Major W Robert Foran was born in 1881. He trained at Sandhurst and took up the military career expected of him. After serving in the Boer War he was pleased to be transferred to India.
The prospect of further military action, and the chance to indulge in tiger hunting, appealed greatly to him. After only a short tour of duty, where he realized both aims, he found himself posted back to Johannesburg.
Here he was dismayed to learn that he was to return to the boredom of peacetime soldiering in England. At the time, 1904, Africa was a land of enormous potential and promise.
Foran travelled to Mombasa and then to the newly founded settlement of Nairobi. The train trip across the Kapiti and Athi Plains overwhelmed him. Big game swarmed in uncountable numbers as far as the eye could see.
Foran promptly resigned his commission and, in Nairobi, set about planning an extended safari.
Nairobi in those days was an amazing place, by any standard, and some of Foran’s experiences illustrate the point.
It was not uncommon for residents to complain of lions being on their verandas at night and the predations of zebras on flower gardens!
At one of the first meetings of the newly formed turf club one of the feature races was disrupted when a lion chased a zebra across the track. Not content with that, the lion killed the zebra behind the grandstand and then set about eating it!
One dark night the Principal Medical Officer was cycling home from a dinner party when he had a collision with a lion. Both parties were apparently equally surprised. The lion dashed off one way and the medico the other, leaving a badly buckled bicycle lying in the street. “Such episodes as this but added zest to life in that infant Nairobi”.
One a more serious side, Foran noted that the small cemetery held the bodies of seven white hunters who had been killed by lions. It comes as no surprise then to learn that Foran killed his first lion within the city limits, in fact, under the Post Office steps!
The Post Master, awoken by the shot, berated Foran for disturbing his sleep. Foran met another lion within the town boundary one late night when returning from a dinner party. He dashed to the nearby house of a friend and awoke him with the request for the loan of a rifle.
Foran was dressed in formal clothes and his friend thought, at first, that the lion sighting may have been the result of a few too many post dinner ports. Foran convinced the man of his sobriety and, borrowing the rifle, went off and bagged the lion.
An acquaintance of Foran’s was a trader, and well known for his fear of lions. This fear reached a new height when a man eating lion started to operate in the area.
The trader spent a large portion of each night racked by nervous tension and imagining that he could hear the man-eater prowling about the house.
Finally, one night he was convinced that the lion was on his veranda and, peeking through the window, could see a dull shape outside. Taking his bolt action rifle he emptied the magazine into the shape.
The morning light revealed that he had blasted a large hole through a piano newly arrived from London the previous afternoon. “It was utterly wrecked and valueless after his heavy bombardment”.
The very next night he once again became convinced that the man eater was stalking around the house. He could see an ominous shape drifting about the yard. The trader took his rifle and laid down another fusillade. This time he retired to bed confident that he had killed the marauder.
The morning light this time revealed the District Commissioner’s mule, “stone-dead and riddled with bullets”. The District Commissioner was far from impressed and the little mistake cost the nervous trader appropriate compensation.
Foran wrote a letter of hearty congratulations to the trader for having killed his first lion. Rather than being admonished, the trader showed the letter around proudly, as proof that he really had killed a lion!
Foran got to know Ol Onana, the Masai Chief and developed a deep respect and friendship for the man and his tribe. After Foran had helped the Masai to recover some stolen cattle a grateful Ol Onana arranged a celebratory lion hunt in Foran’s honour.
Masai lion hunts were legendary and Foran felt privileged to have been invited to witness such a spectacle.
The Masai were a warrior race and the burning ambition of all the young men was to kill a lion with their own spear. They were then entitled to wear the lion’s mane as a head dress and enjoyed privileged status.
Foran rode his Arab stallion as Ol Onana trotted alongside, his face a picture of fierce pride as he watched one hundred of his young warriors spread out into battle formation. They advanced on the area that the forward scouts had pinpointed. A spontaneous yell of joy, and challenge, issued from the Masai as the lion rose from its hiding place.
