Armchair Safari – Expedition to British East Africa

In 1928, after three years of planning, the Milwaukee Museum undertook an extensive expedition — called the Cudahy-Massee Expedition — to British East African to collect game animals and birds. After seven months in Tanganyika, the expedition returned to Nairobi and, with a slight change in plans, Irving Perkins had time for a coveted bongo safari. Here is a selection from the report by I.J. Perkins. —Editors

On Feb. 6, 1929, the men left Nairobi in search of a bamboo forest which, they had been told, was one of the very few places in Africa where bongo were to be found. His safari consisted of two trucks with native drivers, one touring car, nine porters, a gun bearer, a cook, a personal boy and a head man. On safari, it is of prime importance that one have a competent head man, for it is his duty to give orders to, and keep order among the boys. My only European companion was Mr. Charles Ridge, our motor mechanic, whose faithful service in our previous safaris had been of inestimable value. But, perhaps the most important man in the camp was our cook, for when out in the wilds of Africa, much depends on good food.

The roads for about 50 miles west of Nairobi were in good condition, but because it was an uphill climb all the way and because the weather was exceedingly hot, we were continually delayed by our motors overheating. And we lost some time because we were unfamiliar with the roads. Finally however, we arrived at a native village where we received information regarding an old trail that led into the bamboo forest. As we progressed the trail became narrower and narrower and in many places was completely obliterated by a growth of brush and tall grass.

Darkness found the safari again delayed by motor trouble. At the time that seemed to be a great misfortune, but later it proved to be the means of obtaining important information from the natives regarding the haunts of the bongo.

We were tired and decided to make camp for the night, but the cook informed us that there was no wood so the truck was reloaded and moved for a few miles to the edge of a dense, dismal forest which, from its appearance, might have afforded ample shelter for all the lions and wild animals in Africa. By morning it proved to be one of the most beautiful places I saw in Africa.

The wind was blowing a terrific gale and the trees, banging against each other, sounded as though all the elephants in Kenya were thrashing about in that forest. The air was damp and cold, though we were but a few degrees south of the equator and at an altitude of about 7,000 feet. An excellent supper was prepared. The boys sat around the fired wrapped in their blankets. My boy prepared my bed in one of the trucks and we covered ourselves with three blankets. We were only fairly comfortable because of the evening chill and that apparently also caused the boys to stop singing and talking early.

We got up early the next morning. It was essential of get an early start on repairing out motors in order to proceed to the hunting grounds. It soon became clear that a native village was near because natives came swarming into camp from every direction. Some carried long spears, others, bows and poisoned arrows which they used for hunting and protecting themselves. The native women were laden with potatoes and other items which they offered for sale. It is not uncommon to see a small band of women with heavy loads while their husbands go empty-handed.

It occurred to me that some natives might have knowledge of the bongo, so the men were instructed to get any information they could. Mutia, second after the head man, knew English and had been Carl Akeley’s personal assistant. Because of his prolonged contact with Europeans and his ability to speak their language, he felt himself slightly above the natives who lived out in the veldt.

During breakfast and some lengthy conversation, we were able to strike a bargain. One native and three of his tribesmen agreed to take us into the bamboo forest and show us a bongo, provided I would follow them and do exactly as I was told. I had no white hunter and was overjoyed with the hope of seeing a bongo, so I readily agreed to their terms. Due to the almost impenetrable forest in which it lives, and its wariness, few sportsmen had succeeded in shooting it. Even the native Wanderobo have difficulty approaching them. These facts only served to increase my eagerness.

While preparing to move, one native came in and said that it was cold where we were going and he had no blanket. To get another blanket meant a trip and three hours’ loss of time. So we gave the native three shillings and told him to get his brother to buy him a blanket. I am inclined to believe that the shillings were not invested in anything like a blanket. Many of the natives had never seen a motor car and some ran away terrified. Others sought the shelter of trees and cautiously watched the safari as it vanished from sight into the equatorial jungle.

The presence of huge fallen trees and tangled bamboo impeded our progress. But with a group of cheerful natives, who knew how to handle their axes, we managed to travel through the forest with moderate ease. The fallen trees were lifted to one side and the tangle bamboo cut to permit passage of these (the first vehicles to travel through this particular region). In crossing dongas and low wet places, the motor car sank into the soft earth up to its axles. But in a few minutes, aided by 25 or 30 strong natives, the situation was resolved with little apparent exertion.

