Robert von Reitnauer, Professional Hunter
Kwaheri! by Robert von Reitnauer. Robert von Reitnauer's story of hunting in East Africa.
Professional hunter Robert von Reitnauer was born at home on Christmas Day, 1933 during a raging rainstorm in the Mufindi Highlands in southern Tanganyika.
That was first of many storms in the life of this son of a German farmer and passionate hunter, and a mother raised to be a pianist and opera singer. They lived during that (to us) glorious time when a resident hunting permit allowed five elephants per licence, when you could earn your bona fides as a hunter wherever the rumour of big tuskers took you.
Roberts father Wilhelm had first come out to Africa in 1912; two years later, he was fighting with the Schutztruppe in the 1914-18 East Africa campaign. He returned to Germany, but fled the settled, city life of Ludwigshafen in 1926 to former German East Africa, this time with his bride. To encourage resettlement of their old colony, the German government was paying settlers a monthly 300-shilling stipend. So the couple headed for the Mufindi Highlands, 50 miles south of Iringa – a place not unlike the Kenyan White Highlands – to farm coffee and tobacco among leopards and bushpigs. He panned for gold in the Lupa goldfields when cash was short.
Forbidden by the British administration to grow more profitable tea, the family moved in 1936 to the Tanganyika-Northern Rhodesia border for a fresh start that would not be their last. (His father later farmed coffee on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, then was a quarry manager in Kenya near Tsavo National Park West.) While a mere infant, Reitnauer began hunting duiker, reedbuck and impala on his father’s shoulders.
Before long, representatives of the Nazi government appeared, and the German national ministry ordered their far-flung settlers to join the party. Wilhelm declined despite the confiscation of their property in Heidelberg by the Nazis. Although outcasts from their community, soon enough they were declared enemies of the British Empire, and repeatedly relocated to various farms that he worked as if his own. Under the Custodian of Enemy Property laws, “little did we realize that this would be the last time we’d ever see our home or its contents,” writes Robert.
During this period of internment, while his father trapped and speared a dozen buffalo in 8-foot-deep pits to help feed staff, Robert walked to school, encountering rhino, duiker and dik-dik. (As a teenager, through his bedroom window, he watched two lionesses pry the lid off a 44-water drum.) He slowly developed bush skills and learned the African’s universe – how ancestral spirits “moved through with the wind on a journey only their forefathers could understand” – from a series of mentors from different tribes. He learned about using roots and leaves as salves for stings and bites, and the fat from around an eland’s heart for rheumatism and to keep bow strings supple; to trap birds and imitate their calls; that “older tracks have unflattened leaves and crisscross paths of insects over them”; and how pointing at an animal while hunting transports one’s deadly intentions. A Wanjiramba named Maz-sunzu also instilled in him “the value of patient awareness” that served him well as a PH. “Kuwinda (to hunt) – to kill something for food, the hide for clothes and shoes, the bones for snuff containers and tools, the sinews for bowstrings, the marrow to rub on our skins, and bladders for water bags – is hard work,” said the old man.
By 1943, his father had procured a 7mm for himself and a .22 for Robert. Soon, the boy witnessed the crushed and torn remains of a worker smashed to death by mbogo (buffalo) and later, the bits and piece of an imprudent Boer hunter crushed by ndofu (elephant).
Reitnauer writes in his book the combination of clarity and poetry about Africa and its animals. His description of the land, its vegetation and light demonstrates his writer’s heart. Of a buffalo coming at them “with head high and bamboo pieces hanging from the crook of its horns,” when the rifle shot hit its mark, “our old friend’s time in the forest was over.” Of an aged elephant, “The good tusk stuck out of its ancient, emaciated face like a stained, smooth tree branch.”
Before fulfilling his bush dreams, the young German-African had to endure years of boarding school in Arusha and Nairobi, years he describes as well as Dickens. Luckily, during holidays there were safaris with his father (and his octagonal barrelled .577), Mazsunzu and his son Funza in Masailand for buffalo, leopard and 100-lb tuskers. At 14, Robert received an 8mm Mannlicher-Schoenauer for Christmas.
By the time he finished high school in1950, ‘old Africa’ was already changing. The older generation of Africans was being replaced by a youth as arrogant as the British, while settlers, with generations of labour and worry invested in the land, felt it was theirs.
