Thursday, 19 April 2012

Book Review: Karamojo Safari by WDM Bell

I first learned about Bell through shooting the .275 Rigby, the tweaked Mauser Rifle he's synonymous with. Rigby bought the workings from Mauser in Germany, smoothed away the tool marks, added his own stylish woodwork, the best barrels available and money no object gunsmithing to set them up. By using a different system of measurement the military (and continental) 7x57[mm] Mauser became the (British) .275 Rigby sporting rifle. A name forever linked to WDM Bell.

Written some years after the fact Karamojo Safari is Bell's second book, widely held to be the best of the Elephant hunting genre, and a glimpse into the Africa of a hundred or so years ago.  This adventuring is a risky business: day in day out, for years on the trot. In a world before antibiotics; where every few seasons whole african nations would be swept by disease, where lurgy carrying bugs patrol the air, land and water, inter-tribal wars flare up, slavers prey on the smaller settlements, brigands kill whole trading caravans, and any number of mishaps can befall a gentleman on a shooting trip. Life has the potential to be full of vigour, and equally the potential to be short. Very short.

Having started young Bell is only in his early twenties when he sets out to make his fortune as an ivory hunter. He'd had already tried his hand at being a professional meat hunter in the Klondike and Lion culler during the expansion of the railways across Uganda where the Government had offered a reward for every lion killed within a mile on either side of the railway. Boyhood dreams of adventure not yet sated, and a young mans dreams of hard cash drew him to try his hand providing ivory for the london trade. Risking all during sixteen and a half years of long safari's off the edge of the map, in the very last days of Africa before the Europeans.

In Africa, in the old days, in what's now known as Kenya and Uganda on the map and Karamoja on the ground, there was ivory, basically just lying around all over the place. It was gathered and traded. Elephants were always killed by the locals for food, hides, ivory and to protect crops. Usually with snares, pit-falls, and falling spear traps, just not in very large numbers. Elephants live a long time before they die of natural causes so with the growing trade route to europe supply of found ivory was outstripped by demand and the price started to rise.

Intermediate technology:
Muzzle loading rifles struggled to generate the stopping power or accuracy required to ensure a clean kill. Unless of course the shooter was almost at spitting distance, and made an 'engine room' shot to the heart and lungs. The trouble with an engine room shot at very close range is it leaves the nervous system intact with the animal still animated for a few very long seconds. Pretty much the only thing more dangerous than an Elephant at close quarters, is a mortally wounded Elephant at close quarters. With such a prospect for loss of life Elephant hunting was more organised than opportunistic. A potentate or king could dispatch troops to hunt Elephant for him, but a village was unlikely to often risk its workforce on such a venture however much food, crop damage, and trade were at stake.

The Nitro Revolution:
Bell is famous for using the .275 Rigby, but the way Bell tells it his adventure was made possible by the evolution of ammunition, both the .303 British and the .275 Rigby he used for Elephants were the latest kit, gone were the days of having to hunt with blackpowder rifles that fired 0.1lb to 0.5lb [!] bullets pushed (slowly) by gunpowder. Bell was shooting at the dawn of the modern Nitrocellulose ammunition with its much higher velocities, and much tougher bullets that can penetrate thick skulls and mud-encrusted hide. With these quieter, lighter, more powerful and more reliable rifles Bell could hunt with less equipment, and not being disorientated by the blast could take quicker follow on shots at second and third animals who were merely puzzled by the crack of its report rather than panicked at the boom of the big bore rifles.

Placement, Placement, Projectile:
For Elephant hunting Bell favoured a solid bullet that wouldn't break up, so he could shoot elephants through the brain leading to instant death. Shooting an elephant through the brain is not as easy as it sounds, the skull is basically a large armoured box for a brain the size of a loaf of bread, so there are a limited number of angles from which the shot can be taken. Most of the time you'd have to be well within 50 yards and sometimes within 50 feet. Both distances an Elephant can cross, faster than you can run, while its still at a jog. Most important that the animals fell where they stood. The story is usually told that Bell used Rigby's proprietary 140gr rounds, or the lower velocity Steel jacketed military ammunition, in 'Wanderings' [his first book] he mentions using Copper Solids of 200grains. About half the weight of bullet that would be fired from an 'express rifle' or dangerous game gun

Local Knowledge:
Hunting in territory well outside the influence of the colonial powers Bell had to be diplomat, trader, and ace negotiator.  Where he could he acted as pest controller - adding to his reputation as a benevolent passer-by, culling elephants that were eating and trampling a settlements crops. In wilder places he set out to gain the consent of the local head man favouring the tactic of walking, preferably unarmed, into the village and asking permission of the headman to hunt his lands. By not acting as though he owed the place he set himself apart from the colonial powers and became an accepted part of the landscape. Word that "Red Man" was in the area with his little rifle that dropped big animals would go before him, his well known offer of cattle for whomever found him Elephants meant the local lads were always keen to help him out. In tribal societies the ownership of cattle was everything. For the local lads this would have been a literally life changing deal, one that would mean they could afford to marry, and have a wife/slave of their own. With a wife to grow stuff, weave baskets and mats, brew beer, and preserve foods the low born male would have a source of income, and the potential to be able to afford a second wife/slave. Helping Bell was literally a way to get on the ladder. Bell took the Ivory and the locals got the meat. Tons of it, Bell was a popular fellow.

Karamojo Safari is quite the tale, but I'm very glad I read The Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter first. Karamojo Safari would have benefited from the guiding hand of an editor, that said its a fascinating tale in 279 pages, just I couldn't help but feel that it would have been a really riveting tale in 179 pages.

Instead of the tribal intrigues and anthropological musings of Wanderings he takes us to the moment of the shot so many times that, this reader at least, became inured to it. As the book entered the home straight I found myself thinking 'If he climbs up on to the body of the first Elephant to shoot the second one more time I'll jump into the path of the bullet to spare myself the tedium.' . The days he describes are long gone, and his style of adventure will never be seen again, so Karamojo Safari is what it is. A fascinating if flawed tale from the last days of pre-colonial Africa.

If you like hunting and adventure stories you'll not be disappointed, personally I wouldn't bother with the massively over priced facsimile edition when for a few bucks more you can get an old edition that'll keep (and possibly gain) value, and has that awesome old book smell.

Stay Tuned for my reviews of Bell Of Africa and some of Bell's journalism

For the Locavore Hunter's excellent review of Karamojo Safari click HERE

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Photo credit Ann Kovek