Over cigars around the campfire, Joe recounted Harry’s history: his Kenyan hunting years before the Mau Mau emergency and the politics of Kenyan independence that turned that world upside down; his move to new frontiers in Botswana in 1963; and his 40-plus years of hunting the Okavango and the Kalahari Desert. For all of us who grew up with Robert Ruark’s fascinating stories about Harry in Kenya and Tanganika in the 1950s, it’s hard to think of Harry as anything other than the quietly confident, 20-something hero of those tales. The man I would be meeting, however, was now 84 years old, with a lifetime of experiences that Ruark, who died in 1965, never had a chance to know.
We wanted to focus this interview on something different. I had heard from Harry’s son, Mark, a noted professional hunter in his own right, about Harry’s interest in the technical side of his craft—rifles, bullets, reloading—but had seen little written about it. We decided that would be the focus.
When we reach Maun, we find Harry waiting for us at the Rann Safaris office. I’m struck by how Harry listens with his eyes: keen, brown eyes that miss little. They are a hunter’s eyes, of course; and perhaps less obviously, a diplomat’s. One doesn’t spend a highly successful half-century in the bush hosting the assorted royalty of birth and commerce, meanwhile directing an even more wildly assorted staff, without possessing an acute perception of people. Harry fields my questions deftly and responds with the directness of a man who values accuracy: a rifleman’s precision.
We start with Harry’s early hunting rifles from his boyhood during the 1930s on the family farm astride the equator near Nanyuki, just west of Mount Kenya. “My first rifle of all was a little Browning .22 rimfire made in Belgium by Fabrique Nationale. It’s amazing the number of animals I killed with that little rifle, the largest being a waterbuck.” A waterbuck, by the way, is roughly the size of an elk. Harry also recalled using his .22 on deer-size game, including impala, Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelle, and predators like jackal, serval cat, and wildcat.
“My next real rifle was a .303, a British Army rifle, but not the normal .303 Lee-Enfield. It was what they called a Pattern 14, which was the made in America in .303 during the First World War. They were very accurate rifles. Parker Hale put a special peep sight on this one, and that was really the rifle I used most of my youth.” Sporting ammunition was impossible to buy during the years just before and during World War II, so they made due with full-metal-jacketed military ammunition. “Whatever we could get, even tracer bullets,” said Harry.
By his late teens, Harry had accumulated quite an impressive battery, including a Jeffrey in .318 Westley Richards and a .425 Westley Richards to accompany his .22 and .303. These were the rifles with which he began hunting professionally when he apprenticed with Philip Percival and then joined Ker & Downey Safaris in Nairobi after the war.
Harry did manage to acquire a Krupp .470 non-ejector early on, a very serviceable double, but it was not quite a fine English double. Then one day the double rifle gods smiled on him, at least temporarily. “Shortly after I joined Ker & Downey, Jack Block, the managing director, said, ‘Look, a friend of mine has a super-grade Rigby double .470 and he doesn’t use it. Shall I buy it for you?’ I said, ‘Well, it depends on what he wants for it.’ He bought that thing for me for 100 East African pounds!” At the time, this was the equivalent of approximately $300. Today, that rifle, used, would sell for upward of $40,000.
Unfortunately, safari life is hard on rifles, even a super-grade Rigby, and Harry’s double-rifle luck was not to last. “I was on safari with Donald Ker. Donald was hunting with the client and I was hunting with the gentleman’s son. I was cruising up the Grumetti River one evening and we saw a buffalo way out in the open grassland. We left the car and stalked over across a bit of swamp where we caught up to the buffalo. He was quite good, so we decided to take him. After we shot him, the driver had to go way back to bring the car around. Meanwhile, we rolled the buffalo over and started to take the cape off. There were no trees at all, so we just put our rifles down in the grass.