Monday, April 06, 2009

Wilbur Smith and the Rhinoceros

Many Africa fans will know the author Wilbur Smith. For people my age, being brought up in Victorian style Rhodesia, his debut book, When The Lion Feeds, was the nearest thing we got to soft porn. I don’t think our school or local library had it, so at 15, I had to stand in the queue as it did the rounds of Class 3b1 in 1973. (The book was written in 1964, but I wasn’t exactly going to get excited by it whilst aged 6!)

Ironically, after a trip to the UK in ‘75, returning to Rhodesia, I smuggled past customs a copy of one of the hottest books of the time – Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker. As it was cooling a bit after two years of publication, I picked it up ‘dirt’ cheap from – Woolworths! Just behind the shelf for ‘pic –n –mix’.

I lent it out and, by the time it did the school circuit, it came back in bits. Not a lot of them.

Anyway, this is all beside the point. Writing this I looked at Wiki about Wilbur. There were some interesting little facts. He wrote When The Lion Feeds whilst working as an accountant for Salisbury Inland Revenue. Amazing, the guy was looking at my father’s tax returns whilst thinking up saucy stories.

I remember vividly the cover on that paperback, especially the woman with those voluptuous breasts. Sadly I could not find an image of that particular cover. I always believed that the hero in that book, Sean Courtney, was influenced by a real life character by the name of Frederick Courteney Selous. I am sure Wilbur would have popped down to the local archives for some research on Frederick, who was very much the larger than life character. (It doesn’t take much imagination to see the similarity in the names.)

There is a great photo of Selous in the National Archives in Harare. I purchased a copy a while ago and it hangs above my PC screen. The same one on the net has been cropped.

He became a bit of a legend, and had acted as a guide for C.J. Rhodes’s Pioneer column into Mashonoland. During the Bush War the Rhodesian forces created a special anti-terrorist unit in his name – The Selous Scouts. I also recall a special First Day Cover issued in 1971. I had one, but don’t know where I have put it. It is interesting to note that Selous’s heirs were stripped of their property rights in Salisbury, because his marriage to three African women had been done under African traditional laws. This is interesting stuff that does not appear in the Encyclopaedia of Rhodesia, I wonder why?

Rhinos are rather large. This one is in Etosha Nat Park. 2008

Anyway, back to Wilbur Smith. It can be pretty certain that he will never win any literature prizes. He sticks to a rather stereotyped set of characters, but I still admit to reading all his latest books - as fast as they appear in the charity shops.

Now, completely out of Africa’s blue skies, I received a short story purportedly a true life experience written by Smith. My guess it is genuine. The anecdote is very much his style and with his trademark use of imagery.

It is hilarious…

Rhino skulls outside Mana Pools Nat. Park’s office,1993.

About half were poached.

This could be seen by the machete cuts in the skull from removing the horn.

The plight of the Black Rhinoceros is, or course, due mostly to the value of
its horn and the ferocious poaching that this engenders. However, a
contributory factor to the declining rhino population is the animals
disorganized mating habits.

It seems that the female rhino only becomes receptive to the male's
attentions every three years or so, while the male only becomes interested
in her at the same intervals. A condition known quite appropriately as
"Must" The problem is one of synchronization, for their amorous
inclinations do not always coincide.

In the early Sixties, I was invited, along with a host of journalists and
other luminaries, to be present at an attempt by the Rhodesian Game and
Tsetse Department to solve this problem of poor timing.

The idea was to capture a male rhino and induce him to deliver up that which
could be stored until that day in the distant future when his mate's fancy
turned lightly to thoughts of love.

We departed from the Zambezi Valley in an impressive convoy of trucks and
Landrovers, counting in our midst none other than the Director of the game
department in person, together with his minions, a veterinary surgeon, an
electrician and sundry other technicians, all deemed necessary to make the

The local game scouts had been sent out to scout the bush for the largest,
most virile rhino they could find. They had done their job to perfection
and led us to a beast at least the size of a small granite koppie with a
horn on his nose considerably longer than my arm.

The trick was to get this monster into a robust mobile pen which had been
constructed to accommodate him.

With the Director of the Game Department shouting frantic orders from the
safety of the largest truck, the pursuit was on. The tumult and the
shouting were apocalyptic. Clouds of dust flew in all directions, trees,
and vegetation were destroyed, game scouts scattered like chaff, but finally
the Rhino had about a litre of narcotics shot into his rump and his mood
became dreamy and benign.

With forty black game guards heaving and shoving, and the Director still
shouting orders from the truck, the rhino was wedged into his cage, and
stood there with a happy grin on his face.

At this stage, the Director deemed it safe to emerge from the cab of his
truck and he came amongst us resplendent in starched and immaculately ironed
bush jacket with a colourful silk scarf at this throat. With an imperial
gesture, he ordered the portable electric generator to be brought forward
and positioned behind the captured animal. This was a machine which was
capable of lighting up a small city, and it was equipped with two wheels
that made it resemble a roman chariot.

The Director climbed up on the generator to better address us. We gathered
around attentively while he explained what was to happen next.

It seemed that the only way to get what we had come for was to introduce an
electrode into the rhino's rear end, and to deliver a mild electric shock,
no more than a few volts, which would be enough to pull his trigger for him.

The Director gave another order and the veterinary surgeon greased something
that looked like an acoustic torpedo and which was attached to the generator
with sturdy insulated wires. He then went up behind the somnolent beast
and thrust it up him to a full arms length, at which the Rhino opened his
eyes very wide indeed.

The veterinary and his two black assistants now moved into position with a
large bucket and assumed expectant expressions. We, the audience, crowded
closer so as not to miss a single detail of the drama. The Director still
mounted on the generator trailer, nodded to the electrician who threw the
switch and chaos reigned. In the subsequent departmental enquiry the blame
was placed squarely on the shoulders of the electrician. It seems that in
the heat of the moment his wits had deserted him and instead of connecting
up his apparatus to deliver a gentle 5 volts, he had crossed his wires and
the Rhino received a full 500 volts up his rear end.

His reaction was spectacular. Four tons of rhinoceros shot six feet straight
up in the air. The cage, made of great timber baulks, exploded into its
separate pieces and the rhinoceros now very much awake, took off at a

We, the audience, were no less spritely. We took to the trees with alacrity.
This was the only occasion on which I have ever been passed by two
journalists half way up a Mopane tree.

From the top branches we beheld an amazing sight, for the chariot was still
connected to the Rhinoceros per rectum, and the director of the game
department was still mounted upon it, very much like Ben Hur, the

As they disappeared from view, the rhinoceros was snorting and blowing like
a steam locomotive and the Director was clinging to the front rail of his
chariot and howling like the north wind which only encouraged the beast to
greater speed.

The story has a happy ending for the following day after the director had
returned hurriedly to his office in Salisbury, another male Rhinoceros was
captured and caged and this time the electrician got his wiring right.

I can still see the Rhinoceros's expression of surprised gratification as
the switch was thrown. You could almost hear him think to himself. "Oh
Boy! I didn't think this was going to happen to me for at least another
three years".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In Rhodesia of those days we had to take our entertainment where we could get it.

I was traumatised for years after reading "Where the Lion Feeds" when I discovered that self-abuse could cause blindness.