The Man-Eater of Nakuru

Boggabri Farm, Walkerville. © Tim South
He said that one such as she will always help those who can't help themselves.

In December of 1933 I decided to see the wilderness of East Africa. I hadn't originally planned for my journey to stretch that far, but I had struck up a conversation with a retired army captain at the Haydarpasa Railway Station in Istanbul, who told me of the beauties of Africa and the low cost of travel and adventure. He had fought during the South African War, and after his discharge had lived in various places successively further north, until he had settled for the last number of years in Nairobi, making a living as a white hunter. I found his stories so exciting that after carefully assessing my finances I was soon making arrangements to go to the great continent.

My journey took me to Kenya, to a disused corn farm near Nakuru which had become a starting place for various forms of safari, operating at low cost to promote interest. I had purchased a Voigtlander camera with which I hoped to take pictures of exotic beasts, and managed, not without difficulty, to learn how to operate it as I travelled.

After a three day train journey I arrived at Nairobi Railway Station a week before Christmas, and met Frederick Allan-Smith, the foreman of the farm. He had the beard of a pirate and a belly that showed he adored his ale. He placed my luggage in the back of a dusty truck that had no doors, and gave a wry glance at the sight of my butterfly net. We proceeded with no further word than the initial words of recognition and introduction.

As the truck moved along the track toward the estate, I saw the occasional animal... a pair of wildebeests trotted away from the truck as it grumbled along, and a two vultures flew overhead for a few minutes. Far off in the savannah I caught a glimpse of what I thought was a giraffe... I certainly didn't see the parade of colourful animals that I had been led to believe could be seen everywhere, but I decided I needed to be patient.

Toward the farmhouse I saw a number of rough headstones gathered together, not far from the side of the track. The foreman followed my gaze.

"Yellow Fever. Two years ago. If it hadn't been for the fever, we'd still be farming. The safari business brings less income, but it's more regular, so maybe it isn't such a bad thing."

"And those two headstones over there, near the farmhouse? They look very handsome."

"William and Valerie Greenham," he replied. "They built this farm as a young couple, and ran it for over forty years. They had a hard time making it work, though - it was only in the last five years or so before the fever struck that the farm started to turn a profit."

After a few moments he turned to me with a vague smile.

"You see, the thing about William was that he was rather an oaf.... a good-natured chap, but trouble and bad luck seemed to follow him everywhere he went. Bad investments, unlucky gambling, and the like. At least he married a fine woman in Valerie, and she kept him out of too much hot water. One story goes that he got himself into a brawl one night in a pub... as things were beginning to get ugly, Val jumped from the shadows and beaned the other fellow with a croquet mallet, then dragged William from the place before the police arrived!"

The truck had reached the front of the farmhouse, and as it stopped, a couple of native servants emerged to take the luggage.

"They were good people to work for, and fair," he said. "In June of '31 the yellow fever struck, and many of the servants and labourers took ill, and some died. William was the first to catch the fever, and succumbed quickly. I suppose his resistance was lowered from the stress of running the place for so many years."

We climbed from the truck, and he just stood there for a moment or two. Then, his voice seemed to soften, as if he were talking to himself.

"In William's last hours, they talked about the things they'd done, how they were proud of their children, about all the years of their life together... But the last thing he said to her was thank you. He thanked her for supporting him, helping him, protecting him, he thanked her again and again. I think maybe he wanted to say thank you more than I love you. But she said to him that she needed somebody to help, and watch over, and protect. She told him he didn't owe her anything. He was a lucky fellow in some ways. If he'd married someone else he'd have probably died young, or gone mad, or gone to jail. You know, since then I've often wondered if helping people is an underrated thing."

As if to emphasise his point, he hauled a large chest off the truck for the servants to carry away.

"Val didn't live for too long after that - she also caught the fever and passed away within a week or so. After she died, her manservant Babatope cried non-stop for three days in a sort of moaning, slobbering fashion which was quite ridiculous... although I suppose one couldn't help but feel for the poor blighter. Babatope insisted Val would come back, as a sort of spirit, or angel, or something like that. He said that one such as she will always help those who can't help themselves. The natives say they see her sometimes. Of course they say a lot of things - never seen the slightest evidence of anything like that meself."

