Planning an African Safari - Part 1

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The undulating hills and rugged rock koppies made for a beautiful setting under the warm South African sun. Feathery umbrella-shaped acacia trees and thorn bushes dotted the landscape, relieving the vast grassy plain. We enjoyed perfect weather, while scoping the herds of long-faced, red hartebeest. Since both males and females of the species have tall horns, it takes a practiced eye to tell the difference from two hundred yards. A hundred or more of the brush-tailed beasts ranged across the dry African bushveld, but we had yet to see the really impressive bull. After two days combing the bushveld for the perfect trophy, Piet and I spotted a bachelor herd of about 20 bulls spread out against the base of a rocky hill.

In the middle of the group, stood a magnificent bull with magnificent “S” curved horns perched atop his elongated head. We pulled around to the far side of the hill and began our stalk. Slowly working our way up through the thick, bushy undergrowth, we caught short glimpses of lute-shaped horns and deep russet hides glinting in the sun. Traveling through sandy soil littered with crisp, dry leaves, in the company of a Professional Hunter (PH) and two trackers is no quiet task. A few too many crackles, and the herd was onto us, moving smoothly away into deeper cover.

We hunkered down for a long wait, while the bulls settled back into the calm of the afternoon. Finally, we were able to ease our way quietly out onto a rock promontory, to gain a better view. Imagine our surprise to find the herd bedded down immediately below us in a densely wooded copse. Watching closely through the binoculars, we tried in vain to find the bull we had spotted earlier, the one with recurved horns. The bulls began to meander through small openings in the brush, making the sighting easier but identification even more difficult.

Finally, I spotted the graceful “S” horns moving toward the next clearing. It was the pride of the herd. He moved into the open, and I took careful aim, placing my crosshairs right on the crease of his shoulder. At the retort of the .06 the brush exploded with scattering red bulls. I held my breath, trying to track my trophy through the scope, as he kicked up his heels and bolted into the bush. Four pairs of eyes watched, and no one saw him emerge from the thicket. Uncertain of the kill, we made our way down the rocky hillside into the copse. The bull lay a mere 15 feet from where I had hit him. Here was a beautiful trophy, adding a true sense of accomplishment to the thrill of hunting the bush in Africa.

Planning an African safari can be a very exciting and rewarding process in its own right. It is often necessary to book a hunt a year or two in advance. Learning about Africa, its animals and its people, can build a pleasing sense of anticipation, helping to maintain the excitement over this extended time. Since much of Africa lies in the Southern hemisphere, the seasons are opposite North America. In most Southern countries, the best hunting is during the winter months – June through October. This is the dry season, so roads are more accessible and animals are forced to remain close to scarce water resources. In the wet season, animals are much more widely scattered and slippery mud can interfere with the hunt.

What to expect

Accommodations

Safari “camps” in Africa are usually quite nice, with mattresses on single beds, and attached bathrooms. Even the safari tents in established camps have comfortable beds and restroom facilities. Other options include lodges and chalets or rondavels, which are one-room concrete or brick houses with a thatched roof and attached bathrooms. Most established camps have hot water and electricity. However, you will need a voltage converter and plug adapter to use any battery chargers and other appliances from home.

Meals vary depending on the camp. Whether the fare was bush meat on the braii (barbecue), Indian curries, South African potjie or European cuisine, every meal we enjoyed was of excellent quality. Since the best hunting takes place early in the morning and late in the afternoon, the meals will flow around this schedule. The usual plan includes a light breakfast before hunting for a few hours, followed by a large midday brunch back at camp, or a bush picnic. There is usually some time in the early afternoon to relax before heading back out for the evening hunt. Everyone will meet back at camp, usually after dark, for sundowners (cocktails) and story-telling around an open fire under the abundant African stars. A full-course dinner, complete with pudding (dessert), is usually served rather late in the evening.

