As we came into land at Harare back in the 1980s I think it was, the stewardess handed out small squares of brown paper without any explanation. On closer examination, I saw they were currency declaration forms. A fellow passenger told me I needed to complete one, have it stamped at immigration and, to the extent you spent any of it in Zimbabwe, you needed the outlet to sign the form to that effect. You were not allowed to leave the country with more foreign currency than you brought in. I remember the quality of the paper was so poor it was difficult to write without tearing it. Still, I did my best.
On leaving Zimbabwe, I was behind an elderly American in the queue at Immigration. The official asked him for the form and how much foreign currency he had on him. Lots was the answer but no form. Can I see, asked the official and, when the American pulled out a bulging wallet, the official plucked it out of his hand, took out the dollars and put them into the drawer of his desk.
I will not bore you with the raging argument, shouted threats and counterthreats but remember the parting shot of the smug official who had thoroughly enjoyed the proceedings, “If you return, maybe we give you your money back!”
Well, you do not have to be a nuclear physicist to know that the chances of the American or anyone in his circle visiting Zimbabwe again were slim and Slim had just emigrated.
This was my first experience of what has become a deeply unpleasant epidemic in Africa, where visitors are seen as dripping roasts on which the locals are able to dine with absolute impunity, wherever and whenever possible, seemingly in complete ignorance that they are killing the goose.
I have been lucky enough to hunt in 19 Sub-Saharan countries over some 40 years and have managed companies in nine of them. Over this time, I have been through innumerable roadblocks or extortion points where the police/army/customs/immigration officials have sought ways and means to extract money from me for various imagined contraventions of whatever law they have been able to dream up.
Trying to enter an African country with my firearms has usually been taken care of by the meet and greet agent appointed by or working for the safari outfitter and I have always made sure I knew who this was and had his contact details on speed dial. All these people merely know who to bribe and how much to pay and safari outfitters, for the most part, see them merely as part of the cost of doing business in Africa but it does push up the cost of the safari.
This has become one of the important bits of research when checking references from the outfitter. A good meet and greet agent can remove so many obstacles and transform a fraught, deeply unpleasant and time consuming experience into something no more awkward than arriving at Heathrow with a valid passport and visa and nothing to declare.
Of course, once you are through customs and immigration, you are in the hands of the vultures and, for example, I can remember being called down to the basement of the Addis Ababa airport where I was confronted by a phalanx of customs officials who demanded “the other paper”, that mystery document I have been repeatedly asked for in many African countries, failing which I would not be allowed to export my firearms from Ethiopia.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be accompanied by an employee of Ethiopian Airlines and, it was only when I asked him to call the police because I said the officials were clearly trying to steal my firearms, that the officials drifted back into the holes from which they had just crept.
In the Republic of Congo, the immigration officer would not allow me into the country because, despite my valid visa, he also demanded that famous document, “the other paper’. Four hours later, when the airport had emptied of all passengers, he eventually gave up and allowed me to enter the country. What I would have done without Christophe Beau, my PH and a fluent French speaker who accompanied me, I do not know as this was the only European language they spoke. As it was, when we emerged from the airport all the taxis but one had left and the reason it was still there was because it had no brakes and you could see more of the road through the floorboards than through the windscreen.
In Chad, my highly experienced and expert PH and outfitter, Alain Lefol, dealt with the problem by having a Captain in their elite army unit, the Nomad Guard, accompany us with his AK47 in the front vehicle. The way he dealt with the vultures at the various roadblocks had to be seen to be believe. His disdain, contempt and rejection of their demands was a thing of beauty!
He could not stop Alain, however, from being speared through the left forearm and axed against his lower leg by nomads from Sudan who, for a generous bribe, reputed to have been $10 000, the governor of the province allowed to invade the Parc Sportif, set aside by the government as an exclusive hunting concession, with thousands of their sheep, goats, donkeys and camels. The nomads surrounded every waterhole and had denuded the Parc of almost all its wildlife other than warthogs and monkeys.
On the other side of the continent, I remember my first safari to Botswana. Standing in front of the immigration officer in Maun, he curtly said to me, “Hat”. “I beg your pardon?” I replied. His answer was, “Hat” not looking at me and pointing to a colour photo of an elderly black man hanging on the wall. Eventually, he tersely explained that I had to remove my hat in front of the photo of the then president of the country. Really? Can you imagine being told to do that, let alone in that manner, by a British immigration official, always assuming that any photo of the prime minister or queen was to be found in any of their offices?
That was comparatively mild however, compared to the harassment I was subjected to at Beira Airport in Mocambique. Here the head of airport security accused me of exporting armour piercing ammunition from the country as I waited to catch the aircraft back to Johannesburg at the end of a great safari in Niassa National Reserve with Ryan Cliffe for a couple of big, old eland bulls.
The ammo in question was six rounds of Norma 300 grain .375 solids, still in their original box, along with a few remaining Norma softs. I had taken the solids with me, firstly, because we were hunting in an area with four of the Big Five and, secondly, because I liked to load a solid in the magazine after the first soft. All the ammunition was marked on my Mocambican firearms permit, a copy of which I showed the policeman but to no avail.
