A Rhino Interrupts a Lion Hunt – An Armchair Safari with John McCutcheon

As chief cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, John McCutcheon provides not only insight but a sense of humor to the description of his African hunt – by the way, sometimes hunting with Carl Akeley and meeting Theodore Roosevelt. His only big game hunting book, In Africa Adventures in Big Game Hunting Country, is one to be cherished. It is dedicated to “those adventurous souls who resent the restraint of the beaten path” and prefer to go “where the roar of the lion and crack of the rifle are part of everyday life and where in a few months you can store up enough memories to last a lifetime.” This he did on his very first lion hunt.

As I planned to look in the photograph of “My First Lion.”

Like everyone who goes to Africa with a gun and a return ticket, I had two absorbing ambitions. One was to kill a lion and the other was to live to tell about it. I wanted to climb out of the middle class and join those who are entitled to remark, “Once when I was in Africa shooting lions,” etc. As we steamed down the Nile I noted that among the passengers the cripple who had been mauled by a lion was as distinguished as the ivory hunter who had killed a hundred elephants. In the cemetery were many headstones marked “Killed by Lion.”

Thus I started on my three-to-five-week trip in the Tana River country. This was not the best lion country but we would begin to perfect our (my) shooting. All the lion stories I had heard paraded back and forth through my memory. Night came on and during our first three days marching we looked everywhere for lions. If vultures circled a spot, we went to have a look, hoping to surprise a lion at his kill. Every area was explored. On the third day a local brought news of a lion (lion’s roar) coming from a high solitary plateau rising from the Athi Plains (in the same spot as a Mr. Lucas was killed by a lion shortly before our arrival).

So began our lion drive, quite a ceremony. You take 30-40 porters, go to the place where the lion was heard and then beat every bit of cover trying to scare the lion out. We started at daybreak and by 7 a.m. had climbed up the side of the mountain to where the lions were supposed to be lurking – a long, reed-filled cleft in the side of the slope. Twenty porters went to each end while we went below to where the lions should be driven out by all the noise. The porters threw stones and shouted while we waited with rifles ready for the angry male to dash in our vicinity. I wondered and waited; meanwhile the lion failed to appear.

One morning’s bag

Meanwhile lots of other game appeared, including a rhino startled in his morning nap. But the lions failed to participate in this program so we marched back to camp. We avoided getting mixed up with another rhino and arrived back with hunger at an advanced stage. The next day we headed to a different area where there seemed to be rhino everywhere. For a time I almost forgot about the lions. We camped at a beautiful spot on the river. The place looked like a park. Hippos even played in the river. Plenty of game here, just no lions. It looked discouraging. Carl Akeley was at camp and I went with him as he got very close to several rhinos (the film was excellent).

The result of this getting so close to rhinos was that one day we were forced to kill one on license. At the shot, he staggered and fell over, but then got up and trotted off. Having wounded him, I had to follow up, which I did for three blazing hot hours. The horizon shimmered with waves of heat. From the top of the hill I could see “my” rhino half a mile away on the slope of another hill. When I reached that slope he was a mile further on. I began to think he was a mirage. For a wounded animal with two .500-grain shells in his shoulder, he was a most astonishing example of vitality. As there were trees further on, I plodded doggedly on, in hopes of getting a little relief from the sun. As I drew near there was a rhino standing under the trees but it was not the wounded one. There would not be room for both of us so I swiftly moved on.

I went across the valley again and standing on the slope of another blistering hot hill was the rhino I was looking for, but he didn’t seem to be in the mood of one about to die. In fact, he seemed vexed about something, probably the two cordite shells he was carrying. I approached to within 100 yards. He was facing me and got my wind. His tail was erect, an infallible barometer of his state of mind. With his short sight, I knew he could not see me at that distance but he had detected the direction in which danger lay. By moving ahead slowly, I managed to cut the distance to 70 yards, which was not too far away in open country with a wounded rhino in the foreground. I resolved to shoot before he charged or ran away and prepared to end the long chase with an unerring shot.

Suddenly a sound struck my ear like an electric shock: “SIMBA!” It was the one word I had been hoping to hear ever since leaving Nairobi, the Swahili word of lion. My gun bearer was eagerly pointing at a lone tree 100 yards off and to the left. A huge, hulking animal was slowly moving away from it. This was my first glimpse of a wild lion. He was half concealed in the tall dry grass and in a few seconds he has entirely disappeared from view. Forgetting the rhino (he could charge or run away at will), we rushed after the lion. But when we reached the area where he was last spotted there was no sign.

