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The Last Ivory Hunter: The Saga of Wally Johnson
The Last Ivory Hunter: The Saga of Wally Johnson
The Last Ivory Hunter: The Saga of Wally Johnson
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The Last Ivory Hunter: The Saga of Wally Johnson

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A chance meeting around a safari campfire on the banks of the Mupamadazi River leads to The Last Ivory Hunter: The Saga of Wally Johnson, a grand tale of African adventure by renowned hunting author Peter Hathaway Capstick.

Wally Johnson spent half a century in Mozambique hunting white gold—ivory. Most men died at this hazardous trade. He’s the last one able to tell his story.

In hours of conversations by mopane fired in the African bush, Wally described his career—how he survived the massive bite of a Gaboon viper, buffalo gorings, floods, disease, and most dangerous of all, gold fever. He bluffed down 200 armed poachers almost single-handedly, and survived rocket attacks from communist revolutionaries during Mozambique’s plunge into chaos in 1975.

In Botswana, at age 63, Wally continued his career. Though the great tuskers have largely gone and most of Wally’s colleagues are dead, Wally has survived. His words are rugged testimony to an Africa that is now a distant dream.

Fecha de lanzamiento15 jul 1988
The Last Ivory Hunter: The Saga of Wally Johnson
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Peter Hathaway Capstick

Peter Hathaway Capstick (1940-1996), a former Wall Street stockbroker turned professional adventurer, was critically acclaimed as the successor to Hemingway and Ruark in African hunting literature. After giving up his career, the New Jersey native hunted in Central and South America before going to Africa in 1968, where he held professional hunting licenses in Ethiopia, Zambia, Botswana, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Capstick also served in that most perilous of trades—Elephant and Buffalo Cropping Officer. In addition to writing about hunting, he was also featured in an award-winning safari video and audio tapes. Captstick settled in Pretoria, South Africa with his wife Fiona until his death at age 56.

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    The Last Ivory Hunter - Peter Hathaway Capstick


    The story of Walter Walker Johnson will be one of the last to emerge from the old Africa of classic big game hunting and high adventure, when elephant could be hunted on an unlimited commercial basis and when a man could still explore vast areas of an Africa all but untouched by Western sophistication and progress.

    This book is not a biography in the true sense. Rather, it is a collection of incredible stories told by an old friend and veteran professional hunter, who has earned the respect of everyone who has ever known him. Wally—as he will be known throughout this book—will be seventy-six years old by the time you settle down to read these lines. He is one of the last living legends of an Africa that has in many ways sadly succumbed to the Soviet bloc and its surrogates, as you will see. His Africa, the limitless plains, forests, marshes, and savannas of Mozambique on the east coast of Africa, has undergone a frightening transformation and has become a battleground where human beings are starving and where the game that remains faces annihilation. Elephants, once the scourge of the country because they were so prolific, are fast becoming a memory. Poachers and guerrilla warfare have seen to that.

    A hunter since 1926, Wally Johnson conducted his last professional safari in Zambia, with my good friends Lew and Dale Games, when he was over seventy. (His client, Hank Williams, Jr., the well-known recording artist, had the privilege of sharing Wally’s company and experience.)

    The Last Ivory Hunter is certainly not an arbitrary title. On a simple chronological basis, Wally probably was the last commercial hunter of ivory. He certainly had contemporaries, but almost everyone of note is already dead. Nobody, I think, who is still alive, has spent the sheer years Wally has in pursuit of white gold. He is the doyen of that noble band of adventurers who lived the hard, hungry, weary way in the malaria-ridden expanses of Africa. His story bears witness for posterity to African hunting and the men who lived the life that can no longer be known. And, as you learn of Wally’s adventures in this book, you will marvel that he is alive at all, let alone that he was able to record his amazing life before it was too late.

