It was not without some trepidation that, in the summer of 1910, your humble correspondent, Col. Sterling Moustache (ret.) set out on safari into the hinterlands of southern Kenya.
Although our intentions were noble – manly sport, the honest & lawful acquisition of ivory, and the protection of the simple natives from dangerous brutes – our company was somewhat of a mixed bag.
My companion on the expedition was old ‘Peachy’ Keen, manager of the District Commissioner’s office in Randini. Peachy has become notorious locally for his readiness to regard anything that isn’t wearing a hat as ‘wildlife’, and a fair target. If you will address your attention to my chum Lawrence’s rather splendid photographs, you will see that Peachy is the fellow in the wideawake hat with the shabby weskit that makes him look like some sort of tradesman.
Our expedition manager was found under dubious circumstances in a dockside tavern. One Albert O’Balsam, late of county Fermanagh, who boasted of his years of experience organizing expeditions. You could actually see mosquitoes fall from the air as they entered the haze of gin fumes which surrounded him. (He’s the fellow going about in his shirtsleeves, wearing a pith helmet which looks decidedly ‘army issue, other ranks’.)
I myself am the chap in the bush hat with the rather rakish turned-up side brim – a feature which I found most effective at getting badly sunburned on one side of your face.
We had been led into the UmBongo river valley by our Bantu scout, who informed us that this minor tributary of the Gallana river was the territory of a large and active pride of lions.
Our safari came over the northern rim of the shallow valley just after sunrise, and stopped to take stock. The river flowed west-to-east, from right to left, as it were, with a significant bend around the base of a formidable hill which commanded the whole valley.
To the east, the far bank of the river was obscured by a large swath of the most dense and forbidding jungle. It was plainly very bad country indeed, and I did not give much for the chances of anyone attempting to cross it. I determined that we should look for a crossing place at the river as close as possible to the hill, in order to ascend and take advantage of the view from the top.
Our order of march was somewhat unconventional. Our two ‘Guns’, Peachy and myself, proceeded ahead, myself on the left & Peachy on the right, each of us accompanied by three Askaris, with our scout in between both groups, close enough to indicate targets to either.
The rest of the safari, however, was less well-organized. O’Balsam proved to have no command whatsoever of our thirteen native bearers, and relied on four armed Askaris to herd the poor fellows like sheep, in no particular order at all.
As we descended the valley’s gentle slope, our scout drew our attention to a brace of fine gazelles. Wind direction must have favoured us, because they showed no alarm at our approach. I allowed Peachy first shot, and he dropped his mark cleanly – the pelt only somewhat marred by his preference for excessive calibre! The remaining creature took off like a rocket, my own shot going nowhere near it.
Deciding to wait for the bearers to come up and collect the trophy, we were perturbed to find that they had stopped moving entirely and gone into a huddle, and O’Balsam & his Askaris were scampering about trying to chivvy them on. After some time he managed to restore a semblance of order and Peachy’s prize was secured.
Reaching the riverbank, we turned east in search of a crossing place, with Peachy & his Askaris in the lead, and soon reached some shoals which were as good as a natural ford. The moment the group set foot in the water, however, a scaly brute of a crocodile launched itself from the shallows and seized the hindmost man, a Zanzibari by the name of Mustafa. After a brief and confused scramble, Mustafa was dragged into the river, and all reservations about firing into the struggle had to be put aside. Shot after shot struck the beast, protected by its armour plating, before it finally expired. By this time its jaws had done their dreadful work and there was no hope for Mustafa. Sinister movement in the water made it clear that both bodies were beyond recovery, however.
Undaunted, we pressed on, Peachy and his group crossing the shoal and starting up the hill. I myself was in midstream with my Askaris, when, with a start, I realised that we were not alone! Not twenty yards away, on the bank we had just left, stood a group of fearsomely adorned savages armed with shield and spear! Whilst we were on the north bank, they had been hidden from us by the undergrowth and the curve of the river. Now they were to our rear, and in position to separate us from the bearers. There was nothing for it but to put a brave face on and introduce ourselves. Taking our scout to translate, I sauntered over to bid them good morning.
Things were pretty tense on both sides, when O’Balsam and his travelling circus reached the crossing place. Immediately, the bearers froze with fear, and when O’Balsam and his lads set about them, they broke and ran, dumping their packs on the bank and splashing through the shallows, straight for that daunting patch of thick jungle I had been so concerned about! I quickly detailed my Askaris to get the bearers back in order, and they, together with O’Balsam’s mob, soon had them shepherded back in column.
This comedy of errors broke the ice with our new neighbours, who turned out to be Masai, and splendid fellows they were. They bestowed upon me a Masai name, which means “He-Who-Can’t –Get-Good-Staff”, and told us that a notorious rogue lion, grown old and usurped from the pride by younger males, haunted the south-east fringes of the pride territory. The conversation had turned to the merits of ostrich-feather headdresses, when we were interrupted by shouts of alarm from across the river!