The lion, still five hundred metres away, growled at the advancing phalanx before turning to trot away. With silent, well-trained ferocity the warriors broke into a run, forming a crescent formation. The horns of the crescent sprinted ahead to outflank the fleeing cat.
It took over three kilometres before the outstretched horns of the crescent were able to pass the fleeing lion and join the circle. The warriors then turned inward and began to contract the circle.
Not a word had been spoken, the whole drama having been conducted in absolute silence. The Masai each carried a spear, a short sword and a heavy hide shield. Foran reigned-up close by the shrinking circle. He was awed by the spectacle before him.
The fine, black-maned lion paced back and forward, growling and roaring in anger. The circle of warriors contracted relentlessly, their spear blades flashing in the sunlight. Foran was tingling with excitement. As if on cue the circle suddenly stopped briefly before resuming at a slower rate. Foran was impressed by the discipline and coordination of the Masai warriors.
Four times the lion charged the wall of spearmen with such savage ferocity that Foran had to contain an involuntary shiver of fear. Each time though, the cat pulled up at the last instant. Not one of the warriors had moved an inch. Every spear had remained rock steady and pointed directly at the lion.
”There was something terrific and awe inspiring in that steady, sure, silent and provocative advance”.
Like a well rehearsed chorus the warriors swung their spears up to the throwing position. The lion realised that bluff would not work.
Without warning the lion suddenly melted into a blur of tawny lightning and crashed into the wall of warriors. The wall held and there was the brief spectacle of the lion, rampant on hind legs, biting and swatting all about before it disappeared under a rush of stabbing spears.
Foran was surprised that the casualties amongst the Masai were not worse. Two had received fairly severe tooth and claw wounds while another hail dozen had minor claw wounds.
The lion lay with more than a dozen long bladed spears still quivering in Hs body. The victorious warriors stood quietly around their fallen foe.
An almost religious silence hung over the veldt. Foran lent down and whispered to Ol Onana, “Whose trophy is it?” One of the warriors moved forward. One arm was badly mauled. He stooped, picked up the lion’s tail, and looked at his chief.
Ol Onana looked at Foran with a serene smile before nodding to the claimant. There was no debate or argument. The trophy winner saluted the chief with his good arm.
Foran administered some first aid to the two most severely mauled men. They never flinched as he poured pure carbolic into the gaping gashes and tooth holes.
Foran watched as the warriors finally broke into a savage and noisy victory dance around the lion. Reflecting on all that he had experienced he decided that “That day holds a memory which can never grow dim”.
Having resigned from the army and begun preparations for his first safari, Foran sought to recruit trackers and a gun bearer. An imposing African applied for the position of Foran’s gun bearer. Foran liking the stamp of the man, and his excellent testimonials, hired him. Foran and Hamisi formed a close bond, forged in the shared danger of big game hunting.
After engaging Hamisi, Foran set off on safari into the Aberdare Range, consumed by a burning desire to bag his first elephant. The party pitched camp on a spur of the range. Below was a lush valley with plenty of elephant sign. The next day Foran’s trackers combed the area.
These men were Wandorobo, a tribe famous for its elephant tracking and hunting skills. They returned with good news. There was a big lone bull with exceptionally heavy tusks in the area.
There followed several days of intense tracking, but to no avail. There was no fresh sign of the big bull. Foran began to despair of finding his trophy but was encouraged by the optimistic Hamisi.
The next day Foran climbed out of bed at daybreak and walked over to scan the valley below. To his amazement he saw the trophy bull wandering slowly up a game trail that led directly to his camp. The huge tusks gleamed in the early morning light. Grabbing up his rifle Foran dashed off to Hamisi’s tent. The gun bearer was not there.
Rather than wait and risk losing the elephant, Foran quickly told his personal servant to send Hamisi after him with heavy rifle. The bull must have scented the camp for Foran discovered that the animal had left the track and headed off into thick cover.
