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The Great Hunters

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Elephant Hunt by Frederick Courtney Selous, Great Hunter

In his early career Selous went primarily in search of elephant. In those pre-safari days, ivory was about the only source of income for professional hunters. Such men had a strong feeling of cameradie, and Selous dedicated his book inter alia to “My friends the Elephant Hunters in the Far Interior of South Africa.” This episode, which took place in Mashona country in 1878, reflects all the uncertainty, discomfort and danger for the hunters when a large herd is attacked. Selous was hunting with his friends Matthew Clarkson, Andrew Cross, and their African servants.

By an hour after daylight we were on the march, taking with us corn for the horses, and provisions for ourselves to last a fortnight.

We had scarcely forded the Umbila river (1) when we crossed the fresh spoor of five or six elephant bulls, which we at once followed. It was about midday, and we were fast gaining upon them, when they took a turn and made straight for the “fly”. (2)

As we had been all the morning upon the edge of the infested district, we now kept a sharp look-out, and it was not long before a “fly” was caught upon Clarkson’s (3) horse, which we killed, and then again took up the spoor, as Wood said the “fly” was not very numerous about here; and as we expected soon to come up with the elephants, we thought we might venture to follow them a little farther, keeping, of course, a sharp look-out all the time on our horses. It was shortly after this that the elephants we were following led us to the spoor of another large troop, also fresh. For some time the spoors were mixed, then that of the bulls turned to the left and again made for the “fly”. Upon seeing this we resolved to leave the bulls – though we would far rather have shot them - and take the spoor of the troop, as it was leading us in a direction that would soon take us beyond the limit of the “fly”. Shortly after making this turn we rode on to a black rhinoceros, the first animal we had seen that day. He honoured us with a hard stare, and then wheeling round trotted off, and disappeared in the bushes.

About 1 p.m. we off-saddled our horses for the first time that day, and had scarcely done so when three heavy shots, fired almost simultaneously, fell in the direction the spoor was taking, and at no great distance. Making sure it was some of Wood’s Kafir hunters firing at the elephants we were following, we saddled up again, and cantered along the spoor, but, from the direction it took soon found that the shots we had heard could not have been fired at the elephants. We now stuck to the spoor without a halt till about an hour and a half before sundown, when, fearing that it would get dark before we came up with them, we took our guns and galloped on, for the spoor was now becoming fresher every instant, and as the elephants were feeding nicely, easy to follow, by the machabel leaves alone, that lay scattered along the track.

I may here say that I was this day mounted on an old horse in very poor condition, which I had bought from Wood, my own having gone lame two days before, and that all our horses had been the livelong day under the saddle, and like ourselves had had no water. Well, we had cantered along the spoor for some distance, when we at last descried two elephants, stragglers from the main body, and then the herd itself. They were moving in a dense mass up a gentle incline on the farther side of a dry watercourse, and as the whole country about here is very sparsely wooded, we had a magnificent view of them.

There must have been at least sixty or seventy, great and small, and a grand sight it was, and one not easily to be forgotten, to see so many of these huge beasts moving slowly and majestically onwards. However, as there was now but an hour of sunlight left, we could spare but little time for admiration, and so rode towards them, on murderous thoughts intent. We crossed the dry gully, and passed within a hundred and fifty yards of the two we had first seen, but they never appeared to take any notice of us. Just as we neared the herd, one of the biggest bulls turned broadside to us, and commenced plucking some leaves from a bush, offering a splendid shot, of which Clarkson was just going to take advantage, when he saw us, and wheeling round, ran off. As he did so, I noticed that he had a stump tail. The whole herd was now in motion. At first they ran in a compact body and at a surprising pace, raising a dense cloud of dust, and in the confusion one of them, half-grown, was knocked down, and must have been trampled on and half stunned, for he did not get on his legs until the herd had passed, and then at first ran back, away from his companions; but before long, finding out his mistake, wheeled about and soon caught up to them again. We now galloped along, even with, and about one hundred yards to the side of the foremost of them, shouting and hallooing, and thus drove them around in a large circle, our object being to tire them before we commenced firing. Though I had killed many elephants, yet having always before this season hunted on foot in regions infested by tsetse fly, I had had no experience with them on horseback, so, having been told by my friends on no account to dismount, but to shoot from the horse’s back, as, in case of  a charge, I should have no time to remount, I endeavoured at first to comply with their instructions; however, my horse, worse luck to him, would not stand, but as soon as I dropped the reins, always walked or trotted forwards, thus making it impossible to get a shot. Seeing that if this continued, I should never shoot an elephant at all, I determined to dismount; so, cantering up alongside of the foremost, I jumped off, and gave a young bull a bullet behind the shoulder as he came broadside past me. He only ran about a hundred yards, and then fell dead.

After this I quickly killed two more with five shots – a fine cow and another young bull. The fourth I tackled, a bull with tusks scaling about five-and-thirty pounds, cost me six bullets, and gave me a smart chase, for my horse was now dead beat. I only got away at all by the skin of my teeth, as, although the infuriated animal whilst charging trumpeted all the time like a railway engine, I could not get my tired horse out of a canter until he was close upon me, and I firmly believe that he had not been so badly wounded he would have caught me. I know the shrill screaming sounded unpleasantly near.

