PH Terry Irwin’s autographed, 5.25-lb, 400-page ‘yellow monster,’ published by Safari Press in 1998, had been sitting on the reading table since I’d hauled it back from South Africa a year earlier.
Too heavy and brimming with photos I wouldn’t want spoiled during a road trip, this was a perfect read-in-bed book, whether in the sleepless hours before dawn with coffee or as the last act of the day.
I was swept quickly into the story that began in South Africa in 1942, when Irwin was five years old listening to his mother’s larger-than-life older brother, Bertwyn, telling tales of hunting ivory and rhino horn. Soon, ‘Uppie’ showed the young Irwin how to set traps and smear birdlime on twigs to trap birds for the live bird trade, then later how to prepare specimens for museums, skinning and sexing them and recording required details.
Shooting was compulsory in school in those days, and Irwin was on the team. Nevertheless, when sent out alone on his first venison hunt, with a single-loading .22 target rifle with an under-lever Martini-Henry action and two rounds of ammunition, he killed one of his Uncle Steve’s prize turkeys, mistaking it for a huge guineafowl.
When Irwin was 14 and Uppie was posted to the agricultural department in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, Irwin travelled to Mahalapye (where a live band still greeted arriving trains), to go on safari, his childhood air gun replaced by an 8x60 Mauser and a .30-06 Springfield. Uppie refined Irwin’s shooting, counselling him to forget about telescopic sights, which “are against the whole principle of marksmanship. You have to feel the balance of your gun and point the barrel.” Luckily for the eager young hunter, problem leopard and lion in the Kalahari Desert - where the stands of camel thorn and umbrella trees surprised him - were reported to Uppie. It was a real safari, with folding chairs and table, a campfire and plenty of tea. Irwin shot impala, stalked and shot a large bull out of a stampeding herd of wildebeest, and killed both lion and leopard.
Like all hunters, Irwin’s origins have their own unique African twist: His Irish father was an auditor for the Colonial Civil Service who married Irwin’s mother in Dar es Salaam. She followed him on postings to the Gold Coast – better known as ‘White Man’s Grave.’ Ironically, he did not die there, but of blackwater fever in East Africa in 1940, when Irwin was three. His mother returned to her family, now living in South Africa. (Irwin’s father-in-law came out to Tanganyika after WWII on the British scheme to grow groundnuts in the colonies.)
Although surrounded by numerous highly athletic relatives, books by J.A. Hunter and John ‘Pondoro’ Taylor had the greater influence on Irwin, who would become an ivory and crocodile hunter, game trapper (including vervet monkeys for medical research and supplying museum and university collections around the world with bird specimens), animal-control ranger, and professional hunter. But like all hunters, there was no clear path to making a living in the bush. So he followed a school chum to Tanganyika as a diamond prospector for the Anglo-American Corporation, which gave him the time and opportunity to hunt everything on licence there, including elephant.
Between his prospecting and his game-ranger years, Irwin walked more of Tanzania than most white men. He started by covering a large section of today’s Serengeti National Park, with its herds of Thompson and Grant’s gazelles, buffalo, wildebeest, topi and zebra. “I soon understood how Africans could walk all over the country, through lion-infested areas.” He hunted his first buffalo with a borrowed .404 Jeffery accompanied by an ‘Ndorobo kiongozi (local guide) who carried arrows treated with a tar-like poison traded with the Wakamba, a Kenyan tribe that had settled in Masailand.
With porters carrying 60-lb loads (later changed by law to 45 lbs until portering was banned all together after independence), Irwin walked the length of Lake Nyasa, the Ruvuma River, and the wild Njombe District in Southern Province, where he shot his first sable. Along the way, he met a grumpy old man who’d known his father. Saying he had no further use for it, the man gave Irwin his .318 Westley Richards and 100 rounds of Westley Richards ammo: “Some were still in their lead boxes, which was a special tropical packing. They were old cordite loads, both soft-nosed and solids, with nickel bullets of 250 grains.”
Later, Irwin changed to a .375 H&H, then a .458 Westley Richards. As it was “ballistically similar to the old favourite .470 it was immediately accepted by African hunters.” Irwin, who always carried his own gun, was never was a ‘double man.’ “They’re too heavy for me and are missing that lifesaving emergency third shot.” Any problems Irwin had in the field with magazine rifles disappeared, he says, when he bought a Mannlicher-Schoenauer with a revolving magazine. On shooting, he counsels hunters: “If all your concentration is on holding your aim after the shot, you are less likely to anticipate the recoil and spoil your aim.”
He soon met Brian Nicholson, who had come to Tanganyika to work as a game ranger in the Southern Province under C. J. P. Ionides, whom Irwin also eventually met. He serves the memories of both men well in his descriptions of them, recounting bush tales that might otherwise have disappeared.
