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Old Lion in a New Land
John Underwood
February 12, 1968
Kenya's most famous white hunter, Harry Selby, has emigrated to Botswana. On safari there he explains the move, takes stock of his future and watches an SI writer shoot the tail off an impala
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February 12, 1968

Old Lion In A New Land

Kenya's most famous white hunter, Harry Selby, has emigrated to Botswana. On safari there he explains the move, takes stock of his future and watches an SI writer shoot the tail off an impala

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The watering hole at the edge of the swamp at Maun is called Riley's Hotel. It is one story tall and sprawls—but not far—under a corrugated iron roof. There is a fence around it to keep animals out, and the bleached skull of an old bull elephant lies in the gray sand beside the gate like a sentry. White hunters used to come in there on Saturday night and order a beer and shoot a hole in the ceiling, but in these more sophisticated times Riley's now knows some refinement. Moving pictures of fairly recent import are shown on Friday nights, and on Sunday the Methodist bishop sets up an altar and conducts services. But Saturday night remains reasonably unchallenged. The suspicion is that more beer per capita is consumed on a Saturday night at Riley's than anyplace in the world, and the white hunters in from the bush sit around and tell stories of climbing in and out of the tents of clients' wives, and stories that are closer—well, somewhat closer—to the truth. Viz.: Lionel Palmer was charged by three lions simultaneously. Calm as a judge, he gauged the distance and foot speed of each lion and shot them in scientific sequence, leading off with the fastest, and when he worked the bolt and pulled the trigger on No. 3 the barrel was down the beast's throat.

One Saturday night not long ago two young hunters named Daryl Dandridge and Dougie Wright got caught up in a hunters' debate on the terrors of the swamp—the Okavango Swamps in northern Botswana consist of 6,500 square miles of crocodiles, hyenas, lions, buffalo and tsetse flies—and, accepting a dare (no cash involved), set out straight away to tackle the 150-mile crossing from Maun to Shakawe with nothing more than the knives on their belts. They emerged six days later on the other side of the swamp, stone sober.

We had not come to Maun to find Riley's, of course. Riley's was a bonus. We had come to Maun to find Harry Selby, to hunt with him in a land most Americans have never heard of. Those who have would be hard put to lay a finger to it on a map. Harry Selby has been called the best of the great white hunters, and he may be the last in that classic sense, because the white-hunter business is not what it used to be. Raised on a farm in Kenya, Harry Selby shot his first antelope at 8, his first elephant at 14. He could speak Swahili in three dialects by early adolescence. He fought Mau Mau (between safaris) as a young white hunter and was panegyrized in books by Robert Ruark. Though still a young man, now 43, Selby had presumably migrated some 1,400 miles southwest to Botswana to shoot out his years keeping black-maned lions off the necks of his clients. Ruark had written in a column that Selby was thrown out of Kenya when the country gained independence and the Mau Mau faction sought reprisals against former enemies. Ruark was himself persona non grata in Kenya because of his book Uhuru. In any case, Selby had come to Botswana and set up a depot for Ker, Downey & Selby Safaris in Maun and had, in fact, nursed the white-hunter business there to a marginal prosperity. In light of the fading eminence of Kenya as the center of hunting in Africa, Botswana was virgin territory, rich in game—a bright prospect.

The porter at Riley's came for us at 6:30 a.m., came without knocking into the room, with just a gentle "good morning, morena, good morn-ning," bringing cups of steaming black liquid that could, if taken hastily, cauterize the throat—tea for Peter Hawthorne and coffee for me. It is a fine old African custom to be aroused before dawn with something to scald you into action. Peter Hawthorne, the arranger of our safari, had met Selby in Nairobi after the Mau Mau uprising. Hawthorne works out of Johannesburg, South Africa as a correspondent for an incongruous assortment of periodicals, a job that has caused him to develop the writing style of a chameleon.

