we shot them cleanly. We sat behind a blind waiting for kudu from dawn to lunch one day, but the kudu never showed. We chanced upon a huge herd of buffalo on an open plain, and Harry gunned the Land Rover and jammed it in among the herd as it fled. He was enjoying the recklessness, happily calling out to the animals—great, groaning, massive bodies hurtling alongside. We saw lions and lion cubs in the tall grass by the river, but aside from the zebra and the buffalo we were satisfied just to shoot camp meat—impala and wildebeest and guinea fowl. On a windy day I shot the tail off an impala buck. Mrewa and Jacob found it in the scrub, neatly detached, and broke out laughing. "Around their fire they will now refer to you as Mr. Tail," Harry said. "This will be known as Mr. Tail's safari. It was some shot. I have never seen one quite like it in 20 years of hunting."
"Let us pray that the poor impala grows a new tail," said Peter. "It could be most embarrassing for him."
We moved up to the swamp for a couple of days and fished the labyrinth of cool, green channels, bringing up bream and tiger fish that would bite an oar if it were presented to them. We saw no signs of Bobby Wilmot, the legendary old man of the swamps who has been hunting crocodile in the Okavango for the last 12 years. Mark Selby, Harry's 13-year-old, and Daryl Dandridge joined us there. Mark had been missing shots and Harry was trying to restore his confidence. The boy kept insisting on using the .375, though it was too heavy, because the .375 had killed him his elephant. On instruction from Harry, Daryl took Mark on scouting and work missions and made them stern lessons in bushmanship.
Daryl: What's that?
Mark (coming up from behind): Elephant.
Daryl (impatiently): Of course it's an elephant, anybody can see that. What about it? What does it mean?
"It's an old elephant. You can tell the imprint of its heel, round and smooth."
"Well, uh, it's just an elephant."
"All right. It's not an old elephant. It's a very young elephant. And that's not the heel, it's the toe, and it's going in the other direction, traveling fast."
Mark is silent. Daryl continues: "You see, the tracks are singular. When moving slow, its hindleg tracks come up to meet its foreleg's, but here they are distinct. Now here. A buffalo herd came across the tracks." Daryl moves out, his long skinny legs covering ground fast, his eyes up in the trees. "See there? The broken branch? The leaves on the tree are gray from the mud off the elephant's back. It's gone this way."
Mark wants desperately to be a white hunter. Harry does not discourage it, but he does not see it as representing a long-term future.
"He has, say, seven years before he can actually take a safari himself. It's a good, clean, honorable life, but by then safari as we know it may well be gone. Inevitably the game will be concentrated in preserves. I don't mean it will all be shot off in the next few years, but I do believe as time goes on it will dwindle, and people won't come all the way from the U.S. to shoot impala or wildebeest. There has to be an availability of exotic species, and these will go.
"A lot of oldtime hunters would find it very difficult to earn bread and butter today. You must work so much harder. Don't get me wrong. There were some terrific hunters in the old days—Philip Percival, who was my mentor, and Alan Black, Pat Ayer, Dennis Finchhatten. They were all good. But game was much more plentiful. Several of the oldtimers tried it again after the war. They quit fast. They said this wasn't hunting, this was a rat race. Back then they had three-, four- and five-month safaris. Everything was leisurely. Find something, shoot it, lie around camp a couple of days. Today you have to get it in a very limited time. Keep the skinners busy. Keep everybody busy. Ulcers develop. You don't get kudu, you try for springbok. Keep crossing the animals off. If you had a breakdown or got stuck in the old days, there was no great panic. Just one of those things. Today a breakdown is a catastrophe. You're losing time."
Twice on our moves from camp to camp we ran into other K-D-S safaris. David Sandeburg had a single hunter, a South African with a beard. George Barrington's American client wore a fancy bullet-studded belt and was a very happy man. He had shot a good-size lion, a couple of zebras, a kudu, a sable, a waterbuck, he was going for elephant, and he fancied he had turned into a first-rate killer. He also made a point of mentioning that he had brought his girl friend on the trip instead of his wife.
"He'd better watch old George," Peter said as we sat in front of the campfire that night. "You know how white hunters are. George of the cool blue eyes and the smooth English charm is liable to move right in on old what's-his-name. What's that story they tell at Riley's? The rich American client's wife is on the steps of the plane for home when, seized by heartfelt regret, she turns and flees down the ramp and into the white hunter's arms."
"That happened," said Harry, grinning. "But there are always the other stories. Like the two partners there in Maun who got to drinking one night, then to arguing, then to a rather sloppy piece of push-and-shove fighting. The one hunter's wife intervened with a torch and delivered them both to the ground. That same wife administered the same knockout punch with the same flashlight one night when her husband staggered home and announced he'd turned the car over in a ditch near the house. 'It'll be jes fine soon's I get it into four-wheel drive,' he said. All four wheels were up in the air, spinning.
"You mustn't ever think we're infallible, us white hunters," said Harry. "And we miss the easy shots, too. Old Phil Percival tells how he went to get a wildebeest to put out for a lion kill. Phil walked out from the car and this wildebeest was sitting on the plain. Phil sits down on his haunches, really screws himself into the ground, takes careful aim and lets fly. Bang. The wildebeest looks at him. Nothing. Phil reloads. Bang. Nothing happens. Five times. His magazine's empty. He gets up and dusts himself off, and the client shouts from the car, 'Phil, c'mon, keep on. You've got him worried.' "