Tales from Sport in Egypt: Morning Flight at Tel-El-Kebir

Tales from "Sport in Egypt"

by Jimmy Dunn

Editor's Note: Tales from Sport in Egypt is from the book by the same name, dated 1938, with a forward by H.M. King Farouk of Egypt. All photo captions are from the original book, so what is stated as "typical" or "modern" is not necessarily so typical or modern today.

Interestingly, these pictures sometimes appear to have very little to do with the subject matter.

A typical Bedouin Falconer in the Lybian Desert

Morning Flight at Tel-El-Kebir .

An International Shoot * Duck and Snipe on an Old

* Battle Ground * The Comedy of the Decoys *

Desert Shooting at Kom Ombo * A Wolf near Luxor

by J. Wentworth Day

Four o ' clock in the morning in a back bedroom at Shepheard's and the sun not yet up. I woke to the grinning vision of a black Sudanese face beaming over me like a nocturnal bulldog with a full-size piano keyboard set of teeth. He had tea on a tray, a boiled egg of that peculiarly small variety which the athletic chickens of Egypt produce, and oranges.

'Time to get up, sare,' he announced with a gleefully malicious undertone. 'Four o'clock, sare-and Mr Goldstein sends you copy today's Egyptian Mail by quick boy .'

This was almost too much. It is no good preparation for a day's duck shooting to retire to bed at half-past two in the morning having drunk far too much champagne and danced with far too many Syrian, Greek, French, Hungarian and Smyrnese forms of beauty, but when your host of the evening retaliates by producing, hot from the press, a copy of the journal which he edits, one and a half hours later, it is a little more than even the hardened night-lifer of London may reasonably be expected to contend with.

I had a sudden backwash of memory in which I saw that amiable, energetic, North London Jew, Mr David Goldstein (surely the most dynamic journalist in the Near East) hustling me over the printing works and through the editorial rooms of the Egyptian Mail, which he edits-firing orders in five different languages, English, French, Italian, Arabic and Cockney, to the nine different sorts of colour who constitute his staff.

And then he rushed me off to the Gaiety, the night-club which is far more fun than those boiled-shirt versions of the West End of London which Cairo provides for those who want a little of home from home. At the Gaiety you may witness a spirited verbal duel between any two, three, six or ten opposing members of political parties-you may suffer a flaxen-haired Hungarian to sit upon your knee or dance you off your feet, or you may merely sit and drink beer and watch the little night world of Cairo go by.

But before that we had assisted to 'put to bed' a newspaper, which, of its kind, deserves a small monument. It was at the time when the Italians were busily engaged in trying to persuade themselves that they were a first-class power and that the Mediterranean was their own particular duck-pond. The situation was fraught with a certain degree of intensity. But Mr Goldstein and his parti- coloured staff-more British than the British-dealt with the situation in firm but attractive lay-out, in forceful but cautious language, with a presentation of the truth which commanded my respect-fresh from London and unused to the simplicities of life-coupled with a verve in headlines which made Shoe Lane look a back alley in New York.

At one in the morning, the crisis having been suitably resolved into pages of solid type, I suggested that it was time I should go home. I was, I explained, shooting duck next morning, getting up at four, leaving Cairo at five, motoring Heaven knows how many miles in the direction of the Suez Canal.

'Where are you going?' Goldstein enquired.

'Tel-el-Kebir,' I answered. I had a vague recollection of Sir Garnet Wolseley , a faint feeling that one ought to go there in a pill- box hat, a red uniform, with bayonets fixed. 'Early morning flight,' I proceeded. 'Can't be late, I am going with Bather of the Frontiers Administration.

' 'Oh, come and have a noggin at the Gaiety " Goldstein explained blandly. 'Must see it-part of Cairo life. Besides, it'll get your eye in. Bit of bread and cheese, that's all.

' It took two deep breaths and a cold bath to dispel the recollection of the 'bread and cheese', the champagne, and the blue-eyed Hungarian, with whom I discussed international politics. I remember that she informed me solemnly that Hitler would one day walk into Hungary and that all good Hungarians, like herself, would immediately seek British nationality.

And then I was up, having bolted an egg and an orange, clattering through the hall in suitably English and unsuitably Egyptian shooting clothes-thick Scotch tweed plus fours, hobnail shoes and a waterproof hat which would have defied a thunderstorm. Precisely on time my host arrived, at the steps of Shepheard's, those steps which have probably been trodden by the feet of a more varied collection of notabilities, notorieties and nonentities than any other hotel steps in the Near and Middle East.

