There are only three things you need to know as an amateur hunter about hunting in countries to the north of us – preparation, preparation and preparation. Preparation of your body and mind, clothing and equipment and, last but not least, rifles and ammunition. Most of this will be dictated by the places where and the people with whom you will be hunting and, of course, most importantly, by the animals you hope to hunt. As a general rule, the further north you go, the better your preparation needs to be. Things change quickly and often in Africa and seldom for the better. All of this requires detailed research as an essential part of your preparation.
Obviously, detailed information on all these aspects would require a lengthy book, not just a brief article, so I am going to focus on those issues I suspect may not always occur to a hunter contemplating a first hunting trip to one of these countries.
Talking about books, there are some I have found very helpful over the years – African Hunter II edited by Craig Boddington and me, Safari Guide II edited by Jacqueline Neufeldt and me, Rifles for Africa by Gregor Woods, Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game and The Perfect Shot by Kevin Robertson, to mention but five, of which Safari Guide II has been the most useful as it provides detailed information on the 11 most popular African hunting countries.
Preparation of your body is simple enough. You need to understand the physical demands on your body that any hunt will entail. It is one thing to drive around a South African game ranch in spring looking for plains game from the high seat of a well-fitted out Land Cruiser and another thing, for example, to hunt elephants – you can only hunt them on foot – in the wet and humid heat of the peak rainforest hunting season in Cameroon. To go on such a safari without training for months in advance is to ensure you will have a perfectly miserable time. In fact, purgatory will seem like a five star Seychelles vacation by comparison.
But what about the preparation of your mind? I often say that, if you hunt elephant with your feet, then you hunt the game animals of the rainforests, for example, with your head. In these green on green deserts there is nothing to take your mind off the fact that your body is taking punishment. There is little or nothing to see other than the tracks your pygmies will be doing their best – and their best is far better than anyone else’s – to unravel. Some people just cannot handle the close confines of the rain forests where, when you do eventually see your prey, you will be smack bang in the middle of its flight or fight circle and which way it will run – at or away from you – is like betting on red at roulette.
You need to be able to concentrate for long periods of time and keep your wits about you because opportunities are few and far between and, when they occur, you need to be ready and able to take advantage of them. Besides, you need to watch every footstep, where you put your hands, what they grasp and where you sit. It is a very inhospitable environment!
In my opinion, this type of hunt is not for everyone and you need to be sure that you have thought through your mental preparedness before taking it on. Usually this is something for an experienced hunter who has been able to test his nerve and resolve in a number of different hunting situations and habitats over time and not found them wanting. It is not for the first time hunter with his new bride on his honeymoon as I once came across in Africa. He cut his hunt short by a week and went home with one solitary duiker shot on the fringes of the forest, which he refused to re-enter after the first day.
While I have deliberately chosen possibly an extreme case – not all hunts to the north take place in rain forests – the point remains that you need to ask yourself whether you are up to a hunt in an inhospitable or physically demanding environment and, if not, how you can prepare for one if you are determined to go.
On a much more mundane level, it is important never to lose your sense of humour, let alone your temper, in Africa and there are going to be many occasions when your resolve will be tested, usually starting at your point of entry into the country where, more than likely, you will not be welcomed with open arms and a smile but, more frequently, with a request/demand to pay a bribe for the privilege of coming to spend your hard earned foreign exchange in a country which desperately needs it. I have a friend who says that those countries which most need tourism, make it the most difficult to visit and, insofar as Africa is concerned, he is spot on.
The same applies if ever you travel on the roads/dirt tracks to and from your hunting destination which is why, if at all possible, hire a charter plane to take you there and back. Apart from saving you time and eliminating the risk of driving (although this is much cheaper) on potholed or dirt roads – although we South Africans have gained much more experience in this over the last few years – where the oncoming drivers always seem to assume your side of the road is the better one, it also eliminates the roadblocks/bribery points outside almost every village designed solely to augment the local police/army/customs personnel’s salaries, which will also try your patience and sense of humour. You have to learn to go with the flow and accept that not everything is going to run smoothly, especially as the drunken policeman breathes his paint-stripping breath over you and indicates he wants your wrist watch.
Clothing and equipment are largely dictated by the place where and the animals which you will be hunting. The important thing to remember is that, if you have left something behind, it is highly unlikely you will be able to buy it at your hunting destination. That applies equally to things which may break while on the hunt. For this reason, I always take spare binoculars and range finders, although it is usually not necessary to take more than three sets of clothing as washing will be done daily. The only exception is the rain forests and the Ethiopian Highlands where, given the wet and/or humid conditions, washing may not dry in a day.
It is not the time to experiment with anything. Take only tried and tested items and this applies particularly to footwear. In this case it is not enough to have walked around the shopping mall for a few days prior to the hunt. You need to have walked and run in them in all kinds of terrain for months before hand and, preferably, got them wet as well. Remember, camouflage is not universally accepted in Africa and, even where it is, the applicable rules can change without notice or the police or army personnel may "interpret" the rules as if they have. You can avoid an expensive and unpleasant exchange by taking dark olive khaki, light leather gloves and a face tube instead of your favourite camo.
