Planning an African Safari - Part 2
4:00 AM at Gomo Gomo Game Reserve - It is pitch dark and I can’t see anything, not even my hand in front of my face. The deep rumbling and bellowing that woke us is as much felt as it is heard. Robert and I are sitting bolt upright in bed, wondering what in the world is happening just outside the thin canvas walls of our African safari tent. Every hair is standing up on the back of my neck as I whisper to my husband “Whatever you do, just stay in the tent!”
The previous evening, as our armed guide walked us to our tent, he told us of a leopard that had been hunting near camp and warned us not to set foot outside. “Just wait until we come get you in the morning.” He insisted. We laughed it off, joking as we zipped ourselves in. Now laying in the dark, I thought about that leopard. Was it lurking just outside my window? No, I decided this sounded more like the bellowing of the bulls back home on the ranch. I remembered reading something about the “death bellow” of a cape buffalo and had a creepy sensation in the pit of my stomach. The solitary leopard would never attempt such dangerous prey as a cape buffalo. It had to be a lion, correction, it had to be lion.
I hear the ping of the video camera starting up, and freeze. “What are you doing?” I hiss in the darkness. “I want to record this sound” comes the soft reply; and the bellowing goes on, and on.
Finally, footsteps approach from the direction of the main camp. Peeking through a crack in the Velcro-sealed window, I glimpse the beam of a flashlight bouncing across the bushes surrounding our tent. As the beam settles on the mature buffalo twenty feet away from me, my suspicions are confirmed. Two golden bodies appear in the fleeting light, one perched atop the struggling beast, and one on the ground in front with a death grip on the nose. Crack goes the nasal cartilage. “Oh s***!” goes the bearer of the light, as he runs the other way. The life and death struggle continues outside, as the bull fights for every breath.
Soon enough, the rumbling engines of Range Rovers approach with spotlights, finally telling the whole story. Still in our tent, Robert has unzipped the front to videotape the action, while I scope out an escape route, just in case. We are told that there are three lions in front of our tent, and asked politely if we would just remain inside for a bit. We both agree, as Robert videotapes and I bulge out the window, straining to get a better view.
A thorough survey of the surrounding area has convinced the guide that only three lion are present, and all three are currently occupied with the fallen buffalo. It should be safe for us to be evacuated from the tent. A voice from the darkness invites us to come out and get into a Range Rover so we can get a better view. “You bet!” we answer. From the certain safety of the Range Rover, the guide suggests that it should be safe to come out the front of the tent, if we move slowly and don’t make any noise. “NO WAY are we coming that much closer to hungry lions.” Cameras in hand, we stride out the back of the tent, through the Velcro closure attaching the tent to the bathroom wall. My escape route.
One hour and forty-five minutes after the commotion began, we watch in fascination as the buffalo finally succumbs. After two hours of silent vigil at the kill site, we finally let them take us to breakfast while they removed the cape buffalo and his attackers from camp. Upon our return, the only evidence of the morning’s excitement was trampled grass, and a little tuft of lion hair stuck to the tent deck, where a cape buffalo had thrown a lion off of its back in his desperate bid for survival. That and an hour of hair-raising video we could watch every day.
If you are traveling all the way to Africa, try to schedule at least a few days to tour and visit the national parks game reserves. This rare experience at Gomo Gomo Game Reserve, near Kruger National Park, was far more memorable for us than all of the hunting we did. In touring, you will have a chance to observe many of the Big 5 and non-game species like crocodile, ostrich, monkeys, baboon, an amazing variety of colorful birds, as well as some incredible scenery. It is well worth the extra time and cost. Your safari company should be able to make these arrangements for you.
Logistics of Travel to Africa
Passports and Visas
As soon as you decide to travel to Africa, you should start the process of obtaining a passport, if you do not have one. This will require a notarized copy of your birth certificate, 2 passport photos, and a processing fee. Obtaining your birth certificate can take weeks, depending on the hospital or county health department. Begin this process at least 6 months before you plan to travel. Once you have your birth certificate, you will need to visit a US Post Office, or visit US Department of State website for an application. Some larger Post Offices can take your passport photos on site and save you a visit to a professional photographer. The guidelines for these photos are quite strict, so make sure you ask for passport photos. Complete the application and enclose 2 photos, your birth certificate or expired passport and the application fee. You should receive your new passport in about 6 weeks.