    Wally’s life has been one of unique excitement and danger. According to the best of our information, Wally is one of only two people known to have survived a full bite of a mature gaboon viper, surely one of the most lethal snakes in Africa. He survived a near-fatal goring by a Cape buffalo. He and a couple of pals stood off several hundred armed poachers in a totally isolated part of Mozambique, where they could have been overwhelmed and murdered in a flash—their bodies never recovered. He has killed nearly a hundred lions, many with the American deer rifle, a lever-action .30-30, and has shot some 1300 elephant, all bulls except for perhaps 5 percent cows, which he was forced to take in self-defense. He has been victim to all kinds of tropical diseases and has known privations we only read about—all this quite apart from being a professional hunter and safari host to many outstanding personalities of the day, including Robert Ruark, and from having survived a communist revolution, where he was shot up by RPGs, assaulted, arrested, stripped of everything he owned, and thrown out of the country he had called home for over half a century. Wally is a survivor. His story is one of survival, of surmounting often frightening odds and of coming through with spirit intact and memories still fresh of an Africa now relegated to one of the more tragic chapters of human history.

    Wally’s birth presaged an unusual life to come. He was born on the high seas between Australia and Durban, South Africa, on January 8, 1912 to parents in the racehorse business. I got a kick out of his answer when I asked him the name of the ship: I don’t recall. I was just a little baby, you know.

    He and his two sisters lived in South Africa for a time, Wally having been sent to a convent school just north of Durban where the nuns scared him half to death. The family then moved to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Although Wally left school at fourteen, he is a great reader, a marvelously articulate raconteur, and has a wealth of life experience.

    At fourteen years of age, Wally traveled to Mozambique, where he joined his brother-in-law, August Wood, as a shipping clerk in the quaint, ancient port town of Lourenço Marques, a Portuguese possession since the dawn of the sixteenth century. Wally had arrived in what was a truly unspoiled, wild part of the world, where game teemed on the doorstep of the harbor town and where the whiff of African adventure was constantly in the air. That same year Wally started the lifelong apprenticeship of the hunter, but more of that later.

    This book is the result of more than 150 hours of taped interviews with Wally, starting with the memorable safari we enjoyed together in 1985 in the Luangwa Valley of Zambia, where we planned the project in detail. We then met many times in my home, where I helped Wally chip away at the treasure house of memories and often extraordinary experiences that fill this book. I had the pleasure of speaking at length with his son, Walter, Jr., and with his daughter, Erika, who both contributed a great many details to the fund I eventually amassed. I met two of Wally’s grandchildren in the process and was given valuable documents, photographs, and other memorabilia. Such addenda took on a new significance when I learned that the illustrations you see in this book were but a minute fraction of what we could have used had the communist-backed FRELIMO government of the new Mozambique not stolen practically every possession Wally had. It is thanks to Wally’s daughter, who had some copies of photographs, that we have any illustrations at all. Wally’s beautiful home at Vila de Manica, just across the border from the then-Rhodesian town of Umtali, is now a memory, a home he last saw in 1975.

    The story unfolds largely in Wally’s voice. I have included some of my own experiences and comments in order to better highlight Wally’s tale. Wally does not handle dates well—after more than half a century in the bush, experiencing traumas that nearly cost him his life, who could?

    Wally Johnson is a professional bushman, a man of his hands and his eyes. So, if you reckon that the occasional hell or damn or the somewhat frequent invocation of the deity are offensive, put down this book. Wally is a rough and ready soul who has been to hell and back several times, often bringing along souvenirs. I absolutely refuse to tell his story in any way other than that in which it was told to me—Portuguese invectives and all. This is the true story of a man and an era, told accurately and to the best of my ability.

    What you are about to read is the story of one of the great African hunting personalities. His tale is testimony to a time and place that are irrevocably gone. It is a story I immediately recognized as significant and worthy of recording because of its sweep, truth, and high drama. With this book, Wally has surely sidestepped oblivion and has left for posterity a document that will be treasured. It has been a great privilege for me to chronicle the tales of the African world as it used to be. We shall see no more of it.


