The last of the great white hunters

In Kenya, Don Meredith encounters the last of the great white hunters -- and learns all about Cape buffalo and Ava Gardner.


Don Meredith
March 20, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

It's a hot hour's walk along the waterfront from my Kenyan home to the village of Shella on the northeast corner of the island of Lamu. But the rewards are a cooling swim from a beach of fine silvery sand, a cold Tusker on the terrace at Peponi Hotel and a visit with Bunny and Jeri Allen at their Arab-Swahili house on the seafront.

Second gun to Denys Finch Hatton on the 1928 Prince of Wales safari and reputedly one of aviator-author Beryl Markham's legion of lovers, Bunny hunted with Bror Blixen as well as Finch Hatton, J.A. Hunter and Philip Percival, the doyen of African safari guides immortalized as Pop in Ernest Hemingway's "The Green Hills of Africa." When this legendary foursome went on that great safari in the sky, Bunny became the premier professional hunter in East Africa. The last of a tough, gentlemanly breed.

Advertisement:

At 92 Bunny is a handsome old dog with dark bedroom eyes and a high, intelligent forehead. He wears a single golden hoop in his left ear, his magnificent nose has been broken three times, most recently by a pouncing leopard, and the ring finger of his left hand is missing. "Torn off in a Land Rover door on Nanyuki High Street," he says, waving the vanished digit. "Don't miss it a bit. All it ever did was get in my way. When it went, sliced right through, I caught the gold ring in my right hand but the finger dropped into a ditch. An Indian grocer found it and gave it to me a week later. Deep blue it was ... and useless as ever."

We speak of our mutual friend, retired California restaurateur George Gutekunst. In the early '80s, Gutekunst, while reading Hemingway's "Selected Letters," ran across the author's missive to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, praising Markham's "West With the Night." Intrigued by Hemingway's uncommon tribute for another's work, Gutekunst found a copy of the Markham book in his local library -- checked out but seven times since its 1942 publication -- and read it through at one sitting. A man of impeccable literary taste, Gutekunst knew he'd disinterred a masterpiece and, with the aid of author Evan Connell, initiated the book's republication by North Point Press.

When Gutekunst came to East Africa to meet Markham and to film "A World Without Walls," a public television documentary about Markham's extraordinary life, he met "everyone" in Kenya, including the charismatic Bunny, a featured "witness" in the film. Talk of Gutekunst inevitably leads to Beryl. "Beryl Markham was a good brave girl, all guts and a heart of gold. The first person to fly solo from east to west across the Atlantic. A good, good girl," muses Bunny.

"Good?" I ask, surprised by Bunny's choice of adjective for the notoriously seductive Markham.

"Yes, yes, brave and good, very good. Beryl brought much pleasure to many people."

Advertisement:

"And you, Bunny? Did she bring you much pleasure?"

"Me? Me? Oh, never, absolutely not. I kissed her in the morning and kissed her goodnight, but never in the middle of the day -- and the middle of the day means romance."

Born, he claims, of Gypsy stock and raised in Windsor in the south of England on the Thames, Bunny earned his nickname as a boy skilled at snaring rabbits. He took the hunting skills learned from his Gypsy mentor, Piramus Berners, in Windsor Forest and applied them to stalking wildlife in Africa. "I shot perhaps 50 elephant doing control work. When they came in and trampled crops, killing people and destroying villages, we had to protect local Africans. I shot a few lion and some leopard -- who were always taking our cattle when I farmed on the slopes of Mount Kenya. More often I was called upon to kill Cape buffalo. They're quite the most dangerous animal in Africa -- I'm sure they take more human life than any other. Though I grew quite tired of killing, I'd shoot a buffalo today if I had the chance."

Bunny's son David, a professional bush pilot, has taken over his father's safari business. Today, the safaris are strictly photographic, but when trophy hunting was the game, David and his brother Anton were often Bunny's back-up hunters. David, who has flown in this morning from Nairobi, now joins us under the umbrella thorns in Bunny's garden. "Once we were stalking buffalo," he says, stroking his silver beard, "when we rounded a clump of bush and five buffalo rushed out and came straight for us. Bunny stepped in front and shot the first two bulls. With the third bull on him, he fired again: Click. No shots left. Bunny dropped his rifle, grasped the animal's horns and vaulted onto his back."

"Luckily, his horns didn't touch me." Bunny says, looking back on those years. "I must have ridden 40 or 50 yards up there."

Advertisement:

"Then I got him in range and fired," continues David, "praying my bullet wouldn't hit Bunny. When it slammed into the buffalo's brain, he did a somersault and Bunny disappeared under him. 'My God,' I thought, 'I've killed my father.'"

"Not a bit of it," says Bunny, laughing. "I went under the beast's belly. Soft and warm it was in there ... lovely spot to snuggle down."

