Pursuit as Happiness: on Hemingway, hunting and walking in Africa

Lewa, Kenya

Pursuit as conversation…

Conversation and conservation – switch a couple of consonants around and here we have the same word. What might be the linkages between them?

        To start with conversation:

        There are two topics of conversation guaranteed to provoke heated discussion around the campfire in Africa. One is simple and easily resolved – the Land Rover vs. Land Cruiser debate. Introduce this issue, of which is the best off road vehicle for negotiating the African bush, walk away for four or five hours, and when you return your friends (mostly the men it has to be said) will still be in hot debate around the ‘bushveld television’, a.k.a. the fire. (Answer – it depends.)

            The second is much more difficult to resolve. The question of hunting of wildlife for profit, and the entire notion of big game hunting, is one of the most vexed issues in Africa. In March of this year I did part of a training course in Selati Reserve, Limpopo province, South Africa, a 33,000 acre private game reserve where private hunting is practiced. I finished the course Lewa, Kenya, this August. Lewa is also a private reserve, unfenced, double the size of Selati. These experiences allowed me to compare and contrast the opposing hunting strategies assumed by Kenya and South Africa.        

         It is important to know that hunting is not the same as poaching. Poaching, particularly of rhinoceros for horn, is rife, not only in Kenya but throughout the rhino’s range in sub-Saharan Africa. In the Laikipia Conservation area in the Northern Rangelands of Kenya, of which Lewa is part, five rhino were killed in July alone of this year, the month before we arrived. The Lewa Conservancy in north-central Kenya is a rhino stronghold, with each rhino having its own personal armed guard on duty 24 hours a day.

            At our Lewa fly camp we had our share of heated discussions about hunting. The wise among our number kept quiet, as anything you say, pro or con, is bound to provoke someone’s ire.

         Personally I have never liked hunting for sport. I grew up hunting for subsistence – food and survival rather than sport – in eastern Canada. The first time I went hunting I was six years old, and was allowed to fire a gun and kill an animal at eight. Killing an animal has always sickened me on some visceral level: the raw power of the gun, the shock and jolt as you watch the animal receive the blow and buckle, the irretrievability of the end of its consciousness, which you yourself have extinguished. It always felt to me like a responsibility and a debt I could never pay back to the animal, or the universe for that matter. I do still fire guns and do rifle training but I would only ever act in self-defence. In Africa when you are walking on foot you have to be able to defend yourself and others against animals that can readily kill you.

          Big game hunting is more than a personal proclivity. It’s a cultural practice that has its origins in the colonial era in Africa, which spawned a large-scale slaughter by European colonists and adventurers of the so-called Big Five - the animals considered most dangerous to hunt on foot: elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard. In the 20th Century it was popularised to an extent by writers such as Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) and Ernest Hemingway, in particular his nonfiction narrative of his African hunting exploits, The Green Hills of Africa, published in 1935. Hemingway hunted elephant and other big game for sport in Samburu, just north of Lewa, which witnessed a wholesale slaughter of its elephant in the 1970s and 80s as the ivory trade became more and more lucrative. Much of the elephant population fled southwards to Lewa.

            In South Africa, the pro-hunting argument goes something like this: we live in a capitalist system. Wildlife is expensive and has to pay for itself. Trophy hunting brings in significant money, which can then be used by the reserve to pay for the upkeep of its game stock. For example, the £3,500 or so bounty paid by a hunter to kill a male lion, say, can then be ploughed back into the Sable antelope breeding programme.

            In Kenya trophy hunting of wild game has been outlawed since 1977.  Here the model is entirely different: the government and the private conservancies adopt a strategy of using tourism and private funding to pay for the animals’ ultimate survival. The Lewa Conservancy, where we were studying, is founded on this ethos. Established in 1995, the owners of what was then a cattle ranch decided to turn the land into a game conservancy, a much more profitable model.

            As a day-to-day experience of being in the African bush and studying the animals, environment and ecosystems, the two modes of commercialising the animals could not be more different. In Selati any animals that are regularly hunted instantly vanished at the mere sound of our vehicle – they have long ago figured out that the sound of a Land Rover engine equals death. We got very good at spotting the rear-end of waterbuck and zebra as they exploded into the nearest tree cover, not to mention the nervous giraffe, and only ever saw impala skittering away at high speed.

            In Lewa the animals milled around our vehicle as if we were only another (admittedly larger) impala in their herd. They regarded our approach with mild curiosity or indifference. It was so much easier to engage with and observe them – to see male impala calmly rounding up their breeding herd females, or zebra mares suckling foals. In Selati the reserve is fenced by electric wire, in part to discourage poachers and bush meat thieves, in part to corral the animals so that they can be hunted. In Kenya there are no fences other than those erected for conservation management; electric fences discourage elephant from venturing into inhabited areas. The commerce of wild animals leads to a completely different relationship with space – in South Africa, electrified and demarcated by profit. In Kenya, free-ranging but managed.


The pursuit of the real


I have always admired the vitality of the connection Hemingway felt with landscape – any landscape, but Africa’s in particular, that arena of ‘tawny violence’, as the South African writer Damon Galgut has put it.

          The hunt – having stalked, walked, strategised, lived with ever present danger of attack – gives much of Hemingway’s work about Africa a shimmering intensity as well as a serrated edge of danger. Hunting enlivened him and proffered a ready narrative. I think he understood and milked, for literary drive, the electric current running through both the concept and reality of hunting – how killing both ruptures and seals that shimmering ribbon of energy that connects the alive and the dead in the moment of its severance.  