The white hunter trailed the elephant and soon it stopped in a patch of particularly thick scrub. It stood with ears flared and trunk stretched in Foran’s direction. Only the head was visible. Foran’s excitement was intense. Hamisi had still not arrived with the heavy rifle and might not be expected for some time. Foran hesitated, not being confident of a killing shot from where he stood.
“I was confronted with that relentless, unchanging law of the jungles – kill; or be killed. I knew fear. Which would it be?” Overcoming his fear the hunter crept to within thirty metres of the quarry.
Anxiety and doubt still plagued him but, gradually his nerves steadied.
Remembering all the books he had read and the advice he had been given, Foran stalked even closer and decided to try for a frontal brain shot. Taking careful aim, he slowly squeezed the trigger.
Just at that moment, the elephant made an unexpected surge with the result that the bullet struck it near the base of the tail! The wounded animal crashed off into the jungle, ploughing a swathe through the small trees and shrubs. Foran hesitated and lost the opportunity of getting off his second barrel.
It was easy to trot after the elephant, following the path so recently blazed by the fleeing animal. Suddenly the trumpeting and commotion ahead ceased. Foran wisely left the trail and set off to, hopefully, flank the elephant. All at once the hunter found himself face to face with his quarry at very dose quarters.
The elephant charged. Foran found the discipline to wait until it was very close before firing. As the rushing elephant reached for him, he shot it between the eyes and followed almost instantly with a shot to the chest at point blank range.
The elephant rolled on like a juggernaut and Foran could do nothing else but throw himself into the surrounding jungle. As he did so there was the roar of the heavy rifle discharging from just behind him. The elephant passed close by and Foran immediately struggled out of the thorn bush in which he had landed.
As he popped two more cartridges into the double he looked around, but could see no sign of Hamisi. Foran noted that the elephant had fallen on its front knees and was struggling to regain its feet, but kept falling back to the ground. Wishing to quickly finish the job, Foran squeezed between the elephant and the trunks of the crowding trees, narrowly avoiding being crushed in one of the elephant’s lunges.
Standing next to the huge beast Foran pointed the rifle at the critical point between ear and eye. Once again ,though, just as he pulled the trigger, the elephant jerked its head up with the result that the projectile missed the vital spot.
The elephant leapt to its feet, and Foran realized with horror that its recent actions had not been the result of wounds. Its coiled trunk held Hamisi and the elephant’s apparent struggles were really its efforts to crush the man in its grip.
With a powerful toss the elephant threw the gun bearer through the air. He thudded into a tree trunk fully thirty metres away! The wounded elephant disappeared into the bush as Foran ran to Hamisi’s assistance.
The gun bearer was lucky in that he suffered relatively minor injuries, five broken ribs and severe bruising. The bull’s long tusks had prevented him from being able to crush the man against the ground. Foran tended to Hamisi’s wounds and after getting him settled in camp, returned to finish the job.
Fortunately he found that the elephant had died a short distance from where it had nearly killed Hamisi.
Foran and Hamisi had many close and exciting encounters with elephant. Once when hunting in Uganda, near the Nile, Foran came upon a large herd of elephant.
It was tough hunting country, towering grass to five metres in height and a solid network of thorny acacias. It was the start of the breeding season and Foran and Hamisi found the tracks of a big bull mingling with those of a large herd of cows and calves.
They debated whether or not to risk a pursuit. The presence of so many nervous cows with calves in such rugged terrain would be very dangerous. However the promise of the big bull’s tracks was too great and the men set off to track him.
Foran, Hamisi and the trackers stalked silently along the avenue ploughed through the grass by the herd. Foran had seen and heard nothing when Hamisi urgently signalled him to lay flat on the ground.