Shooting straight is important to a professional hunter, but talking diplomatically, not necessarily straight, is equally so. "A month in the bush can bring friction between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, mothers-in-law and sons-in-law. A good safari guide has to spread oil on the waters; he wants everyone around the fire in the evening happy and content." Bror Blixen, one-time husband of Karen Blixen, author of "Out of Africa," was renowned for his cool courage, knowledge of the bush and uncanny skill with a gun. But if Bror had a bottle of gin and a comfy chair, his safari clients could go thirsty or come to blows for all he cared. Denys Finch Hatton, Karen Blixen's lover, went to the other extreme, providing chilled champagne served in crystal flutes. Bunny struck a happy medium. "I saw that everyone was comfortable and enjoying themselves. I was never one to take out clients for the sole purpose of piling up trophies."

Advertisement:

"Bunny always saw that no one went out exclusively with one hunter," David says. "It was one way of keeping clients happy. Bunny would take someone one day, I'd have someone else, Anton another. Next day, we'd swap. Bunny got mine, while I took Anton's. At safari's end no one complained they'd got the worst of it because they weren't with whomever they thought was the best hunter."

Protecting safari clients from themselves and the wildlife was the
white hunter's biggest worry. An oil man from Big Springs, Texas, and his
country-club wife weren't necessarily experts in bush lore or handy with
guns. If someone failed to make a clean shot and only wounded their
quarry, it was Bunny, with his savvy Kipsigi gun bearers Kikunyu and Tabe,
who had to track and finish it -- "though, if possible, I brought the hunter on
at the last to take the final shot," he says. Trailing a wounded buffalo or lion
across rough country can be risky.

This was how Bunny's nose was so beautifully broken. "I took a young woman out for leopard. Women always wanted a leopard, while men wanted lion and elephant. This girl was a fine shot, but on this morning she only wounded the animal and completely missed her second shot. The leopard went down through a crack in some rocks and disappeared into a cave. When I went in, he was on a shelf of rock five feet above me. I was knocked flat when he pounced. He swiped a paw across my face and broke my nose. I was pinned, the leopard's muzzle snuggled into the hollow of my neck. I must say, I was frightened for a moment, but he didn't actually bite me. What I mistook for blood was only saliva. I remember his eyes, amber they were. Golden-amber. We gazed at one another, just inches apart, and I thought only of the beauty of those eyes."

Advertisement:

David gazes affectionately at his father. "I've never known Bunny to be frightened of anything."

"Well, I was very lucky," says Bunny, "because suddenly the animal moved off and was gone. Only badly scratched, I was, and my nose broken. Lucky indeed."

The 1950s were a time when African adventure yarns were part of the regular fare in neighborhood movie palaces. Bunny worked on several films, among them "King Solomon's Mines," "Mogambo" and "Nor the Moon by Night." This last film made Bunny's reputation as master of the elephant charge. "The first day Anton and I got what Hollywood wanted, a single bull to charge within 20 feet of the camera where, standing in for the hero, I shot it. The cameras were on automatic, the director and crew safely behind an outcropping of rocks."

Advertisement:

The director, who seemed to believe wild animals were ordered like
extras from Central Casting, then asked Bunny to maneuver a herd of
35 elephants so that they would pass just yards in front of the
cameras. "Just be certain they charge from right to left!" Bunny says,
mimicking the man from Hollywood. "'Won't from left to right do?' I asked. My warped humor sailed right over his head. 'No,' the man said, 'better be
right to left, that's where our hero's standing.'"

Bunny and Anton moved the elephants to where they might be driven
within camera range -- right to left. While Anton did the driving, Bunny,
wearing the hero's hat and vest and carrying his beloved Rigby .470, stood
before the cameras. "Well, the elephants started to move beautifully and
correctly ... then they abruptly stopped. They'd caught our foul odor and
fanned out to face us. They muttered together a few minutes, then came
straight at the cameras, the crew, the director and me. Thirty-five trunks
were raised. There were screams, bellows and roars, the cracking of trees.
They came on and on until I shouted over my shoulder at the crew, 'Scram,
you chaps!' They ran, but the cameras ground faithfully on. At 20 yards
I knocked the leader down. The rest pulled up, muttered again, then an
enormous old cow filled the rank and on they came."

When I saw this movie as a boy, I thought the elephant charge was
tricky camera work or animals borrowed from Barnum and Bailey's
Circus that were really quite tame. Seeing a clip of this charge today, I realize
how horrifying it was. While the crew, led by the director, fled in terror,
Bunny was left alone. "We'd killed one elephant so that the film's hero
could pose with his trophy, and now this second bull. We had no license for a
third -- so I placed a shot two inches over the old cow's head. That stopped
her and the elephants milled about, thinking it over." Drawn up in his
garden chair, Bunny swings his head from side to side in a telling
impersonation of a contemplative elephant. "At last they decided to steer
clear and went back the way they'd come." Bunny laughs softly. "When
Anton and I saw the film in Nairobi a few months later, I must say we
were amazed how well it all turned out."