Cairo, as usual, was awake, even at that hour in the morning. It never sleeps. There is a constant chatter throughout the night, a frou-frou of footsteps, an electric undertone of news hot-foot and intrigue new-baked. The street Arabs, the cafe hawks, the pedlars and the beggars live constantly on the verge of great expectation, permanently expostulating.

We drove off under a lightening sky where the kites wheeled and mewed, on the road to Bilbeis. It is a good road, straight and tree-lined, with the Ismailia Canal running parallel on the right-hand side, the desert marching right down to its banks with a tawny threat. You wonder how soon the khamseen, the sandstorm wind, will get up in hot fury, overwhelm that shining streak of water with tons of whirling, air-borne sand, fill it, destroy this artificial handiwork of man. But it never does.

You would have thought that the road at that hour in the morning would have been deserted. Not a bit of it. There were strings of camels coming into the Cairo market, wild-looking Arabs, real men out of the desert, none of the touting town-bred variety. They looked at us as curiously as we looked at them. Some of them had come probably from the deserts of Sinai, others from even farther, from Palestine, the borders of Trans-Jordan, from almost anywhere, out in those thousands of miles of desert ahead of us, desert as unchanged by the centuries as it was when Christ walked in Galilee.

We went on, a tail of dust waving like a snake behind us. Through Bilbeis, where the goats and the chickens, the water buffaloes and the small boys, the men and the women were all stirring and awake. Fires were smoking. Fellaheen were in the fields already. Strings of them marched along the road, their rough agricultural implements on their shoulders like rifles carried untidily. The main road turned sharply off to the left. That one goes to Zagazig, on down to Mansoura, to the towns of the Delta where more than half the cotton wealth of Egypt grows.

Mr. Emanuel Maratos, the well-known Cairo gunmaker.

And here we took a country road straight on until we came to the village of Abu Hammad, where we turned right. Suddenly one became conscious that although we were driving through flat, cultivated fields, the desert hemmed us in on either hand. There was less of that very tidy, intensive cultivation which, in Egypt, wastes not an inch of land and produces two and three crops a year. The fields were wilder, great tussocky expanses where tall reeds grew, long sword-grass, scrubby bushes.

We came to a cross-roads. A lot of Arabs, fellaheen, straggled across the road, gesticulated. Something glittered in the sun, a long shining parallel bar slung across the road from side to side, a yard above the ground. They brandished nabbuts, the heavy sticks of the country at us. Something was up-most definitely up. My neighbour, Mr. Emanuel Maratos, the Cairo gun-maker, took it all very calmly, let fly a sharp shaft of Arabic. This brought a Niagara of explanation, gesticulation and terrific facial contortion. I sat back fascinated. Two Arabs brandished guns. The others waved sticks. All spoke. Two other cars drew up behind us, brakes hissing.. One driver, a bristly-moustached little subaltern, roared out, 'Get out of the way- imshi! Charge the barrier!' Maratos expostulated, explained. The whole point of the barrier, the crowd and the holdup was apparently that the lessee of one of the shoots farther down the road had not paid his rent. So two ghaffirs-the guns were their badges of authority-had been detailed to sling an iron bar across the road and hold up all cars until the rent was paid. Rough and ready if you like, but efficacious. Maratos sent a runner for the local omdeh or village headman.

Five minutes of delay and he arrived, galloping up the road on a white country-bred Arab, followed by a motley cavalcade on donkeys, galabiahs blowing, legs going like drumsticks. The matter was soon settled. It was explained that we neither owed the rent nor were destined for the shoot where it was owing. On we went. The car turned down a side road to the right, bumping unevenly. On the right side of the road a broad dyke gleamed. It was exactly the sort of dyke that you would have found in the Fens. On the left stretched a vast dry bog, the beds of waterless pools brown and dusty, clumps of reeds standing stiffly. Ahead, the reeds rose into denser forests. And beyond them, shimmering yellow on the skyline, were the waves of the desert. It was wild, open, desolate.

Camel solilque - late afternoon at Dakhala Oasis

My mind went back in a sudden nostalgia to the wide and reedy levels of Horsey in Norfolk, where the dykes and the reed beds, the gleaming broad and the willows march in a flat panorama to the tawny sandhills where the sea mutters. Only a month or two before, back in England, the sea, groaning hoarsely at that thin sand barrier, had suddenly trampled it under, broken in with a roar in the night and drowned the green and reedy levels-those levels where Lubbock once saw his seven sea eagles soaring.

