As I am sure you know I am a great lover of African history. So, I thought I would hand over the reins to a real hero of a time gone by. Sam Wagner was in Kenya in the 1950s and saw what I can only dream of. He managed to go to places and do things that just are not possible these days. I am truly envious of his early life and the adventures he got up to. So, I asked Sam to put together a guest piece for you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Africa – A refrain
By Sam Wagner
John Wayne’s rhino capture mega-hit “Hitari” was a wrap, Mau Mau terrorist Dedan Kimathi was flushed out of the lturi forest, and Kenya was vibrant and alive. Nairobi, a Masai word for cold, was the world capitol for big game hunting and there was no lack of tourists, money, guns, and excitement.
It was very British East Africa where royal visits turned out The King’s African Rifles. Major Evelyn Temple-Boreham, a tall and imposing figure and Senior Warden for Narak, ruled the hunting blocks in the Masai Mara (some of them as large as 400 square miles) with a tight but fair hand.
The late 1950s were a truly grand time and the hunting was fantastic. After only two years there I had to leave it all to begin studies at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. However, the memories do live on, the colors stay vivid, and the sounds most reflective.
“The lion is a gentleman; the leopard is not.” (Or so the saying goes.) The leopard can hide in plain sight, laying in a slight depression. He comes from nowhere with no warning, fastening fangs and claws while wind-milling rear claws to eviscerate the intended.
The lion, depending on who is telling the stories, offers challenges that most other wild animals cannot deliver. The lion lets you know when he is coming. His snarl and vertically extended tail are all the warning you can expect and all you probably need. He comes from almost nowhere—a tiny bush or clump of grass—and when he’s coming you are never really ready.
It defies description that anything that is all teeth, fangs, muscle, and claws can move that fast, especially when wounded. The king of the beasts is truly remarkable. He has earned high respect, and he demands fair chase if you really want to get up close and personal. When they turn man-eaters (and it happens), they are incredibly dangerous. The Tsavo lions were only a pair, hunting together. Sometimes check out one or more of the prides in Tanzania that are lesser-known but caused incredible harm. Lions hunt as a pride and work together. It is most rare for any of the others with fang and claws to cooperate, plan, and ambush as these do. It is not always at night.
Lions are truly magnificent animals. Listen to their booming at night and the ventriloquist nature of their calls as they search for food. The Africans say the lion’s incantation is, “Whose land is this…whose land is this…MINE…Mine…Mine.” It is a strange, eerie, and yet comforting sound—especially around a small wood fire with a cup of coffee in hand. It is a feeling of just knowing that all’s right in this world and some things are normal in an age of supersonic flight, nuclear weapons, flu shots, and political correctness.
I have hunted lions in the wild, not on someone’s farm. No fences. I spent a great deal of time figuring things out in the fall of 1956 through the spring of 1958. I have tracked lions for miles only to lose their spore in the rocks and lava of Mt. Longonot. They were guilty of being lions and eating beef. They were killing cattle belonging to the owner of the East Africa Standard newspaper that had an 80,000-acre farm in the Great Rift Valley near the extinct volcano that Africans called Suswa. The lions didn’t know about the ownership, couldn’t have cared less, and there were only brush piled bomas to help the herd boys guard the cattle at night. No fences anywhere. It was no feat at all for them to jump the boma, kill several hundred pounds of beef, grip the throat, toss it over a shoulder, and jump back and out. But it came with a price.
There was plenty of game on that 80,000-acre farm—wildebeest and Kongoni and zebra in particular. There was also Thompson’s gazelle, Grant’s gazelle, and impala. But cattle were so much easier. The only problem was that the cattle were numbered and valued so it became open season on these cattle-killers that sometimes migrated to man-eaters when the herd boys somehow got in the way.
Once they are hunted lions become wary, cover their tracks, and tend to range distances that seem way too far. The closest I came to these was around 30 feet. I fell asleep sitting over a zebra that had been left in the sun for a couple of days and then opened up. The odor was magnificent, acting as a dinner bell. When the lion came in to the scent, even before taking a bite of the feast, he checked out a strange shape under a bush less than 100 feet away. He actually walked to within 30 feet of the strange shape before smelling human or hearing a snore, and then took off running, his paws hitting the ground hard enough to sound somewhat like a horse in a dead run. He was never coming back.
The first exposure I had to lions came the first night out into an area near Selengai. Southeast of Nairobi near Amboseli. We had set up a camp near a dry bed with a good deal of sand, easy to spore animals. Doc Propst, a missionary doctor who was leading the small group, had downed a zebra and brought it in close to the campsite. That night two lions, a young female, and a mature female smelled the free meal and came in to feed. So did a pack of hyenas and as the two separate but nearly equal groups contended for fresh zebra, there were plenty of growls, howls, frustrated maniacal laughing, and heavy grunts, along with the sounds of chasing and fleeing feet. All this frenzy was sometimes less than 10 feet from the other side of the thin canvas wall separating the action from the shaking army cot. It seemed to go on for hours and I was never so scared in my life.
The next day, all was explained by the more experienced to the newbies. And after that the trauma level dropped significantly. The heart still pounded, and the hair stood on end, but the experience became a rare treat, each moment to be savored. The night sounds of Africa are fantastic once you learn to listen for those things that identify what is happening. The sounds put it together and the imagination has a feast. It is truly gratifying.
Later, I did take a lion in one of the large hunting blocks under Major Temple-Boreham’s control. The animal had been killing cattle and threatening the herd boys and the logical conclusion was that the lion would maul or kill one of the young Masai. The lion was one of two that were causing trouble and it was a clear indication of the Major’s attention to his charges that he knew of them both and had determined that one was worse than the other.
This one happened to have a light mane—the other with a dark mane. Contrary to popular opinion, the color of the mane does not necessarily indicate the age of the lion. A dark mane does not indicate the wearer is older. It only indicates that he is dark-haired.
This lion was the last taken. I left for the university and heard that only two weeks after I had left, Major Temple-Boreham called Kijabe where I had been staying and asked if I might come down and take the lion with the dark mane. Lions were special game protected by a special license. Of course, the Major knew that if I were involved, I would need to buy a license. And his rangers would not have to destroy a valuable animal. Economics 101, I suppose.
I’ve always regretted not being there when the Major called.
Sam B. Wagner is the President, owner, and founder of Video I-D Teleproductions, Inc. Mr. Wagner has been professionally involved with film, video and television for more than 50 years. He has worked as a newsman, anchoring news and talk programs/ In 1965 he served as a war correspondent with the Marines in combat in Vietnam. He has taught at the university level, served as a consultant for full power broadcast television stations, including startups, conducted international workshops, written for publication, and judged for intemational competition.
If anyone else has a story to tell about Africa, then please get in touch I would love to showcase it here in my blog.
Many thanks to Sam for his historical record of a time gone by. Of course, now all hunting is banned in Kenya. In fact, Major Temple-Boreham was responsible for creating the World-renowned Masai Mara game reserve.
Bye for now,