Bunny's legend doesn't rest on his hunting laurels alone -- he was
also a notorious man with the ladies. "Bunny cut a terrible swath among
the women," says his wife, Jeri, pretty, petite and 10 years Bunny's junior.
"A safari wasn't a safari unless Bunny had an affair. You could usually tell
when the clients gathered around the campfire the first evening which it
would be."

Advertisement:

Bunny blushes, glances shyly around, rustles his feet in the acacia
leaves, looking more like a contemplative elephant than ever.

"Once he took a beautiful American woman, her husband and their
gorgeous 20-year-old daughter on safari," says Jeri, her sweet voice
edged with fluting laughter. "The girl took a fancy to Bunny, and the first
night slipped into Bunny's tent and his bed. A half-hour later, mother did
the same."

"Well, there have been stories," Bunny says. "But I always came
home."

"I cut him a lot of rope," says Jeri, "but when he'd gone far enough, I
reeled him in."

Advertisement:

"I've an eye for beauty, I believe," says Bunny, a dedicated amateur
painter. "Not just a beautiful girl, but a beautiful landscape or a beautiful
animal. But a beautiful girl, certainly."

Bunny played an integral role in the biggest safari in East African history, which moved out of Nairobi and
made camp on the Kagera River, where Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda meet,
to film MGM's. "Mogambo," directed by John Ford and starring Clark Gable,
Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner. It would be "a big picture -- we're big!" Sam
Goldwyn had assured Bunny when they met in Hollywood. Goldwyn hired
Bunny to run the safari -- which required feeding and bedding 500 people under canvas 300 miles from Nairobi, the source of all supplies. Bunny also acted as
white hunter and Gable's stand-in. Bunny's longtime hunter-companion
played Gable's gun bearer.

Gardner was married to Frank Sinatra at the time, and things
weren't going well in their marriage. Sinatra hung around camp with nothing to do -- he couldn't stay and he couldn't go. "A petty chap, I thought," says Bunny. "He looked so unhappy. Though I can't say I disliked him. He was quite wonderful at Christmas, crooning carols. He began with 'Noel' and all the Africans, quite spontaneously, joined in the chorus, singing mightily in their native languages. Sinatra was stunned and quite moved. He helped make it a splendid Christmas."

Though he found Ford "a difficult old man to deal with -- a real
bully," Bunny got on well with the stars, bringing Gable in on a scheme to
rid the camp of troublesome lions and, of course, he found Kelly and
Gardner irresistible.

Advertisement:

Was it true Bunny had a love affair with Gardner during the
filming? For the first time all afternoon, Bunny leaves us, sliding into
some deep and mysterious drawer in his memory. When he speaks, it's to
himself and to someone far inside. "Ava Gardner was a lovely girl. A
beautiful body, a beautiful character. I loved her. A fine, fine girl -- she
will always be in my mind and in my heart. A sweet girl."

As if on cue, the house man, Samuel Katana, who has been with Bunny
and Jeri for years, brings a tray of drinks. We help ourselves while Bunny
slowly comes back to the party.

David nods as Katana leaves. "It's because of people like Katana,
wonderful Africans, that life here is not only possible, but full. If my
father hadn't had Kikunyu and Tabe, he could never have done what he did -- all his success was predicated on them. Some people call them 'gun bearers,' but I find that inadequate. I prefer 'hunter-companions.'"

"I depended on them entirely," says Bunny, back from his solo voyage
with Ava Gardner. "When Kikunyu went on to better things after
'Mogambo,' Tabe became my head bearer. He was a superb rider and, when I
had several horses, helped me train them. He was wonderful company, ran
my camps, tracked game, read the bush, was there to put in the killing
shot when it was needed. A half-dozen times he saved my life by steering
me around wounded buffalo in the bush. When we were separated out there,
I tell you, I was lonely and uncertain. He knew everything. He was a fine
man."

Advertisement:

When Jeri and Bunny came to Lamu, Tabe followed them to the coast
and lived nearby. "He came to me one night," Bunny says, moving into
private memory once more, "complaining of stomach cramp. I massaged
him with lion fat -- always keep lion fat for the purpose -- and he felt a bit
better. In the morning his wife came to say he was improved. A quarter
hour later, as I was finishing breakfast and getting ready to go over to see him, she
was back. 'Tabe died,' she said." Tears mist Bunny's eyes as he looks back
on that morning. "I can tell you, we were pretty broken up around here."

Late afternoon and monsoon clouds pile up across the water at Ras
Kitau. A hundred yards beyond the sprawling house Bunny began building
35 years ago and has never quite finished, I climb through the
village and up a low hill to a small cemetery. Here, in the shade of casurina trees, stands the headstone Bunny erected to honor his companion of so many hunts -- whom someday, one supposes, Bunny will join on this Shella hilltop for their last safari:

Tabe Arap Tilmet

1920-1983

A Fine Man.

Don Meredith

Don Meredith is Wanderlust's Africa correspondent. He lives in Lamu, Kenya.

MORE FROM Don Meredith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Africa Travel

BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••






Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •