Tell us about your family, how they got to Africa.
My mother’s family was amongst the first settlers to arrive at Naivasha, in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, in 1901. My grandfather, Col. Donald Williams, was an army doctor; he met my grandmother, Ema Jane Aggett, during the Boer War in South Africa. The British government encouraged British soldiers who had fought in the Boer War to settle in Kenya under the “Soldier Settlement Scheme” with their families. My mother was born in Kenya.
My father, Col. Roger Hurt, DSO, came out to Kenya in 1929 with the British army. He met and married my mother during the Second World War in Nairobi. He went on to become the commander of the 5th Battalion Kings African Rifles; he saw action in Ethiopia where he was awarded his DSO. He then went on to become the military administrator of Somaliland for two years after the war. On retiring from the army, he joined the Kenya Game Department, and ended up as one of the four senior game wardens with responsibility for the vast coastal district and its hinterland, which was home to Kenya’s main elephant population at that time—some 200,000 animals.
When and where were you born?
I was born in April 1945 in London, England. My mother joined my father in England where his military duties took him just before the end of World War II. My mother told me that Hitler’s “Buzz Bombs” we’re going off all over London as I was being born. Shortly after the end of the war, my father took up his military appointment in Somalia, so my first footsteps in Africa were there.
I am married to Pauline Ravn, who is also my business partner. We live in Namibia. I have five children by former wives—being away constantly on safari is not exactly the best basis for successful marriage!—and a stepson. I have two sons, Derek and Roger, who have followed in my footsteps and who have become successful professional hunters in their own right in Tanzania. My stepson, Daniel Mousley, is a licensed PH in Namibia. So, you could say we are keeping the hunting tradition in the family—a tradition started by my game warden father more than five decades ago. My three daughters are Tania, Sasha, and Hilary, and each has strong artistic talents. Tania lives in London and is a commercial artist; Sasha runs an antique business and gallery in Kenya; and Hilary is a highly talented professional photographer, based in Kenya.
How did you get into hunting and become a PH?
I grew up on our ranch, called Kibokoni, meaning the place of the hippo. It was on the shores of Lake Naivasha in Kenya, and it had large numbers of wildlife, including buffaloes, leopards, lions, plains game, and the occasional wandering black rhino and elephant. From an early age I joined my father on safari, and that is where I learnt to hunt with his highly skilled game scouts and trackers. In those days a game warden’s duties consisted mostly of game control. I had ample opportunity to learn to hunt from these veterans, in particular Sergeant Ndaga (a Kamba tribesman) and Ottoro (a Turkana from North Kenya). Both were masters of hunting and tracking, and by the time I left school at seventeen, I had hunted the Big Five several times over.
I also spent many holidays on safari with Andrew Holmberg, the ace professional hunter. I shot my first elephant with Andrew when I was fifteen years old. It was a 97 pounder! Earlier that same morning Andrew’s American client had shot a bull with tusks of over 120 pounds a side! (Kenya was famous for its big elephants in those days.) So, I grew up with hunting, and when I wasn’t on safari, I was at home at Kibokoni hunting daily with my Masai boyhood friend, Tinea, who eventually became my first tracker/gunbearer. My main interest has always been wildlife, shooting, and hunting.
With whom did you apprentice? Do you want to mention anything about this?
My father had plans for me to join the British army and to go to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, but hunting was in my blood and I wanted to pursue a hunting career instead. My first job on leaving school was on Mrs. Nancy Miller’s farm, called Kongoni (hartebeest); it was also at Naivasha. My job was game control, and my remit, sanctioned by the veteran Kenya game warden, Lynn Temple-Boreham, was to shoot problem hippo at night in the Lucerne fields where they were causing havoc. It was Mrs. Miller who encouraged me to follow my dream and not my father’s. I met with the chairman of Ker and Downey Safaris, Jack Block, and became an apprentice hunter with that illustrious firm.
My father was initially disappointed, as our family has a long military tradition. But he soon realized that I was cut out for a life in the bush—in good measure his fault anyway, having spent most of my formative years on safari with him! Shortly before he died, he told me how happy he was to see me doing what I loved the most, conservation of wildlife and hunting!