    It is no accident that Peter Hathaway Capstick is the author of my life story. As a former professional hunter and an established writer on African hunting adventure, Peter was known to me, and he, in turn, had heard of me many years ago through my son, Walter. We have also hunted in Botswana at the same time. A mutual friend, Dave Dawson of Houston, Texas, persuaded us to get together in order that my fifty-five years of hunting and bush adventures would not be lost to my family and to all those who may never have the privilege of hunting in Africa and of enjoying a way of life that is disappearing.

    Peter and I spent a memorable safari together in Zambia during July 1985, where our hosts, Lew and Dale Games, shared our evenings by the campfire on the banks of the Mupamadzi River as we reminisced about old friends and planned this book. Listening to Peter’s laughter and observing him in the bush during a follow-up after a wounded leopard in extremely dense cover, I could not help being reminded of my late friend and client on many safaris, Bob Ruark. The only thing missing was the gin, but the two men shared a similar courage and capacity to enjoy life in the bush. And they both knew how to tell a story.

    Peter was lucky to be there at all, as he had just completed a hunt in Botswana with Gordon Cundill where Gordon’s double-barreled .500 Nitro Express insurance gun malfunctioned on four shots during a charge by a record-size lion, which Peter managed to put down with his .375 H & H at the last moment. It was a very close thing indeed, but it illustrates that Peter does not sit at a desk all day. He gets out there and stands his ground. My story needed someone who knows what it is to confront dangerous game and keep his nerve under the worst hunting circumstances.

    Over many days of taped interviews—and after referring to whatever material I was able to salvage from Mozambique in the wake of the revolution in that country in 1975, when I lost everything except one vehicle and the clothes on my back—my story emerged. Perhaps this is a suitable place to explain that the Africa of my youth was a very different place from the continent it is today. When I first started hunting for ivory, elephant were so numerous and caused such terrible damage to the crops of villagers in Mozambique that the herds had to be drastically thinned out. Peter understood this as he was cropping elephant in Zambia decades later to help curb their numbers and the destruction of habitat. Politics, poaching, and population explosions have changed all that now.

    It has often been difficult recalling exact details, because a great deal has happened to me since I arrived as a young boy in Mozambique in 1926. I have known so many people during my years in the bush that it is not easy to sift through my memories and single people out. But Harry Manners, author of Kambaku, occupies a special place as my hunting partner of the very early days, and I can never forget Luis, my gunbearer of some twenty-five years, and the other Africans, black and white, who became part of my life, sharing good times and often very bad times. I recall dozens and dozens of clients with whom I enjoyed splendid hunts and who came back for more. Many of them keep in touch to this day. Peter helped me remember a great deal, as he has lived the safari life, knows the African bush, and has long fallen under the spell it has cast over both our lives.

    Looking back now, with the perspective that only age can bring, there are indeed some experiences I wish I had never had to endure, and there are incidents I wish I could have handled differently. But, given the choice, I would live my life again as a professional hunter in Africa where my home was the bush and my days were filled with adventure. I hope this story helps you share some of that magic.


    On safari—Mupamadzi River, Zambia

    July 1985



    For God’s sake, Luis, help me! I’m dying!

    The Mozambican Shangaan looked at Wally with penetrating eyes, eyes whose quickness had saved lives time and again over the twenty years he had been with Wally, hunting in Mozambique. The head gunbearer’s gaze was as bloodshot as usual, testimony to malaria, safari, and long hours after game. Though he was a good man—reliable as most to whom one entrusts one’s life—he wanted nothing to do with this.

    His patrão was going to cash in and he wanted no part in the proceedings.

    No, Baas, you’re going to die. We have been together a long time, and I don’t want to be there when you die. You must die alone. It is the way of things.

    "My old friend of so much danger, help me! I don’t want to die on a lonely road and the hyenas take my body. Help me! Vou morrer!"

    "I can’t, Baas. What if the authorities find out when you die? And you will die, because that is the worst snake. They will accuse me and the other men of killing you. What will I do then? You know they will then kill me … ."

