The Ultimate Hunting Destination Is Within Reach. Here’s What To Know Before You Go.
There’s nothing quite like an African hunting trip. It’s every deer hunter’s dream. I hesitate to invoke the overused phrase “safari” because it’s lost some of its meaning over the years. A safari used to be an event—an adventure reckoned in months rather than weeks—requiring a substantial investment not only of time and money, but planning, logistics and effort.
Today, it’s possible to hunt plains game in southern Africa for about $7,500 including round-trip airfare. You’ll seldom get away with the bottom-end figure, especially if you want trophies, but the fact is airliners and business competition have made Africa widely accessible to American hunters.
As Y2K rolled over, I finally reached the “now or never” point in my life. Either I was going to let the opportunity slide by or Just Do It. The deciding factor was in the form of my friend and shooting partner, Jim Coxen, an Eastern Oregon deerstalker like me. We were co-founders of Oregon IPSC in 9mm and knew each another’s moves.
Jim and his wife Sally put me onto Tony Dacosta’s booking agency, and before we knew it, we’d be facing a long ride on a South African Airlines 747.
Preparation equals anticipation and—as any kid at Christmas time knows—anticipation is at least half the fun. Tony’s briefing package covered all the basics and then some: medical, legal, cultural and ballistic. Still, some lessons are best learned in person, and the following should apply to most experienced North American hunters going to Africa the first time.
A typical African hunting team: PH, client, tracker and butcher.
Dress for Success
Our hunt took place in southern Zimbabwe during the month of May. It hadn’t rained in this period over the 40 years they’ve kept records, so naturally we took rain gear. Even though we outsmarted ourselves, we didn’t regret packing the slickers in case the weather gods tried to trick us.
Daytime temperatures ranged from comfortable to chilly, so we had a variety of clothes. Generally, our hunting day began at 6:30 a.m. and ended when we returned to camp about 5:00 p.m., by which time shortsleeve shirts were called for. But in fact, the terrain and vegetation were more influential in determining what we wore than the weather. The 53,000-acre estate where we mostly hunted was almost uniform in its topography—flatland with heavy ground cover, plus tall grass and frequent stands of dense trees.
Starting from the ground up, it’s no exaggeration to say boots are where your day begins. Even though much hunting is done by vehicle, there are times when it’s necessary or desirable to walk — and you’ll want comfortable boots. I chose leather high-tops with leather soles; Jim had leather low-cuts with rubber soles. In the dense, tangled grass where we often walked, it would have been easy to twist an ankle. It’s likely my jump boots prevented a couple of injuries. Additionally, the industrial-grade thorns of the area penetrated Sally’s synthetic boots, but leather was impervious.
This was the good news. The bad news: my leather soles were squeaky. A good-looking kudu apparently heard me trying to ninja up on him and headed for the tall grass, never to be seen again. The Coxens did not have this problem. Lesson learned.
Sally wore “brush buster” pants with flannel lining, which was not only warm but offered thorn protection. Jim favored heavy cotton khakis. Wool socks, even in summer, absorb moisture to help keep your feet dry. And some hunters like ankle-high gaiters to keep debris out of socks and shoes.
My Vietnam-era BDU’s rip-stop fabric lived up to its name: the rip stopped when it ran out of fabric. Fortunately, a talented seamstress worked some magic while we were out on the hunt. Since most African countries disapprove of civilians wearing camouflage patterns, the all-green BDUs were adequate; but my partners found brown or tan shirts (especially in plaid patterns) all but disappeared in the grass beyond 50 yards.
Headwear varied. I was satisfied with a khaki boonie hat, as I could easily roll it up and stuff it in a cargo pocket. For early mornings, a knit watch cap worked fine. Jim, a huge fan of Clark Gable and Stewart Granger movies, insisted on a broad-brim “Mogambo” hat, while Sally wore a duckbill.
My PH, who had spent an enormous part of his life stalking bipeds and quadrupeds, suggested knee and elbow pads would be useful. None of us thought to bring any, but when I found myself crawling on all fours for the first time, I appreciated his words of wisdom. Fortunately, I brought along a pair of leather gloves, and wore them frequently when moving through brush and thorns.
Two other items I wore daily were a utility vest with large pockets — holding a notebook (I logged every shot), mini camera, energy bars, binoculars and ammo — and a CamelBak 70-ounce water pack, which was much more convenient than a canteen and less bulky.
Barrett chose a modified Savage Scout Rifle in .308 Win. for his hunt and mounted it with a
Leupold 2.5X Scout Scope. Not a conventional choice—even in dead-stock form, but the
combination worked perfectly for him.