The hunting experience

Plan to rise early, for the best hunting. Unless the temperature is near freezing, many animals are most active in the early morning. In Zimbabwe, we rose at 4 am and were on the road before dawn, but in colder regions of South Africa we had a leisurely breakfast and left for hunting around 8 am, after the sun warmed things up a bit. Expect to spend a lot of time scouting for game from the back of an open 4-wheel -drive vehicle, which can get rather chilly in the early morning. If you visit during the winter, bring a jacket, gloves and hat and dress in layers. By mid-morning, the temperatures may climb into the 70s or higher.

Once the right game animals have been located, be prepared to track the animals on foot. Some species, like the kudu, are notoriously difficult to track and approach. When hunting these “ghosts of the forest” the PH will likely bring along a native tracker, whose sharp eyes and bush experience will help you locate a mature bull and discern the quality of the trophy, based on the tracks he leaves. Comfortable walking shoes are a must, as well as subdued-colored clothing, made of “quiet” fabrics. Leave the camouflage at home, since many African countries reserve camo for military use. Your PH will carry a set of shooting sticks for you to use, and will help you to decide which trophies will best meet your expectations. In our experience, African trackers, guides and professional hunters have an immense store of knowledge about the environment you will be visiting. Most of them enjoy sharing their expertise, so ask questions and learn as much as you can about Africa on your visit.

After the harvest

Ahh, the sweet smell of success! Back home, a successful harvest is just the beginning of the hard work of field dressing and packing out your animal. In Africa, it is time to take pictures of your trophy, celebrate, relax and enjoy. Most hunting in Southern Africa takes place on private land, and the animals actually belong to the farm owner. At the end of a successful hunt, your PH and tracker may call for help from the farm’s workers. These men will bring the vehicle to you and load your trophy onto the back. It is amazing where they can take these vehicles! Next they will take it to the farm’s butchery where it will be dressed and skinned for you. Your trophy fee actually goes to the farm owner, giving you the right to the head, horns and hide. These will be cleaned and salted, and prepared for transport to a local taxidermist. The taxidermist will dip and pack your trophy for shipment back home.

It is a real treat when you are able to partake of some of the meat you harvested yourself. The succulent backstrap is always delicious cooked over a braii. However, the meat belongs to the farm owner or the PH, according to their agreement, and often will go to feed the workers on the farm you hunted. This is just as well, since you would be unable to import the meat into the US anyway. Let your PH know if you are interested in trying some of your harvest, he may be able to make arrangements for you.

Preparation

Choose your hunt

First you will need to decide which animals you want to hunt. The rich grasslands and bushveld of Africa support an amazing variety of game species to choose from. There are two general types of hunts on offer. “Plains Game” hunts are the most affordable, spanning 7 days or more, and offering a wide range of antelope species, wildebeest, warthog, zebra and other herd animals. Available species will vary with the area, so you may need to travel around to find all of the species you are interested in. There is no limit to the number of species you can hunt on a given trip.

If you will be hunting plains game, a good reference on African mammals will help you learn the difference between kudu, springbok and sable, and guide you toward the species that interest you. With more than 20 common antelope species, wildebeest, warthog, zebra and giraffe to choose from, it can be exciting to narrow down your list to some favorites. Petersen’s Field Guide to African Animals shows full-color photos of each species. We also found The Safari Companion by Richard D. Estes to be an excellent reference, with in-depth explanations of the habits and behaviors that make each species unique. Understanding these behaviors can make the difference between hours spent tracking a meandering herd of adolescents and females, and quickly finding the lone, mature male patiently guarding his territory from intruders.

On the other end of the spectrum is a “Big 5” hunt for elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, lion and/or leopard. These hunts are quite expensive, and require at least 14 days to accomplish. Hunts for elephant, rhino and leopard require special permits, both for the hunt itself and for the import of horns, ivory or pelts. If you are considering a “Big 5” hunt, you will need to choose a professional hunter early on and work very closely with him to arrange for CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) import permits and to meet all government regulations. (see the second article in this series for more information) The animals you are looking for may well determine the countries you will visit. Some species can be hunted in a limited number of countries, and quotas are in force for all of the Big 5. A professional hunter with Big 5 experience and international operations will be best able to help you make these decisions.