And here before my eyes were eagles soaring. A marsh harrier beat low over the road ahead of us. A hen harrier was quartering the marsh. Take away the difference of palm trees and Arabs, blot out the string of camels which made a fantastic frieze upon the desert skyline, and, for all practical purposes, we might have been on Horsey levels a hundred years ago where the sea eagles soared, the duck were thunderous in their thousands.

At a turn in the road we came to a little knot of men standing by a shooting hut. They were members of the syndicate which has the neighbouring shoot. There was Driskell, that charming and humorous American dentist who pulls your teeth and makes you like it. There was Dr. Hurst, who knows more about irrigation than most people in Egypt. There was Hindmarsh, who is an encyclopedia of Egypt, its birds and shooting. There was Saleh Enan Pasha, who, they say, is the best shot in Egypt. And there was Wise Bey, one time Commandant of the Provincial Police, the man whom the Arabs in the villages adore. We said 'Good mornings' and drove on.

We motored a mile down the road, great lagoons breaking away on the right in flat silver. Huge packs of duck were already in the sky. They beat backwards and forwards over the water in V-shaped wedges, in long straggling teams, in compact little parties. It reminded me suddenly of those steel engravings of incredible quantities of fowl over which I pored enviously in Folkard's Wildfowler in the enchanted days of boyhood. It seemed then that there never were and never would be such millions and tredillions of fowl to gladden one's eye. Yet here they were-thousands if not the authentic tredillions.

A knot of Arabs, a posse rather, or as the more enlightened type of London penny daily would have put it, 'a small army' of Arabs and mixed types of natives cluttered the road in front of us. They waved and yelled. A bare-footed, brown-legged, hawk-faced fellow, his eyes alight with excitement, leapt on to the running board. Maratos and he machine-gunned each other in Arabic. The car turned off the road on to a flat sandy stretch. We got out. The army descended among us, grabbed guns, cartridges, decoy ducks, game bags, everything portable or snatchable. My host, Major Bather of the Frontiers Administration, leapt at them, buffeting, cursing in Arabic. They dropped back, grinning.

More cars arrived. From one of them descended, to my mute astonishment, a tall and remarkably good-looking woman. She carried a gun and a flashing smile. Here was Mrs. Bowen, the wife of Major C. J. L. Bowen, notable not only in that she is a very workmanlike shot, but that she has made the most of life in Egypt by catching the biggest barracuda I have seen. That was at Akaba on the Red Sea.

Somewhere in this volume a photograph and her own account records the story of captor and the captured.

We compared notes, discoursed learnedly on how to set out wooden decoys-and, believe me, they make the most of them in Egypt-and then moved off, pleasantly chatting, attended by a gabbling horde. There was a broad irrigation ditch, and here you handed your gun to an attendant, climbed precariously upon the wobbling back of a semi-submerged Arab, and was transported across a miniature Jordan in the imminent deadly peril of a sudden ducking in muddy water the colour of bad coffee.

On the opposite bank, across a hundred yards of sand, the big lake glittered sharply, a sweet fresh wind off the desert raising serried ripples. Reed beds and swampy tracts of rough tussocky grass bordered this lake. It was, I should say, three-quarters of a mile long and half a mile across. The desert came down to the opposite shore. Round clumps of reeds stood up here and there innocently. These were the hidden butts.

Flat-bottomed boats were run out into the shallow water, a gun or two guns in each. Arab boys acted as outboard motors. They pushed, pulled and grinned. . Nowhere was the water more than thigh deep.

The Sheikh of Wadi Natrun, a fine study of a splendid type of Arab village headman

I was decanted at a stout rush-built hide, on a tiny island, five or six feet square. You could just stand upright and peer through the ragged stems at the top, with no more than your hat showing. They were admirably built, with plenty of room to turn and swing, peep- holes through which to watch the water, a shelf for cartridges, a seat to sit on. A Sudanese boy squatted at my feet, the whites of his eyes rolling. He was all anticipation and Nubian excitement. Two others flattened themselves against the reed walls outside. These were the retrievers. You do not use dogs. Egypt is hard on good gun-dogs.

