Hunting's Best Kept Secret

An affordable safari? That's why Namibia was invented. It is a country of 318,261 square miles (twice the size of Germany) inhabited by only 1.5 million people. Much of it is so dry and desolate that the average Martian would feel right at home...

Field & Stream Online Editors

It is a country of 318,261 square miles (twice the size of Germany) inhabited by only 1.5 million people. Much of it is so dry and desolate that the average Martian would feel right at home-mile upon mile of reddish, barren sand and rock, and broken, jumbled mountains. Yet the terrain varies, and it is also a bird-watcher's paradise (658 species, each one noisier and more obnoxious than the next) and supports 43 species of big game.

The Republic of Namibia is located on the west coast of Africa, bordered on the north by Angola and Zambia, on the east by Botswana, and on the south by South Africa. It is the great bargain in big-game hunting today. A safari there will cost you roughly one-third of what it will anywhere else in Africa.

High and Dry
Namibia's elevation is between 3,000 and 4,000 feet. The climate during hunting season (April through August, their fall and winter) is salubrious, a combination of hot sun and cool air. It is the driest place this side of Death Valley. Humidity hovers around a steady zero percent, and the dust is constant. If you are a sinus sufferer, bring Kleenex.

It is so dry that, when you hunt, you take a cooler of designer water, fruit juice, and Coke with you, and the professional hunter nags you constantly to drink. And when they load a charter plane, half a dozen gallon jugs of water are always included in case of an unscheduled stop.

Getting There
It's much easier to fly to Africa and in Africa than it is to travel by air in the United States. (There are several thousand things that are easier than flying in the United States.) South African Airways flies direct from both JFK and Atlanta to Johannesburg, which is the air hub for all of subequatorial Africa. It's a long flight?about 15 hours?but I prefer it because it ultimately saves you time, and because South African Airways is a hell of a good airline, and because SAA likes hunters. If you have never known the horrors of flying guns through Europe, or, God forbid, England, you cannot imagine what this means.

From Johannesburg, you take another jet for an hour and a half, which brings you to Windhoek (Veend-hook), the capital of Namibia. It's a lovely city of 161,000 people set among Martian-looking mountains. Its up-and-downhill streets reminded me a little of San Francisco.

From Windhoek, you either take a charter plane to your hunting camp, or drive, or both. In our case, we left JFK on a Sunday evening and were in Namibia, hunting, by Tuesday afternoon. There are 135 airports and 113 unpaved runways scattered throughout the country. I'm told there is no air traffic control (except at Windhoek) because air traffic is so light. There is, however, a highly efficient air ambulance system, so that if you get into trouble, you can be at a hospital within a few hours.

Namibia does not have superhighways, but it does have 4,900 miles of paved road and 35,370 miles of unpaved (graded gravel) roads along which you can drive very fast (braking, however, is a bitch). You must watch out for kudu, which tend to collide with cars in the fashion of whitetail deer, except that a big kudu is the size of a small elk. One night we nearly made a hood ornament out of an aardvark (Afrikaans for earth pig), a large and not overly bright animal that lives on ants and termites.

The Kalahari
The Kalahari is technically a semiarid zone, not a true desert. It's 225,000 square miles of sand upon which grow trees, grass, and bushes. In Namibia, the Kalahari consists of terrain that rolls like frozen ocean waves, and I'm told that people who get seasick may actually hurl chunks while traveling the Kalahari at high speed. It's carpeted by knee-high grass, and various bushes and trees, most of which have thorns?the camelthorn tree, pale camelthorn, blackthorn bush, shepherd's tree, threethorn bush, and brandy bush. Thorns may or may nohave originated in Africa, but they were surely perfected there.

You don't want to sit beneath these trees, because lurking in the sand, 5 to 7 feet deep, lives a critter called the tampan, a giant chigger (a big tampan is the size of a man's thumbnail) that senses your body heat, makes its way to the surface, eats a hunk out of your person, and then retires for several years to wait for the next meal. While it is chewing on you, the tampan secretes a toxin so strong that it will put you on the next plane home. I did not go within 25 yards of a tree while I was in the Kalahari.

Let Us Pray
Our first camp, almost on the border with South Africa, was near a town called Aranos. We lived in tents, and our cook was an Ovamba tribal elder named Thomas, who was in his early 60s, which is extremely old for that part of the world. One night he offered up a prayer for us. It went:

_Oh Lord, thank you for filling my camp with old men.
They are seeing their last days on earth, but they still know how to love life.
Give them a good hunt and a safe trip home.

_ Gemsbok
There were several smaller species of antelope in our section of the Kalahari, but we were interested primarily in the gemsbok, or oryx, a handsome gray antelope with black and white markings and straight, rapier-pointed horns that can go well over 40 inches. Gemsbok are stocky beasts; a good-sized bull carries 400 pounds on a compact frame. They are also possessed of superlative eyesight, tremendous endurance, and a marked resistance to bullets.

You hunt them by riding in the back of a pickup with your PH,the tracker driving, crawling along and looking for a herd, which can be anywhere from half a dozen to several dozen animals. Once you see them, the tactics will be familiar to anyone who's hunted pronghorn antelope. You study the land carefully and figure out how to use it to get close enough for a shot. Unless you're a fan of long-range shooting (and if you are, you'll think you've died and gone to heaven because you can take your shot at 1,000 yards in this utterly open country), this will mean getting within 300 yards, and it can try you sorely. The gemsbok can see you from way off, and they will put distance between you with a steady canter that they can keep up for hours. If they spook, you follow, and try again to outmaneuver them.