Locate a Safari Company

Once you have identified which kind of hunt is within your budget and time constraints, the next step is to locate a safari guide and Professional Hunter (PH). Many companies advertise on the internet or are members of professional hunting organizations. You can visit sportsman's trade shows, or ask your friends, relatives, or friends-of-friends for leads to a good guide. A visit to your local taxidermist may also yield some advise for finding a good PH, especially if they have clients who have hunted Africa. Do your homework and ask a lot of questions so you can make informed decisions.

Clarify your expectations and priorities before contacting a safari company. Most professionals in Southern Africa speak English quite well. You should be ready to communicate your expectations regarding the animal species you seek, ethical concerns and preferred hunting methods (bow or rifle), but remain open to their advice, as well. The relationship with your PH can make or break your experience, so make time to talk on the phone and be sure you have good rapport and feel comfortable with this person. Be sure to ask for referrals, and follow up with a couple of phone calls to the people listed. When visiting with the references, ask about their overall experience, whether any unexpected problems came up and how well the PH handled problems.

On our most recent visit to Africa, we were very pleased to find Piet Otto Safaris, of South Africa, through the internet. We contacted Piet for pricing and referrals, and received prompt and friendly replies. Speaking with him on the phone, we felt an easy rapport. His experienced staff and family left us feeling the overwhelming warmth and welcome of the South African people. He has international experience, hunting plains game and the Big 5 in Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, as well as South Africa.

Ask for firm pricing

African safaris usually include several aspects to the pricing structure. First, the daily rate can vary based on the species you are hunting and how many hunters will be working with each PH. You can hire one PH for each hunter (1 on1), or two hunters can share a PH (2 on 1). If an observer (non-hunter) will accompany you, there is an additional, but lower, daily rate charged for this person. For example, a typical plains game hunt might cost $250 per day for one hunter with one PH, plus $100 per day for an observer. So a hunter with a non-hunting companion would pay $350 per day, or $2450 for a 7-day hunt. This usually includes all accommodations, food, drinks, land travel, and daily laundry service. Exotic and Big 5 species command much higher daily rates and require longer hunts, as well. The weak dollar will most likely drive prices up, so this example may be lower than the quotes you receive. Ask for quotes from more than one company, for comparison purposes. The safari company will require at least 50% of these fees to be paid up front, as a deposit to reserve your hunting dates.

Plains game hunts do not require the pre-purchase of a hunting license. Rather, the hunter pays a trophy fee for each animal harvested or wounded. Ask for a trophy-fee price list along with a daily-rate quote. You may find that you will need to prioritize your selection of species. Impala are quite plentiful, so the trophy fee is typically around $100, while the exotic sable command a much higher trophy fee ($2000 or more), a higher daily rate ($750/day) and longer required hunt (10 days or more). This can add up very quickly.

If you are successful, and you will be, you will need to pay a local taxidermist to dip and pack your trophies for shipment to the US. You will also be responsible for shipping fees. Ask your safari company, or PH to include dip and pack estimates in your quote.

Once your shipment arrives stateside, it will go through US Customs and US Fish and Wildlife Services and may be subject to quarantine (if it contains swine or warthog). We made arrangements through our local taxidermist to handle the trophies once they arrived in the states. He had a courier pick up the shipping crates from Customs in San Francisco and transport it to the tannery there. The tannery then shipped the finished hides directly to the taxidermist. You will need to budget at least $1000, and work closely with a taxidermist who has experience with this process. Bob Reinier of B&L Taxidermy in Steamboat Springs, CO made all of our arrangements for us.

It is possible to have your taxidermy work done in Africa, but if you are having shoulder mounts done, the shipping costs will be quite high. Horns and hides take up little space compared to a mount, and you could share a shipping crate with a hunting buddy to save money.

Tips are not expected, but are greatly appreciated. Cash tips and small gifts are appropriate for your professional staff, while gifts of clothing and tools are appropriate for the camp staff. You may want to call and check on goods which are needed, but unavailable, in the area your will be visiting. In Zimbabwe, 9-volt batteries were in high demand.