We had made it up from Johannesburg to Maun by two-engine chartered plane the afternoon before, flying the 500 miles directly over the burning Kalahari Desert, the heat rising up to shake the small plane. The Kalahari is two-thirds of Botswana. It is a vast sandy scrubland, ugly as a bed sore. It is where the tiny crinkled yellow-brown aborigines known as Bushmen have made their last stand against encroaching civilization, speaking in the clucking tongue of turkeys, eating lizards, hunting with bows and arrows and enduring the probing of fascinated anthropologists. The Kalahari is so remote that single-engine aircraft coming from the south are required to take the milk route around, following the railroad tracks, checking in at Francistown on the fertile eastern edge of Botswana, and then on to Maun.

Botswana was called Bechuanaland, a protectorate of Great Britain, until granted independence in late 1966. It is now a republic, ruled by a black president, Sir Seretse Khama, with his white English-born wife, a former London secretary named Ruth Williams. The blacks call her Queen Ruth. Botswana is roughly the size of Kenya, but it is landlocked and its population is less than 600,000—about 2� people per square mile. No more than 4,000 are white. The economy is red. In a continuing effort to improve it, Seretse Khama walks a diplomatic tightrope between white South Africa to the south, Rhodesia to the east and black Africa to the north. He seems to get along with them all, an extraordinary contortion on a confused and confusing continent. He is, in the bargain, a devout anti-Communist.

We did not really have to risk the Kalahari, Peter said. We could have chartered in from Salisbury in Rhodesia, or down from Livingstone in Zambia, to rendezvous with Harry at Victoria Falls, where that largest of the world's great cataracts tumbles out of the Zambezi River. "Or for some real adventure we could have come up from Francis-town on the new road which was built with a Yankee-dollar loan. It is a dirt road, like they all are. Yellow dust. There's one petrol pump the 320 miles of it, but you can make it through the Makarikari Salt Pans and the mo-pane trees now with nary a flat, and that's a very nice improvement. The old road was the worst I have ever seen. It could take 18 hours or three weeks, depending on conditions. I might have been able to show you the difference between a wildebeest and a camel-thorn tree en route, or maybe we would have stumbled onto some terrorists with Chinese guns on their way south."

Harry had met us when we put down at the flat grassy strip that serves as the Maun airport on the previous afternoon, checked us into Riley's, then returned later to take us home for dinner. There was immediate rapport. The presence of Harry rather than the appearance is reassuring. He is not tall, no more than 5'10", though his legs are thick and his hands and forearms ample. His handsome smile comes quickly, from a mouth turned down at the sides. He has the sloping, soulful eyes of a spaniel, and they miss nothing. He is capable of great charm, cultivated by many evenings at campfires explaining why Mr. Elephant is really king of beasts and Mr. Lion just a rogue. He rises to a discussion in fine style.

Selby's English has an East African-colonial polish, as opposed to the more slack-tongued South African or Australian. He is unfailingly courteous, and, as with most unfailingly courteous people, he is at times inscrutable. To illustrate. If I missed a shot I should have made—which was to happen in the days ahead—he would say, "Oh, bad luck," or, "just a hair too high." There is at least one white hunter in Botswana who would not let so fine an opportunity go by. This colorful character once abandoned a couple in the bush when they froze on a shot. "Are you paralyzed?" he shouted, and stalked off. They found their way back by the noise of his cursing—one of his boys had let a rhino bang into the car while they were gone. A client kept asking this hunter the same questions over and over. The hunter threw up his hands, "Why don't you buy yourself a bloody notebook and write these bloody answers down?" The impression is that Harry Selby would never snap, growl or abandon. Nor would he pass out gratuitous praise. The impression is of a man with a powerful engine room, but on the surface he is serene and smooth-sailing.

The Selby house is on the outskirts of Maun. It is part of the Ker-Downey-Selby compound, fence enclosed, where there are tool and supply sheds, heavy equipment, a cleaning-and-crating area for the shipment of trophies and skins to successful clients and the house of another K-D-S hunter, David Sandeburg. Selby came alone in 1963 to set up shop; he now has four associate white hunters. The compound was leased from an outfit that used it to process native labor for the gold mines in South Africa. The large house, with the familiar corrugated iron roof, backs onto the river, actually the edge of the swamp, and, like all rivers of the Okavango, it is clear and cool and inviting. The Selbys swim in it, being careful of the crocodiles.

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