Peachy and his Askaris had reached the brow of the hill... and had been immediately confronted by a large group of Samburu tribesmen rushing towards them, waving their spears and yelling like banshees! Peachy and his Askaris opened fire at the natives, killing one outright and wounding another. They only had time for the one volley, however, before the natives reached them...
and continued running! Behind the natives, Peachy could now make out the cause of their panic: two lionesses the Samburu had surprised while hunting, now in hot pursuit of the unfortunate natives!
Behind Peachy, the fleeing Samburu came over the brow of the hill. Predictably, the bearers took off like rabbits, back across the river. Politely excusing myself to the Masai, (who prudently withdrew) I sent my Askaris after the bearers, as O’Balsam and his group had more urgent matters to attend to.
O’Balsam and his men made the same assumption Peachy had, and fired into the mob of Samburu, dropping two and wounding another. Finding themselves between the frying pan and the fire, the remaining Samburu split left and right, those on the left jumping down the sheer side of the hill into the reed beds, those on the right plunging into the jungle.
Meanwhile, back on the hilltop, Peachy and his Askaris turned their guns on the lionesses, managing only to graze them & infuriate them further. The beasts hurled themselves at two of the Askaris. One was immediately dragged down and fatally mauled, but the other managed to draw his bush knife and plunge it into the brute’s heart! By now, O’Balsam and myself were running toward the hilltop, and every gun was turned on the surviving lioness. But the fatal shot came from the same Askari who’d despatched the first beast!
The group reassembled on the hilltop to reorganize and to skin the lion carcasses. A great fuss was made of our doughty lion-slaying Askari, his comrades awarding him the titles ‘Simba’ & ‘Simbakuu’ for the single-handed slaying of first one, then two lions.
After a fortifying tot of brandy we surveyed the lands to the south of the river from the hilltop. I determined to go east - to our left - from the foot of the hill, exploring the region the Masai said the Rogue Male had been seen around.
With Peachy eagerly pressing on ahead, accompanied by Simbakuu & our scout, we moved out. At the foot of the slope, we spotted a group of four lions basking in the sun. Peachy wanted to “run down the hill and shoot one of those lions!” I reminded him that we were British sportsmen, and that the correct thing to do was to walk down the hill and shoot all of those lions.
The lions, though, had no such reservations, and rushed Peachy’s group! I took aim at one of the beasts and fired – much to my annoyance, so did O’Balsam’s Askaris, from the top of the hill! (I took the opportunity after the dust had settled to remind O’Balsam that the Askari’s were there to protect the safari, not to blaze away at every target and spoil the gentlemen’s chances of getting a trophy!)
Our bullets told, though: two lions fell dead – one to Simbakuu’s rifle - and one was wounded before they reached our chaps. One beast leapt at Peachy, while the other, already wounded, had foolishly chosen Simbakuu as its prey. My Askaris and I joined the fight, and I managed to brain Simbakuu’s beast with the brass butt plate of my Westley Richards .450. We had the most dreadful struggle to wrestle the remaining lion off Peachy, and when it finally succumbed, the poor chap was in rags.
I enquired whether there was a traditional name for one who slayed three lions single-handedly. It turned out that there was: ‘The Long-Awaited One Who Will Drive the White Devils into the Sea’. Awkward moment, really. We decided to stick with Simbakuu.
With the day drawing to a close, we used the last of the afternoon to scout thickets and patches of rough ground further to the south-east. We started a handsome pair of gazelles, and invited O’Balsam to try a shot, as his chaps seemed to have everything under control for once. Using a double-barrelled 10-bore, he blew his delicate target to smithereens in a hail of buckshot. I myself pulled the trigger on a dud round! Thankful that I had heard the ‘Dead Man’s Click’ while facing nothing more threatening than a Gazelle, I reloaded.
At that moment, O’Balsam was once again required to go and bully the bearers, who had begun to inch back up the trail while he was otherwise engaged. Realising that we would have to make camp soon anyway, Peachy and I decided to beat one last thicket before calling it a day.
Approaching a dense patch of bush, we were faced by a huge, scarred, grizzled visage – it could be none other than the Rogue lion! We threw our guns to our shoulders and fired – Peachy missed altogether, while I made my only really good shot of the day, and dropped the brute stone dead.
As we sat around the campfire, we reflected on a fine day’s sport, at the cost of only two dead Askaris. (Mustafa and that other fellow.) We had established friendly relations with the Masai, and shown the Samburu that it ain’t sensible to go running about and shouting native jibber-jabber at heavily-armed Englishmen. Pax Britannica, what? But... what if we hadn’t decided to try that last patch of bush, and had made camp within spitting distance of the old man-eater? What if we’d come across him before the gazelles, & me with a dud round in the breech? Well, that’s what makes it sporting, I suppose. And so to bed, lulled to golden slumbers by the sound of O’Balsam drunkenly cursing the bearers.
Pictures by Lawrence (Mahotsukai)
Commentary by Phil Hope (Norman D Landings)