White Hunters, The Golden Age of African Safaris
Written by Brian Herne (Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1999, 468 pages.)
Reviewed by Ken Bailey
Most popular books about hunting in Africa are first-person accounts, a “this happened to me” approach to the telling. Brian Herne’s White Hunters, The Golden Age of African Safaris, meanwhile, takes a different tack. Herne, an accomplished PH in his own right, takes a third-person approach to describing the evolution of the outfitted hunting industry in East Africa, and the influential PHs of the day, from the onset of the professional guiding industry in the late 1890s to the time of his writing, in the early 1990s. The result is a compelling and educational read that makes this one of my personal favourites in African hunting literature.
The research Herne conducted is in compiling this book is impressive; in chronological order, each of the 50 chapters is devoted to a leading figure of the day in the safari world. All the iconic luminaries you’d expect to find are here, from Cunninghame and Ionides to Percival, Hatton, Hunter, Ker, Downey, Selby and more. There are also chapters devoted to PHs who are less well known, but were significant players nonetheless. Their only crime seems to be that they didn’t write about their exploits, or happen to PH for a client who would subsequently write about them.
Other well-known figures appear here, too, many of whom wouldn’t necessarily be associated first with the hunting industry, including noted primatologist Dian Fossey, and George and Joy Adamson, of Born Free fame. You’ll have to read the book to discover their fit.
Several of the more famous clients through the years are covered, too, including Roosevelt, Churchill, King Edward VIII and many Hollywood stars of the day. In fact, as Herne relates, Hollywood film-making was a significant influencer in the hunting industry at various times.
In simplest terms, White Hunters is a history book, but unlike many treatises, this is far from a dry read; Herne clearly understood his audience when he wrote this. Only the highlights of each PH’s career are captured, and that typically includes their most hair-raising encounters with dangerous game. If you like tales of charging lions, buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhino, White Hunters will keep you spellbound.
While Herne has provided a wonderfully thorough timeline of the East African safari business through what he calls its “golden age,” he’s not lamenting about its passage. In fact, in his conclusion he expresses his positivity about the future of hunting, particularly with respect to hunting’s role in the conservation of the wild animals and wild places that are at the very heart of the industry.
There are many books about African hunting that one should read purely for their entertainment value. And while White Hunters is immensely entertaining, you’ll also come away from it with a deeper understanding of the evolution of outfitted hunting and the many characters who helped shape it.