Visas are required for visits to many African countries. At this time, US and Canadian citizens are not required to obtain a visa prior to visiting South Africa. Other countries may require that you apply months in advance. You will need to provide your passport number and a processing fee with your application. Check current visa requirements for the country you plan to visit by visiting their consular web site, or by calling their consulate. South African visa requirements are available at this site.
Confirm your scheduled hunting dates with your safari company or Professional Hunter, before you arrange air transportation. You may not be able to reserve flights more than 6 months in advance. Several airlines offer regularly scheduled flights to Johannesburg, South Africa, out of New York and Atlanta, Georgia. Most Southern African countries have connecting flights out of Johannesburg. We have been satisfied with the South African Airline’s direct, non-stop service from Atlanta to Johannesburg. Many of the other options require a layover in Amsterdam or London, introducing one more opportunity for firearms and luggage to get waylaid. An experienced travel agent should be able to help you find the best schedule for your needs. Ask your agent to try to find wholesaler discounts for you.
When planning your travel itinerary, allow plenty of time for layovers and plane delays. Overseas flights are often delayed, or meet with an unexpected headwind slowing the flight. Once you arrive in Africa, you will need to clear Immigration where you show your passport and obtain your visa. Then you will collect your luggage and your firearms and take them to clear Customs. In South Africa, you will also need to apply for a gun permit, which took place in a very small and overworked office on our last visit. Close connections in these circumstances are very stressful and we were glad to have two and a half hours before our connecting flight.
If you make your travel arrangements with a travel agent, they will offer to sell you a travel insurance policy. This will cover the cost of your safari and transportation if you are unable to travel due to an emergency. It will also provide for emergency medical care and evacuation from Africa in the event of a life threatening illness or injury. The rates are based on a percentage of the price of your whole trip, and may be worth considering, especially if you have health concerns.
The currency of South Africa is the Rand. Due to the current weakness of the dollar, the exchange rate is fluctuating at a low 6-7 rand per dollar. On a strong dollar, the rate is closer to 10 rand to a dollar. Your safari company will most likely quote your prices in US dollars, and will accept payment in cash, check or money transfers. Once you arrive, you may want to exchange for some rand, for the purchase of incidentals and souvenirs. Money can be exchanged at the airport, but the rates are usually not favorable. You may want to visit a bank to exchange currency. On the other hand, credit cards are accepted at most larger stores and tourist locations. We used credit cards at restaurants, grocery stores, souvenir and book shops. The exchange rate you receive on credit card purchases is usually the bank rate, and is usually very good. Smaller street restaurants and souvenir stands rarely accept credit cards or foreign currency.
Health and Safety
Several immunizations are recommended for visits to Africa. Southern African countries do not require proof of immunization, unless you are entering from a country with endemic Yellow Fever. However, the following immunizations are advised by the Centers for Disease Control: Hepatitis A and B, tetanus, typhoid fever, and polio. You will also want to take Malaria prophylaxis, usually in the form of a weekly or daily pill. Visit the CDC website for updated information and plan to discuss your options with your doctor at least 6 months before traveling. While modern medicines are readily available in major towns, most hunting takes place out in the bush. Since the nearest town is usually at least an hour away, we usually bring antibiotics for digestive disorders and insect/spider bites, and a supply of over-the-counter medicines. Also, bring extra doses of any medications you may require for existing conditions, and pack it in your carry-on luggage. It is possible for your luggage to be delayed. You would not want your hunt cut short due to an avoidable illness.
If you are visiting Southern Africa in the winter, it is unlikely you will encounter any snakes, or have a problem with mosquitoes (though malaria prophylaxis is still recommended). If the temperature drops to freezing, these pests will be out of the way. However, there are a number of insects and spiders that remain active year-round. A good insect repellent sprayed liberally around pant legs, boots and other openings will keep the ticks, flies, ants and spiders at bay. The new long-term repellants, which soak into the clothing and last 2 weeks, seem to be very effective, without exposing the skin to Deet.
Tourism is very important to Southern African economies, therefore most tourist locales are well guarded and kept quite safe, even in unstable countries. The country of South Africa is quite stable politically. Everywhere we traveled, we met warm, friendly people with a natural curiosity and interest in their visitors. At no time did we feel threatened or unsafe. You can find a great deal of information about traveling in South Africa by visiting their consular website.
