Via Ian McMurchy
Via Ian McMurchy

Winter escape: Africa

Africa promises the hunt of a lifetime, if you're prepared. A travel primer for the first-timer

Mbogo stood in the darkest shadows, waiting. He was hurting. Blood ran from his nostrils and he could not hold his head upright. He was raging with fury, and he wanted a piece of my tracker, Kobus, and me. Minutes earlier, he had stopped by a lone tree and watched his backtrail. He did not see us standing 80 yards away, our outlines hidden by a large thorn bush. That’s when I settled the crosshairs on the back of his left front leg and waited. Kobus lasered the beast and whispered, “Eighty yards.”

“I can do that shot,” I whispered. I squeezed the trigger, and the big Weatherby leapt on its rests. The giant cape buffalo kicked his rear legs together like a bucking bronco and took off in a hopping run, disappearing behind another huge thorn bush. Just as I closed the bolt on another round, he came charging straight at us. I placed the crosshairs on his shoulder and fired again. The solid copper bullet drove lengthwise through the angry bull’s body and he broke left, again disappearing into the thorns.

Silence. A dying buffalo frequently lets out a mournful death bellow with his last breath, but there was nothing. He still had a lot of fight left. Twenty minutes and four more .458 rounds later, we finally heard the death moan. My lifelong dream of successfully hunting mbogo, as many Africans call the mighty cape buffalo, had exceeded my wildest dreams.

Africa is the destination for big-game hunters from all over the planet, simple as that. There are other great places with incredible game species, but nothing compares with the immense diversity—and excitement—of an African safari. The only downside, as anyone who has ever ventured to Africa will tell you, is an aching, incredible desire to return. Here’s what you need to know to make your first visit.

Outfitters

Africa offers two main types of hunting safaris. Most common are plains game (PG) hunts for a wide range of hoofed critters. Then there are the dangerous game (DG) hunts for the so-called big five: cape buffalo, leopard, lion, elephant, and rhinoceros. Some outfitters offer a combination of both types of hunts. Do some research into what adventures are offered where—and when—and be sure to check references before settling on an outfitter. Typically, first-timers opt for a PG hunt.

Costs

The overall price tag will be your first consideration, with the main costs including travel, the safari itself, trophy fees and the taxidermy bill. Other expenses include immunization, travel insurance, hotel accommodations and meals en route, tips, souvenirs, and the shipping of trophies. PG hunts are sometimes all-inclusive except for airfare, tips, taxidermy, and the shipping of your trophies. A typical 10-day hunt, for example, should cost between U.S.$5,000 and U.S.$10,000. It’s worth noting that an introductory African safari is no more expensive, and often more affordable, than many outfitted hunts for North American big-game animals.

DG hunts, meanwhile, usually involve a daily rate for the services of the professional hunter and his staff; expect to pay around U.S.$650 a day. The big costs here are the additional trophy fees—a set price for each animal that is shot—which can be upward of U.S.$55,000 for a large elephant. Whichever route you choose, make sure you’re clear on what is and isn’t included in the price tag, particularly when it comes to the trophy fees.

Planning

Make to-do lists, keep accurate records of all correspondence with your outfitter and start stroking the days off the calendar. For your first trip, strongly consider using a booking agency, which can take care of virtually all travel plans, from gun permits to accommodations to the safari itself.

Health

Various diseases and parasites are common in many parts of Africa, so be sure to get the necessary vaccinations and medications before you depart; some countries even demand mandatory vaccinations as part of their entry requirements. Provincial health agencies provide excellent support for obtaining the necessary needles, as well as the likes of anti-malarials. Also, discuss your trip with your family doctor, particularly if you have specific health conditions requiring medications or physical restrictions. Once hunters arrive in Africa, most never encounter problems-reputable outfitters ensure their clients top-notch food, beverages and personal care.

Gun permits

To bring your own rifle to Africa (and back), you’ll need an export permit from the Export Controls Division of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. When applying, you must include an import permit from the country of destination, as well as from any other countries the firearm will be travelling through. You also need a valid firearms licence and registration certificate for the gun in question. A customs officer may ask to see the export permit when you bring the gun back to Canada. You should expect your outfitter to identify and assist with the protocols for bringing firearms into the country where you’ll be hunting. Alternatively, many outfitters will rent you a rifle if you want to avoid the hassles of travelling with firearms.

Transportation

Your outfitter will make arrangements for you to be picked up at the airport, and supply all necessary transport to the field. Typically, all travel during the hunt itself is via diesel 4x4s, such as Toyota Land Cruisers, which are essential for finding game prior to the stalking and shooting. These rigs have been refined to handle amazing abuse yet provide maximum support for the hunt. Special outside seating allows the trackers to spot hoof prints and sign with ease.

Accommodations

PG safaris are often based from comfortable lodges, permanent camps or ranches. DG camps, meanwhile, can range from luxurious lodges to thatched enclosures surrounding a heavy canvas tent. All meals and beverages are supplied, as are laundry services.