What saved me was the pilot of my charter aircraft who, luckily for me, saw me surrounded by police and soldiers and came over to ask if things were alright. Well, no, actually they weren’t and I explained why. Neither he nor the safari meet and greet employee who he called over and who had previously cleared my firearms and ammo through customs were able to convince the short, overweight police chief, although both spoke fluent Portuguese.
Luckier still was that the pilot knew chief of police in Beira who he called and who kindly arrived at the airport and summarily dealt with the bully boy who was determined to lock me up. Needless to say, Hell will be a very cold place before I return and voluntarily submit myself to a possible rematch.
My first experience of arriving in CAR was nearly enough to put me off ever visiting the country again and convinced me of the vital importance of always insisting on having an experienced meet and greet person to smooth arrivals and departures in an African country, especially when travelling with firearms, no matter how valid your relevant visa and permits seemed to be. And to be fair, all reputable safari outfitters understand the problems for hunters trying to enter and leave African countries and employ capable and experienced meet and greet people of their own.
The inside of the windowless excuse for an international airport in CAR was crammed with young black men fighting to claim every suitcase that was unceremoniously shoved through a hole in the wall – there was no luggage conveyor belt and the public was not kept separate from the passengers – and your chances of beating them to your luggage was non-existent in that fetid scrum.
Fortunately, the young, French speaking, American school teacher employed by the safari company had done this before and had her own team of fit, young, black men and, when I pointed out my suitcase and gun case, they soon rescued them from the men disappearing with them, much to my relief.
That does not always help of course and I remember the late Mauro Daolio’s meet and greet employee who absconded with a substantial amount of money he was supposed to have paid to the government for trophy fees. I confess, I always suspected the employee was in cahoots with customs officials at the airport in Dar-es-Salaam after he insisted I give him $20 to make the problem go away. The problem being that the serial number on one of my firearms contained a three, which the customs official insisted was an eight on the permit, whereas the permit clearly showed a three.
All of this paled into insignificance when compared to the treatment meted out in the Republic of Congo (ROC), where the safari outfitter’s company was pirated by the local, black partner, along with shipping containers holding three new Nissan 4x4s, three new aluminium canoes with outboard motors and a significant amount of building material, supplies and equipment for a new hunting camp.
I was piggy in the middle and, as there was no hunting permit in camp when I arrived, had no alternative but to leave and return to Johannesburg. And that was when things became really nasty. The president of ROC for the last 25 years, Denis Sassou Nguessou, once accused by a French magazine of having spent $12 million on clothes over a period of some years at one Parisian shop, had invited the president of Gabon for a visit and so, naturally, stopped all domestic flights in the country in his honour but only told the airlines a day or so beforehand.
If we waited for these restrictions to be lifted, I would miss my connecting flight to Nairobi en route to Johannesburg and would have to spend another three days in the country twiddling my thumbs. So, I decided to hire a car and driver to take me and my PH on the 830 km trip to Brazzaville. Bad mistake. Very bad mistake.
We went through 23 road blocks or extortion points! They became progressively worse the closer we came to Brazzaville and the day wore on and the vultures manning the blocks became ever drunker and more aggressive. It culminated with a policeman, dressed all in black, prodding me in the chest with the barrel of an AK47, his forefinger resting on the trigger, while screaming his spittle laden, paint removing breath into my face, to give him money and NOW!
A couple of years previously in the DRC, a family friend had been killed at just such a road block in just such a manner. The AK47 had been fired, Johnny was killed instantly and the murderer faded back into the bush never to be seen or heard of again. It was like being bitten by a very deadly, poisonous snake. You were dead, the snake slithered off and no-one benefitted.
The trip took 13 interminable hours due to the incessant road blocks. On the stop before being threatened with the AK, an army captain made me unpack every item in my suitcase, gun and camera case onto the road. He even shone my torch into the lenses of my camera, although what he hoped to find escaped me.
I was shattered by the time we booked into a hotel in the capital of the most corrupt country in Africa it has ever been my misfortune to visit. You cannot think of an amount of money to tempt me to return.
These are just some of the many negative experiences that I have repeatedly experienced when hunting in African countries. Of course, there are other countries where I have experienced nothing like this, such as Ghana, Namibia, South Africa and Uganda but they are few and far between and I am not saying that these things do not happen in the four countries, only that I have not personally experienced them yet.
And it is such a shame. The numbers of overseas hunters visiting Africa have been in steep decline for many years. There are possibly reasons other than corruption for this but, what you can say for certain, is that hunters can spend their hard earned foreign currency hunting in many countries that welcome them with open arms. Why would they want to go where they are ripped off and made to feel insecure and unwelcome?
The other seriously negative effect is that, as hunters know full well, hunting is the cornerstone of conservation in Africa. No hunting, no wildlife and wildlife habitat, simple as that. Both of these are under enormous threat anyway from habitat destruction, population explosion and illegal poaching. By tolerating and even encouraging corruption, African governments are effectively destroying a wonderful, renewal resource which, if only used sustainably, could provide opportunities for all their people in perpetuity.
I know this article will not find favour with some outfitters who will complain that I am frightening potential clients away. That is not my intention but rather to inform those thinking of visiting Africa to hunt and both forearming and forewarning them so that, should they decide to go ahead – and we hunters are an intrepid bunch – they will, like Baden-Powell, be prepared.