“Use Enough Gun”
One thing about African hunting remains pretty consistent: everybody has an opinion on what rifle you should take — including those who’ve never been there. Since I was only after plains game, I felt confident a .308 Savage Scout would be able to take down anything, with the possible exception of a zebra. People with a great deal more experience than I’ll ever have insist a .308 is marginal for Equus quagga— which seem to be laced together with steel-belted radials. Others said a .375 is minimal for African game. Nevertheless, I was extremely confident in the little rifle and my ammunition, never feeling undergunned.
The Savage was fitted with a Leupold 2.5X Scout Scope and modified with an accessory rail for a light, bipod and vertical foregrip. Neither light nor bipod was deployed, but it was nice to have options. I used the foregrip a couple of times, much to the amusement of our PHs, until they tried it themselves.
Synthetic rifle stocks can sound “tinny” against tree limbs or brush. Therefore, you may want to consider a laminated and/or pillar-bedded wood stock, suitably relieved.
Jim and Sally logged three rifles: a .308, .300 Win Mag, and .338 Win Mag, which was fortunate since the latter broke down the day before we left. Taking an extra rifle makes good sense. It’s not a good idea to rely upon your outfitter for hardware. While we were in Zimbabwe, local .308 ammo was $1.00 a round, and I heard double-rifle cartridges topped $30 a copy!
My ammo was Federal 165-grain Trophy Bonded and Winchester 168-grain Ballistic Silvertip. Normally, I prefer a 200-yard zero but upon arrival I printed high at a measured 75 yards and called it good. It was doubtful I’d get a shot much beyond 100. My ammo proved fully up to the challenge, with a perfect track record of one-shot kills—zebra, kudu, impala, wildebeest and two warthogs.
Andy Tillman is all smiles after taking down this late season Cape buffalo.
These two .450 Dakota North Fork bonded softpoints (inset) retained 90 percent
of their weight after being fired at point-blank range.
Practice Makes Perfect
Good as your ammo may be, placement is more important than bullet type or even caliber. Placement is a function of marksmanship, so practice is needed. There’s no guarantee, of course, which is why hunting is so fascinating—the unexpected has its own appeal.
Everyone has their own take on scopes. I’ve never been a fan of variables but those who are seem to tend to favor 1.5×6 for both plains and dangerous game. My youngest brother, who’s been to Africa several times, says “If you’re hunting elephant, get a scope with at least 75 feet field of view at 100 yards. But 100 to 130 feet is even better. You’ll probably be shooting at 30 feet or less!”
Some of my pre-departure routine consisted of a dry- and live-fire practice, emphasizing quick assumption of kneeling and sitting. However, I found in Africa all my shots were from an approximately upright condition—offhand, braced standing or an awkward braced position in the Land Cruiser. The tall grass and thick foliage seldom permitted visibility below shoulder height, though Jim was able to go prone for a one-round kill at 280 yards (that night a PH was overheard mumbling about “Bluidy Yank snipers”).
Before leaving, I should have practiced on running targets, as both of my pigs and the zebra were moving. Overall, my engagement ranges varied from 40 to 170 yards, with the median around 60. Our PH’s said most Americans they see can shoot reasonably well and are far better gun handlers than, say, Spaniards or Russians. However, two common problems Americans inflict upon themselves are oversize rifles and undersize muscles.
One guide summed it up well, “A lot of Americans spend their best years amassing fortunes and by the time they get here, they’re overage and out of shape. They seem to think bigger is always better. Sometimes we have to spend two or even three days getting them so they can manage their rifles.”
Therefore, a word of advice: exercise. Take daily walks in the boots you will wear, preferably with your primary rifle. If it seems heavy now, how will it feel when you’re winded and trying to steady your sights on a trophy kudu?
What should be obvious but often isn’t is to practice with your hunting rifle and ammo, and get used to running the bolt immediately in case you need a follow-up shot. A little practice now can pay big dividends in the bush.
For self-defense Jim and I wanted to take 1911’s. However, we were told sidearms were verboten in Zimbabwe, with dire consequences if caught. (That turned out otherwise. A fellow Gunsite grad took his Glock to the same region a couple of weeks later. He reported far more hassle getting the pistol out of New York than into Zimbabwe.)
The Tuffpak, a hybrid rifle case and hard-sided luggage carrier, is ideal
for transporting rifles. A soft case is used inside for additional padding.
