Editor’s note: On Friday we like to dig into the Safari Club International archives and dust off a classic from past issues. Hunting has become very popular with women and as this story will prove, hunting has always had a certain appeal for many women. This time we go back to 1994 and the memories of Bernece Gray for a first hand account of the first all women African Safari taken in 1954. This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 1994 issue of Safari Magazine.
January 12, 1954: In the company of 13 other women, I was on a trip through Africa that included a 15-day hunting safari in Kenya’s Rift Valley. None of us could be called a girl, though! I was 48 and the others ranged in age from their early 30s to late 50s.
We had seen herds of zebra, wildebeest, hartebeest and other game animals that January day but they all turned tail and ran as soon as they heard the sound of our lorries -or perhaps it was when they got a glimpse of this gang of females.
We spotted a herd of Grant’s gazelle and approached cautiously. A magnificent ram stood like a statue in front of our lorry. Earlier in the day, one of our gals had tried to hit another animal and missed. Now, it was my turn to shoot.
“Why don’t you try this one, Bernece,” Bunny wondered out loud. Frank “Bunny” Allen was one of our professional hunters. Shooting from a lorry was strictly forbidden so I jumped out, rifle in hand, and ran some distance away. Allen was right behind me, whispering instructions.
I was nervous and excited but I took careful aim, squeezed the trigger and saw the beautiful Grant’s gazelle go down.
The other five women on my lorry started shouting in glee. “Good shot, Bernece!” “You got him, Annie Oakley!” ~ Everyone was pleased for me.
Well, almost everyone. Beverly Putnam, our leader, was quite disappointed. She was a secretary for Scandinavian Airlines and had put the whole trip together, and she had wanted desperately to make the first kill She had practiced for months at a rifle range in New York to sharpen her marksmanship. She did bag a hartebeest the very next day.
But I had made the first kill of the hunt and when we returned to camp that day, the media were waiting for us. There were reporters and photographers from the Associated Press, the United Press and numerous world papers -as well as radio people.
There was enormous interest in our hunt, in part because the media -and most male hunters-were sure we were going to shoot our feet off. In fact, anything about this skirt safari got worldwide attention, but I got the most ink because of that first kill.
Photographers took pictures of me with my rifle and reporters barraged me with questions. They were astonished when I admitted that my only previous hunting experience had been shooting a deer from a blind. That first kill wasn’t the most impressive of my safari-I later took a Cape buffalo, two zebras and several other game animals before the hunt was over -but with all of the attention, it definitely was memorable.
I first heard about the all-girl safari just after I had sold my half of an Indianapolis restaurant -the Keys Gourmet Club- to my sister in 1954. I was at loose ends.
My only hunting experience had consisted of that one time in Michigan when I had bagged a deer from a blind, where it could have been brought down with a pea shooter. Possessed of this dubious experience, I was somehow certain I was ready for big game hunting!
The trip was set up by Putnam, who wanted to do something different on her vacation. In exchange for setting up the trip, she went along for free. The rest of us paid $2,500 apiece for the entire 30-day trip, including 15 days on safari. Most of us spent another $1,000 for incidentals. A few women hadn’t anticipated those extra costs and had to borrow money from the rest of us. We were warned that this safari would not be for cream puffs and would not consist entirely of embassy parties and spinning roulette wheels at casinos. It would be, we were assured, a never-to-be-forgotten, honest-to-goodness big game hunting adventure.
We left Idlewild Airport (known today as John F. Kennedy International) in New York on January 5, 1954, with rifles, cameras, typewriters and medication after a series of parties and get-acquainted sessions.
Our safari was headed by two famous professional hunters, Frank “Bunny” Allen and the late Stan Lawrence Brown. Allen was the man who had guided the movie expedition that filmed Mogambo, starring Clark Gable and Ava Gardner, and Brown had guided the crew that filmed King Solomon’s Mines. In addition to the two pro hunters and us gals, there would also be about 40 gun bearers, drivers, servants and cooks.
Our group was promised all the comforts of home -providing one’s “home” had hot and cold running buffalo, one of the many species of beasts we were going to track down. Our camp would consist of double-fly sleeping tents, complete with canvas bath tubs and screened verandas.
We arrived in Nairobi after all the usual stops including Khartoum in the Sudan. We were met by the professional hunters and an entourage of newspeople, complete with camera crews to photograph the skirt safari.
The next day we were off to our camp in lorries, clumsy seven-seated heavy trucks. Camp was about 70 miles from Arusha,and almost 275 miles from Nairobi. The road was bad. It was like driving over rocks and our knees kept bouncing up to our chins. Sitting down the next day was really a task.
Our camp was set up on a stream around a waterfall named Mto-wa-mbu -the river of mosquitoes-but we weren’t bothered with any of those famous African pests, or ticks or tsetse flies while there. It was there we met a beautiful lady, Murielle Allen (Mrs. Bunny Allen), who was our chef de cuisine. She and a lot of native chefs cooked on open grills. We could see that all the tents were in readiness, plus a cocktail lounge area for this group of huntresses.
Later, our menus would always include the results of our kill. Fresh fish was in abundance and there were vegetables galore. The camp also boasted a generator and refrigerator so we had plenty of ice for beverages. Once out of camp, however, we forgot there ever was a thing called ice and learned to drink our martinis hot!
On the second day of the hunt, “Peaches” Guerrero from Honolulu wanted a zebra and soon got her chance when we came upon a mixed herd of zebra and wildebeest She crawled as close as possible to the herd with Stan Brown right behind her whispering instructions. She downed a beautiful trophy. Zebras were skinned immediately and the rifle bearers went right to work. I watched for awhile but it made me a bit squeamish.
It was a miserable rainy day when I was next scheduled to shoot. It was pouring so hard that we had to put the side curtains on the truck. We were driving slowly over the plains when we spotted a great herd of wildebeest, a few zebra scattered among them. Stan Brown was my PH that day and was anxious for one of the hunting gals to bag something before returning to camp. He yelled at me, “Bernece, get it gear! Grab a gun, and jump down from the lorry.” I took one big leap and landed on my backside right in the biggest m puddle. I managed to hold up my rifle pushed myself up and headed for the herd. I spied an old boy who seem to lagging a bit, took aim and shot. The herd split so it was hard to tell if I had hit the laggard. We followed the stampede in our lorry. “It’s that one -no, it’s the one in · middle!” Everyone was yelling at once.
I wasn’t sure which it was, But after a bit I thought I spotted the right one, jumped off the lorry and ran through the mud. I found it again and took aim. One blast and it was down.
I am not sure, but I believe this animal was the grandpa of the herd. It had 30-inch horns and one of the hunters said he thought I had the world’s record for women at the time. What’s a little mud if you can fell a beautiful trophy like that, even if the wildebeest is no doubt the ugliest animal you could find.
Evening camp was always so much fun -cocktails, music (those Honolulu gals brought along their ukuleles) and singing, and sometimes visitors from other camps, many of them handsome hunters from all over the world. Later in the evening we could hear · beating of drums and at times the Masai came to camp and serenaded us.
The next day was glorious – sunny and mild with very little breeze. It would be a good day for catching a herd unawares. We girls were “ready for bear.”
The first to shoot took aim at a beautiful impala and missed. This brought up the lady everyone called Annie Oakley, me.
We spotted a herd of buffalo in the distance and headed for it. We had seen several herds of buffalo on the plains but we had never been close enough to try for one before.
The boys drove the lorry as close as possible to the herd. The buffalo pawed the ground and took off in a cloud of dust for a dry river bed.
Bunny Allen was telling me about the rifle I would shoot if I got a turn. I had been using a .30-06. This was a .470. It was heavy but I was sure I could manage it.
The herd were still in the river bed and no longer paying any attention to us. Tobbai, Bunny Allen and I jumped out of the lorry and crept toward the herd on our knees.
