It’s an unfortunate myth among American hunters that taking a safari in Africa is a rich man’s sport. In truth, Africa is not only affordable but one of the greatest bargains in the entire hunting world.
Some safaris are high-priced. Lions are found primarily in remote areas that are difficult to reach and where camps are expensive to supply. Permits, too, are extremely limited. So safaris for them are costly, as are those for elephant and the great antelope such as bongo, mountain nyala, and Lord Derby’s eland. But there is a whole world of African hunting that is affordable.
The most common safari today is a short, relatively inexpensive hunt for a selection of plains game. It’s quite possible to spend seven to 10 African hunting days and take half a dozen good trophies for about what you’d pay for a good guided elk hunt in the West. You could also spend 10 to 14 days afield and take the same half-dozen antelope, plus a leopard or Cape buffalo, for about the same money as an Alaskan Dall sheep or grizzly hunt.
WHAT IT COSTS
Twenty-five years ago when I made my first safari to Kenya, the airfare was the best part of $2,000. Today, from most gateway airports in the United States, you can get to Africa and back for the same two grand–and sometimes several hundred dollars less.
Once you’re there things are really quite simple. Most African safaris are conducted on the basis of a daily rate plus trophy fees. Daily rates for plains-game safaris vary, but $300 to $450 per day is pretty close. Leopard and/or buffalo safaris tend to start at the upper end of this scale. You know the daily rate and the number of days you have contracted, so that’s a basic fixed cost.
Most African countries use a “pay as you go” system with trophy fees charged only for game actually taken (or wounded and lost). You know up front how much currency the various species command, and if you don’t want to pay the fee for a certain animal, you don’t shoot.
Common game such as warthog, impala, and the smaller antelope usually average a couple hundred bucks. Larger common species like hartebeest, wildebeest, and zebra average around $500. Extremely desirable antelope such as waterbuck, kudu, and gemsbok usually run from about $500 to $1,000. Buffalo, sable, and eland go up from there.
COUNTRIES AND SPECIES
Starting at the southern tip of the continent, South Africa has the largest safari industry and hosts a tremendous variety of game. The real strength here is short plains-game safaris, most taking place on private land out of comfortable permanent camps. You can choose among greater kudu, gemsbok, nyala, waterbuck, impala, blesbok, springbok, warthog, zebra, hartebeest, wildebeest, duiker, and more.
To the northwest stretches Namibia, a more arid country with a similar system of private-land hunting. Like South Africa, Namibia has an excellent infrastructure, so camps are easily reached and the hunting is inexpensive. Properties in Namibia average somewhat larger than in South Africa, but the game is less varied. Greater kudu and gemsbok head the list. Other species include zebra, hartebeest, wildebeest, warthog, springbok, and duiker.
Lying north of South Africa, above the Limpopo River, Zimbabwe offers two distinct safari settings. In the interior, on large conservancies and private lands, there’s abundant plains game: kudu, sable, waterbuck, wildebeest, zebra, impala, bushbuck, reedbuck, duiker, and more. Around the edges of the country–the Zambezi Valley to the north, the Hwange Park corridor to the west–the plains game is less plentiful because there is little agriculture or developed water. But in this wilder terrain, you find elephant and buffalo.
This combination of circumstances makes Zimbabwe one of the very best destinations for the hunter who wants both buffalo and plains game. The topography is characterized by heavy thornbush, where leopard are endemic. Zimbabwe is probably also the best place to go for sable and leopard on short, affordable safaris. Its political problems, much in the news recently, are genuine, but the impact on hunting so far has been limited. One tangible effect since Zimbabwe’s land reallocation began in 2000 is a tremendous reduction in the availability of game on private land in the interior. Tribal Trust Lands and those administered by Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife and Forestry are generally unaffected.
A number of very good reasons remain to plan a safari in Zimbabwe, but under the current conditions some precautions are in order. First, keep abreast of U.S. State Department advisories regarding travel. Second, demand recent references and check them. Third, insist on verification of a valid and current professional hunter’s license. Finally, since safaris are usually planned many months out and the situation is definitely fluid, buy trip insurance. The cost is minimal, and it’s the best way to guard against unforeseen disasters.
Tanzania, in East Africa, offers some of the continent’s best remaining lion hunting, pockets of good hunting for elephant, plenty of leopard, and a wealth of antelope that includes sable and roan, greater and lesser kudu, and a host of plains game. These safaris are expensive, partly because outfitter quotas for the great prizes are somewhat limited. However, Tanzania also has huge numbers of buffalo, and most outfitters offer shorter safaris at reduced rates. Under Tanzania’s licensing system, elephant, big cats, and the most prized antelope are not available on short hunts, but a seven-day license includes two Cape buffalo and common game such as zebra, wildebeest, hartebeest, impala, and warthog.
These are the primary budget safari destinations. Other options for shorter buffalo safaris are Botswana, Mozambique, and Zambia.