The servants had taken the luggage inside, and the other members of the household emerged to be introduced. There were only five of them - the gardener, the cook, and three labourers who had assumed different roles in the running of the station since it had ceased operations as a farm. No doubt there had been many more people who had lived here before then. As I looked around to take in the sights, I noticed much of the ground stretching away from the farm was scorched.

"Have you had lightning strikes?" I asked.

"No, the land has been cleared of high grass. There's been a man-eating lion stalking along the railway line for over two months. It hasn't been this far east yet, but we're taking no chances - you must stay inside after dark, with your shutters locked. Do you know how to use a rifle?"

"A rifle? I haven't the slightest idea," I replied. "I'm a retired librarian, I'd never been farther south than Bournemouth until three years ago, when my wife died."

"I see. Right. Well I admire your adventurous spirit, old chap. As time permits, I will instruct you in the use of the .303 and the 12-bore shotgun."

"You know, I'd much rather use my camera than a rifle. I came here to-"

"I'm sorry, I must insist," he said sharply. "Even if there was no man-eater, there are often occasions when it's necessary to use firearms, for any number of reasons. It's part of my job to at least show you the basic principles of firing a weapon. Settle in for tonight, and tomorrow we'll make a start."

The doors and windows had been roughly fitted with stout iron bars and large locks. As I retired for the evening, I could see a perimeter of bonfires outside, set every ten paces or so around the farmstead. Beyond that, a wire fence had been hastily erected and cow-bells attached at rough intervals. Two of the servants wandered back and forth, clutching their guns. The man-eater had taken nine people so far, twice during the daylight in full sight of others. It was a large beast, and was said to have lost a lower canine, perhaps being the reason why it had taken to hunting prey that was weaker and slower, if less meaty. It had supposedly taken at least one bullet in its hind quarter, which no doubt had not improved its temper.

The air remained warm for several hours after nightfall, and the rising moon was stained red with the smoke of fires lit to remove the grasses on the savannah. The wind moved softly to carry the scent of orchids and tamarind blossom through the house. As I lay waiting for sleep, the night was filled with distant noise - it seemed every minute brought the new call of some bird, or the jabbering or yelling of Heaven knows what sort of animal. Shouldn't the animal kingdom be asleep? Were they also uneasy at the presence of the monster somewhere in the darkness? Or was it just my imagination? From time to time I heard a ghostly chirping sound which I was later told came from an orphaned cheetah that had taken to scrounging around the farm - no doubt this was adding to the fear of the farm inhabitants. As the hours passed and I began to feel the melting away of consciousness, I fancied I could hear the beating of thunder, somewhere far-off on the plain, but I later could not tell if it had been dream or reality.

In the morning, Frederick began to instruct me in the use of his rifle.

"Now the Lee-Enfield .303 has been the standard British Army infantryman's rifle since before the South African War. The Mark VII uses a center-fire 174 grain smokeless powder cartridge with a maximum average pressure of 49,000 pounds per square inch..."

"Goodness me."

"...and a muzzle velocity of 2,440 feet per second. It's loaded from above the breech, with a maximum capacity of ten rounds, chambered and cocked by bolt action, and in trained hands can deliver a rate of fire of thirty rounds per minute, with accuracy up to 550 yards..."

"Hmm, splendid."

"...and a reputation for reliability known throughout the Empire. We have a testing range set up behind the farmhouse. I have five boxes of cartridges here - by the time we've used them up, you should be able to hold your own."

"I'm sure I will."

The first time the gun went off I thought I had gone deaf - it rang in my ears for an interminably long time. When it came my turn to fire the infernal thing, it kicked so hard that it bruised my shoulder for a week. As I tried to jam the cartridges into the magazine Frederick couldn't help but see my petulance, so he snatched the rifle off me.

"I could show you how to use a pistol, but in Africa they're really quite a silly object to have around - they can't do anything that they're required to do, they're just dangerous. Around here sometimes even the most powerful weapons aren't up to the job. Did you ever hear about the man-eater of Nyeri? No? What a surprise. Well, a few years before the war, a lion, a big lion, was stalking the workers who were constructing a bridge over the river. For six months the animal hunted, and killed more than fifty men. Some say the beast was doing it just for fun. Reginald Bayly was the most respected big cat hunter in East Africa - he stalked the lion even as it stalked him, during eight days of torrential rain, but eventually he knew he had the cat cornered in a cave that went back for half a mile. The lion had already taken a bullet, so Bayly had a trail of blood to follow, and with the nerve that only an Englishman can summon up, he slowly went forward into the cave. When Bayly finally confronted the lion, he put four .303 bullets into the brute as it charged him, and still it wouldn't go down. Luckily for Bayly he'd taken a .275 Rigby Mauser as well, and two more shots from that finally stopped the nasty devil. It died at his feet, angrily chewing on a branch. This is the sort of beast one deals with in Africa. If you can't use a rifle I'm afraid you're going to have to rely on blind luck, old chap. Stay close to me at all times."