Odds and Ends
Knowing from 22 years of experience, Sally brought all kinds of things for Jim and I. Aspirin, band aids, bug spray, cookies, cough drops, handy wipes, Kleenex, sunscreen and a snakebite kit all complemented our gear. (We saw a viper and an eight-foot black mamba; the mamba’s bite is nearly always fatal. Otherwise, the cobras kept to themselves.)
Knowing our accommodations would have different electrical systems, I opted for disposable razors rather than trusting a converter.
One of the smartest things I did was to bring some antihistamine. The African chaparral is no place for an asthmatic without quick-acting medication, and I used it once. We were trying to wait out an animal we could hear but not see, and settled in some dry grass. Respiratory symptoms quickly turned to a cough, undoubtedly alerting the critter, but the inhaler finally did its job.
Otherwise, Jim and I were pleased at how a couple of not-so-able-bodied 50-somethings coped with the physical demands. All our walking and position drill paid off.
Barrett took two commercial .308 loads to Africa—Federal 165-grain
Trophy Bonded and Winchester 168-grain Ballistic Silvertip (shown).
Both worked flawlessly.
Padded rifle cases are ideal for use on gun racks.
At least one flashlight was mandatory — especially when we had lions sounding off at the base of the hill near our camp the first night. Mag Lights are excellent—small and powerful. I kept one on me at all times, plus one for the rifle.
Binoculars proved helpful, not so much for distance as for looking into brush and shadows, so I carried a compact Bushnell 10X. It was obvious early on picking out some African game animals out of their environment is a sporty proposition—especially in the pre-dawn hours. Toward the end of the trip, I could spot some animals before my guide or tracker, but it’s an ability I honed through experience back home.
Learn to notice unusual shadows or glints. I got my first shot because of a reflection on an antler against a dark background.
We took a variety of knives, though I seldom used my carry blade, an SOG folder.
Gun cases come in all sizes and prices. Jim and Sally used hard plastic, which held up about as well as my reinforced metal case with triple locks. The only baggage problem we encountered was on our return flight home, when Jim’s soft suitcase failed to appear. Weeks later it turned up, cut open beneath the lock. He lost some clothes and minor items, but other goodies were undisturbed in the bottom of the bag.
Consider a Tuffpak, a durable plastic hard case resembling a golf bag. They are lockable and you can store two rifles, each in a soft padded case, plus most of your other gear. You can lock your valuables in the hard case while hunting, and protect your rifles in the soft case while driving.
Comfortable grass chalets are used in many African hunting camps.
Just Do It!
Despite the glorious scenery and the excitement of seeing African wildlife in the open, my most memorable moment was a sensation rather than a sight. One morning, we crossed a dry creek bed and I saw some large paw prints. An electric prickling shivered up and down my spine, a sensation I had never known before.
“Leopard,” said my PH. “Crossed here last night.”
Much later, I thought about the experience and realized the tingling was my DNA talking to me. It was a revelation: a reminder, at one time, it was not at all certain whether leopards or humans would be perched atop the food chain.
If you have any intention of hunting in Africa, just do it. The region’s game programs have been erratically administered, and areas open to hunting a few years ago now are closed. An unstable political environment in some areas further reduces prospects for a safe, enjoyable trip.
But Africa is well worth the effort. The scenery alone is exceptional: southern constellations, brilliant sunsets, colors so vivid they fairly strobe at you. I guarantee you’ll always remember the little thrill the first time you noticed a giraffe that had already been watching you.
Some sights really are forever.
A 54-inch kudu dropped like lightning when hit with a 450-grain North Fork softpoint at
2,550 fps from Andy Tillman’s custom .450 Dakota. A high-velocity big bore can be used
for plains game if you learn to shoot it accurately.
Tips For Less-Turbulent Travel
The three of us had no problems with customs in the US or Africa, but a couple of fellow travelers did. After touching down in Atlanta, Sally and I made it by an agent who was genuinely interested in our adventures (alright, I did embellish the “Tale of the Charging Boar”) while other hunters were detained.
Their gun cases were thoroughly searched, to the point of removing the foam lining.
The only obvious difference was we wore ordinary street clothes; one of the other fellows wore a Rhodesian camouflage shirt. Another lesson learned.
In many ways, the most arduous part of the entire trip was the return flight: 42-1/2 hours from Bulawayo to Boise (kind of melodic, isn’t it?) Fortunately, we were spared the raucous Texicans we endured on the trip over, and were able to catch some sleep on the return leg. Eyeshades and ear plugs aren’t a bad investment.
By Barrett Tillman
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