Like any other Eastern country it is better to trust a semi-naked boy with an eye like a hawk than a dog fresh from England, ready and willing to catch every bug, worm and disease that walks. I waved them away, bidding them by signs to hide themselves a gunshot or more from the butt in the tussocks of the flat marsh behind. They departed, splashing.

Village idyll - an everyday canal-side scene at washing-up time

I loaded my gun, broke open boxes of cartridges, turned back the flap of the cartridge bag, waited. In front of the hide sixteen or twenty decoys rode at anchor. They were remarkably life-like. They use good decoys in Egypt, all made by native workmen, carved out of wood, cunningly. You can trust an Arab to make a wooden duck look like a duck. And they are cheap-so cheap that when I came back to England I got my friend Mr. Maratos to pack up a crate of them and send them on ahead by steamer and rail. At home in Cambridgeshire on the Fen pools, not so very different from the Egyptian pools, they have acted like charms, bringing duck whistling down from the sky whilst other guns gazed hopefully but hopelessly for birds that did not come.

There was quite a lot of fun with those wooden decoys at Victoria Station. I had to go and explain the mysterious wooden box which had weathered, without question, the Customs' scrutineers of Alexandria, Genoa, the French frontier, Boulogne and Dover. But Victoria was adamant, inquisitively polite.

'Might I ask, sir, what's in that there box?' inquired an official.

'You may-wooden ducks,' I answered, blandly.

'Wooden ducks!' Polite eyebrows, official disbelief, and implied refusal that the official leg should be lengthened.

'Yes, wooden ducks.'

'Reely! And what, might I ask, do you use wooden ducks for?'

'For shooting other ducks-wild ones.'

'But you can't shoot a wild duck with a wooden one.'

There was a note of finality. The farce had gone far enough. Truth must out.

'You don't,' I agreed. 'But you put them in the water, hide in a beer barrel, quack like a duck, with a patent quacker.' I fished in my pocket, produced it and quacked loudly. An old lady's dog barked. The old lady turned puce.

'And then the wild ducks think that you're a duck quacking and that these wooden ducks are other ducks, so down they come to make friends. And you up with your gun and shoot them.'

'Yore telling me!'

'I am-and it's true.'

'Well, sir,' ponderously, 'might I ask you if you have any objection to the corner of that packing case being opened ?'

'Not at all.'

The packing case lid was ripped up, nails screeching. I delved, produced a wooden duck, set him on the counter, where he regarded the official with the bland pomposity of a water-fowl at peace with its belly and the world. The official scratched his head.

'There are twenty-three more,' I ventured tenderly. 'Would you like to see them?'

'No, sir,' firmly. 'You win!' ..

'You didn't believe me, did you.'

'That I didn't. You had me proper.'

'Well, now,' I expanded. 'Supposing you sawed each one of those ducks in half and found that it contained a pound or more of heroin, what would you say ? I have just come from Egypt-they spend half their time there trying to catch drug traffickers. Don't you think that would be easy?'

'It would be-but I ain't.'

That ended our little comedy. I am still happy to remember his parting shot: 'Well, you're the queerest cargo and the nicest gent I've seen for a long time-but them ducks 'ad me.'

Evening - the baby Gamoose (water-buffalo) takes its supper

We are a long way from that reed butt in a bay of the lake on the International Shoot at Tel-el-Kebir. They call it the International Shoot because, if I recollect rightly, the members of the syndicate included two Egyptians, a Greek, a Frenchman, an Englishman, a Syrian, a brace of Turks and a Smyrnese. The sun beat down. It was getting hotter. I took off my jacket, rolled up my sleeves. Duck were pouring in from all directions, big parties, little parties, with single birds, mostly pintail and teal, shooting in like torpedoes. They lit in the water to right and left, cutting furrows like speed-boats. I waited for the signal shot. Suddenly it came, a sharp crack from the far end I of the lake.

Instantly that very blue skyline against the desert horizon was stippled by the wings of a great floating cloud of duck. They swung back and forth like a blown plume of smoke.

Other shots rang out. Duck were on the wing sibilantly, instant meteors. A party of pintail swung overhead in a swift rush. I snapped, cut one down, missed another. Nine shoveller jumped instantly twenty yards away. The second gun cut down aright and left. Then we were busy. It was load and fire, reload and shoot again. Not even an English pheasant covert, the first time through, with the wind just right and the bouquets nicely planned, could have provided prettier shooting than that first sharp ten minutes.