Most hunting in South Africa takes place on very large, remote, private farms with fencing, gates and plenty of staff on hand. They are not having any problems with squatters taking over parts of the farm and threatening visitors, as Zimbabwe is. However, economic crime is not uncommon. It is best to safeguard your firearms, valuables, plane tickets and your passport. Leave tempting valuables, not necessary for your trip, safely at home. Flashy jewelry and other expensive items can be irresistible to thieves anywhere. It is best to keep a low-key appearance, disguise expensive cameras and firearms in inexpensive, worn bags or coverings. Keep cash, travel documents and credit cards close to the body and in your possession or locked in a safe at all times.
When traveling in cities, pay attention to your surroundings and avoid crowds, especially on political holidays. When traveling near the borders with unstable countries like Zimbabwe, there is some increased likelihood of trouble. It is unlikely that you will be traveling on your own in these areas. Your guide should be familiar with the territory, steering you away from trouble.
Prior to planning your trip, check the US State Department for any travel advisories issued for the country(s) you are planning to visit. These advisories are updated regularly and contain useful information about any potential problems you might encounter overseas.
Bringing your trophies home
As I mentioned in the previous article, we worked very closely with our local taxidermist to arrange for importation of our hunting trophies. If you do not have access to this level of service, the following information from the US Customs website will be important to you.
If you plan to import game or a hunting trophy, please contact the Fish and Wildlife Service before you leave at (800) 358-2104. Currently, 14 Customs ports of entry are designated to handle game and trophies; other Customs ports must get approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service to clear your entry.
Depending on the species you bring back, you might need a permit from the country where the animal was harvested. Regardless of the species, you'll have to fill out a Fish and Wildlife form 3-177, Declaration for Importation or Exportation.
Trophies may also be subject to inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for sanitary purposes. General guidelines for importing trophies can be found in APHIS's publication Traveler's Tips. Contact USDA-APHIS-PPQ, Permit Unit, 4700 River Road, Unit 133, Riverdale, MD 20737, or call (301) 734-8645.
Also, federal regulations do not allow the importation of any species into a state with fish or wildlife laws that are more restrictive than federal laws. And if foreign laws were violated in the taking, sale, possession, or export to the United States of wild animals, those animals will not be allowed entry into the United States. Warning: There are many regulations, enforced by various agencies, governing the importation of animals and animal parts. Failure to comply with them could result in time-consuming delays in clearing your trophy through Customs. You should always call for guidance before you depart.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service offers import information on the following website with permit applications available here. Further information about the import of elephant, rhino, and leopard is available at the following website. While the import of your trophies may seem cumbersome, it is not an uncommon process. Try to locate a reputable taxidermist who has other clients who hunt abroad. Otherwise, be patient and contact the above mentioned agencies for assistance. Your safari company or PH may also be able to give you some guidance, although this is not necessarily their area of expertise.
An African Safari may require a great deal of preparation and planning, and it is worth every minute of it. While you may start out planning a “once in a lifetime” hunt, the wild charms of Africa may very well draw you back, time after time. As the saying goes, “once is not enough”. A bit of nervous energy is normal any time you choose to travel outside of your comfort zone, but on each visit we have felt quite confident placing ourselves in the capable hands of a competent and friendly professional hunter.
As you plan your trip, use these articles 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 situations, policies and pricing are subject to change, due to dynamic economic and political climates. These guidelines should help you know what questions to ask and what agencies to contact for up-to-date information.
Finally, here is a quick checklist of items you do not want to leave behind. Passport and visa (if required), airplane tickets, Customs Form 4457, firearms and ammunition. Bring a camera with plenty of film and batteries. For any electric appliances you bring from home, you will need a voltage converter and plug adapter. Pack a set of good binoculars for each person - sharing can be very frustrating. Your medical kit should include antibiotics for stomach disorders and spider bites, as well as a general first aid kit for stomach ills, aches & pains, cold symptoms, BandAids and an antibiotic salve. Long-term bug repellent for your clothing, and a bug repellent with Deet may also come in handy. Don’t forget to bring a good sunscreen and a hat to protect you from the strong African sun, as well as gloves and warmer, layers of clothing for winter visits. A relaxed, friendly attitude and a willingness to “go with the flow” will also serve you well, anytime you travel overseas.