        In The Green Hills of Africa Hemingway structured his obsession with hunting around the concept of pursuit: the book itself is divided into four themed sections – ‘Pursuit and Conversation’; ‘Pursuit Remembered’; ‘Pursuit and Failure’; ‘Pursuit as Happiness.’

            In Lewa I found a different kind of pursuit as happiness. For the first twelve days of our course, we walked. We left camp at 6.30am every morning and returned around 10am. In the afternoons we headed out at 4pm and returned before dark at 6. Walking in the African bush is a privilege. As I’ve noted here, its not safe. You have to walk with an armed guard. We often came within twenty or thirty metres of lion, elephant and rhino. At Lewa rhino – both black and white rhino – are so plentiful we almost became blasé about seeing them.

            One afternoon our instructor, Mark, led us to a dead tree and sat us down. Around 100 metres away were five white rhino, grazing happily in the papyrus reed grass of the area where we were walking. A rhino’s sight is poor but its sense of smell is acute. For twenty minutes we watched as the rhino – a male and four females – came ever closer. We were absolutely still. Then the wind shifted and brought our smell to them. Suddenly the rhino knew they had company. As one they turned and fled, but stopped after only fifty metres or so, when they felt safe.

            For us, to see rhino so close with only a dead tree between us and them, and to see this gravely endangered animal at such close range and so content, was thrilling. We had sidled up to them on foot and only through our absolute silence and stillness did we gain the immense but intangible prize of being so close to a 2000kg wild animal known for its shyness.

            This is what bushwalking, or safaris for that matter, is about – a different type of pursuit. One which has observation rather than slaughter and its dubious gratifications as its goal.


The thrill of pursuit


In the Green Hills of Africa Hemingway often flowers into riffs of lyricism – an attempt, I think, to convey the thrill of this land and the way of life we experience here:

            ‘So now, going along the sandy track of the road in the car, the lights picking out the eyes of the night birds that squatted close on the sand until the bulk of the car was upon them and they rose in soft panic; passing the fires of the travellers that all moved to the westward by day along this road, abandoning the famine country that was ahead of me, me sitting, the butt of my rifle on my foot, the barrel in the cork of my left arm, a flask of whisky between my knees…’

            I love the ‘soft panic’ – so apt, of how the nightjar (the ‘night bird’ he refers to) takes flurry as the car approaches its nocturnal roost, even the ‘famine country’, a description and metaphor in one. The whisky and the rifle are classic Hemingway tropes, an almost necessary masculine antidote he imposed on his more delicate and felt interpretations of the detail of the African landscape, and what it means – it remains a remains a famine country, for so many of its inhabitants.

            Of the thrill of pursuit, Hemingway writes: ‘Now it is pleasant to hunt something that you want very much over a long period of time, being out-witted, out-manoeuvred, and failing at the end of each day, but having the hunt and knowing every time you are out that, sooner or later, your luck will change and you will get the chance that you are seeking.’

            Pursuit is complex. The stalking, or the following, is powered by a desire which may or may not be gratified, and which may or may not result in possession. When it does, possession cancels out the frisson of the pursuit; what is worth pursuing is not necessarily worth having. It is not the kill, or not exactly, that enthrals Hemingway, but the momentary anguish and elation of being in the wilderness and the headlong rush into a shared relentless project:

‘But here we were, now, caught by time, by the season, and by the running out of our money, so that what should have been as much fun to do each day whether you killed or not was being forced into that most exciting perversion of life; the necessity of accomplishing something in less time than should truly be allowed for its doing.’

            Pursuit, drive, obsession, memory – these are the real themes of Hemingway’s book, rather than hunting per se. They echoed through me in these past six weeks in Kenya. Not often in life is an experience so spare, intense, limitless in its lacks – a strange expansion. We were very far from any town or village, and we were always close to dangerous animals. Several nights we had lions outside our tents, and one day during our lecture we discovered three sub-adult male lions lazing on a log, watching us in our open-sided tent as Mark lectured us on the life cycle of amphibians.

            In The Green Hills of Africa, in a similar moment, waiting for the hot part of the day to pass so the hunt could continue, Hemingway allows his memory to range randomly through his childhood in Michigan, his reading of Russian Civil War, the Paris Revolution, lying in the chestnut woods in Italy, the ‘heaviness of the sun over the stream.’

        In Lewa I picked up the Senate House Library copy of Hemingway’s book I’d brought with me to keep me company rarely. We were too busy learning and studying and writing exams. When I did open it, it was at random. That day with the lions I chanced upon a classic Hemingway passage. It describes a journey on the Masaai Steppes, on the old Cape to Cairo road. Notice how this is innocuous enough in content, but classic in its plainspoken drumming cadence, its expansive emotional intent:

‘…after the military cemetery, which was a pleasant, clean, well-kept place and as good as another to be dead in, we had some beer under a tree in shade that seemed liquid cool after the white glare of a sun that you could feel the weight of on your neck and shoulders, started the car and went out to the crossroads to pick up the lorries and head to the east into the new country.’

         Unlike Hemingway, when we walked and stalked animals on foot my mind did not track back and forth over the terrain of my usual life. For the last month in Lewa I struggled to remember who I was, normally, or usually. It didn’t seem very important, my other, usual life – the languages I speak, the places I’ve lived, the books I’ve written, even. I was in a new country.