The year was 1948 and my future looked somewhat bleak. I had just returned from a short safari with Philip Percival and African Guides, the company with which I had started my hunting career. I had been extremely fortunate to become associated with Percival and many of the old-timers around him in 1945, which gave me an excellent ethical grounding and my first big break. But now Philip was gracefully withdrawing from the safari business, and J.F. Manley, who owned African Guides, was not aggressively attracting new clients.
Unexpectedly, I got a call from Jack Block, managing director of Block Hotels and CEO of Ker & Downey Safaris, enquiring as to whether I would be available for a 30-day safari commencing immediately. Two American clients had booked a month with one professional hunter, but upon arrival decided their chances of a good bag would be enhanced if each had his own hunter and car.
I jumped at the opportunity. The hunter assigned to the safari was Tony Henley, and it would be his first solo safari after serving an apprenticeship with Syd Downey. Our two middle-aged clients were easygoing and Tony and I got along well during the safari, which went without a hitch.
We returned to Nairobi with each client having bagged a very good selection of trophies. They were also positive in regards to Tony and myself, and highly recommended us both to the company management. Consequently, Jack Block offered me a permanent position as one of the K&D hunters. The company also offered to purchase a new International hunting car for me. I would repay the outlay as I earned money on future safaris, a couple of which were already confirmed-one with Syd Downey and another with Donald Ker. This was my second big break, and I was walking on air.
I would have to wait a couple of weeks for the custom wooden safari body to be built on the hunting car, and Tony had some time to kill before his next trip. So we decided to go off on a "recce," the cost of which we planned to defray with the proceeds from the sale of the ivory we hoped to collect. We decided on Kenya's Northern Frontier District (NFD), as the best ivory came from that region. I already knew the NFD fairly well, but Tony had not been there and was anxious to see it.
We assembled very basic camp equipment-a couple of folding stretchers, bedrolls, a few cooking utensils, plates, knives and forks and a "chop box" containing canned food, tea, coffee, sugar and sundries.
We planned to take along two gunbearers and a cook who would also look after things whilst we hunted. Food also needed to be carried for our men, and we would rely on shooting guinea fowl and antelope for meat. We would also need to carry a drum each of fuel and water. We'd hunt in an isolated and arid area, which could prove unforgiving if we ran short of either one of these essentials. All these items and equipment were carefully loaded into Tony's Chevrolet hunting car.
Our armory was as follows: Tony took his double .470 of a make I do not remember, and also a double blackpowder hammer gun in .577 caliber, belonging to his father-we'd have some fun with that one; I took my neat, short-barreled Krupp .470, a sweet little Jeffery in .318 Westley Richards (WR) caliber and my Brno .22.
We traveled via Nanyuki, my home town situated on the shoulder of Mount Kenya, then dropped down several thousand feet into the arid and hot NFD, camping the first night beside the small Isiolo River well after dark.
Early next morning we headed for an area where my cousin Ken Randall and I previously had success collecting a bull elephant carrying tusks in excess of 130 pounds each. We passed through the little village of Garba Tulla and eventually reached our destination at the huge sand river (lugga) known to the Boran tribe who inhabited the area as Bisanade (White Water). At intervals along this lugga, water rises nearer to the surface, and at these spots elephants dig holes in the sand using their tusks, feet and trunks to expose the precious fluid. The local nomadic Boran tribesmen cleared out the sand and deepened the pits each morning in order to haul up water in wooden vessels, pouring it into long wooden troughs for their livestock. It was at such places we hoped to find the tracks of large bull elephants having slaked their thirst during the night.
We were pleased to note that no vehicle tracks were visible, which meant no one had hunted there for some months. This and the news that bull elephants frequented the wells about a mile off was confirmed by some locals with a camel carrying water gourds who happened by as we prepared our small camp. Our chances looked good!
When we awoke at dawn next morning what should greet us within a few yards of our camp but large piles of fresh elephant droppings. They were no longer warm, indicating they'd been deposited sometime during the night. A small group of bulls had passed without any of us hearing a sound! It appeared they were headed in the direction of the wells, so we immediately set out to investigate, wanting to check the wells before the locals arrived with their livestock.
The elephants had used the wells to slake their thirst and then wandered off across the lugga into the dense palm thicket that bordered it. Two of the tracks were large, so we took up the trail immediately, hoping to catch up with them before they set out for their distant feeding grounds. This hope was quickly dashed, as the tracks showed no sign of the bulls stopping to feed or loiter-it seemed we'd have a long hard day ahead of us. They had obviously got scent of our camp as they passed during the night and were not in a mind to hang about.
After about four hours of tracking in the broiling sun we heard the rumble of elephants in the distance and realized we were about to come upon the group. However, they had settled down to spend the heat of the day in a particularly thick patch of palm, and we could not get a look at them. Eventually we were able to creep right up to the drowsing group by squeezing our way through the palm fronds, getting painfully scratched by the hook-like thorns whilst doing so.
We could see the tusks of only three of them-elephant bodies obscured the fourth-so we waited. After a while there was a movement and my heart missed a beat as I caught the flash of a long, thick tusk. However, we could not see whether he had a tusk on the other side, so again we waited uncomfortably close to the group. I watched the slowly moving trunk tip of the nearest one and wondered if its owner had stretched it out, could it have reached us.
Finally they all moved positions a little and we could see the other tusk was only a short stump. What a letdown, as the long tusk was certainly in the hundred-pound class. We crept out of there without them knowing we'd been so close and began that long haul back after a disappointing stalk. The distance going back always seems much farther than it does whilst tracking out with visions of a huge tusker ahead.
The next day was a washout. We picked up the tracks of two bulls at the wells and came upon the owners about four hours later, only to find they had insignificant tusks. And on the way back we were chased up some rocks by an old rhino cow with a calf that did not like the look of us. We arrived back in camp tired and thirsty, only to find a small group of Boran who pleaded with us to take one of them who'd been mauled on his rear by a lion to Garba Tulla for treatment.
We were very sorry for the injured man and did what we could to help him, but taking him to Garba Tulla was most inconvenient as it meant a 60-mile drive over an almost nonexistent track during the night. They offered us a sheep, of which they had hundreds, in return for the assistance. But what really got our attention was they said they'd show us where a group of bulls was drinking-and one had very big tusks. That settled it. We took the injured man to Garba Tulla, arriving back in camp in the early hours of the next morning.
Just after sunrise our Boran visitors of the previous evening were back with the promised sheep. We told them we did not want to take their sheep from them, but if they could, as promised, show us an elephant with big tusks we'd reward them generously with shillings. They replied that truly there was a group of bulls drinking at some wells a very long way down the lugga, and one had very long tusks. However, as it was far, it was impossible to go there and return in one day. Furthermore, the country was so rocky away from the lugga that it would be impossible for the vehicle to go much farther.
I then suggested that the two men who would guide us should provide a camel, which could carry some basic supplies such as food and water; we would live rough for a couple of days if necessary. They demurred about the camel, saying they did not own one. Knowing this was rubbish, I sweetened the deal by offering them a 1-pound packet of tea. That did it-they found a camel in a hurry. We arranged to pack our small camp into Tony's car and leave it in the charge of the headman at a nearby cluster of makeshift huts covered with palm matting and surrounded by a thorn fence to keep the livestock in-and the lions out. We did, however, take all the rifles with us, as guns would have been too tempting for these wild nomads to take.