Dragged off by a lion ... Harry Wolhuter's story

The following gripping tale is published with the kind permission of Professor Geoffrey Haresnape from his book, "The Great Hunters". Please see bottom of this page.

In August 1903, Wolhuter, new to his game ranging duties, was returning from a patrol along the Olifants River. He was near the Lebombo Mountains on the eastern boundary of the Sabi Game Reserve when this encounter - the most terrifying in all African big - game narratives - took place.

Although it became dusk very soon I continued to ride along the path - as I had often travelled that route by night during the Boer War to avoid the heat of the summer sun. I gave no thought to lions, as I had never before encountered these animals in those parts. Most of the herbage had been recently burnt off, but here and there a patch of long grass remained. While riding through one of these isolated patches I heard two animals jump up in the grass in front of me.

It was by now too dark to see, but I imagined that the animals in question were a pair of reedbuck, as this had always been a favourite locality for these antelope. I expected them to run across the path and disappear; but instead, and to my surprise, I heard a running rustle in the grass approaching me. I was still riding quietly along when two forms loomed up within three or four yards, and these I now recognised as two lions, and their behaviour was such that I had little doubt but that their intentions were to attack my horse. Although, of course, I had my rifle ( without which I never moved in the veld) there was no time to shoot, and as I hastily pulled my horse around I dug the spurs into his flanks in a frantic effort to urge him to his best speed to get away in time; but the approaching lion was already too close, and before the horse could get into its stride I felt a terrific impact behind me as the lion alighted on the horse's hindquarters.

What happened next, of course, occupied only a few seconds, but I vividly recall the unpleasant sensation of expecting the crunch of the lion's jaws in my person. However, the terrified horse was bucking and plunging so violently that the lion was unable to maintain its hold, but it managed to knock me out the saddle. Fortune is apt to act freakishly at all times, and it may seem a strange thing to suggest that it was fortunate for myself that I happen to fall almost on top of the second lion as he was running round in front of my horse, to get hold of it by the head. Had I fallen otherwise, However, it is probable that the lion would have grasped me by the head, and then this would assuredly never have been written! Actually, the eager brute gripped my right shoulder between its jaws and started to drag me away, and as it did so I could hear the clatter of my horse's hooves over the stony ground as it raced away with the first lion in hot pursuit; itself in turn being chased by my dog Bull.

Meanwhile, the lion continued dragging  me towards the neighbouring Metsimetsi Spruit. I was dragged along on my back, being held by the right shoulder, and as the lion was walking over me his claws would sometimes rip wounds in my arms and I was wearing a pair of spurs with strong leather straps, and these acted as brakes, scoring deep furrows in the ground over which we travelled. When the "brakes" acted too efficiently the lion would give an impatient jerk of his great head, which added excruciating pain to my shoulder, already deeply lacerated by the powerful teeth. I certainly was in a position to disagree emphatically with Dr. Livingstone's theory, (1)  based on his own personal experience, that the resulting shock from the bite of a large carnivorous animal so numbs the nerves that it deadens all pain; in my own case, I was conscious of great physical agony; and in addition to this was the mental agony as to what the lion would presently do with me; whether he would kill me first or proceed to dine off me while I was still alive!

Of course, in those first few moments I was convinced that it was all over with me and that I had reached the end of my earthly career. But then, as our painful progress still continued, it suddenly struck me that I might still have my sheath knife! I always carried this attached to my belt on the right side. Unfortunately, the knife did not fit too tightly in its sheath, and on two previous occasions when I had had a spill from my horse while galloping after game during the Boer War it had fallen out. It seemed almost too much to expect that it could still be safely there after the recent rough episodes. It took me some time to work my left hand round my back as the lion was dragging me over the ground, but eventually I reached the sheath, and, to my indescribable joy, the knife was still there! I secured it, and wondered where best first to stab the lion. It flashed through my mind that, many years ago, I had read in a magazine or newspaper that if you hit a cat on the nose  he must sneeze before doing anything. This particular theory is, of course, incorrect; but at the time I seriously entertained the idea of attempting it, though on second thoughts I dismissed the notion, deciding that in any case he would just sneeze and pick me up again - this time perhaps in a more vital spot!

I decided finally to stick my knife into his heart, and so I began to feel very cautiously for his shoulder. The task was a difficult and complicated one because, gripped as I was, high up in the right shoulder, my head was pressed right up against the lion's mane, which exuded a strong lion smell ( incidentally, he was purring very loudly, something after the fashion of a cat - only on a far louder scale - perhaps in pleasant anticipation of the meal he intended to have) and this necessitated my reaching with my left hand holding the knife across his chest so as to gain access to his left shoulder . Any bungling, in this manoeuvre, would arouse the lion, with instantly fatal results to myself!

