The Company of Adventurers – An Armchair Safari with John Boyes


The self-proclaimed King of the Wa Kikuyu operated in one of the wildest and least explored parts of Africa. Today, Africa is no longer dark – mainly because men like Boyes undertook adventures that were almost incredible, especially to those of us reading his stories. Boyes is a man who Rider Haggard considered more thrilling to read about in real life than many fictional heroes.  Boyes was a man who “longed for an active life and the spice of adventure that waits the traveller (sic) in savage lands.” His book is one of the most enjoyable of all African big game hunting classics. It details the life of an elephant hunter.

My men, who had deserted up country returned and I was able to set off once again, returning to my old hunting ground. As a result of the rains, the country seemed to have changed to an enormous extent. The grass everywhere had grown to a tremendous height, some being at least 18 feet high, and so thick that it was almost impossible to penetrate in places. With all the rivers being in flood, we had an awful time getting across them. The elevation here is between four and five thousand feet above sea level and the cold at nights was often very trying.

There were no traces of elephant spoor, so it was evident they had all cleared out of that district. Certainly a number had been shot besides those I had killed, for other hunters had been among them. This doubtless had been part of the reason for driving them away. I trekked on until the caravan came into the country of natives with whom two other hunters had trouble. Their villages were empty. Eventually I found them and also found that by giving them some cloth and other presents we could work on friendly terms.

Previously I had not cared about making friends with natives, but now I wanted them to bring me news of any elephants which might be about. The presents obviously made them well disposed for they at once told me there were elephants on the other side of the river. Indeed when we reached the river we found a number of elephants on the further bank. As the river was in flood it was difficult to get across by wading. Actually it was difficult also in the dry season, but now that the water was coming down like a torrent, the enterprise was impossible unless one could get a boat. Failing that, I set to work to make a raft, but when I had it finished, it would not float as the wood was too heavy.

Map of author’s hunting areas

Being determined to get across, I took my camp bedstead, fixed the ground sheet from my tent so that it came up all around and, when tied up, made a sort of trough. Thus I constructed a rough boat. I then chopped up a few empty boxes which were around and made some cross pieces to strengthen my novel craft. Then I made a couple of paddles. As soon as it was completed, this primitive contrivance, with two men paddling, was launched and managed to float us across. The river was 50 yards at this point. The experiment was only partially successful for my when men tried to return, the current carried them downstream. Nevertheless, I managed to get a few loads across using a cloth rope. By the time we got the men and rifles and a few other things across, it was too late to do anything other than give up for the night.

The next day I was told that by going a good distance upstream I could get across via a bridge. The bridge was where they claimed but it was not one that a nervous person would care to cross: it was made by two trees, one on each bank, connected with a sort of swing bridge with creepers tied together. It was a shaky arrangement but we got everything over except for the mule which had to cross by swimming. About an hour after crossing we came upon elephant, which were feeding down in a hollow where the grass was not quite so tall. There were 10 in the herd and I succeeded in getting a couple of bulls.

After our camp was pitched news came in about more elephant so I went after them. But they got our wind and bolted. We followed them into grass so tall that I had to sit on my gun bearer’s shoulders and could only see the top of an elephant above the grass. In this manner we got near to one large bull and he fell into the grass after my first shot. We thought he had been killed and waited for five minutes but he stood up again and began to walk straight towards us. As he came much closer I fired four or five shots into his head but I was weak from fever and it took me more time than usual to raise the heavy rifle to my shoulder. The shots, however, did not stop the bull and it still came on.  Because of the high grass I had a hard time seeing him. Moreover, the grass hid the other elephants which must have been aware of the wounded bull’s movements.

A few good tusks. The gun bearer standing behind was later killed by an elephant

I was trying to decide whether or not to slip down from my gun bearer’s shoulders and get out of its way, when it settled the matter by dropping dead within three yards of where we were standing.  This made three elephants for the day’s bag.

In country frequented by elephant, by far the best paths and tracks are those made by the great creatures themselves. Many of the main roads and thoroughfares of Africa were originally started by elephant in the days when they were much more widespread than they are now (or will ever be again). The elephant may be given credit for pioneering many a practical route from one district to another and supplying a means of communication for pedestrians through otherwise impenetrable bush and forest. The elephant has all the instincts of a trained road engineer. He never takes a bad gradient if there is an alternative, nor does he construct paths that run into swamps. Elephant traffic on their recognized tracks along the steeper slopes of hills tramples down the soil so it soon resembled a leveled bank cutting. To do this they evidently walk along the upper side of the track until a flat practicable road has been beaten out by their ponderous feet. These rights of way are soon made use of by other animals and finally by man. First there is native foot traffic, then caravan routes, then wagon transport and finally in many cases the railway runs parallel to the elephant track.