From an elevation of about 8,000 feet, the Wanderobo guide pointed out in the distance the gigantic bamboo forest near the edge of which we made camp. Immediately several natives came in to say that one had been given money for a blanket and they too needed the same. I quickly perceived it was the money they wanted, and refused. They were sent away without the money. Soon the head man came back to suggest that we give them the money because they could become “bad men.” Mindful of their semi-savage minds and the possibility of disaster, I had them called to my tent. I promised the shillings AFTER they showed me a bongo. Overjoyed they returned to the larger group singing at the campfire.

Shortly before sundown we went out to get some dinner. Not far from camp, a pair of bushbuck were feeding in an open patch of grass. A carefully directed shot from the 7mm Mauser found its mark. Not long thereafter the men showed me another bushbuck. Much to my surprise, there was only one boy on the safari who would eat bushbuck meat. The Wanderobos were cannibals and would eat anything, while the Muslims believed they would turn into mud if they ate bushbuck flesh. Rest assured none of the meat went to waste.

At three a.m. the next morning, everything was ready for the hunt. Keen-edged knives hung from the belts of the skinners. All other necessary equipment was distributed among the porters. The kitchen boy carried my lunch and water. The early morning starlight was sufficient for the Wanderobo trackers to lead the way. As the sky grew pink, the long line of natives walking single file down the footpath made a charming and primitive spectacle. Footprints in the sand gave evidence that a leopard had walked down the path on one of his early morning prowls. A tangle of undergrowth and long vines, commonly called monkey rope, hanging from the trees, filled the spaces between the trunks. We walked, crawled, and climbed through these entanglements for hours, stopping at intervals to listen or look for the spoor of bongos. From time to time, the crashing sound of a fleeing waterbuck or giant forest hog attracted our attention.  From the tree tops, monkeys voiced their objection to our intrusion. The calls of various birds broke the solitude of that gloomy mountain forest.

At about nine a.m., the trackers struck a fresh bongo spoor on a well-worn trail leading to a foaming mountain brook. The men became very excited. We had not spoken a word for hours but just then the porters and skinners were instructed to follow several hundred yards behind in order to diminish the noise as much as possible. The animal had followed the trail to the brook where it quenched its thirst, wallowed around in the mind and visited a salt-lick on the side of a cliff. In appearance the salt lick resembled a large cave. It was about 20 feet wide, 12 feet high and 20 feet deep. The entrance was partially closed by monkey rope and other tropical vines. About four feet from the wall the walls were covered with teeth marks from the bongo and, higher up, great grooves had been made by their horns. On the floor there was a row of stalls ranging from two to three feet in depth which had been excavated by giant forest hogs.

When we followed the spoor away from the salt lick, the smallness of the footprints and the way the branches and creepers had closed in made it difficult to believe that an animal as large as a bongo had passed through. We crept along inch by inch. Four Wanderobos were in the lead because they were more clever in picking their way noiselessly and without unnecessary movement. Natives are also much quicker to detect any movement ahead. The spoor led us to dead and decayed trees which the bongo is fond of gnawing and eating. The animal we were following seemed to be wandering about aimlessly. Occasionally the men would pick up leaves from the bushes which had been bitten off and dropped.

The finding of the leaves indicated by their freshness that the bongo was not far ahead. In equatorial Africa, it requires a few minutes for a leaf or plant to wither when picked. At intervals the four trackers would stop and consult each other but never a word was uttered. From the time the spoor was discovered they ceased to converse even in whispers, instead communicating by whistling. Many times the spoor was lost in the dense tangle of the undergrowth. On these occasions the trackers would spread out and search for a broken twig or other clues which might lead us on. Sometimes they were 50 yards apart and yet the accuracy with which they whistled was uncanny.

At the critical moment the stillness of the jungle was broken by a breeze which fortunately, was in our favor. When tracking an animal where the density of undergrowth requires an approach of a few yards before a creature the size of a cow can be seen, the wind is always an important factor. It is always taken into consideration by every experienced big game hunter, for it usually determines success or failure. Keen scented animals, like the bongo, with ears that are ever alert can detect human scent and hear the breaking of the smallest twig long before they can be approached within shooting range, or even within sight.