    Help me! You can do no less!

    Oh yes, he could do less. Odd chap, Luis.

    On the day Wally was bitten by a massive Gaboon viper in 1957, it had been nearly a year since he had captured another snake, which he thought at the time to be a young python. He kept it in a wire cage and fed it mice, the snake apparently enjoying the easy life. Then, one day, Wally took it down to show his chums at the local sawmill. Much to his shock, the manager called him an unadulterated idiot and advised him that it was a Gaboon viper, one of the most feared snakes in Africa, and from whose bite only one person had been known to recover. Wally, however, told the manager that it was he who was the idiot. Clearly it was a young python.

    You madman! That thing is deadly poisonous! Are you some kind of nut?

    No, man, answered Wally. It’s a python. I’ve even had my fingers in its mouth!

    You’ve what?

    Sure. No fangs [he not realizing that they fold up against the roof of the mouth and that the snake had somehow tamed down]. I keep it in a wire pen as a pet. Give it frogs and mice and stuff.

    Well, get it the hell out of here or I’ll kill it. Now!

    The cocking clicks of his revolver were ominous in the silence, the other strong and able men having scrambled onto the dining-room table when Wally threw the snake on the floor for exhibition.

    Don’t touch my bloody snake! You don’t want him, I’ll take him home.

    And with that, he grabbed the snake by the back of the head and dropped him into a sack, the deadly reptile as docile as a pussycat.

    But Wally was wrong. It was a Gaboon … .

    The Gaboon viper is certainly one of Africa’s most dangerous snakes, possibly because of its lethargy, much like that of the puff adder, rather than because of great activity or aggressiveness. The Gaboon, happily, is a fairly rare snake. Its coloring closely resembles the colors of the Napier Clan tartan, the body pattern being a complex geometric of primarily tan, blue, and black, some colors having a white edge to them. It has nasal horns that, together with the striking colors, make it surprisingly difficult to spot in long grass. So Wally found out … .

    Bitis gabonica probably has the longest fangs of the vipers. It is a thick, short snake, the longest recently recorded Gaboon viper being from Sierra Leone and measuring 6 feet 8½ inches. But it’s one very bad bastard if it loses its sense of humor.

    After several months in its wire cage, being ogled at by the local kids, the snake was found one morning with blood on its back, just as Wally was about to feed it. One of the children had jabbed the snake with a piece of wire and it died soon afterward. Wally pitched it into the bush and gave the matter little more thought. He should have.

    It was almost a year later to the day when Wally was nearly killed twice. But let him tell you the story … .

    "I was down in the same area where I had caught what I thought was the baby python. I was staying for a couple of months to hunt for ivory, and I decided to take along a new cook my wife had just hired. The old guy had to leave for some reason or another and she got this new man. My wife insisted that he come along with me in the bush as I never seem to eat. She wanted somebody to look after me. She told him to pack up a chopbox with pots and pans, canned food, and anything else he thought he might need.

    "Well, we got down to the spot within twenty miles of where I had been the year before, and I went out hunting with Luis on the first day we were there. As there wasn’t much doing, I came back at about eleven in the morning. The cook didn’t expect me back at that hour and hadn’t prepared any food for lunch. I asked him what he had, and he said he was sorry that he had only expected me that evening.

    "Patrão, look in that box there and maybe you’ll find something I can cook for you, spaghetti or something. You must find something, patrão; there’s a lot of tinned food.’

    "He opened the box and I had a look through and pulled out a tin of spaghetti or bully beef or something. Then I happened to notice another tin there, picked it up, and found out it was a snakebite kit. My wife used to carry this outfit. She always had it at home, as she did a lot of gardening and was scared as hell of snakes. I turned to the cook and said, ‘Hey, where’d you get this thing from?’

    "‘Na casa de banho. From your bathroom.’

    "‘But did the senhora give it to you?’