My apprenticeship with Ker and Downey Safaris in Kenya was under the famous professional hunter John Cook. There I learnt how to outfit a safari and how to hunt with clients, something I found to be quite different from hunting on your own! I had a lucky break in 1963, when I turned eighteen. Tanganyika Wildlife Development Corporation was looking for young hunters to help open up the Selous Game Reserve. I was interviewed by the famous Col. Bruce Kinloch, who was the managing director, was hired, and after several months I qualified for my professional hunters license. I spent a lot of time in the Selous under Donald Rundgren, the son of the famous Eric Rundgren. Don was an ace hunter, and even though he was only twenty-five at that time, I learnt a lot from him. We all had to grow up quickly in those days!
What was the most important thing you learned during those early years?
That one never stops learning—whether it is about life itself, people, game, guns, anything at all. The person who thinks he or she knows it all is a dangerous person to be with in the bush! This applies to young and old alike. The most important lesson I learnt in my career is to have proper respect for the animal that is being hunted. I have found that the eventual kill is often an anticlimactic, whilst the actual hunt is the most important part of the chase. The animal gives everything—its life—and that’s not something to take lightly. A proper hunter has a deep love for his quarry, and he hunts in a fair and legal manner.
I also believe that safari hunting is one of the best and most productive forms of wildlife conservation. I have learnt how to get on with and respect hunting clients, many of whom became close friends in later life. I learnt how dangerous safari hunting can be, not just from dangerous animals, but also from wild places and wild people! I also learnt how the careless handling of firearms is one of the gravest dangers to a hunter. I learnt to trust my trackers and gunbearers; they are the unsung heroes of the safari hunting industry. I owe them all so much. They were so much better than I in so many ways, particularly in the tracking of game.
Which countries have you hunted in and were there any specific things you wish to mention about them?
I have been most fortunate to have hunted in most of the game fields of Africa during my career, which has now spanned half a century. I started my early career hunting in East Africa (Kenya , Tanzania, and Uganda). I then went on to hunt in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia; I have been licensed in all these countries. I have taken safaris in South Africa also, as the guest of my clients, and in Ethiopia with the government safari company, NTO.
Where are you hunting these days?
I now am based at Gamsberg , southwest of Windhoek, in Namibia. I love Namibia, which is, in my opinion, one of the most wildlife- and hunter-friendly countries in Africa. My favourite antelope is the kudu and my favourite dangerous game is the leopard. We have both at Gamsberg, so I am more than content.
If you could return to any time or place in Africa, where would it be and why?
In my career I have hunted in many wonderful areas and in many great countries. I hunted in the Aberdare and Mau Forests of Kenya for the elusive Kenya bongo and huge leopard, which sometimes weighed over two hundred pounds; in Mumbwa in Zambia for big sable and heavily maned lion; along the Benguela Swamps and Luliemala / Lusemfwa Rivers of Zambia for long-horned sitatunga; in Lolgorian in Kenya’s Masailand where I hunted many big buffaloes; in Yambio in South Sudan, which is the best place in Africa for bongo; along the Bo and Kuru Rivers in Sudan and Bamingui in the Central African Republic for the magnificent Lord Derby eland; in Rungwa in Tanzania for some of the best lion in Africa; in the Burko /Monduli / Mount Meru forests in northern Tanzania for monster leopard; along the Tana River in Kenya for big tuskers; in Luganzo in western Tanzania for sitatunga, sable, roan, and the big cats; in the Okavango Delta in Botswana for elephant and very dangerous lion; and near my home in Gamsberg, Namibia, for the best plains game hunting in Africa.
I could go on and on, but my favourite and most thrilling experience was on the Uere River in northeastern Zaire. This was an unexplored paradise in 1984. Uninhabited by people, this was a wilderness rainforest stronghold for big tuskers, and a wildlife haven in every respect due to its varied habitat of rainforest, savanna, and wetlands. There we found bongo, giant eland, dwarf buffalo, lion, leopard, giant forest hog, forest sitatunga, and a host of other game. It was the best area for big elephants that I had ever been in—my colleague Danny McCallum and I saw numerous bulls with tusks of over a hundred pounds a side.
