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100 years later, TR's African safari roars to life

Theodore Roosevelt, center, poses with members of the

Theodore Roosevelt, center, poses with members of the Rough Riders in this 1898 photo. Roosevelt leading his troops in the victorious charge up Cuba's San Juan Hill is an image preserved by legend. Photo Credit: AP

In the African brush, a young lion eyed the Old Lion. For a time, the beast just watched former President Theodore Roosevelt and his companions ominously, one of many tense moments during a yearlong safari that ended in March 1910.

Then suddenly, it charged forward.

"Right in front of me, thirty yards off, there appeared, from behind the bushes which had first screened him from my eyes, the tawny, galloping form of a big maneless lion," recalled Roosevelt, who pulled out his rifle and quickly took aim. "Crack! the Winchester spoke . . . Down he came, his hind quarters dragging, his head up, his ears back, his jaws open and lips drawn up in a prodigious snarl." 

Recalling TR's adventures
On the 100th anniversary of TR's famed African safari, which ended in March 1910, historians and devotees of Long Island's only homegrown U.S. president are recalling his "great adventure," with its tales of big-game hunting and heroic derring-do soon after he departed the White House in 1909. Roosevelt's magazine descriptions of awesome beauty and fright on the plains of British East Africa, now Kenya, were later collected in "African Game Trails," his bestseller that would inspire thousands of Americans, including a young Ernest Hemingway.

"If you read the articles, it reads like a novel," says Howard Ehrlich, interim executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, which runs a storefront museum in downtown Oyster Bay, about three miles from TR's family home on Sagamore Hill, a national historic site. "For the first time, through his articles people could see that Africa was not the 'forbidden' continent, but a continent that had enormous wealth and natural resources."

When he left the White House and returned to Long Island, Roosevelt was only 50 years old, but retirement didn't last long. "Theodore Roosevelt was unable to sit still," laughs Elizabeth Roosevelt, a distant cousin who now volunteers at the association. "He was a writer, and he'd written a lot about hunting in this country. So the opportunity to write about a trip to Africa was something that he wasn't going to miss."

Ehrlich recounts TR's close encounters with Africa's animal kingdom, in which he collected more than 1,100 specimens and shot and killed 512 beasts, including 17 lions, 11 elephant and 20 rhinoceroses. At the invitation of the Smithsonian Institution, and with the backing of several wealthy sponsors, Roosevelt journeyed to Africa with his son Kermit, a Harvard student, and brought along about 250 others, including guides, hunters, translators and servants. Their long trek led through the Belgian Congo and up the Nile. Some of TR's African artifacts can be seen today at Sagamore Hill and the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan

Writings conjure thrills
"The lion is the most formidable opponent of the hunter," declared Roosevelt, who also faced rampaging elephants, rhinos, buffalo and leopards. "The hunter who follows any of these animals always does so at certain risk to life or limb; a risk which it is his business to minimize by coolness, caution, good judgment and straight shooting."

By today's standards, Roosevelt's book seems tinged with racism (calling some Africans "savage") and his trip sounds like a killing spree sure to upset animal lovers. But in its day, the book's whiz-bang adventure enthralled its audience. In one scene, Roosevelt recalled how an earlier group of hunters was asleep in tents with the flaps open when a lion crept up and dragged one man out of his bed. Amid bloodcurdling screams, some jumped to the man's rescue and the lion "dropped his prey and bounded off." After his wounds were tended to, the man fell asleep again in the same tent. But the nightmare didn't end.

"An hour or two after the camp grew still, the lion returned, bent on the victim of whom he had been robbed," Roosevelt wrote. "He re-entered the tent, seized the unfortunate wounded man with his great fangs, and this time made off with him into the surrounding darkness, killed and ate him."

With a certain lyricism, Roosevelt could also sing Africa's praises with the heart of a romantic. "There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm," Roosevelt wrote on March 15, 1910, in Khartoum, Sudan, at the end of his African journey. "There is delight in the hardy life of the open, in long rides rifle in hand, in the thrill of the fight with dangerous game. Apart from this, yet mingled with it, is the strong attraction of the silent places, of the large tropic moons, and the splendor of the new stars; where the wanderer sees the awful glory of sunrise and sunset in the wide waste spaces of the earth, unworn of man, and changed only by the slow change of the ages through time everlasting." 

TR's life stuff of legend
Before this African safari, Roosevelt's life already had been the stuff of legend. Once an asthmatic boy with poor eyesight, TR had grown up to become a boxer at Harvard, then a famed Rough Rider colonel who led his volunteer cavalry up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. In the political arena, he became New York's governor, a Republican vice president, and then, with the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, America's youngest president, at age 42. He vowed to serve only one elected term, handing off the presidency to his friend and fellow Republican, William Howard Taft.

But on his African trip, Roosevelt had second thoughts about Taft and his own future. When he returned to Long Island, Roosevelt increasingly attacked Taft's policies. Eventually in 1912, TR challenged Taft unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination and then launched his own third-party bid, running on his newly created Bull Moose Party. Instead, both TR and Taft lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

"He [Roosevelt] thought politics was behind him, and he was content that Taft was in the presidency and would carry on his program," recalled Ehrlich. "He soon learned, of course, that this was not the case. Taft proved too conservative for him. As he found out rather quickly politics was never really out of his blood - that even though he was in Africa enjoying himself in the outdoors, he found there was still a little spark in him." 

Turning point in his career
The Africa trip not only proved a turning point in TR's political career, but also came to reflect so many of his deepest personal beliefs. Before returning home, TR traveled from Africa to Europe, where at the Sorbonne in France, he gave his famous "Man in the Arena" speech, a rallying cry for all those hunting for challenges in life. "The Africa trip allowed him to think - those nights in the tents and so forth - and he had time to reflect, 'What do I want to do with my life?', 'Do I want to sit on the porch at Sagamore Hill or do I want to have an active role?'," explained Ehrlich. "With the [African] trip invigorating him, that caused him to write that speech."

Today, the words from that speech at engraved on a wall at Sagamore, Ehrlich said, close to the elephant tusks, water buffalo, leopards and lion skins on display from the African trip.

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