At Safari Club International's annual convention, I've taken part in a panel seminar on "the first safari." It's a wonderful thing to see. The room is always completely full of folks in some stage of planning their first African hunt. I envy them. The first African safari is a truly life-changing event that can never be recaptured'¦ although many of us spend much of our lives trying to regain that level of magic and excitement.
Most all the people in the room have made the decision to take the plunge. Even so, I know that some of them, and many of you, are intimidated by the concept of going all the way to Africa to hunt. This is understandable, and there's usually no shortage of bad stuff in the press on African crime and politics.
So, is Africa safe? Africa, like many large American cities, may not be a place where unescorted tourists should run around at will. I think Africa is very safe — when conducted with a reputable outfitter who will shepherd you through your adventure.
A surprising number of hunters believe Africa is completely unaffordable. OK, I get it. All guided hunts are unaffordable to some'¦ and there are certainly some African hunts that are far beyond my means. However, here's the truth: Many African hunts are surprisingly affordable. There was a recent post on this magazine's website, directed at me and definitely anti-African hunting, about me being born with a silver spoon in my, er, somewhere.
Yes, my dad made a good living — but he had no interest in Africa. I was a 24-year-old First Lieutenant when I saved my pennies and went for the first time, with no assistance from anyone. Today, I meet hunters from all walks of life and, honestly, all income brackets who have been, are going, and are going again.
A plains game safari yielding a half-dozen good trophies and a lifetime's worth of memories might be priced about the same as a good whitetail hunt in Texas or a very average guided elk hunt on public land. A safari that includes buffalo will run about the same as a premium elk hunt'¦but considerably less than a good Alaskan moose or Dall sheep hunt.
The Plains Game Safari
A plains game hunt is seven to 10 days for a selection of non-dangerous animals. When I was planning my first safari in the 1970s, this type of safari was actually quite unusual. Back then, the "norm" was a two- or three-week safari that usually included at least a couple of the big nasties. Today, the plains game safari is the most common, probably about 70 percent of the approximately 20,000 hunting safaris conducted annually, continent-wide.
The game list varies considerably from area to area, but one thing is certain: In Africa, it is almost impossible to take all the varieties of game found in an area on one short hunt. So most plains game safaris concentrate on a couple of "premier" trophies, with kudu and gemsbok probably the most popular choices. Then there will be a selection of other animals, such as springbok, impala, hartebeest, blesbok, wildebeest, warthog, zebra, and more. Some animals will be deliberately hunted; others will only be taken by chance encounter.
One of the best things about Africa is you never know what you might see on a given day. So it's impossible to determine exactly what your bag might consist of at the end of your hunt. You will likely take your primary animals, because that's where you'll invest most of your time. But you'll also collect an animal or two that you had in mind, and you will also probably take an animal or two that you hadn't even thought about.
A piece of advice (and this is important where "trophy awareness" is an endemic sickness): Leave your tape measure in camp and listen to your PH's advice. He will do the best he can, but trophy quality will likely follow a bell curve. Some of your trophies will be exceptional, most will be pretty good, and a couple will be average. This is how hunting works.
So let's look at the options for the plains game safari. Outfitters from Cameroon to Tanzania and down to Zambia sell less expensive hunts for the more common non-dangerous species. These are good hunts, but because of logistics, paperwork, and the sheer "TIA" (This Is Africa) factor, probably not ideal first safaris. In the 1980s and '90s, there were three primary choices for a first plains game safari: Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Since Zimbabwe's despot, Robert Mugabe, began land reallocation in 2000, most of Zimbabwe's plains game on private land has been poached and eaten. With few exceptions (like some of the large conservancies), Zimbabwe is no longer in the plains game market. This leaves two primary choices for a plains game safari.
has the largest hunting industry on the African continent and hosts possibly 40 percent of the entire continent's hunting safaris. Although South Africa offers the entire Big Five, the majority of South African safaris are for plains game.
Then South West Africa, Namibia
was a very quiet and little-known backwater when I first hunted there in 1979. Today, this country hosts Africa's second-largest hunting industry, and I believe it now holds ten times the game than when I first hunted there.
Just a few years ago, I wouldn't have offered up Mozambique
as a first safari option, but Africa can change quickly'¦and Mozambique's game has proven marvelously resilient.
Due to the huge losses of game on 'œreallocated' private lands, Zimbabwe
is no longer a primary destination for a plains game safari, and options for a buffalo-plus-plains game safari are much more limited. However, buffalo hunting remains excellent in the designated safari areas and some of the forestry reserves and communal lands on the periphery of the country.