We opened up this paradise, only to have hunting closed shortly afterward by President Mobutu Sese Seko. Our presence in the area frustrated ivory poachers who had political connections, and this resulted in a ban on legal hunting. This also led to the presence of illegal poachers replacing us . . . and to the demise of the forest elephant in Zaire. I doubt a single elephant remains on the Uere River today. It is tragic. . . and sad. Before this, Kenya banned hunting in 1977, and more recently Botswana shut down safari hunting completely. When I look back, so many of my former hunting grounds are now closed to hunting. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to hunt in those wild places, for nowadays it is no longer possible unless you are a poacher!
Which is your favorite game animal to hunt? Why?
This is a tricky subject because over my career, I have had many favourites—from buffalo to elephant to lion and leopard as I specialized in all these at one time or another. I have found some of the plains-game hunting to be equally rewarding, and for a long while I also specialized in bongo and giant eland. At the end of the day, it is the leopard that is my favourite dangerous game animal. He is shy, smart, seminocturnal, magnificent, challenging to hunt by fair means, and extremely dangerous when wounded. He is a quarry to be reckoned with, and although I have witnessed a leopard suddenly appearing, as though out of nowhere, on a bait so many of times that I have lost count, his appearance is still enough to set my pulse racing! As for plains game, although I have hunted much more difficult animals, there is no other antelope that can offer the thrill of day-to-day hunting that the greater kudu can. His reputation as the “grey ghost of Africa” is most apt.
What is the best game animal one of your clients ever took? Why?
I have been fortunate over the years to lead my clients to many world-class, big-game trophies. These include a fair number of huge jumbos with tusks well over 100 pounds a side, several buffaloes with over 50-inch spreads, and an almost world-record bongo. Perhaps though, the most interesting was the “Ox of Okavango” that Fred Mannix of Canada hunted with me. This was a bull buffalo that had a deformity in his privates—he had testicles the size of pigeon eggs! This led to a deformity in his horns, which grew down the side of his face and touched the ground. I had seen this buffalo at Tsum Tsum in the Okavango Delta and told Fred about him. Fred’s response was that if we didn’t do anything else on his safari, he wanted to hunt the “Ox.” We eventually found him in a herd of over a thousand buffaloes. We finally shot him out of this herd after three days of intense hunting , where daily we would split up the herd by deliberately giving the buffaloes our wind. This tactic worked, though everyone thought I was crazy at the time, for it was against all hunting common sense!
Which guns and ammo are you using as back up on dangerous or wounded game?
At various times of my career I have used most heavy calibre rifles, from the huge .700 Feldstein down to the .375 Holland and Holland, on dangerous game. I found the .375 to be a wounder of buffaloes in the hands of an average shot, so I much preferred any of the .416 calibres. For lion and leopard I was happy with the any of the calibers over .300. But for elephants I use the .500 Nitro, the .470 Nitro, and more recently the .458 Lott and .425 Westley Richards. They are all effective on elephants, but in heavy cover I much prefer to use my double rifles, both made by William Evans at the turn of the last century. (My son Roger now owns the .500 and a good friend owns the .470.)
I only use solid bullets on elephants and rhinos, when they were permitted. I use good-quality bonded softnose bullets for buffaloes—except for follow-up, which should only be solids. Good softnose bullets are good for lions and leopards, such as those made in Australia by Woodley. For follow-up of wounded dangerous game, I prefer the heaviest calibre that one can handle. On leopards, it has been my experience that most professional hunters (including myself) who happen to have been mauled were using shotguns loaded with buckshot. My advice is not to use shotguns for wounded leopard follow-ups. Rather use a heavy calibre rifle loaded with softnose bullets.
What are your recommendations on guns, ammo, or equipment for the first-time hunter to Africa?