Soon Irwin was working as a game ranger under Nicholson, controlling buffalo, man-eating lions, and killing hundreds of elephants (up to 42 in one day) from Mt. Meru to Tabora, the Itigi Thicket, the Mahenge Range, Doma-Mikumi, the Rufiji District – not to mention the Selous Game Reserve, where there was no infrastructure, no human settlement, no tourism.
Training African game scouts only increased the amount of danger in his life: He was responsible for following up on the wounded animals that resulted from the trainees’ lack of understanding of how bullets actually function and on their persistent disregard for using sights. Witnessing the game department’s post-independence lack of discipline, and corruption, he writes: “Gone were neatly uniformed staff and crisp salutes.”
Irwin weaves interesting descriptions of African life into his stories – their dress, beliefs, food taboos, and how in the tribal family where everything is shared. If one person possesses much more than the others, his wealth is perceived as resulting from greed. Irwin also notes that in Africa: “There’s no concept of a one-man job,” and every job – cook, driver, game scout – requires a second man, so that responsibility – and blame – can be shared.
At one point, he developed amoebic hepatitis, the second stage of amoebic dysentery when the parasites enter one’s liver and form cysts. He then contracted a polio-like virus. During the year it took to recover, he met his future wife, Anne. Their first date? A problem elephant hunt.
In 1964 Irwin resigned from the increasingly corrupt Game Division to become a white hunter. Until the clients came though, he made a semi-legal living procuring hunting licences in his and his friends’ names and selling the ivory he took with his .458 Mannlicher-Schoenauer. He hunted from the Ruaha River to southern Masailand while still helping the Game Department with problem animals.
Irwin is a specialist on elephant, and makes his reader one, even on elephant dentistry. Regularly bagging animals with 70- to 80-lb tusks, he learned the differences between the elephant in the Selous and those in Masailand. In the latter the animals, especially kudu, are closely associated with salt, unlike in the Selous. He observed that some areas had mostly left-sided single-tuskers, and others right-sided ones, and that tuskless budis are often larger than their tusked relatives and often led the herd.
When hunting elephant, because very old bulls don’t mix with cows, Irwin would first seek out cowherds in order to disregard them, while looking for fresh tracks at salt licks and watering holes used only by bulls. (For Irwin, near-term pregnant cows are the most dangerous of pachyderms.)
When it comes to shooting elephant: “An elephant hit in the brain always collapses hindquarters first. If it went down nose first after a shot in the head, it would more than likely get up again.” Irwin, who visualizes an animal’s vital organ rather than a place on the skin, warns hunters not to rely on the ‘nonexistent stopping power’ of a larger calibre rifle rather than on a well-placed shot.
His advice on bagging an old tusker? “Hunt an area where the elephants have had time to grow old.”
Life as a PH was not much easier - he once used the skin of a hartebeest’s shin as a radiator hose. Irwin wryly compares the dangers of problem-animal control with hunting clients.
After independence, Tanzania’s socialist government wanted to monopolize, then nationalize, the hunting industry through Arusha-based Tanzania Wildlife Safaris. Yet somehow, after working under Ker & Downey, Irwin got permission to be the only independent safari operator in the country at that time and formed Kiburuzo Safaris, eventually bringing PHs Gerard Ambrose and Timos and Luke Samaras on board.
These were the days when a 30-day safari in the Selous for one married couple yielded four lions, three leopards, six elephants including a 100-pounder, eight buffalo, a rhino, not to mention sable, kudu and hippo for bait. Nicolas Franco of Spain was the first client to hunt Lake Utunge in the Selous, and French elephant-hunter Marc Pechenart, who wrote the introduction to Irwin’s autobiography, paid for restoring F.C. Selous’s neglected grave in the eponymous game reserve.
Then in 1973, with clients in the field, hunting in Tanzania was suddenly banned. PHs shut down their safari camps and laid off their crews. Irwin gives an excellent account of those days when the Game Division poached not only meat, but devastated the elephant population by ‘controlling’ any elephant that showed ivory. Even the vice-president’s brother, the first African game warden, was caught selling ivory. “All the work that men like Ionides, Nicholson, and Rees had put into making the Selous one of the greatest elephant sanctuaries in Africa was destroyed within a few years.” Too soon, elephant hunting in the Selous was over; the big tuskers were gone.
Like many PHs, Irwin set up house in Nairobi with his wife and three daughters and hunted Kenya, thinking it would last. He turned then to Sudan and Ethiopia, each with its own unique headaches and rewards, which Irwin describes at length.
Finally, 30 years after leaving South Africa, after hunting was just as suddenly closed in Kenya, it was time to return and set up a new kind of safari life. “I would not change much if I had to repeat it,” wrote PH Terry Irwin in 1998, looking back on one of Africa’s greatest hunting lives.
Memoirs of an African Hunter by PH Terry Irwin is available from Safari Press for US$70.