The History of Hunting Safaris

My name is Francois Els, and from my early childhood days, I was fascinated by the early explorers and more so the famous hunters that started the African hunting safari as we know it today. I was intrigued by their lust for exploring the Dark Continent and how they ventured into the unknown, hunting the wilds of Africa.

Below is some more information that I would love to share, from one of my favourite books – SAFARI – A CRONICLE OF ADVENTURE, written by Bartle Bull in 1988. This amazing book tells the story of the pioneers of Safaris in Africa.

Although not in print anymore, you can scratch out a copy if you search for second hand books on Amazon or eBay.


Sir William Cornwallis Harris

Regarded as the first person to undertake an authentic African hunting Safari !!

Major Sir William Cornwallis Harris (baptised 2 April 1807 – died 9 October 1848) was an English military engineer, artist and hunter. In Cape Town (June 1836) he met Dr. Andrew Smith and together they arranged a hunting trip. The hunting trip started in September 1836. The trip lasted until the following year and took them across the Orange River to Kuruman. The expedition continued from Kuruman into the Magaliesburg, where Cornwallis came across his first Sable Antelope (later dubbed the Harris Antelope). During his expedition Harris produced several watercolour paintings of southern Africa’s fauna.

Ordered to the Cape Colony (South Africa) in 1836 to recover from an Indian fever, William Cornwallis Harris determined to turn his two-year convalescence into a prolonged hunting expedition deep into the interior of uncolonized Africa. Driven by the stories and sketches of William Burchell, Cornwallis had a mission to become the first great hunter on the Dark continent. He was obsessed with a certain drawing in particular, the majestic giraffe, and above all he wanted to shoot a big giraffe and “discover” a new specie. Planning to launch his safari from Graaff-Reinet (370 miles North-East of Cape Town). Loading the baggage wagon with dried fish and cheese, axes and carpentry tools, spare metal parts for the wagons, 18 000 prepared bullets, pigs of lead and bullet moulds, and his own wagon with weapons, bales of coffee and chests of tea and barter goods, he was ready for his eagerly awaited African Safari. On the seventh day of the safari, Harris came upon one of the miracles of the bush, a gathering of springbok. Reddish, small-horned, two and a half feet at the shoulder, springbok are given to “pronking”, leaping over ten feet into the air, with back arched, legs extended and hooves bunched together. Leaving the borders of Cape Colony, the safari traversed over three hundred miles of mostly desolate plains, arid, free of vegetation, with only ostrich and occasional Bushmen relieving the stony landscape and baking saltpans where the oxen died painfully from heat and hunger. Moving North for the next month, the safari gradually entered richer country. Soon they were greeted by ocean-like expanses of waving grass, and clusters of flowering shrubs and mimosa trees. Near the banks of the Meritsane River, troops of Burchell’s zebra mingled with herbs of wildebeests, mixed with hartebeests and tsessebes (/sassabys), as many as 15 000 in one scene, until the landscape appeared a moving mass of game. As Harris galloped among the animals, exited as a schoolboy, shooting from his horse he was followed by Tswana hunters who killed the wounded animals by pricking their spines with spears or assegais.

Harris often set off alone on horseback to hunt or study game.  He always carried his sketching materials in his cap. After shooting an animal he would repeatedly measure it with a tape and a two-foot rule, checking its proportions, determined that his picture is true to nature.

On 19 November, mounted on Breslar, his best horse, Harris suddenly spotted thirty-two giraffes browsing in a wooded plain, ‘sending the blood coursing through my veins like quicksilver’. chasing them flat out for two miles, struck by a projecting bough that tore his white Indian turban off his hunting cap, Harris finally drew alongside an eighteen-foot bull giraffe, its legs catching in the treacherous sands of a soft riverbank. Reaching his rifle up with his right hand behind the animal’s shoulder, he pulled both triggers. It was not enough. The giraffe, exhausted and bleeding, laboured on among the mimosa groves, Harris loading and firing from the saddle as Breslar, steaming, kept up. Pulling but in front, blocking the giraffe’s path, Harris fired for the seventeenth time. The giraffe, ‘tears trickling from his full brilliant eye’ tottered to the dust. Reverential, dazzled by the elegance and strength of the giraffe, Harris unsaddled Breslar and himself sank down. For two hours he admired the animal. Measuring it carefully, he took paper and pencils from his hunting cap and drew the splendid beast. writing later, he recommended his method, ‘boarding giraffe’, to fellow hunters: due to the tough, 1.5 inch thick skin and the great speed of the big bulls, the only method was to get close, well-mounted, and then to gallop into the middle of the herd, select the largest and ride with it, firing until it fell.