According to my PH, Hannes (for Johannes) Steyn, there is only one place to shoot a gemsbok?in the lower third of the shoulder. With a standard lung shot, he warned, a gemsbok will mingle with the herd and run for hours.

Brush Country
The second week of our trip we left the Kalahari and went north, just south of Etosha National Park, to Otavi. This country corresponds to South Texas?impenetrable brush where you can't see 30 feet, and the hunting is from waterhole blinds. The brush teems with game: impala, warthog, greater kudu, giraffe (who would shoot a giraffe, and why?), eland, and half a dozen others. The waterholes are artificial, and the blinds are permanent. There are ground blinds and hochsitzen?literally, "high seats," 20 feet off the ground. The same rules apply to hunting from a Namibian blind as in the United States. You must arrive early, stay late, and keep still.

The animals have caught on to what the blinds are for, and they can be highly circumspect about offering themselves up as trophies. Goosiest of all creatures is the greater kudu. Regarded by many as Africa's premier trophy antelope, it is a strange combination of camel-like ungainliness and deerlike grace. The adult bulls are gray with faint white stripes along the flanks and spiraling horns that extend as much as 60 inches above their skulls. And below those horns are immense ears that have been the downfall of many a hunter.

The kudu cows arrive first and case the joint; they look right into the blinds?right into your eyes, it seems?and then the young bulls come out. They twitch and fidget and jump and stampede off into the brush on the slightest pretext. (A dove landing nearby will send a herd rocking off into a camel-like canter, and you may or may not see them again.) Then, finally, the big boy arrives. The appearance of a trophy-class kudu bull is like the appearance of a trophy whitetail, elevated to the 10th power.

I was not in the kudu business, and so I sat and watched, waiting for a good impala. I never did see one, but one evening we had a veritable kudu pep rally going on beneath us, and I realized that here was a chance I might never have again. As night fell and it was time to leave, I stood up in the hochsitz and bellowed in my best drill sergeant voice, "YOU PEOPLE HAD BETTER BE MORE CAREFUL! NOT EVERYONE IS AS GOOD-NATURED AS I AM!"

The kudu looked at each other with expressions that said, There goes the neighborhood, and wandered into the thornbush.

The Advantages of Not Enough People
Namibia seems to have escaped the political turmoil that has touched much of subequatorial Africa. The government is stable, no one hates anyone else, and guard dogs and razor ribbon are not prominently displayed everywhere you turn. This is probably because it's hard to get cheesed off at your neighbor when he's 30 miles away.

Getting your rifles and shotguns in is a snap. Your safari outfitter faxes you a firearms permit, which you complete before leaving the United States. When you get to the airport at Windhoek, a policeman checks to see that your guns' serial numbers match what's on the papers, stamps same, and that's it. Very few Americans hunt Namibia; mostly it's Austrians and Germans, and because the country is not trendy and glamorous, prices are quite reasonable. A typical 10-hunting-day safari is about $7,000, which is what you can pay in the United States for an elk hunt on which you see no elk. That sum, for us, included two airline charters and all our licenses. Airfare on SAA is around $1,800. No, it's not pocket change, but do you want to sit on your butt the rest of your life and see Africa on the Discovery Channel, or do you want to go there?
the blinds?right into your eyes, it seems?and then the young bulls come out. They twitch and fidget and jump and stampede off into the brush on the slightest pretext. (A dove landing nearby will send a herd rocking off into a camel-like canter, and you may or may not see them again.) Then, finally, the big boy arrives. The appearance of a trophy-class kudu bull is like the appearance of a trophy whitetail, elevated to the 10th power.

I was not in the kudu business, and so I sat and watched, waiting for a good impala. I never did see one, but one evening we had a veritable kudu pep rally going on beneath us, and I realized that here was a chance I might never have again. As night fell and it was time to leave, I stood up in the hochsitz and bellowed in my best drill sergeant voice, "YOU PEOPLE HAD BETTER BE MORE CAREFUL! NOT EVERYONE IS AS GOOD-NATURED AS I AM!"

The kudu looked at each other with expressions that said, There goes the neighborhood, and wandered into the thornbush.

The Advantages of Not Enough People
Namibia seems to have escaped the political turmoil that has touched much of subequatorial Africa. The government is stable, no one hates anyone else, and guard dogs and razor ribbon are not prominently displayed everywhere you turn. This is probably because it's hard to get cheesed off at your neighbor when he's 30 miles away.

Getting your rifles and shotguns in is a snap. Your safari outfitter faxes you a firearms permit, which you complete before leaving the United States. When you get to the airport at Windhoek, a policeman checks to see that your guns' serial numbers match what's on the papers, stamps same, and that's it. Very few Americans hunt Namibia; mostly it's Austrians and Germans, and because the country is not trendy and glamorous, prices are quite reasonable. A typical 10-hunting-day safari is about $7,000, which is what you can pay in the United States for an elk hunt on which you see no elk. That sum, for us, included two airline charters and all our licenses. Airfare on SAA is around $1,800. No, it's not pocket change, but do you want to sit on your butt the rest of your life and see Africa on the Discovery Channel, or do you want to go there?