They may be small, but at least they’re my own.
To be first is everything. To be second, nothing. In the dog-eat-dog world of Victorian exploration, Captain Burton’s words are harshly accurate. With the notable exception of Scott of the Antarctic (in which case fewer remember who got there first), no one remembers who got there second.
Would that a raft of modern writers had taken Burton’s words to heart and stayed home. Instead, a whole new genre of book writing has sprung up, graced with the delightfully dismissive label of “loiterature.” It consists of going where someone famous went before, writing about it breathlessly and (by inference) deriving some reflected glow.
This practice has churned out such a frenzy of new volumes that the Financial Times, for one, has begun reviewing them in clutches, a half-dozen at a time. Writers tumble their thoughts out one after another as they follow de Tocqueville through America, Leonard Woolf through Ceylon or Cyrus the Younger through Asia Minor. Robert Louis Stevenson is a particular favorite. So many writer-admirers have traipsed his path through the Cévennes in France that the locals now have “rent-a-donkey” services.
Ironically, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton is himself a favorite subject of the writer-followers. So is Ernest Hemingway, and I am braced to hear that someone has decided to reenact the 1908 safari of Theodore Roosevelt—sans blood and gunsmoke, of course—financed by a grant from some foundation or other.
Mercifully, no one has (yet!) set out to tread the trails of the great elephant hunters, such as W. D. M. Bell, possibly because hunting is so politically incorrect but more likely because it would lead far from the touristy areas of Africa and into such seriously unfriendly territories as Uganda’s Karamoja and the southern Sudan.
“Loiterature” aside, more than a few hunters have set out to at least match, if not outdo, famous hunters who went before.
At a Safari Club convention some years ago, where I was signing copies of a book I had written about Robert Ruark in Africa, a large and imposing gentleman looked over a copy, tossed it back onto the table and said, “Ruark was nothing but a drunk. I’ve been more places and shot more animals than he ever did.”
Had he been present, Ruark might have echoed Churchill’s famous retort and said “And you, sir, are a jerk. But in the morning I shall be sober.” The man strode off, and to this day I have no idea who he was. He may well have been everywhere Ruark was and shot more animals, but Ruark was there first and did it first, and that made all the difference.
Ernest Hemingway warrants a word or two here, because what is puzzling isn’t that anyone has attempted to trace his footsteps in Africa but that so few have. In almost every aspect of his life, Hemingway’s influence has essentially ruined those things he immortalized.
Take Pamplona, for example, and the running of the bulls at the fiesta de San Fermin. The July festival in what used to be a remote town in the Basque Pyrenees is now Spain’s largest tourist attraction, drawing 20,000 visitors. Pamplona has become a property of the tourists and is unrecognizable from Hemingway’s day.
And big-game fishing. The demanding contest of Hemingway and Kip Farrington is now one more item on a man’s “been-there” list, and boats are chartered from any resort with ocean frontage. In hunting, though, it hasn’t been that way. Green Hills of Africa certainly inspired Robert Ruark—and he said so—but it inspired him to go to Africa with his own professional hunter on his own safari—to discover himself, not to rediscover Hemingway’s hills. And he came back to write his own book, Horn of the Hunter, which in its own way became as great a work as Hills 20 years before.
When a writer did set out to shadow Hemingway, it was a non-hunter who did it. The object wasn’t to relive the hunting but to find some acceptably bloodless explanation for a Nobel laureate in literature actually hunting, shooting and killing a warm-blooded creature.
No hunter needed to do that because no hunter needed the answer. We already knew.
Hunting is all about travel. Some travel to hunt; others hunt to give purpose to travel. But every hunting trip is an expedition. From a kid setting out with a .22 to hunt woodchucks, carefully filling his canteen and checking his belt knife, to an elephant hunter with a .500 double and a Masai tracker, the pursuit of animals takes the hunter deep into unknown territory— sometimes geographic, often physical, but always metaphysical.
It’s the blood that does it. Blood is disturbingly real. Amateur matadors can race panting through the back alleys of Pamplona and complete novices can charter a boat, and whether they hook a marlin or get hooked by a Miura, it is likely to be a quick brush with reality—a glancing blow, not a long, drawn-out confrontation with mortality.
Of course anyone can book a safari to hunt Cape buffalo, but I know of no professional hunter who would go after buffalo with a client he knew had no experience whatever. The odd time they do go out with such a client (a prince, for example, or the son of a wealthy Arab), the hunt is carefully choreographed to ensure that (a) the client survives and has something to talk about, and (b) the PH survives and will never talk about it.
All the way back to the Stone Age, hunting has been about pushing further and coming back to tell the story. Telling the Story was the first literature of any kind, not just hunting literature, and while tales are retold and become legends as generations repeat them, the emphasis has always been upon telling your own story. And to do that, you need a story to tell.
So Roosevelt read Selous and followed his example, but he wrote his own book. And Hemingway read that, and went to his own Africa and climbed his own green hills, and Ruark likewise. Always there was a link, and sometimes it was quite direct: Hemingway hunted with Philip Percival; Ruark’s PH, Harry Selby, apprenticed with Percival. But it would have been considered frightfully infra dig to actually try to reenact Hemingway’s experience.
The discovery of one’s self takes different forms, but one of the most fascinating is discovering which animals seize your imagination and force you to hunt them. Hemingway went to Africa intending to confront dangerous animals, but in the end he was captivated by the greater kudu and built an entire novel around them. Hemingway’s greater kudu, with its horns “the color of walnut meats,” became a metaphor.
On his first safari, Robert Ruark was taken prisoner by Cape buffalo. Later he also became an elephant hunter. But of all the animals he pursued, none caught and held his attention like the leopard. Probably no one in modern times has killed more leopards than Ruark did, all hunted and taken in the old, ethical way, and his one brush with death at the hands (or in this case, teeth and claws) of a wild animal was with a leopard.
Read all you want about Africa and its animals, but you will never know which one is yours until you are on the ground, hunting them. That, more than anything, is the discovery that comes with hunting: which beast is yours. The greater kudu, forcing you to push your aching feet over sharp rocks in the sun for a prize that is never there; the elephant, too magnificent to match no matter how many you kill; the Cape buffalo, nobility in a mud-wallow; leopard, with its cat’s disdain. And you, presuming to hunt them.
Like the hunting tale as literature, this pursuit goes all the way back to prehistory, when a man would adopt an animal as his totem, hunt them all his life, try to emulate them and, when not hunting them, draw them on cave walls and sing of them around the fire. In all of life there is no more personal or meaningful journey than this one, even if it involves nothing more than a walk out your back door with a .22 and a belt knife.
Compared with this journey of discovery, following in the footsteps of another man, no matter how much one might admire him or his writing (and why are they always other writers?), seems trivial to the point of absurdity. And why would anyone do that, and spend the time and the money, when you could go hunting instead? And maybe discover something about yourself you never suspected— that you never dared to hope?
Spanish Best is one of several books by Terry Wieland. You can find it and other titles by him at Amazon.com.