However, I managed it successfully, and knowing where his heart was located, I struck him twice, in quick succession, with two back - handed strokes behind the left shoulder. The lion let out a furious roar, and I desperately struck him again: this time upwards into his throat. I think this third thrust severed the jugular vein, as the blood spurted out in a stream all over me. The lion released his hold and slunk off into the darkness. Later I measured the distance, and found that he had dragged me sixty yards. Incidentally, it transpired later that both first thrusts had reached the heart.

The scene, could anyone have witnessed it, must have been eerie in the extreme as, in the darkness, I staggered to my feet, not realising how seriously I had wounded the lion whose long - drawn moans resounded nearby. I thought first to frighten him off with the human voice and shouted after him all the names I could think of, couched in the most lurid language. Suddenly I remembered the other lion that had chased my horse. It was more likely that it would fail to catch the horse, once the latter was at a full gallop, and then, what was more probable, it would return to its mate and find me there, quite unarmed except for my knife - as of course my rifle had been flung into the long grass when I fell of my horse.

At first I thought of setting the grass alight to keep away the second lion; and, getting the matchbox from my pocket, I gripped it  in my teeth, as of course my right arm was quite useless, not only on account of the wound from the lion's teeth in my shoulder, but also because its claws had torn out some of the tendons about the wrist. I struck a match and put it to the grass, but as there was by now a heavy dew the grass would not burn - fortunately, of course, as it turned out, else my rifle would have been burnt.

My next idea was to climb into a tree and thus to place myself beyond the lion's reach. There were several trees in the vicinity, but they all had long stems, and with my one arm I was unable to climb them. Presently, However, I located one with a fork near the ground, and after a great deal of trouble I managed to climb into it, reaching a bough, some twelve feet from the ground, in which I sat. I was now commencing to feel very shaky indeed, both as a result of the shock I had sustained, and loss of blood; and what clothes I had left covering me were saturated with blood, both my own and that of the lion, and the effect of the cold night air on the damp clothing considerably added to my discomfort, while my shoulder was still bleeding badly. I think I might faint, from loss of blood, and fall off the bough on which I was sitting, so I removed my belt and somehow strapped myself to the tree. My thirst was terrible; and would have offered much  for a cup of water. One consoling reflection was that I knew my boys would find me as I was not far from the path.

Meanwhile I could still occasionally hear the lion I had stabbed grunting and groaning in the darkness, somewhere close by; and presently, resounding eeriely over the night air, I heard the long - drawn guttural death -rattle in his throat - and felt a trifle better then as I knew that I had killed him. My satisfaction was short - lived, however, as very soon afterwards approaching rustles in the grass heralded the arrival of the second lion which, as I had surmised, had failed to catch my horse. I heard it approach the spot where I had got to my feet and from there, following my blood - spoor all the time, it advanced to the tree in which I sat. Arriving at the base of the tree it reared itself up against the trunk and seemed to be about to try and climb it. I was overcome with horror at this turn of affairs, as it appeared as if I had got away from one lion, only to be caught by the other: the tree which harboured me being quite easy to climb (Had it not been so I could never have worked my way up to my perch), and not absolutely beyond the powers of a determined, hungry lion! In despair I shouted down at the straining brute, whose upward - turned eyes I could momentarily glimpse reflected in the starlight, and this seemed to cause him to hesitate.

Fortunately, just then, my faithful dog Bull appeared on the scene. Never was I more grateful at the arrival of man or beast! He had evidently discovered that I was no longer on the horse, and was missing, and had come back to find me. I called to him, and encouraged him to go for the lion, which he did in right good heart, barking furiously at it and so distracting its attention that it made a short rush at the plucky dog, who managed to keep his distance. And so this dreadful night passed on. The lion would leave the tree and I could hear him rustling about in the grass, and then he would return, and the faithful Bull would rush at him barking, and chase him off, and so on. Finally he seemed to lie up somewhere in the neighbouring bush.

Some considerable time later, perhaps an hour, I heard a most welcome sound: the clatter of tin dishes rattling in a hamper on the head of one of my boys who was at last approaching along the path. In the stillness of the night one can hear the least sound quite a long way off in the veld. I shouted to him to beware as there was a lion somewhere near. He asked me what he ought to do and I told him to climb into a tree. I heard a rattling crash, as he dropped the hamper, and then silence for a while. I then asked him if he was up a tree, and whether it was a big one: to which he replied that it was not a tall tree but that he had no wish to come down and search for a better one as he could already hear the lion rustling in the grass near him! He informed me that the other boys were not so far behind, and I then told him all that had happened - a recital of events which, to judge by the tone of his comments, did little to reassure him of the pleasantness of his present situation! After a time, which seemed ages, we heard the little pack of donkeys approaching along the path, and I shouted instructions to the boys to halt where they were, as there was a lion in the grass quite near, and to fire a few shots to scare him. This they did, then as they approached to the tree in which I sat, I told them first of all to make a good fire, which did not take long to flare up, as some form of protection in case the lion returned: and then they assisted me down from the tree. It was a painful and laborious business, as I was very stiff and sore from my wounds, and I found the descent very much harder than the ascent.

