One for the Road

Maydon is not a name that is commonly grouped with Baker, Selous, Bell, and Taylor, although it should be. In 1935, Major H.C. Maydon published a book on African hunting that was completely outside the norm. It was not an account of one expedition into unknown territory, like some of Baker’s, or about a lifetime of hunting mainly one species, like Bell. Instead, it was the first, as far as I know, of what we might call a handbook on where to go, and how to get there.

Maydon’s Big Game of Africa was intended to be about the nuts and bolts of hunting in Africa for the man without connections or family money — the man who was “keen, mad keen” to hunt big game. In the course of it, Maydon’s own unquenchable enthusiasm shines through like a beacon.


Hubert Conway Maydon was not born into money, never became wealthy and, for that matter, did not enjoy what we might call a stellar career in the British Army. Although a professional soldier and Sandhurst graduate, who served through the Great War when sheer attrition often guaranteed promotion, Maydon only achieved the rank of major. I suspect, although I have no way of knowing for sure, that his devotion to big-game hunting and his penchant for taking long leaves to pursue rare animals in far-off climes, might have contributed to that.


Maydon was born in 1884 and raised in Natal, South Africa, where his father was a minister in the colonial government. He graduated from Sandhurst in 1904 and joined the 12th Lancers, a cavalry regiment. At various times he was stationed in India and parts of Africa, and retired in 1924 when he was just 40 years old. He married in 1930, had one daughter, and died in 1944.


Major Maydon’s literary career was brief. He was editor of Big Game Shooting in Africa, one of the volumes in the Lonsdale Library series, which came out in 1935. As well as editing that volume, he contributed two articles of his own — on hunting Barbary sheep and scimitar-horned (white) oryx in the Sahara. That same year, his own book, Big Game of Africa, was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.


This book was quite unlike anything that had gone before. It was intended as a guide to hunting all over Africa, written specifically for young men who, like himself, were long on enthusiasm but short on cash. He included advice on what rifles to get, and how to get good ones for less money, but did not go on about it at length. He listed the camp equipment required, and how it should be obtained. From there, he dealt with individual species, countries (or territories, or colonies) and licences.


If this sounds like a tourist guide such as Europe on $5 a Day, it really was not. Although Maydon may not have intended it as such, it is almost the autobiography of a hunter who has outfitted himself almost exclusively, managed to get into remote and forbidding areas by hook or by crook, on camel-back or on foot, spending months at a time in the company of only a pal or two and his native guides.


Maydon’s advice is invariably both practical and pragmatic. For example, he emphasized the importance of having fresh-baked bread. This required yeast, which he advised the hunter to buy in England and take with him, as local yeast was unreliable. He also advised him to learn to make his own bread, ahead of time, otherwise he might find himself in a pinch trying to make bread by reading the instructions on the yeast tin.


By comparison to this advice on bread making, he gave scant attention to rifles themselves. He preferred a Mauser in 8×57 (7.9mm) and a .470 double of unidentified origin. He also admired the .303 British, but worried about the problem of importing ammunition into some jurisdictions. (The Sudan, for example, restricted the import of some calibers, which was partly the reason for the development of the .470 in the first place.) Like most experienced hunters and riflemen, he believed you were better off buying a best-quality rifle, second-hand, from a reputable dealer, than trying to save money with a cheap gun. Aside from these, the only rifle he mentions by name is a Mannlicher .355 (9×56).


While in India, Maydon hunted in the Central Provinces, on the plains, and in the jungles of the Terai. He hunted in Kashmir and the Himalayas, and developed a particular affinity for wild sheep.


Oddly enough, Maydon was not an enthusiastic elephant hunter, partly because even then licences were expensive. Black rhino he regarded as a nuisance to be avoided. As for lion and Cape buffalo, “you can’t hunt them forever.” Leopards were in a category by themselves — the “snakes of the big-game world.” He hunted them, but they held no fascination except in staying alive. And so much for the Big Five.


Major Maydon’s lifetime bag in Africa is something to be envied. He hunted Walia ibex in the Semien region of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and mountan nyala farther south. In Kenya, he took a big bongo bull high in the Aberdares, and Lord Derby eland in Sudan. Other rarities included Nubian ibex, addax and scimitar-horned oryx, and a dozen others. The list of countries hunted includes Sudan, Somaliland, Abyssinia, Egypt, Libya, Kenya, Tanganyika, Moçambique, the Rhodesias, South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana.


Maydon was, in some ways, ahead of his time. Big bags were not his goal, and he scorned substandard heads. He always wanted he best one he could get, and would not shoot a lesser head just to tick it off the list. Nor did he believe in mowing down the game in order to feed a camp full of hungry followers. Ravenous for meat they might be, he wrote, but they wasted as much as they ate, and accommodating this was no reason to massacre animals.


As he wrote, he was a “still-hunter,” which suggests he may have read Theodore Van Dyke’s book, as that term was not in general use in Africa at that time. Still-hunting is very similar to stalking, but Maydon reserved that term for what happened after you had spotted an animal and were attempting to get close enough for a shot.


Interestingly, in his Mauser rifle, he used Great War military ammunition almost exclusively, but always made certain he was close enough for a sure, killing shot. Shot placement? “Just behind the shoulder, rather lower than higher.” He had his share of failures, of course, but took every possible measure to avoid them.


Local knowledge — familiarity with the game and the terrain that can only be acquired by living there — was of the utmost importance, and in every country he covers, he explains about local tribes, certain customs, and how to find genuinely knowledgeable men — shikaris, Wandrobo hunters, Bushmen, and the like — who knew how to hunt. Not one to limit his tales to his successes, he goes into some detail about his very first expedition to Africa. It was a three-month-long venture into Portuguese East in which he and his companions made every mistake possible, from hiring “townees” instead of real bush natives, to concentrating on the wrong game first, and, by neglecting map and compass, allowing themselves to be “guided” in a circle for the first month.


The account of hunting in the Semien massif of northern Abyssinia is a great story, combining danger, fear (of heights), larceny (by a local guide), and misfortune — a fine ibex that fell thousands of feet, destroying body and skull, and losing the broken horns. What parts of the ibex Maydon did manage to recover was through lowering skinners by ropes and sending up the bits, piecemeal. In the end, Maydon did shoot a 44-inch Abyssinian ibex (#1 in Rowland Ward, 1928, and #2 in the 1989 edition.) His companian, Gilbert Blaine, shot a 41-incher. On that expedition, simply coming back alive was an accomplishment.


Obviously, Major Maydon learned from his mistakes. He was nearing fifty when he wrote his book, long-since retired from the army and living in South Africa. If he had a favorite game animal, it seems to have been the Barbary sheep. He loved deserts and high country, and after hunting wild sheep in the Pamirs, Persia, and the Himalayas, he found the Barbary sheep the hardest to spot, the most elusive, and most cunning of them all. But, reading Maydon, one gets the impression he was as much in love with their country as he was with them.


As he wrote, in hunting big game, “you may be resorting to your natural state, the primitive; but if so, I say, give me the primitive. The game is merely an excuse to an end. You do not go to the wilds for the mere killing, but to win your freedom.”


It is an attitude of which we could use a great deal more.


Big Game of Africa is long out-of-print, but you can find it through the Internet. It is not cheap, and never has been, but if I could have only three or four books on African hunting, it would surely be one of them.


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