Reitnauer’s purchase of a .470 Westley Richards Nitro Express and a 1945 Chevy; his taking on a Wanjamwezi tribesman named Nzingu as all-around fellow; and a Taita tribesman from Kenya named Katongo as kilongozi (guide); and listening to advice from PH Clarence Palmer-Wilson, were all hints at what was to come.
His was a self-apprenticeship on dangerous big game as Reitnauer wandered in search of big tuskers from the Umba River areas to the Masai Steppe and Lake Eyasi, living alone with his African “poaching gunbearers,” sleeping on the tracks of elephants whose ivory “condemned them to death,” and sharing posho and corned beef around campfires. Some were ugly kills, like his first “sorry” headshot; others were perfect. He shot buffalo, rhino, lions, “whose eyes focused on mine, shining with a light signifying all their power and killer instincts,” and four elephants with tusks over 100 pounds. No younger hunter could write such adventures today, as this time is forever beyond reach.
By 1953, his first safari clients from Europe arrived. PHs cannot read about these years without longing for such enthusiastic hunters with time! A German industrialist, Karl, and his attractive lady friend, Heidi, came for a three-month movable Big Five safari. They were mentally prepared for a land “where weather, distances, and road conditions are measured by an individual’s opinion of them,” and deeply appreciative of every success. Robert’s first tip: a mouthful of kisses from Heidi – and a new long-wheel-base Land Rover! (PHs know those days are over, too!).
Between safaris, Reitnauer learned about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya first-hand, and these are mesmerizing pages. Indeed, his father had predicted Africa’s future: “Millions will migrate from one slaughter to another, and anything white will have to join other wandering whites searching for a place to live.” Perhaps too soon, Reitnauer acquired a first wife (and later a second one) and three children. In addition to a baby elephant, he added a pet cheetah “with the snobbery of a king, the charm of a charismatic lover, and the speed of a world-class sprinter,” while his father handled the correspondence with safari clients.
Meanwhile, the safaris came – mostly with well-to-do Dutchmen, German and Belgian sportsmen. Living so closely with clients (and their ladies) under often trying circumstances for months at a time, gave Reitnauer, a naturally amusing and insightful writer, plenty of opportunities to create unforgettable portraits of his Nimrods engaged in big-game hunting action. He writes as if he knew that “the characteristic ‘old time’ safari would change into a hectic, time-limited, measurement conscious rush through the bush to find the biggest trophy.” But when clients were sloppy shooters, “I silently debated the pros and cons of my profession: the distasteful wounding of game and the prolonged suffering caused by such quests for trophies.”
Although by the early 60s, the Mau Mau “mess” was winding down, storms were building in Rhodesia and Mozambique, while South Africa’s Apartheid continued to radicalize blacks there. After Mwalimu Nyerere appeared on the Tanganyika scene, Zanzibar convulsed under Ugandan activist John Okello; joined together in 1964, the United Republic of Tanzania was born. Even guiding safaris in paradises like Ruaha was losing its charm as “the unpressured European style of safari, with its time flexibility, had now been replaced by shorter safaris – virtual shopping lists of game for people on fixed scheduled. Clients appeared to be in a constant state of hurry and did now allow themselves the luxury of relaxation... And the all-important Book of Records seemed to have superseded the old concept of fair chase. Hunting was now an industry...”
Nevertheless, Reitnauer attended Game Coin International, meeting up with the safari booking agent Roman Hupalowski who brought him hunters, like Frank Higgen. Tanzania began its slow fiscal and political tanking; large-scale poaching started taking its toll, especially on elephants. Where to go? Uganda was now “Big Daddy” Amin country; hunting would close in Kenya in 1977.
In 1974, a plane to America carried Reitnauer, his wife and children, and a heart full of memories. Soon enough, the second marriage failed, his only daughter was killed in a car accident, and return trips to Africa only worsened the contrast between his idyllic childhood and the realization that the life of “living off animals was destined for extinction” in the new Africa.
Today, Robert von Reitnauer lives in Fort Worth, Texas – a man with a gift for words and recalling the past. “I feel that a large part of my soul lies scattered over the entire breadth of East Africa.”
Kwaheri! (Swahili for farewell or goodbye)