Pursuing a wounded elephant one morning, carrying a heavy, primitive rifle with flint and steel, as his double rifle had been smashed again in another bad fall with his horse, Harris observed strange black antelopes in the distance. Checking with his pocket telescope, counting nine chestnut does and two coal black bucks, Harris realized at once that the antelopes were new to science. This was his second dream: the discovery of a new species. He raised the rifle, squeezed the trigger, and the heavy lock fell, but did not fire. Three times it failed, as the buck-moved off. Dashing back to camp, Harris repaired his rifle and galloped back to take up the tracks. For three days, he followed the trail, finally shooting the larger male. Cornwallis Harris’s prize was the most beautiful of the world’s antelopes, the Sable, to be known for generations as the ‘Harris buck.


David Livingstone

On November 20, 1840, Physician, Dr. David Livingstone was ordained as a missionary to the Cape Colony; he set sail for South Africa at the end of the year and arrived at Cape Town on March 14, 1841. He visited Mabotsa, Botswana (near Zeerust, North West Province, South Africa) an area where there were many lions terrorizing the villagers. They stated, “The lion, the lord of the night, kills our cattle and sheep even in the daytime”. Livingstone felt that, if he could kill just one lion, the others would take it as a warning and leave the villages and their livestock alone. Therefore, he led the villagers on a lion hunt. Seeing a large lion, he fired his gun, but the animal was not sufficiently injured to prevent it from attacking him while re-loading, seriously wounding his left arm. The broken bone, even though inexpertly set by himself and a missionary’s daughter, bonded strongly, enabling him to shoot and lift heavy weights, though it remained a source of much suffering for the rest of his life, and he was not able to lift the arm higher than his shoulder.

Packing list used by Livingstone on one of his trips


Theodore Roosevelt

One of the biggest headline-grabbing stories of 1910 was former president Theodore Roosevelt’s safari into Africa. Landing in Mombasa in 1909, Roosevelt spent months in the wilds of East Africa, hunting big game in parts of what are now Kenya and Uganda. The total animals hunted is 512, of which 43 are birds. The number of big game animals killed, was 17 lion, 3 leopard, 7 cheetah, 9 hyena, 11 elephant, 10 buffalo, 11 black rhino and 9 White rhino.

Theodore Roosevelt with Courteney Selous

Frederick Courteney Selous

Frederick Courteney Selous

British naturalist, explorer, author, hunter and soldier (1851 – 1917)

Frederick Courteney Selous (31 December 1851 – 4 January 1917) was a British explorer, officer, hunter, and conservationist, famous for his exploits in south and east of Africa. His real-life adventures inspired Sir H. Rider Haggard to create the fictional Allan Quatermain character. Selous was also a good friend of Theodore Roosevelt, Cecil Rhodes and Frederick Russell Burnham. He was the older brother of ornithologist and writer Edmund Selous.

From a young age, Selous was drawn by stories of explorers and their adventures. Furthermore, while in school, he started establishing personal collections of various bird eggs and butterflies and studied natural history. His imagination was strongly fuelled by the literature of African exploration and hunting, Dr. David Livingstone and William Charles Baldwin in particular. He would eventually become as great a hero and fictional character himself.

When Selous arrived at the southern tip of Africa on September 4th, 1871, with his sights set on becoming a professional hunter, he was not yet 20 years old. After traveling northeast some 1200 miles into what is now Zimbabwe, he met with Lobengula, King of the Matabele, and asked for permission to hunt elephant in his territory. The great King laughed at his youth and naiveté, asking him, “Have you ever seen an elephant?” but granted his request anyway, even after the young Selous had answered the King’s question with a simple “No.”