The gun bearer crawled over to the white hunter and whispered, “Tembo, Bwana!” Foran peered around and could see nothing. Suddenly, like an optical puzzle, the picture resolved itself. Right beside him, screened by a veil of grass was the towering rump of an elephant, close enough to prod with rifle barrel! “I almost shouted with fright and surprise” commented Foran.
Every attempt to crawl away produced the same result. The hunters had crawled into the very centre of the elephant herd.
The animals were apparently taking a noontime siesta and stood still and silent, completely unaware of the men in their midst.
The hunters sat still, hardly daring to draw breath. A couple of hours took an eternity to pass and eventually the strain became too much for Foran.
He decided to prompt a conclusion to the incident, be it good or bad. Taking a spear from one of the trackers he stood up and swung the flat of the blade against the nearest cow’s rump with all his strength. The flat blade struck with a crack like a rifle shot and precipitated instant chaos.
Foran dropped the spear “… like a red hot coal” and reached for his rifle from the ever present Hamisi. The gun bearer gave a rare laugh as he pushed the heavy double into his master’s hands. Luckily the fleeing animals radiated away from the hunters and Foran did not have to resort to his rifle.
Foran killed his last elephant in the Akuma Forest, on the Uganda bank of the Nile. Foran and Hamisi were stalking a bull buffalo through thick jungle. Suddenly they were face to face with a big bull elephant with fine tusks. “In Africa, it is always the unexpected that happens. We were never formally introduced, and his near presence was unsuspected by my faithful Hamisi and myself”.
The bull launched straight into a charge from fifty metres. There was no time for fancy shooting in the dim light of the forest. The elephant was rushing toward them along a jungle path crowded by dense vegetation.
Foran hit the bull in the chest, dropping it to its knees. The white hunter took the opportunity to hit the bull with the second barrel before it could regain its feet. The shot smacked the elephant between the eyes.
The elephant did not drop dead though. With amazing speed it lurched to its feet and rushed at Foran. With empty rifle, and no time to reload, all the hunter could do was wait for the expected shot from Hamisi, some metres behind. The shot never came.
In an instant the elephant grabbed Foran and flung him up high into the air. Luckily he never fell heavily back to earth but landed in the top of a thorn tree. The springy canopy arrested his fall, at the cost of many toothpick-sized thorns burying into his flesh. Foran had been caught a glancing blow by one of the huge tusks and was momentarily dazed.
It took a little while to struggle through the thorns and slide down the tree trunk to earth. As he did so, Foran heard Hamisi scream. Foran finding his rifle undamaged quickly reloaded and rushed over to where the elephant was trampling and tusking the brave tracker. With not a second to lose Foran fired both barrels into the elephant’s rear.
The bull squealed and dashed off into the forest. Foran’s other trackers would find it dead the next day.
Foran turned his attention to Hamisi. The gun bearer was terribly mangled and obviously beyond all help. Foran cradled his friend in his arms and moistened his lips with a little water from the water bottle. Hamisi opened his eyes and the two men exchanged a long meaningful glance before death took him. Foran was heartbroken. The two had hunted together for many years and had many adventures.
Foran stood up and took a silent vow that he would never hunt elephants ever again. It was a vow that he never broke.
“In my memories of those years hunting big game, the only real regret I have is the death of my gallant African comrade”.
Foran went on to lead a long and eventful life, the closing years of which he lived out in the Sportsman’s Arms Hotel in Nanyuki, north of Nairobi.
At eighty-eight he had outlived all his contemporaries and an era, and he knew it. He also knew when his time was up and his final act was to order a bottle of champagne and drink a toast to himself and his adventurous life.
“It was a great life, while it lasted: none better. Such adventure must make a strong appeal to all, and not just for the lust of killing. Great pleasure is to be found in the joy of living next to nature and the excitement of taking big risks. These two factors count most of all”.
Foran wrote many books but the one that best details his hunting adventures is “Kill or be Killed” which was reprinted as part of the Peter Capstick series of African classics, some years back.