Whenever the trackers found any excrement they inserted their fingers to determine if was warm. At many places the animal had stopped, and with its horns, uprooted the leaves and earth. At these signs the trackers would pause and converse in their whistling dialect similar to the birds which were in the bamboo and trees.

After what seemed a long time, we crawled on our hands and knees into an indescribable entanglement of fallen trees, twisted bamboo and dense undergrowth and there we found where the bongo had laid down. A few yards further on was some steaming excrement. At the sight of this one of the trackers seized my arm, forced it into the excrement and said, “Moto karibu,” meaning that the excrement was hot and the animal was near. This was evidence that the bongo has rested during the heat of the day and also that it was not solely nocturnal as is generally supposed.

The eyes of the trackers were sparkling with eagerness. Every falling leaf attracted their attention. The thumping of my heart seemed sufficient to give evidence of our approach. Up the almost perpendicular mountainside we crawled, stopping every few yards to listen. The cracking sound of a tiny twig revealed to the eagle eyes of one of the trackers a red mass about 20 yards ahead. Because of the dense undergrowth it was impossible to determine which was the head or tail of the animal. As I fired the animal bolted; a second shot broke him down in the rear. Wounded and unable to ascend the steep slope, he came crashing through the deep brush towards us. When at a distance of about five yards, a third shot ended the chase. After the echo from the report of the high powered 9.3mm Mauser had died away, the forest rang for an hour with the calls of birds and monkeys.

In a few minutes the Wanderobos who had fearlessly followed the spoor as long as the animal was retreating came up shouting at the sight of their victim. One man shouted at those who had run away, but they claimed that their job was only to show me a bongo. Having done that, they saw no reason to take a chance at being gored to death. The horns were 28.5 inches and, like all forest animals, their ears were large. The body was bright chestnut red with white stripes running transversely across the back and sides.

The next half hour was spent cutting away the brush in order to facilitate taking measurements, photographs and skinning. Meanwhile the kitchen boy made a fire and prepared lunch. When the animal was partly skinned, the ports made another fire and all the boys gorged themselves on half raw meat. While the skinners were tending to the animal, the trackers found a bee tree and proceeded to rob the bees. It seems that natives are more or less immune to the sting of a bee. Although the skeleton of the bongo had been disarticulated, tied into small bundles and distributed among the boys, navigation through the undergrowth was very difficult. At intervals it was necessary to cut our way through solid walls of tangled bamboo and underbrush. About every mile we stopped for a brief rest. Luckily the scorching sun never had a chance to penetrate through the heavy foliage. Frequently the Wanderobos would strike the large bamboos with a heavy knife and quench their thirst with the water which spurted out from the hollow parts between each joint.

Camp was reached about nine p.m. We were dead tired but after a good dinner everyone was happy and delighted with the success of a day’s work. Upon receipt of the money for their blankets I think the three Wanderobos were the happiest natives in Africa.

Long before daybreak on the following morning we were again picking our way through the bamboo forest in search of the spoor of another large bongo. A large herd of elephants was encountered but since we were unprepared to collect trophies of that size, they were carefully avoided. In descending the slopes they plowed deep furrows in the ground, in some places 24 inches deep. It was evident in some places that they maintained a set position in their legs and slid down the slippery inclines.

At a salt lick, the spoor of our second bongo was picked up and followed for a few hundred yards. Suddenly I heard a terrific crash in the dense bamboo ahead. Before I could realize what it was all about, the animal, with head down and every long hair on the dorsal ridge erect, came charging at us. He looked like a gigantic red porcupine. Because of the density of the undergrowth it was impossible to see him until he was 15 yards away. A single shot found its mark.

He was an exceptionally large and unusually marked bull with 15 stripes on the right side and 17 on the left. He was very dark. The horns were a little short of the world record, 36 inches in length following the curve. Circumference at the base was 12.5 inches. He would become the prize specimen of the museum expedition.

During the next week we failed to secure a female bongo and since our transportation was booked on the next boat we had to get back to Nairobi as soon as possible. After shaking hands and bidding the trackers goodbye, the bamboo forest was left behind, but the magnificent denizens of that forest will long be remembered.– Selected and Edited by Ellen Enzler Herring of Trophy Room Books

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