    "‘No, patrão. I just saw it and took it.’

    "‘Do you know what it is?’

    "‘Sim, senhor! Yes, I do. It’s snakebite muti. I know about these things from the mission school.’

    "‘Hell,’ I said, ‘I’m going to be in trouble if the senhora finds out this thing is missing, because she doesn’t like to be without this medicine in the house. Ah, on second thought, n e9781466803961_img_257.gif o faz mal. Don’t worry about it. You did very well to bring the snakebite kit. I just hope that my wife doesn’t notice you’ve taken it.’

    Baas, you never know when you may be bitten by a bad snake.

    This book exists because of the forethought of that cook.

    "While I was having something to eat, my headman and gunbearer, Luis, came to me and said, ‘Patrão, can I borrow one of your rifles? I want to go down to the river to catch some fish. There are a lot of big crocs down there, and I’d like a rifle for protection.’

    "‘year, sure, take that 9.3mm Mauser. There are four shots in the magazine and one more in the chamber. Go ahead and take that rifle, but cuidado! Just watch out!’"

    Luis went off and Wally was still eating lunch when, maybe ten or fifteen minutes later, he heard a shot.

    "I thought to myself, well, Luis has seen some crocs. But then I heard another one, and in all, he fired off the whole five shots. When this happened, I thought, hell, this can’t be a crocodile he’s shooting at—with five shots, there’s something wrong. I immediately grabbed my .375 Holland & Holland Magnum and started running in the direction of the shots, along the riverbank on the path.

    "I hadn’t gone very far when I saw some native women washing some clothes in the river and I asked if they had heard some shots going off just about where they were. ‘No, we heard nothing.’ I said to myself, hell, that’s damned strange. Then I asked: ‘Well, did you see a man come along this path with a gun—you know, uma espingarda?’

    "‘No,’ they answered. ‘We never saw a man with a gun.’

    "That’s goddamn funny, thought Wally. Seemed to be just about here somewhere."

    Wally encountered the reluctance of rural women in Africa to speak to strangers.

    "There was a deep little dry river that fed into the main river, a steep embankment that could only be done on foot if one ran at top speed down the near side to gain momentum that would carry one halfway up the other side. It was surrounded by the densest bush and grass imaginable. Call it a deep gully. I ran down the one slope as fast as I could and got about halfway up the other side before I had to slog it. I made the top, and saw a man coming along the other side and asked him: ‘Say, have you seen a man with a rifle?’

    "‘No, patrão, but I did hear some shots just around here.’

    "‘Where exactly was it?’

    "‘Ah, close. It was just a little while ago.’

    "So, I started shouting, and finally got an answer from Luis. Well, thank God he wasn’t dead. He came running up after a few minutes and I asked, ‘Luis, what the hell’s going on here?’

    "‘Baas, where on earth have you come from?’

    "‘From the camp! Where else? What the bloody hell’s going on, Luis?’

    Luis answered: ‘These women won’t talk to outsiders. I told them to tell you that I had wounded a buffalo. He’s hiding right down at the bottom of this little river bed you crossed. Come here and I’ll show you.’

    And there it was, a wounded bull buffalo back at the river bed Wally had run through. It was standing in the dense foliage not a foot from the track. Wally killed it with a single shot from his .375. The wounded buff, apparently, had been so astonished to see a man flash by so quickly—remember, Wally was running flat out to get up the other side—that it never occurred to it to charge!

    Wally got past the hidden wounded buffalo through sheer surprise and luck. No thanks to the women at the river who could have warned him. But far worse was to come that day … .

    After Wally had killed the buffalo, he ordered the rest of the men who had followed him from camp at the sound of shots to butcher the animal for rations.

    The sun, a molten bronze orb, was slipping lower and the call of the emerald-spotted tree dove washed through the bush as the men set to with their knives, taking the hind legs and the filets for Wally’s table, carrying the heavy legs on stout poles between them. Wally was walking in third place, behind the first two carriers, when horror literally

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