The following day news of more elephant was brought in so I went to have a look at them. There were four bulls, one being very large. Again I could not get near him as the grass was over 20 feet high. When I climbed one of the small trees, of which there were a few about, I could still not see the animals, although I could hear them walking about below. Eventually I came close enough to the bull to try a couple of shots. He fell once but when I reached the place where he fell, he was up and running, going very fast. He crossed a large river and was lost entirely. In country which was well cultivated the elephants often raided the shambas or garden and it was a common trick of theirs, when hunted, to hide in the long grass which had grown up next to the fallow land.

Two elephants shot with a right and a left

The next morning there came news of three bulls. Again by sitting on my gun bearer’s shoulders I managed to get close enough to get a good view but after my first bad shot they bolted. As they rushed along, they broke down a path like an alley through the long grass, but it was much too thick on both sides for me to force my way through and get close to one side of them.

So we continued on the path for some hours, going very slowly when we learned, from the crackling of the grass ahead, that we were close to them.  At this point, some of the men turned and bolted in a panic. The elephants evidently heard their noise and turned around to face us. Of course we were not able to see them turn. But we could tell by the sounds in the grass that they had done so. As soon as the boys bolted I put out my hand to the gun bearer for him to hand me my rifle, but the nearest elephant was already charging down on us, and must have been much nearer than we thought. In fact, he could not have been more than five yards away when we stopped. The gun bearer was just in the act of handing me my rifle when the elephant broke out of the long grass, right on to us. Before I could get a proper hold of the rifle, the bull had smashed it down on the ground, breaking the stock (though I did not find this out until afterwards). Naturally, when the bull banged it on the ground in that violent fashion, the gun went off, fortunately without hitting anyone. I took a header into the long grass and actually touched the elephant’s legs as it passed me.

Getting entangled in the grass, which was closely entwined with creepers of various sorts, it was some minutes before I could free myself again, and by the time I was on my feet, the elephant had disappeared. I shouted to the men, and when they came up everyone was laughing at the way in which we dropped our things in a hurry to give the elephant a clear path. I lost my hat and the boys’ loads were scattered all over the place. We set to work to pick things up, and while doing so came across the broken gun.

But our laughter was suddenly changed to horror when we came across the body of my unfortunate gun bearer. The elephant had evidently knelt on him and thrust one tusk through his body which was almost driven into the ground by the fearful weight of the elephant. I had no idea that he had been injured. I thought he had managed to slip away into the long grass and expected him to turn up any minute. We buried the remains of the unfortunate follower and did no more hunting that day or the next.

The next evening I was told that elephants were not far from the camp but in very bad country. As on the previous day, it would only be possible to see them standing on another man’s back. Meanwhile quite a crowd of natives collected and asked to become guides. They gestured as if pointing at animals and urged me to go into the bamboo-like grass and kill them. I explained that a man had been killed in that grass the day before, and that while it was easy enough to see the great bulls from an elevation, as soon as one went into the vegetation, I lost sight of him and it would be impossible to shoot. I went on to say that if the elephants should happen to come close to where we were standing, it would be an easy matter to take a trophy.

Two record tusks from the Lado Enclave

To my surprise the natives offered to drive the elephants to me. This they proceeded to do, by circling around to the back of some of the groups, making noises and throwing stones. In this manner they drove the elephants up to the foot of the kopje where we were standing. As they walked past, only about 20 yards away, I managed to collect six bulls, one after the other.

After such an excellent piece of luck our spirits promptly revived, for adverse fortune, even death itself, does not weigh long on the minds of men engaged in adventurous work. So, forgetting our previous troubles, we were ready for anything the next day. All the country in which we were hunting was fertile and healthy, with native settlements and cultivated land here and there and an area of 10-15 thousand acres of wild land adjoining, in which elephants roamed and lived. Population was scarce as many people had been killed by tribal war.

Eventually I decided to leave this district and go wandering in search of fresh elephant country over which no man had hitherto shot. A guide offered to take me to a place about five days’ march where no man had ever been and no elephant had ever been fired at.  I had no map of the country – at this time in fact no maps of this sort existed. It was guesswork and wandering, guided by the sun, with the knowledge that I could never really get lost because somewhere to the east, provided one marched long enough, was the mighty river Nile.–Selected and edited by Ellen Enzler-Herring of Trophy Room Books

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