Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter

W.D.M. Bell (Country Life Ltd., 1923.)
Reviewed by Ken Bailey


Scottish-born Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell, best known today as Karamojo Bell, was a true Renaissance man. Best known for his hunting exploits in East Africa, he was also an accomplished explorer, writer, painter, soldier, decorated fighter pilot and sailor.


Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter is Bell’s account of hunting between the Boer War (1899 – 1902) and World War I (1914 – 1918), mostly across today’s Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and the Central African Republic, along with Liberia and Sierra Leone. These safaris had one primary objective, and that was to collect ivory. At the time, elephants were widespread and plentiful, and Bell wasn’t shy about exploring new country in pursuit of big tuskers. In fact, it’s estimated that Bell shot in excess of 1000 elephant, making him a relatively wealthy man in the day. As an example, on one trip described in this book into what is now Ethiopia, Bell returned with 14,000 pounds of ivory with a market value of some 25,000 English pounds, almost $1.5 million in today’s dollars.


Bell earned much of his acclaim for his accomplishments as a marksman and his appreciation for cartridges that today are considered far too small for hunting elephant safely, particularly his beloved 7mm Rigby-Mauser and his .256 Mannlicher-Schönauer. To this end, he devotes four chapters specifically to the “how to” topics of elephant hunting, including detailed information on making brain shots, body shots and his many reasons for preferring smaller caliber rifles. He takes a very detailed and research-based approach to formulating his recommendations, cutting up elephants to study their anatomy in detail and to better understand bullet penetration and performance. His transfer of this information to careful, precise killing shots has contributed greatly to his legacy. Bell’s opinions, whether you agree with them or not, are founded on real-life experiences, and over the course of the years in this book, he escaped without serious injury; it’s hard to argue with success!


One of the prevailing sentiments that emerged from these pages is Bell’s clear respect for the native Africans he encountered. He was curious and sensitive to their cultures and traditions, and didn’t suffer from the English arrogance prevalent in many accounts of African exploration from that period. His hunting successes are largely due, in fact, to his ability to build friendships and strong working relationships both with those in positions of authority, including local government officials, and those who would work for him on safari.


Bell was an accomplished writer and throughout this book he provides just the right level of detail about the trials and tribulations of safari life to keep the reader interested without boring you with the mundane or minutia; that’s a fine and difficult line to walk but Bell does it superbly. The many sketches and photos that illustrate this book, all done by Bell himself, further reveal the breadth of his talents.


Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter is the first of two books W.D.M. Bell would publish in his lifetime —a third would be published posthumously. Each reveals his passion for adventure, his determination and single-minded focus on his objectives, and his ability to balance those with an abiding respect for people. To my mind, however, this is the best of the works and should be in the library of everyone with a passion for hunting and exploring in Africa.