Bunny whispered, “Bernece, this is it. You are about to get a great trophy. Shoot!”
Just then the herd bolted again through the river bed and up over a hill on the other side. A lone buffalo stopped in the bushes atop the hill.
“Shoot, Bernece,” Bunny said again, “right now.” I took aim, fired and hit. The buffalo ran into a clump of bushes, with its back to me. I got off a second shot and hit it again. Then the 1,500-pound animal turned around and started our way. Tobbai motioned for us to take cover. He said something in Swahili that I didn’t under-stand but the fear in his voice was perfectly clear. A buffalo is very vicious when wounded. The buffalo ran a few more yards toward us and fell to the ground.Then everyone got out of the lorry for picture-taking of my prize.
We were bumping along the plains one day when we saw two oryx. It was my time to shoot again and Bunny and I got out of the lorry to try and move closer by foot. The oryx moved off and that, it turned out, was a lucky break for us. When we got back in the lorry and started driving toward the oryx, Tagei, one of our riflebearers, said in Swahili, “Simba, simba, simba!” That’s lion! Not 50 yards away, the big cat stopped and sat down facing us, paws out like an ordinary house cat. I suppose it thought we didn’t see it.
We saw so many African animal species -giraffe, monkeys, birds, including the ostrich, and rhinoceros. The rhinos had short little legs but they could run, all the time kicking up such a cloud of dust that
we never got a good look at them or got even close.
I was first up to shoot the day we came across a herd of 40-50 impala and various other smaller antelope feeding around a group of bushes and trees. The impala is a striking animal with gorgeous horns -graceful, capable of extraordinary jumps and will run at the drop of a hat. They are so skittish at the slightest sound that we crept up on them very silently. Stan Brown, my PH that day, mentioned for one of the gunbearers to hand me a rifle. He and I jumped out of the lorry and started crawling toward the herd behind a screen of bushes. I sat up to get a better hold on my rifle, aimed at a large buck and squeezed the trigger. It went down with one shot and I was quite proud. The horns measured 281/2 inches. The natives took care of the carcass and we had barbecued impala for lunch that day.
My previous experience had been so limited, so I’m not sure why I did so well on that safari. Perhaps I unconsciously hypnotized the animals, perhaps their feet got stuck in the mud or they were too old to run fast! If I could have taken just one animal, I would have wanted a zebra. I got my chance early one morning when we spotted a mixed herd of zebra and wildebeest. “Bernece,” Stan Brown said to me, “let’s try for one of those big boys.” A gunbearer handed me a .30-06 and Brown and I crouched along behind some bushes. I picked out a big one, took aim and squeezed the trigger. I was stunned when it went down. The rest of the gunbearers got out of the lorry and I suddenly remembered the way I had felt when I saw them skin the first zebra our group had shot. But this one was mine and I had to think only of how beautiful it was. The skinners were artists at their work. They carefully removed the hide and salted it down to preserve it until it could be sent to a taxidermist.
As we left camp for the last time on the last day the other girls suggested that my tentmate and I ride in the last lorry. We were delighted -we had experienced just about enough girl-chatter. As
the sun rose higher and the dust got worse, we started to smell a weird odor that kept getting stronger. Suddenly, Dee blurted out, “what the heck! We’re riding with the animal hides!” The odor was indescribable. When we stopped for lunch, our friends were howling at having put one over on us. We told them that someone else would have to ride with the hides or we would walk in front of the trucks at two miles-per-hour all the way back to Nairobi. All together, our group took 23 trophies and -not a one of us shot herself in the foot. How about that, all you macho male hunters? I took seven trophies: Grant’s and Thompson gazelles, Cape buffalo, wilde-beest, impala and two zebras. After all these years, the zebra skins still are in good condition. The buffalo and wildebeest are in a children’s museum, the impala and gazelles are mounted in my home where I can see them every day and remember the most exciting trip of my life.— Bernece G. Gray