First-time plains game hunters can’t go wrong with a bolt action in .300 Winchester Magnum calibre, using 200-grain, bonded softnose bullets, such as those made by Norma Oryx. This cartridge can be used on leopards as well. For first-time, dangerous-game hunter, a bolt-action rifle in .416 Remington calibre, loaded with 400-grain bullets would be my recommendation. Use bonded softnose bullets on buffaloes, and solids on elephants, hippos, and rhinos. Use good-quality softnose bullets on lions. The .300 should be equipped with a good-quality variable scope of 3–12 power, such as is made by Swarovski or Schmidt and Bender. Use a tapered crosshair reticule. The .416 should have a 1.5–4 power scope that is quickly detachable. Make sure it is of good quality, and, again, use a tapered crosshair reticule.
What was your closest brush with death? If you can recount the story, great!
I have had my fair share of close calls with elephants, lions, leopards, hippos, rhinos, and buffaloes. In my opinion the most dangerous game is the Cape buffalo. This animal is the hardest to stop in full charge, and nothing short of a shot to the brain will stop him. A leopard is notoriously tough when wounded, so this is an animal it pays to be careful when placing the first shot. Make a bad shot, and you had better watch out, as trouble in the shape of a one-ton, black-horned brute is bound to find you. Yes, I have been tossed by a buffalo, luckily without serious injury.
My closest call was with a big wounded tom leopard in Tanzania’s Burko Masailand. I made the mistake of using a double-barrel, 12-bore shotgun loaded with SSG buckshot. Although I shot the leopard more or less perfectly off the end of my barrels, it had no immediate effect, and I was severely mauled in the half minute it took to die. I suffered thirty-two bites in those few seconds I was being mauled. A heavy rifle with softnose bullets would have killed it immediately. Always count on a wounded leopard charging.
Looking back: Anything you should have done differently?
No, I have been fortunate to have my passion as my business and way of life. How many others in this world of ours can say that? Not too many I think!
How has the hunting industry changed over the past thirty years?
It has changed from a small exclusive group of about eighty professional hunters when I first started in 1963 to a huge industry today employing well over a thousand PHs.
Have the hunting clients themselves changed, too?
To some extent I would say there has been a change, but I have been fortunate to attract a certain type of client. My clients are ones who are first and foremost sportsmen, who want to hunt by fair means, and who have a feeling of love and respect for the animals they hunt. Also, my clients are conservationists in the true sense of the word.
Which qualities go into making a successful PH . . . and/or a successful hunting company? Feel free to comment on both.
A successful PH is one who over the years has successes by hunting fairly, who is a conservationist, and loves life in the bush. He must also be a gentleman (she, a lady) and be completely honest. The same applies to a safari company. A successful PH or safari company will have a loyal following of clients.
Which qualities go into making a good safari client?
A good client is one who is a conservationist and a sportsman, who plays fair, who listens to the advice of the PH, and who loves the bush and its wildlife.
If you should suggest one thing to your hunting clients to improve their experience of their safari, what would it be?
Listen and accept the advice of your PH—after all you are paying him for this, and he will in most cases have a wealth of experience to back up his suggestions and advice.
What can the hunting industry do to contribute to the long-term conservation of Africa’s wildlife?
By being more vigilant about dealing with poaching. By taking time to explain the difference between a legal hunter (a licensed wildlife manager) and a poacher (a wildlife thief bent on the destruction of wildlife for a quick financial return) to someone who is antihunting. To explain the real meaning of conservation, which is “wise use of resources.” It does not mean only protection.
How would you describe the future of safari hunting in Africa?
In some quarters it is flourishing whilst in others it is severely threatened. Wildlife needs to have a financial value in a rapidly changing Africa for Africans to justify setting aside large tracks of land for wildlife. One can’t make the whole continent into a national park just for photographic safaris. Yes, photo safaris are the best use for parks and some protected areas, but for the rest, safari hunting is an excellent conservation tool, for it puts money into the pockets of those responsible for keeping the stewardship of wilderness intact. In other words, it’s a sustainable crop. Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia are countries I would classify as wildlife and hunter / conservationist friendly.
Any last words of wisdom, humor, or thoughts about hunting in Africa?
Yes, enjoy the wilderness, safari life, and the stories around the campfires. Don’t dwell too much on the past, but rather enjoy the present. After all, in fifty years’ time, today’s experiences will be seen as the good old days!