Hunting

Your hunting group will likely include the professional hunter, or PH, and one or two trackers. Your role as the client is to stay as close as possible to the PH, follow his advice and remain quiet once you’re on foot in the field. During the hunt, one of the trackers will carry a set of shooting sticks and lead the way. The PH and client usually follow a few steps back, either directly behind the tracker or slightly to one side. Once you’re getting close to game, the tracker usually backs off and the PH and hunter close the final distance together.

PG calibres

Basic North American hunting gear works quite well in Africa to a point. PG hunts are handled by popular calibres ranging from the .270 Winchester up to the more powerful .338/.375 magnums. Bigger can be better, but be sure you’re not over-gunned and unable to hit consistently and quickly. Remember, creatures such as eland, kudu and zebra are comparable in size to elk and moose, so choose your calibre appropriately.

DG calibres

For the big five, big is indeed the operative word when it comes to calibres, complete with heavy bullets and massive energy. Most African game departments have set the .375 as the allowable minimum calibre for the largest critters. The .375 H&H is a wonderful cartridge, but many experienced big-game hunters in Africa prefer the .416 Rigby or .458 Win. Mag. for the sheer knockdown power.

Optics

A good-quality 2-7X variable scope will do a fine job. Keeping in mind the rough terrain you’ll be covering, use tactical-grade Weaver-style rings and bases, which are the strongest and easiest to maintain. Bouncing in vehicles is a severe test for scopes and mounts. DG rifles should be sighted in at 50 yards and checked out to 100. And you must know your point of impact for closer shots since opportunities inside 25 yards are not uncommon. Binoculars are more essential for PG hunts than DG safaris because the distances involved in trophy evaluation are significantly longer. Light binos in the 8X42 range work great; just attach them to a shoulder-strap harness to transfer the weight from your neck to your shoulders, and you’re good to go.

Shooting

If you’re hunting in heavy cover, it’s essential you’re able to fire quickly and are prepared to immediately follow up with more shots if necessary. A big mistake is to shoot, then look for the critter rather than cranking in another round and hitting it again—and again—until the job is done. Generally, however, you don’t have to rush your first shot. It all depends on the game, the location and the season. You should, however, always be ready for quick follow-up shots.

Shot placement

African animals are extraordinarily tough, with an amazing determination to survive-the fact most are under the constant threat of predation probably accounts for this tenacity. Their internal anatomy is also somewhat different from that of North America’s big game, making shot placement all the more challenging for the first-timer. Fortunately, there are some excellent reference books and DVDs explaining the differences for first-time safari hunters. Check out the offerings from Long Grass and Safari Press.

Trophies

Outfitter and taxidermy fees aside, you may also need import and export permits to get your trophies back to Canada, depending on the species and the country it came from. Discuss any such regulations with your outfitter before making the trip. You can learn more from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which controls the movement of animal parts.

Photography

Carry a small, good-quality digital camera in your pocket at all times, and make sure you have plenty of image memory storage cards and battery power. Also remember to bring the proper power converter if you have a battery charger (and other electronics, for that matter). Not taking photos is a regret that only happens after the fact, so click away. It is, after all, your hunt of a lifetime.

Along with guns and optics, here are some more essential items for a successful—and enjoyable—African hunt.

  • Clothing – For maximum protection from thorn bushes and the searing African sun, wear long-sleeved shirts and full-legged pants made of tough cotton. Mornings can be surprisingly cool, however, so bring along a warm jacket or vest. A hunting jacket or vest with lots of pockets for storing extra ammo and other small necessities is also a good idea, as is a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Gaiters – Standard gear for most professional hunters and guides in Africa, gaiters keep burrs, bugs, sand, and grass out of your boot tops and socks, while also protecting your laces.
  • First-aid kit – African hunting lodges and vehicles should be equipped with appropriate first-aid kits. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to bring along your own small kit tucked into a fanny pack. Include medications for constipation, diarrhea, muscle aches, blisters, dehydration, chapped lips, headaches, sleeping difficulties and minor cuts and scratches. Also add scissors, tweezers and a large nail clipper, as well as antiseptic towelettes, gauze, a variety of bandages and, if you have room, a thermal first-aid blanket.
  • Optics cleaners – You’ll need to continually remove dust and grime from everything from sunglasses to riflescopes, so bring a good supply of microfibre cloths and cleaning fluid.
  • Locks – Get a good lock to secure valuables—your passport, wallet, immunization records, airline tickets, and so on—in your hard gun case or luggage while you’re out hunting.
  • Shooting aids – Bring foam earplugs and a few targets, just in case the outfitter doesn’t have a supply when you check your rifle’s zero prior to hunting. You may also want to carry along a small beanbag to rest your rifle on.
  • Diary – This can be as valuable as your camera when it comes to treasuring the memories of your hunt. Buy a good journal, keep it by your bed and use it. It’s also not a bad idea to carry a small notebook to make notes when you’re out in the field, especially pertinent information about the photographs you take. Otherwise, some details are bound to be forgotten during the excitement of the day.

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