Firearms

Choosing the right firearm for a safari hunt is a critical step. You will want to take the most reliable guns you own, matching the caliber to the game you will be hunting. Some hunters like to mix bird hunting with a plains game hunt, and take a shotgun along. A .22 could also be used for guinea fowl or the smaller antelope. We have found that a 30.06 is a satisfactory caliber for most plains game, but is definitely overkill for smaller game. Discuss your choices with your PH or safari company, before making a final decision. They can guide you to match your weapon to the game you will pursue.

Whatever caliber you decide, make sure it is clean and free of defects, and pack it very carefully. Practice shooting regularly prior to your trip to make certain it is sighted-in properly. You will have an opportunity to sight it in when you arrive, but you will not want to make major repairs in the field. One of our companions had a gun damaged during travel, and had to borrow an unfamiliar gun from his PH. This was very frustrating for him.

Before leaving the US, register your firearms with the US Customs Service. You will need to take any firearms you might want to travel with, to the nearest Customs Service office. They will record the Serial Number, make and model on Customs Form 4457, so you can reenter the US with your firearms, and avoid paying duty (import taxes) or fines. You will need this registration as a proof of ownership when applying for your import permit in South Africa. It is also a good idea to register any expensive, foreign-made goods, such as cameras, to avoid any need to prove that they were purchased in the US. Further information on registering goods is available at this website.

Traveling with your firearms

Call ahead and check your airline’s current policies regarding travel with firearms. In general, all firearms must be locked inside your checked luggage. We found that our gun cases were not treated gently, at all. Pack your firearms very securely. However, the package must be accessible for inspection at check-in. Ammunition should be packed separately from your firearms, and should be left in the original containers (but check your airline’s regulations).

South African Firearms Policy

The following firearms are not permitted in South Africa:

  • automatic rifles and pistols or semi-automatic rifles
  • automatic or semi-automatic or pump action shotguns hand carbines

The following limitations exist on firearms per person:

  • one handgun of .45 or smaller caliber
  • one single or double barrel shotgun
  • two hunting rifles

Any firearms entering South Africa, must be taken with you when you leave. Do not plan to leave any firearms behind. These regulations can change at any time, so ask your guide and check the internet for current regulations prior to your trip. Any banned guns you bring will be confiscated and held at airport until your departure. They can be reclaimed on your way home.

While the consular web site advises seeking firearm import permits 6-8 weeks in advance of your trip, we were able to obtain all necessary permits at the airport in South Africa. The application information is available on the internet and can be filled out and filed ahead of time to expedite the procedure. Visit this website to learn about current regulations and the process for obtaining permits prior to travel. Though temporary firearm import permits can be obtained at the airport, this process is quite time-consuming. A small, understaffed office processes all on-site permits. If you are likely to have close connections in your travel plans, it would be advisable to obtain the permits before leaving home.

In Conclusion

An African safari can be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of a lifetime, well worth the effort of proper planning. As you begin to plan your trip, use this article to refine your expectations and inform your own research. Feel free to use this as a starting point, but be sure to continue asking questions throughout the planning process. All policies and pricing may be subject to change, due to dynamic economic and political climates. These guidelines should help you know what questions to ask and who to contact for up-to-date information. It is important to the success and enjoyment of your safari that you clarify and communicate your interests and priorities early in the planning process.

Consider the possibility of extending your trip to enjoy sightseeing in the National Parks and private game reserves. These areas provide the opportunity to observe and photograph an amazing variety of animal species and colorful birds, amidst some pristine scenery. Observing a matriarchal herd of elephant browse their way through brush, painted orange by the setting sun, is one of the many fascinating experiences you would not want to miss.

Tune in for the second article in this series, beginning with a hair-raising tale about lions hunting cape buffalo, right next to our tented camp. It was almost too amazing to be true. The next article also goes into greater depth about the logistical details of planning an African safari. You will learn more about acquiring your passport and visas, arranging transportation, retrieving your trophies, as well as some health and safety tips.

In the meantime, make the effort to learn as much as possible about the regions you plan to visit, and the animals you will be hunting and observing. This preparation will help maintain your level of excitement during an extended planning process. It will give the added bonus of developing expertise about your quarry and its environment, which will increase the enjoyment and success of your experiences.

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