Thus began the career of the man who would become Africa’s greatest hunter – and much much more. He would learn his craft from the greatest teacher of all, experience, spending much of the next four decades in the mostly uncharted regions of Southern Africa; his travels taking him through what are now Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, and South Africa. Once there, he explored and hunted, learning everything he could about Africa and the people, plants and animals that inhabited it. He had a natural talent for keeping detailed records of his observations and experiences – mostly though, of his hunting adventures.

He would eventually author nine books, including “A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa”, “African Nature Notes and Reminiscences” and “Travel and Adventure in South-East Africa”, all now classics; first hand accounts of his explorations and adventures.

A dedicated naturalist, he would send, over the years, some 5000 specimens of African flora and fauna to the British Museum of Natural History, including an extraordinary array of butterflies, still an important part of the Museum’s collection, and where, in 1920, a bust honoring him was dedicated in the main hall of the Museum, where it stands today.

In 1890, Cecil Rhodes commissioned him to guide the first column of settlers north into Mashonaland, and later, when former US President Teddy Roosevelt embarked upon his famous Safari in 1909, Selous served as one of his guides. Coming to England in December 1892, he was awarded the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in recognition of his extensive explorations and surveys, of which he gave a summary in a journal article entitled “Twenty Years in Zambesia”.

After living for a time back home in Great Britain, he would return to Africa at age 63, to fight for the British against the Germans in the First World War, ostensibly as a Captain in the Royal Fusiliers. In truth, he assembled his own unit of guerrilla fighters, made up in part of professional hunters, French legionnaires, American cowboys, and an assortment of other characters, including an acrobat and a Honduran General. And when the fighting slowed, he still hunted and netted butterflies.

But a snipers bullet would end his career and his life in Beho Beho, Tanzania, on January 4th, 1917. By then, at age 67, he was already a legend. Even the commander of the opposing forces that had killed him expressed regret over the circumstance of his death, calling it “Ungentlemanly”.

Selous as a young man

In 1922, his memory was honored when Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, Africa’s largest, was named after him. The Selous Game Reserve in southeastern Tanzania covers an area of more than 17 000 m² (44 800 km²) along the rivers Kilombero, Ruaha, and Rufiji. In 1982 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the diversity of its wildlife and undisturbed nature. And later, Rhodesia’s Special Forces, the Selous Scouts, bore his name. And though the Selous Scouts fought on the losing side in Zimbabwe’s war for independence, there are even today busts of Frederick Courteney Selous in The Bulawayo Museum as well as the Queen Victoria Museum in Harare.

Teddy Roosevelt said of him “There was never a more welcome guest at the White House than Selous. He told us stories of his hunting adventures. He not only spoke simply and naturally, but he acted the part, first as himself, and then of the game, until the whole scene was vivid before our eyes. He led a singularly adventurous and fascinating life, and he closed his life as such a life ought to be closed, by dying in battle for his country while rendering her valiant and effective service.”

Beside his powerful ties, like the ones with Theodore Roosevelt and Cecil Rhodes, military achievements or books he left behind, he is mostly remembered as one of world’s most revered hunters, as he went in pursuit of big game hunting not only into his southern African homelands but also reputed wildernesses worldwide, subsequently.

Selous journeyed in pursuit of big game to Europe (Bavaria, Germany in 1870, Transylvania, then Hungary but now Romania in 1899, Mull Island, Scotland in 1894, Sardinia in 1902, Norway in 1907), Asia (Turkey, Persia, Caucasus in 1894 – 95, 1897, 1907), North America (Wyoming, Rocky Mountains in 1897 and 1898, Eastern Canada in 1900 – 1901, 1905, Alaska and Yukon in 1904, 1905) and the “dark continent” in a territory that extends from today’s South Africa and Namibia all the way up into central Sudan where he collected virtually every specimen of all medium and large African mammal species. Surprisingly to many, he never hunted in India, a very popular destination with British sportsmen of the day, even more so when in fact at the given time it was the golden age of tiger hunting and shikaris.

In 1909 – 1910, Selous accompanied American ex-president Teddy Roosevelt on his famous African safari. Contrary to popular belief, Selous did not lead Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 expedition to British East Africa, the Congo and Egypt. While Selous was a member of this expedition from time to time and helped organize the logistics of the safari, it was in fact led by R. J. Cunninghame. Roosevelt wrote of Selous:

“Mr. Selous is the last of the big game hunters of Southern Africa; the last of the mighty hunters whose experience lay in the greatest hunting ground which this world has seen since civilised man has appeared herein.”