Nile-side idyll - a typical ferry scene

After that they came in more slowly. The big lots cleared off to the other lakes. From far and near came the pop-popping of staccato shots. The duck came in smaller parties now. There were lots of single birds. Away across the lake a quarter of a mile from me I watched a shoveller high over Maratos's butt. Through the glasses I saw him put his duck call in his mouth, heard him quack loudly. The note was inviting, insistent. The shoveller answered to it, planed down to the decoys. A shot rang out-missed-another shot. An- other miss. The shoveller banked steeply, shot away across the lake, climbing higher.

Then the most extraordinary thing happened. The duck call quacked louder, more insistently. Maratos went through the whole gamut of duck seduction. And in spite of having had two and a half ounces of lead discharged at it that shoveller came back, dropped again to the decoys and fell to his first barrel.

What particularly interested me at this shoot was to see the very sensible and expert use made of both wooden decoys and duck calls. It is a pity that we do not make more use of both of these common-sense adjuncts in this country.

Shooting went on for about an hour longer. I got a mixed bag of pintail, shoveller and teal. Mallard were relatively scarce. In fact you do not see a great many of them in Egypt at all. I remember once shooting with the son of Dr Fuad Sultan Bey, the Director General of the Banque Misr, at his lake at Ayat. Between us we got 256 head, of which 181 were duck, the rest being coots, plover and snipe. That was the result of about two and a half hours' early morning flight, and it is literally true to say that my gun barrels got so hot at one period that I had to wrap my handkerchief round my left hand.

But what amused me was that at the end of the shoot my host's son, an excellent shot by the way and a most charming person, produced for me with an air of great triumph, a bird which he assured me was very rare and would, he trusted, be a welcome addition to my ornithological collection. It was the first one he had shot that season, and, indeed, the only one he had seen for some years. Then the bird was produced. It was a mallard!

To return to Tel-el-Kebir. At the end of the morning we counted the bag, which totaled 251 duck and 16 snipe. This was considered a bad day, and I was told that, on a normally good day, the bag for the seven or eight guns who were out would have been double. At Tel-el-Kebir, as at a good many other places, it is quite possible for a single gun to kill anything from 60 to 100 duck in a morning, and the hundred has been exceeded a good many times. I walked a snipe marsh after the shooting was over and picked up eight snipe in about twenty minutes.

Roads to delight the motorist. The modernisation of Egypt's roads has been swift and remarkable.

Apart from such big organised shoots as those at Tel-el-Kebir and elsewhere, there are plenty of places where the ordinary man with a good local guide can get all the shooting he wants. Usually the local fellaheen take it as a matter of course if you shoot over their fields. The two cardinal rules to bear in mind are: never to shoot low for fear of hitting a labourer, and never under any circumstances to shoot a pigeon. Pigeon guano is the most prized fertiliser in Egypt and the village pigeon-cotes are sacred. The man who shoots a pigeon will bring the whole village down upon him in wrath, and if he is tactless he may be very severely beaten up. That is what happened to two young English subalterns not far from Luxor two years ago.

If you go to Luxor Mr Pardo, who is one of the officials at the hotel, can put you right for local shooting. He is one of the keenest sportsmen in Upper Egypt and knows the country for miles around.

One of my pleasantest recollections is of a day spent with him shooting a chain of swamps and reedy pools at the back of the great sugar plantations at Kom Ombo. I forget what our total bag was, but we got a very useful mixture of pretty nearly everything, and wound up in the afternoon by shooting three pools right out in the desert. Each was about a mile distant from the other, and we stirred the ducks up from one pool to the other by sending Arabs racing from pool to pool on camels-the oddest form of beater imaginable. The recollection of that day lingers with the taste of goat's milk cheese, hard-boiled eggs and crusty bread eaten on a hump of sand overlooking a pool, with a bottle of Mariut wine, the native Gianaclis wine of Egypt.

There is an old rascal of a shikari at Luxor named Moussa, who took me out wolf-hunting. I got one, an ugly sandy-looking brute, and we shot a lot of doves by the simple method of walking them up out of the trees and bushes which bordered the road. An excellent shikari in Cairo is Shafi el Ghabry, who is number nine on the list of dragomen at the American Express office. Shafi is a practical shikari, and not one of the usual run of silver-tongued fellows who promise everything and produce little. He knows the country for miles around, Cairo and the Fayoum backwards. I had many good days snipe shooting with him, and can recommend him with every confidence.

Last Updated: June 9th, 2011