Just as this bull fell, Wood and Cross (4) came round with what remained of the troop, and I met and turned them back again. The poor animal were now completely knocked up, throwing water over their heated bodies as they walked slowly along, swerving first one way and then the other, as the cruel bullets struck them. A good many had turned out, and made their escape in twos and threes, and as we had been picking out all the best, there were now not many left worth shooting. My friends had fired away almost all their cartridges, but I had still thirteen left; for, owing to my horse refusing to stand, I had not commenced firing as soon as they. As the elephants were now only walking, and sometimes stood all huddled up together in a mass, offering splendid standing shots, I felt sure of killing three or four more with my remaining cartridges, and should doubtless have done so had it not been for an accident that befell me, which happened in this wise. Having picked out a good cow for my fifth victim, I gave her a shot behind the shoulder, on which she turned from the herd and walked slowly away by herself. As I cantered up behind her, she wheeled round, and stood facing me, with her ears spread, and her head raised. My horse was now so tired that he stood well, so reining in, I gave her a shot from his back between the neck and the shoulder, which I believe just stopped her from charging. On receiving this wound she backed a few paces, gave her ears a flap against her sides, and then stood facing me again. I had just taken out the empty cartridge and was about to put a fresh one in, when, seeing that she looked very vicious, and as I was not thirty yards from her, I caught the bridle, and turned the horse’s head away, so as to be ready for a fair start in case of a charge. I was still holding my rifle with the breech open, when I saw that she was coming. Digging the spurs into my horse’s ribs, I did my best to get him away, but he was so thoroughly done that, instead of springing forwards, which was what the emergency required, he only started at a walk, and was just breaking into a canter, when the elephant was upon us. I heard two short sharp screams above my head, and had just time to think it was all over with me, when, horse and all, I was dashed to the ground. For a few seconds I was half stunned by the violence of the shock, and the first thing I became aware of, was a very strong smell of elephant. At the same instant I felt that I was still unhurt, and that, though in an unpleasant predicament, I had still a chance for life. I was, however, pressed down on the ground in such a way that I could not extricate my head. At last with a violent effort I wrenched myself loose, and threw my body over sideways, so that I rested on my hands. As I did so I saw the hind legs of the elephant standing like two pillars before me, and at once grasped the situation. She was on her knees, with her head and tusks in the ground, and I had been pressed down under her chest, but luckily behind her forelegs. Dragging myself from under her, I regained my feet and made a hasty retreat, having had rather more enough of elephants for the time being. I retained, however, sufficient presence of mind to run slowly, watching her movements over my shoulder, and directing mine accordingly. Almost immediately I had made my escape, she got up, and stood looking for me with her ears up and head raised, turning first to one side and then to the other, but never wheeling quite round. As she made these turns, I ran obliquely to the right or left, as the case might be, always endeavouring to keep her stern towards me. At length I gained the shelter of a small bush and breathed freely once more.

At this time I never saw my horse, which must have been lying amongst the grass where he had been thrown to the ground. I thought he was dead, or perhaps, to speak more truly, I was so much engrossed with my own affairs that I did not think about him at all. I stood now just on the highest ground of a gentle rise, which sloped gradually down to an open glade, in which, from where I was, I could see two dead elephants.

Just then I saw a Kafir coming across the opening, and went down to meet him, leaving my elephant still standing on the spot where she had knocked me down. Being unarmed, for my gun had been dashed from my hand when I fell, I dared not go near her to look for it. Upon meeting the man (Cross’s gun-bearer) I hastily told him what had happened. The elephant was not visible, being just beyond the crest of the rise, about two hundred distant, but I only stopped to take some cartridges from my trouser’s pockets and put them in my belt, and then, accompanied by the boy, returned to the scene of the accident to look for my rifle and see what had become of my horse. On topping the rise, we saw him standing without the saddle, but the elephant had walked away, and was no longer visible. Going up to my horse, I found that he had received an ugly wound in the buttock from behind, from which the blood was streaming down his leg: otherwise, barring a few abrasions, he was unhurt. Whilst the boy was searching for my rifle, I looked round for the elephant, which I knew had only just moved away, and seeing a cow standing amongst some bushes not two hundred yards from me, made sure it was the one that had so nearly made an example of me. The Kafir now came up with my rifle and saddle, the girth of which was broken. The rifle having been open at the breech when it fell to the ground was full of sand, so that it was not until I had taken the lever out, using the point of the Kafir’s assegai for a screwdriver, that I managed to get it to work. I then approached the elephant, which all this time had been standing where I first saw her, and cautiously advancing to within fifty yards of her, took a careful aim, and gave her a shot behind the shoulder, which brought her to the ground with a crash. Pushing in another cartridge, I ran up and gave her a shot in the back of the head to make sure of her.

The sun had been down some time, indeed it was fast becoming dusk, so I shouted to attract the attention of my friends, whose shots I had not heard for some time past. I immediately heard an answering halloo, and soon met Clarkson, and walked back with him to a large antheap, where my comrades had off-saddled. I now found that my eye was bruised, and all the skin rubbed off my right breast, and I felt very stiff in the neck and down the back. I was smeared all over with blood, too, off the elephant’s chest, on the back and on the left breast. This was all that was the matter with me, and a most wonderfully lucky escape I think it was. The elephant must have rushed against the horse from behind like a battering ram, throwing me headforemost to the ground, and the impetus of her rush must have carried her a little too far, for had I been in front of her knees, instead of behind them, nothing could have saved me.


  • Umbila River. Well to the North-east of Lobengula’s capital at Gubulawayo.
  • The “fly”. The Tsetse fly (Glossina morsitans) carries the parasite causing sleeping sickness in humans. It kills horses and domestic cattle, but wild animals are unaffected. Elephant retreated to areas infested by the “fly” when pursued by hunters on horseback.
  • Clarkson’s horse. Matthew Clarkson was a hunter and trader. He was admired for his courage and strength of character. He was killed by lightning near Klerksdorp.
  • Cross. Alfred Cross – hunter and trader. Born near East London, Cape. Probably descended from one of the Cross families among the 1820 Settlers.