The first question I asked my boys was whether they had any water in the calabash (2) which they always carried with them. They replied that it was empty, and so the only thing for us to do was to set out for the next waterhole, which was about six miles further ahead. Before leaving, they searched unsuccessfully for my rifle in the long grass. To arm myself I took one of the boy's assegais, and then, with the donkeys, we set forth. Before leaving the place we took some fire - brands from the fire and threw them into the veld in the direction where the lion disappeared: nonetheless, he followed us for a long way, and we could hear him now this side of the path, now that; but we had three dogs with us now, and they barked repeatedly at him, successfully  keeping him off.

At last we came to one of my old pickets of the Steinacker (3) days where the huts were still standing. Here, formerly, there had always been a large pool of water, so I sent two of the boys with the canvas nosebag which was the only utensil we took for carrying water. My disappointment can be measured when they returned to report that the pool was dry, for you must remember that not a drop had passed my lips since the previous day. I said that I must have water, or I would die, and told them to take  a candle from among my baggage, place it in a broken bottle and with this rough lantern to go and search for water. They were two good natives, and off they set once more. They seemed to be away for hours but when they did finally return they had the nosebag half full of muddy fluid; and this they set on the ground in front of me. It was pretty filthy - looking stuff: still it was water; and I knelt down beside it and drank until I could drink no more - leaving just a little with which they could wash my wounds. They proved to be too awkward and clumsy over the latter job, however, and after a few minutes I could bear it no longer,  and ordered the boys to desist. Actually the wounds received no dressing of any kind ( I could not see the largest wound, which was on my back) until I reached Komatipoort (4) - four days later!

I then told the boys to unroll my blankets so that I could lie down. My arm was so painful that I instructed them to strap it to one of the poles in the roof of the hut, thinking thereby to ease the pain, but it did no good, and afterward I had it undone again. I need hardly add that there was no sleep for me that night, and next morning I was in a raging fever; and though I had walked six miles on the previous evening, I was unable to walk - or even stand - now. We remained over in the camp that day and I sent the boys back to skin the dead lion. I instructed them to return to the tree in which they found me, follow my blood - spoor until they came to the place where I had stabbed the lion, and then to follow its blood - spoor for a short distance when they would find its carcass. I could observe that they were a bit dubious about the reality of my having actually killed the lion ( though they had politely refrained from hinting their scepticism ) as it was an unheard of thing for a man to kill a lion with a knife.(5)

All my orders were obeyed, and in due course they returned with the skin, skull, and some of the meat, and the heart to show where I had pierced it with the knife. The boys told me that when they opened up the lion they found the stomach quite empty, which proves that it had not had a meal for some days, and accordingly must have been very hungry. It would not have been long before that lion and his mate made a meal of me - in spite of the fact that I was pretty skinny and hard at the time.


1. Dr. Livingstone's theory.  Recounted in Livingstone's own narratives.

2. The calabash. A kind of dried melon used by African tribes for souring milk or carrying liquids.

3. The Steinacker days. Steinacker's Horse fought for the British during the Anglo - Boer War. They held the town of Bremersdorp in Swaziland but were defeated by the Boers in July 1901.

4. Komatipoort. Near Barberton, Transvaal.

5. Knife. This was an ordinary butcher's 'sticking' type with a 0.16 metre blade, made by T. Williams of Smithfield, London. When the firm heard of Wolhuter's exploit, they presented him with a new knife.

About Professor Haresnape:

Born in Durban, brought up in Cape Town, and educated at the University of Cape Town and Sheffield University, UK. He has published four volumes of poetry, DRIVE OF THE TIDE, NEW-BORN IMAGES, MULBERRIES IN AUTUMN and THE LIVING AND THE DEAD: SELECTED AND NEW POEMS. Also two works of fiction, a novel, TESTIMONY and a collection of short stories AFRICAN TALES FROM SHAKESPEARE.

Professor Haresnape is Emeritus Professor, University of Cape Town and Extraordinary Professor, University of the Western Cape. He is Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge in the UK. Please visit the Professor's blog to see more of his work ... and read his biography of Harry Wolhuter here.