CHOOSING AN OUTFITTER
The first step is deciding what you want to hunt, as your preference will drive your choice of country. For plains game most first-time hunters will put the greater kudu at the top of their list, and this is appropriate. Although cover-loving and never easy to hunt, they are plentiful in South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. In seven days you should get your kudu–and you’ll probably take several other nice trophies along the way.
Finding a good outfitter is not as hard as it sounds. References from friends are good starting points, but African outfitters are well represented at major American sports shows and “where to go” sections in outdoor magazines. Check references, get all prices in writing, find out about camps and hunting areas, and make sure the game you want is available.
African professional hunters go through extensive testing and training to obtain their licenses. There are very few fly-by-nights in the business, but be sure that the outfitter you are booking belongs to the professional hunters’ association in his country. Booking agents are always a good option–and are as near as the phone whenever questions arise.
Should you hire a private PH (“1×1”) or split a PH with a buddy (“2×1”)? A 2×1 arrangement must be with someone you know and like and have hunted with before. Plains-game hunting with a buddy is just fine and can save quite a bit of money, but understand that the results will not be equal to a 1×1.
Avoid tight airline connections like the plague, but don’t worry about plague and other tropical ailments. During the African winter–roughly June through October–the climate is mild, dry, and healthy (and snakes are rarely seen). Always check with your doctor for required immunizations, but you won’t need many. You will want to take a malaria prophylaxis, just precautionary in the dry season. Some countries require visas and some don’t, and this can change. Your outfitter or your travel agent can set you straight. Gun permits may be required in advance. If so, your outfitter will assist you.
Packing is easy. Camp staffs do laundry every day, so you’ll need only two, maximum three, changes of hunting clothes plus a change of traveling clothes. Green is far better than khaki in most areas–but camouflage is a bad idea because of its association with the military. You will want good binoculars, a camera, and plenty of memory cards or extra film…and of course toiletries, prescription medications, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
Do not underestimate the cold of an African morning in an open vehicle. I tend to hunt in shorts because they’re quieter, but I start the day in long pants with a sweater and often a hooded windproof jacket. I always take a wool watch cap and gloves and often need them.
There are some extras to keep in mind. Depending on your arrangements, you may need to spend a night in a hotel coming and going. Tips to the camp staff–cook, tracker, skinner, etc.–are essential but not costly in our currency. For a week’s hunt, a couple hundred bucks should suffice. Do not hand out tips yourself; give the PH the money and let him do it. A tip to the PH is good manners of course; figure a minimum of 5 percent of the total daily rate paid.
Preparing trophies for their journey to the United States may or may not be included, but the shipping costs are not. Your outfitter will salt and dry them in camp. Then, either an African taxidermist can mount them before shipping, or you can have them sent as is to your own taxidermist. Some African taxidermists are great and some are rotten–as anywhere. In general, African taxidermy is cheaper because the labor costs are lower–but mounted trophies cost much more to ship than dried skins and horns do. It works out about the same in the end, although African taxidermists are normally faster. Shipping 10 mounts should average $1,000.
HUNT EARLY, HUNT LATE
Mornings and evenings are prime times in almost all hunting, but this is especially true in Africa because of the warm midday hours. Typically you will rise well before dawn, awakened by your choice of coffee or tea. Breakfast is usually just a light snack, and you’re away before daylight. How you hunt depends on the terrain and what you’re looking for. You may glass for kudu in hilly country, or you may cruise dusty tracks looking for buffalo spoor. Or you may simply drive slowly through likely country, moving and glassing until you see game, then dismounting and making a stalk.
Depending on how far your morning takes you, you may come back to camp for brunch, or for lunch, or take a midday break under a shady tree. In Africa I enjoy a midday nap–but if that isn’t for you, bring a couple of good books. Waiting at a water hole during the midday hours is productive for some species–but being rested for the evening hunt is also important. You will usually hunt until dark, so be prepared for the chilly ride back to camp.
Some African hunting, like tracking buffalo, is physically demanding, and I love it. Some of the sport is easy. Not all of those 100-plus varieties of game are equal in wariness. In good country, you may be able to go out and get an impala at almost any time. On the other hand, no one can say when you might run into a good kudu. So you will spend your time looking for the difficult animals, perhaps taking some of the common game along the way.
African game is so plentiful and African professional hunters and trackers are so skilled that most hunts are successful. On a pure plains-game hunt you can expect to take an animal about every day and a half. On a seven-day hunt, four to six trophies is normal; on a 10-day hunt, six to eight trophies. For buffalo, figure a minimum of five days.
“HE WHO HAS DRUNK FROM THE NILE”
There is one caution in planning an African hunt: Expect it to be addictive! In 1935, at the conclusion of the safari that yielded The Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway was asked about his future plans. His reply was simple: “Make enough money to go back to Africa.”
She is a complicated, troubled, and bewitching continent. I am grateful to have seen so much of her. I’ve been fortunate to make a few lengthy safaris, but most of my jaunts have been short hunts, limited in time, extremely affordable–and just as memorable.
S1 AFFORDABLE AFRICA
S6 SAFARI RIFLES
S8 HOW TO MOUNT A GUN
S12 COUNTRY PROPERTY