Cameras. I meet many amateur hunters who pack only the most basic "mik en druk" one. Take one by all means but only as back up for a decent camera with quality lenses. Remember, they will not allow you to hang your trophies in the old age home. Besides from the memories, the photos will help illustrate an article, diary or book, especially if you have taken ones of things other than dead animals. I always try and take the whole or part of a day off to photograph the camp, camp staff at work, other animals, birds, insects, reptiles, flora, scenery and so on and I have been so glad I have.
A key element in your clothing and equipment is your medical kit. This is not something you want to leave for a few days before you leave. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into all the details here but it is not a bad idea to start with your head, work your way down and go through all the things that may and have gone wrong and the remedies which you know work for you. I am lucky and have a nursing sister for a wife and, over the years, she has put together a comprehensive medical kit that, regardless of what the outfitter or PH tell me, I take along and have been so glad on many occasions that I have.
The same goes for prophylactics and by this I do not mean condoms but those medicines that can prevent you contracting an illness. And no again, I am not just talking about malaria. There are many parts of Africa where hepatitis A and B are prevalent as well as meningitis and encephalitis. I always keep my rabies vaccination current as well as my cholera jab and there are still African countries that insist on an up to date yellow fever certificate. On top of this I always have a gamma globulin injection a week or so before I leave as this raises the body’s immune system, albeit only for a few months. Given the cuts and scratches, colds and flu, unclean water and staff who do not always wash their hands when they should, that you are exposed to, this allows you to heal a little quicker than you otherwise might. At any rate, it is like Caltex CX3, it works for me. In essence, however, you need to consult your doctor and/or a first aid expert well before you leave.
In your preparations, remember to think of the unthinkable. What happens if something bad happens to you and I do not just mean if something big and hairy stands on you or chews you. In my case, the machan in which I was sitting overlooking a stand of papyrus, collapsed – people still insist that, like an idiot of a child, I fell out of a tree – and I broke my back in two places. The casavac company my insurance broker sold me on – no problem, Pete, if something bad happens to you they will come and pick you up wherever you are and fly you home – told my wife there was nothing wrong with me, I was just performing and looking for sympathy. After four days they eventually said that, if I could find my own way to the nearest airstrip (some 60 roadless kilometres away) – they refused to hire a helicopter – they would fly me to Nairobi and if and only if, there was bone damage to my back, they would fly me to Johannesburg.
I was left to find my own way out of the bush and back to Johannesburg where I found this was their standard modus operandi. I spoke to a woman whose husband had died of cerebral malaria in Nigeria. They told her he had flu. And another man who could not walk as, instead of flying him home, they had him operated on in Ghana for a serious back injury after a car crash. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to buy the very best casavac medical insurance you can afford.
While I have great admiration for the one gun man and have found that they are generally expert shottists, this is not the time to skimp. Take another firearm that you can use in case a river bank collapses under you, resulting in a fall which smashes the stock of your one and only rifle, as happened to me. Yes, you will in all likelihood be able to borrow a firearm of some description but, if it does not fit, the trigger has a creep from hell and you miss the plus 50 inch Lord Derby’s eland of your dreams as a result, it will take you a good few years to forgive yourself and the expense of another hunt to rectify matters will haunt you for even longer.
While I do not want to debate what the best rifle, calibre and ammunition is for the various kinds of game available in Africa to the north; far better and more knowledgeable men than me have written books about this, I have never been sorry that I belong to the school of use-more-than-enough-gun, which I have loaded with premium grade ammunition.
I have said this before – it is not that every one in the African hunting game is a crook – far from it but it does seem as if every crook is in the African hunting game. It is far easier to check references of a local outfitter and PH than it is to do so when they are far away and may not speak perfect English let alone your home language. It is easy in the heat of the moment at a hunting convention or show to become swept away by wonderful photos and a good salesman and part with a deposit before checking all the relevant details. I think more hunts are ruined by this single fact than anything else. In essence, there is a mismatch between the amateur hunter’s expectations and the promises or undertakings of the booking agent, safari outfitter or PH, caused either on purpose or by accident by the agent, outfitter or PH, and/or through ignorance and insufficient research on the part of the amateur hunter.
At the end of the day, it is not going to help to complain. Apart from the money, you will have wasted there is one thing you cannot recover – time! Research should start with the animal at the top of your wish list and then into the best places to hunt them, the best time of year to do so and the best people with the best records to guide you. In my humble opinion, when it comes to hunting, the saying, "If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys" has never been truer. It is better to save up, for years if necessary, and book a hunt to the north of us at the best place, at the best time of year, with the best people than the other way around.
Three last points to end off. Firstly, when it comes to sighting in, do not take this lightly. A number of camp staff will be watching carefully and will often make up their minds, then and there, if you are worth making an effort for depending on how you handle your firearm and shoot. Secondly, do not forget the skinning shed. By showing an interest in or, better still, helping to skin, cape, salt and label – your taxidermist should be able to supply you with proper ones – you will help to ensure not only that the job will be done properly and there will be no hair slip but also that there will be no mix up in the trophies, particularly if and when you shoot a really big one.
Lastly, I always take along some small gifts to give my hunting team at the start of the hunt. I make sure to tell them this has nothing to do with any tip and it helps break the ice and get the safari off on the right foot. I usually take along small, basic Swiss army knives but I have also taken beanies with the South African flag on the front and T-shirts.
And remember, forethought forestalls foul-ups.