“John P. Whorter, a Colorado mining man, came to Africa to hunt big game. One September morning in 1937 he came face to face with a male lion. Whorter, an excellent shot and as cool as an ice cube, whipped his rifle to his shoulder. His aim was true.
“But he made one ‘little’ mistake.
“Two seconds later he was dead, with the lion’s fangs buried in his skull. Whorter’s mistake was one of ignorance. He aimed at the center of the hair mass on the lion’s head. And that’s exactly where the bullet went – smack through that magnificent mop. Whorter didn’t know that a lion has practically no forehead- that the hair on its head is nothing but hair.”
These are the first lines of non-fiction book Killers in Africa, and its hard to imagine a better start than this.
I don’t really read ‘great white hunter’ stories. I feel little personal connection to Africa, and while I like animals, I rarely find their habits engaging. So when I say that one of the best books I’ve ever read combines all three, you understand that I’m being completely objective on the issue.
Alexander Lake was a hunter intermittently in the 1920’s and 30’s. Hunting big game now is barbaric, but at the time, it was not as reprehensible, and Lake lived by a strict code of honor that makes his exploits readable in a way that others are not. He liked nature, liked Africa, liked the tribes that he interacted with, liked the peculiar people that came from around the world for their own peculiar reasons, and these interests makes him more than just a blood thirsty character.
But Killers is Africa is an arresting read from the first two sentences. Lake immediately tells stories of hunters in scenarios who did what seemed to be the right thing – and ended up dead. Lake rarely blames animals for their nature. His problem is the hunters, uninformed, cowardly and volatile. He is watching the changing of the guard, the influx of men that had no love or respect for nature.
You wouldn’t think that a bunch of stories has a narrative or a flow, but somehow this book does. Lake and his Zulu companion Ubusuku travel from country to country, escaping death and disaster, hunting and escorting other parties and cataloging the adventures of the animals they see.
Its the details that make this work.
Its the hunter who wounded a buffalo but didn’t finish the job and got killed by the same animal five days later, not understanding that the African buffalo has a mean temper, a long memory and tends to circle back on hunters that attack it.
Its men who got trampled by stampeding elephants, not realizing that had they stayed behind even the smallest tree or shrub they would have likely been safe.
Its his brilliant takedown of Colonel Patterson.
Patterson was known for killing two man-eating lions in 1898 after months of brutal attacks. Over nine months twenty nine men were pulled from where they slept and eaten alive, although Patterson exaggerated the numbers to nearly a hundred and fifty. (There was a movie about it The Ghost and the Darkness, with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas) Lake carefully explains why two elderly lions shouldn’t have been about to outsmart three thousand men for nearly a year.
Its being outwitted and terrorized by a troop of baboons, or dodging hungry crocodiles, avoiding mambas, and being entertained by hippos. For a kid outside of Philadelphia with no frame of reference, Lake might as well have been writing science fiction, but I honestly believe you could read this book ten times in a row and still be entertained.
(It is worth noting that Lake also wrote Hunter’s Choice, a very similar work.)