In 1907, Selous founded The Shikar Club, a big-game hunters association, together with two other British Army Captains, Charles Edward Radclyffe and P. B. Vanderbyl, and regularly met at the Savoy Hotel in London. President was the Earl of Lonsdale. Another founding member was the artist, explorer and biographer of Selous John Guille Millais.

He was a rifleman icon and a valued expert in firearms. Early in his hunting career, in the mid 1870s, Selous favoured a four bore black powder muzzleloader for killing elephant, a 13 lbs short barreled musket firing a quarter pound bullet at with as much as 20 drams (540 grains) of black powder, one of the largest hunting caliber fabricated, literally a small hand cannon. He could wield it even from horseback. Between 1874 and 1876 he slew exactly seventy-eight elephants with that gun, but eventually there was a double loading incident together with other recoil problems from it, and he finally gave it up as too “upsetting my nerve”. He used a ten bore muzzleloader to hunt lions. After black powder muzzleloader behemoths became obsolete and metal cased cartridges and smokeless gun powder came into use, despite the fact that he was bombarded with gifts from the finest London gunmakers in hopes of advertisement (indeed he tried many), he was to be found accompanied in his hunt by two rifles, single shot, falling block Farquharson action, Metford barelled rifles in the two calibers he loved best: a Romanian .256 Mannlicher for smaller game and a .450 Nitro Express for larger game. His favorite gun makers were Gibbs of Bristol and Holland & Holland of London. There are quotes as to how Selous was in fact not a crack shot, but a rather ordinary marksman, yet most agree that was just another personal statement of modesty from Selous himself. Regardless, he remains an iconic rifleman figure and, following in the tradition of others, the German gunmaker Blaser and the Italian gunmaker Perugini Visini chose to name their top line safari rifles the Selous after him.

Many of the Selous trophies entered into museums and international taxidermy and natural-history collections, notably that of the Natural History Museum in London. In their Selous Collection they have 524 mammals from three continents, all shot by him, including nineteen African lions. In the last year of his life, while in combat in 1916, he was known to carry his butterfly net in the evening and collect specimens, for the same institution. Overall, more than five thousand plants and animal specimens were donated by him to the Natural History section of the British Museum. This collection was held from 1881 in the new Natural History Museum in South Kensington (which became an independent institution in 1963). Here, posthumously in 1920, they unveiled a bronze bust of him in the Main Hall, where it stands to this day. He is mentioned wide in foremost taxidermist Rowland Wards catalogues for world’s largest animal specimens hunted, where Selous is ranked in many trophy categories, including rhinoceros, elephant and many ungulates. He was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Founders Medal in 1893 “in recognition of twenty years’ exploration and surveys in South Africa”.


Ernest Hemingway

In the summer of 1933, Hemingway, Pauline, and a Key West friend traveled to Africa for a three-month safari. Inspired by the legendary hunts of Theodore Roosevelt, Hemingway borrowed funds from Pauline’s uncle, and the couple set off for what would become a productive and iconic journey.

The three months spent on safari offered Hemingway ample time to hunt and enjoy the outdoors. Despite succumbing to a severe illness on the trip that necessitated a hospital recovery, Hemingway’s trophies included a lion and other large game that roamed the African grasslands. Traveling through Kenya and Tanzania, Hemingway hunted the plains of the Serengeti, tracked animals through the bush, and recorded his experiences for later use in his work. His first African safari provided Hemingway with material and inspiration for the novel Green Hills of Africa, and the short stories The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

Hemingway returned to the Dark Continent twenty years later with his fourth wife. They traveled through the Belgian Congo, Rwanda, and Kenya. Once again, Hemingway exercised his skill as a hunter, and brought home many big game trophies. Hemingway’s persona as a fearless adventurer only increased when he suffered through two plane crashes on his second trip to Africa, prompting many news outlets to prematurely run his obituary.

Ernest Hemingway with Percival

SAFARI – A CRONICLE OF ADVENTURE, written by Bartle Bull in 1988