And under his breathe he added,

"Let's hope you don't find yourself wishing you'd paid more attention."

The first day of my safari adventure consisted of staying on the farm and learning other basic skills that would be needed once we had begun to travel. I have to admit that I continued to be a poor pupil, despite the life or death necessity of absorbing the knowledge, and Frederick had occasion to bark reprimands at me to gain my attention. As he was trying to explain the principle of checking one's boots for scorpions before putting them on in the morning, my gaze wandered once too often, and he cuffed me over the head with his hat.

"Listen, damn it! This isn't school, man! I'm trying to save your hide!"

I felt my face redden and apologised quickly, but reflected that it was exactly like the sort of school that I had been to.

As the sun was beginning to set and the air to cool, we sat at a rough table outside and took a simple meal of corned beef, pumpkin soup and large bottles of ale. Frederick told more tales of white hunters valiantly doing battle with the terrible beasts of Africa, and slaying them with frightful weaponry. Suddenly, as if to illustrate his stories, a terrified, strained roar echoed from somewhere on the savannah. He stopped moving, and listened.

"Do you think that might be the man-eater?" I asked.

"Unlikely. A lion will never roar while stalking, and only occasionally to warn other beasts away from a kill. It may be a trapped animal. We have nets set around the farm, but lions are usually too clever to be caught."

Frederick listened for a minute or two more, but the howling continued. He turned to one of his men.

"Rono, fetch the .303, and light some torches. Whatever it is, it may draw the man-eater."

Frederick, Rono and I made our way as soundlessly as we could toward the wailing of the animal. After a quarter of an hour or so we came upon a large acacia tree, and at the foot, tangled in a net, was a huge lion.

"Good God!" exclaimed Frederick. "The man-eater - it has to be!"

The lion was utterly trapped. He had been stupid enough to enter the snare exactly as had been intended, and his entire body was tangled and twisted, particularly his head, where the ropes had conspired to tighten in a way that was causing him significant pain. It was as much as he could do to open his maw wide enough to make any sound at all, and it was clear that he represented no danger. Frederick stepped forward, cocking his rifle.

"I'm awfully sorry about this, old fellow..."

He placed the barrel of his rifle up against the lion's forehead and pulled the trigger. The only sound was a dull 'clack'.

"Damn it!" he yelled, and began to work the bolt. The rifle could not be coaxed into operation despite all his efforts.

"Confound it, I'll have to get the shotgun. Quickly! Everybody back to the house! We mustn't separate!"

We ran as fast as we could, and Frederick rushed in to get the gun. But as we made our way back to the acacia tree I realised I could no longer hear the lion's cries...

In our dash back to the house and then our return, I suppose we had only been gone about half an hour. But when we got to the tree, the lion was gone. Frederick cursed and spat with startling profanity at the missed opportunity to kill the beast, and hurled his hat to the ground.

"Its mouth was tied shut!" he muttered. "How did it chew through the ropes?"

Rono remained silent as Frederick knelt down to examine the net. After a moment or so he stood again.

"The ropes haven't been chewed. The trap has been untied."

"What? But who would want to free the lion?" I exclaimed. "It would be suicide!"

Frederick and Rono exchanged a glance. Then Frederick picked up his hat, brushed it down and looked about.

"...I don't know. One thing's certain - the damn thing is still loose. Very well. There's no tracking it in the dark. We must get back quickly, in case it's still close by."

As we turned to go, far off in the darkness I could see something moving, and as I watched and tried to make out what was there, it seemed to me that beyond a long tangle of thorn bushes was the silhouette of a lion, walking silently. And beside it I thought I saw another shadow moving. But I could have been mistaken.

April, 2010

 the next chapter » 
 « contents