We followed the course he presumably took and reached the crest of yet one more ridge. The second gun bearer spotted the lion 300 yards off to the right. But immediately the lion went off in hopes of reaching better cover in the dry creek bed some distance away. There was no chance to fire. For an hour we thrashed in the dry creek bed with no sign of the King of Beasts. I thought he might have gone to another group of low hills – but the men disagreed. So there was nothing left but to resume our chase for the wounded rhino.

Mr. Stephenson’s lion

After a tough hour’s march, we spotted the rhino in the middle of a rolling prairie. There was no cover and no escape route if he charged and no way to get close enough for a good shot. Horticulture never interested me, but at that moment I would have been glad for a tree to study. To make a long story short, neither of my shots connected. Yet the rhino wheeled round and ran off. At this point my legs were killing me and my knees were sore from wading through tall prairie grass. The rhino, obviously not badly wounded, got the best of us. We searched and searched but never found him.

The dry creek bed from our earlier in the day lion hunt lay in the direction of our homeward march and we decided to take a final look. I walked into the creek bed with no expectation, and one gun bearer was on either side. The stillness of death hung over the burning plain. There was not a sign of life in any direction. The second gun bearer suggested setting fire to the grass in hopes of awakening some protest from the lion in case he was still in the vicinity. There was a dry cracking of flames and before we could count to 10, a growl came from somewhere in front of me, evidently on one side of the creek bed. The second gun bearer was the first to locate him and signaled for me to come to his side of the creek. I dashed to the other side and was soon gazing at a clump of bushes indicated by the native.

At first I saw nothing. Then I saw the tawny flanks and lashing tail of the lion, his head hidden by the bushes. He was 100 yards away and we had to circle to a point from which the rest of his body could be seen. This meant having to cross a small side ravine and come down through a clump of bushes. The grass was high and it was not until I came to within 40 yards that I could get a clear view. He was glaring at me, his tail waving angrily, and his mouth opened in a savage snarl. I could see that he didn’t like me. I raised the .256 Mannlicher, aimed carefully at his open mouth and fired. The lion turned in a back somersault and a great thrill of exultation suffused me. We approached cautiously, always remembering that the real danger in lion hunting comes after the lion had been shot. We threw stones in the grass but no answering growl came. We thought he was dead.

But when we reached the spot where he had been, the lion was gone again. I searched the ravine and crossed the high grass to the other side. Then, we saw, for an instant, his body, half concealed and almost in front of us. He head was hanging. He looked as if he had been hard hit. Yet again he disappeared and we searched even more. No result. So again we set fire to the grass and another angry growl came in protest. Walking slowly, with guns ready to use, we advanced until we could see him under a tree 70 yards away on my side of the ravine. He was growling angrily. This time I used the double barreled cordite rifle. The first shot struck in the forehead without knocking him down. He sprang up but the second shot stretched him out. He was still barely alive when I came up to him and fired a small bullet into the base of his brain to reduce the danger of a final charge.

We waited a few feet away until the last quiver of his sides passed. One of the boys pulled his tail, but there was no sign of life. A new danger threatened. Fanned by a strong wind, the grass fire that the second gun bearer started was sweeping the prairie. We might have to abandon the lion. We went to work beating out the nearest flames and hoped at a shifting wind would soon send them in another direction. It was 4 p.m. We were nine miles from camp. At 6 p.m. darkness would descend, leaving us in rhino infested country, far from camp and with our water nearly gone. The general outlook was far from pleasant.

“A very interesting experience,” said I coolly, a couple of days later

The gun bearers skinned the lion. My first shot was not a good one and my second one bounced off his skull. The third shot was the kill and the small bullet was insurance. I gave one of the men my camera for a photo and he took a good shot of the tree! Then began the homeward march. Two rhinos blocked our path. We managed to continue but at 6 p.m. we were still several miles from camp, with the countryside in total darkness. The water was gone and only one shell remained for the big rifles. Ahead were miles of scrub in which there might be rhino or buffalo. By 7 p.m. we were hopelessly lost in a sea of hippo grass and we had to fire a shot in hopes of getting an answer from camp. In a couple of moments we heard the return shot and pressed on. The lion had been carried on ahead (while we had been involved with the rhinos) so the news reached camp before us. A long line of porters came to greet us and a reception committee was waiting at camp. It was the first lion of the expedition and as such was cause of great celebration.

It had been a hard day: Fourteen hours without food, several hours without water, and miles of hard tramping through scrub and in darkness and of long, broiling stretches in the blazing sunlight. It seemed a good price to pay even for a lion, but that night, as I finally stretched out on my cot I was conscious of a glow of pleasure that swept over me. In the coming weeks I would successfully hunt lion again. But right then it seemed that of all human gratifications there was none equal to that experienced by the man who has killed his first lion.–Selected and Edited by Ellen Enzler-Herring of Trophy Room Books

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