My desire to go on an African hunting safari has been brewing for years. I wasn’t raised in a hunting family, and though I am quite an avid hiker and recreational shooter, I’ve gone hunting only a couple of times (for wild pigs on California’s central coast). In the eyes of seasoned big game hunters, I would be considered a newbie at best.
Inspired by African safari hunters from the past
While growing up, I was enchanted by the stories of Hemingway and Ruark and how they captured the world that lay to be discovered within an African safari. And reading the writings of the early African hunters like Frederick Courteney Selous and Karamojo Bell – who in many ways opened a new, wild expanse and the imaginations of their countrymen – only further fueled that fascination and desire to one day experience an African safari, it’s aura and mystique.
My African hunt requirements
I had several requirements. I wanted to hunt as in the original safaris I had read so much about, primarily on foot, walking and stalking wild game. Also, the hunting had to be free-range on vast tracts of land, not on smaller high-fenced properties that are commonplace in modern African hunting.
I searched online for hunting safari outfitters on Africa hunting forums and Facebook groups, and ultimately decided to go with Crusader Safaris in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. A phone call with owner Andrew Pringle sealed the deal. As I was seeking the safari experience and not bringing home a trophy or hunting a specific animal, I selected the “management package” which was geared towards hunting plains game animals which were older females in declining health. The game included impala, warthog, wildebeest, blesbok, and baboon. This would be a 5-day hunt, though I accounted for an extra day to see other sights in the vicinity. I also opted to have a videographer accompany and film my hunt, since I thought that I would want to watch and relive this experience later and share it with friends and family. I booked my trip for early November – near the cusp of the hunting season and the rains that typically follow, but a convenient time to take off from work – and started counting down.
Getting to Crusader Safaris from the US
Flights were long and quite tiring, but after 30 hours of travel, I arrived in East London. Kim, the professional hunter (often abbreviated as PH) who would be guiding me, was waiting for me at the airport, and we jumped in his trusty Toyota Land Cruiser for the drive to the hunting lodge in the Baviaansriver Conservancy. Kim also shared an interest in history and cultures, and we hit it off right away.
Once at the lodge, I was greeted by Andrew and handed the rifle I would be using to hunt with, since I had chosen to travel lightly and borrow one of the outfitter’s rifles. I took a few shots at the shooting range setup on the property to confirm the rifle’s zero, and exhausted after the long journey, sat down for dinner.
The essence of hunting with Crusader Safaris
I won’t recount our hunting day by day, rather I’ll try to capture the essence of the experience. I’ll start by saying that the hunting was everything I imagined it would be and even more. Kim, Josh (our videographer who was also just starting his career as a PH), and I would have a quick, but hearty breakfast at 6:30 – “filling the gas tank” as Kim called it – then pick up our tracker, Simphiwe, from his home near the lodge, and drive to a certain part of the conservancy we wanted to hunt and start hunting on foot. We would find a good spot to glass from and plan a course of action. We covered a lot of ground, on average walking 5 to 10 miles a day on terrain varying from rolling green hills to thick, thorny brush. And as I had imagined in my reveries of what an authentic African hunt should include, we often crawled on hands, knees, and
elbows especially during the final leg of the stalk. We would head back to the lodge around noon for lunch, take a bit of a siesta, and go back out to hunt around 3:00 until sunset.
One particularly memorable adventure was hunting blue wildebeest. We spotted a herd of wildebeest on a distant hillside and began our stalk towards them. However, the open ground posed a challenge and the herd, having seen us, moved further away out of sight – over and to the next hillside we reckoned. Kim and Simphiwe strategized that we should backtrack and circle the hill to position us in view of the hillside we surmised the herd would be grazing on. There was also a gulley which extended in that direction that could help cover our stalk. Our plan proved to be a good one, and we stealthily approached the herd through the gulley, crawling on all fours the last 50 yards as the gulley became shallower. From a prone position lying on the incline of the gulley, I pressed off a shot from about 300 yards and dropped an older cow on the facing hillside.
Crusader Safaris conservancies
I was lucky to be able to hunt on two of Crusader’s properties, and the terrain on the Kei River (a beautiful property Crusader had recently acquired where I spent the latter half of my hunt) consisted of much more dense brush and vegetation. In contrast to the wildebeest hunt, hunting impala and warthog was in thick brush and shots were taken at much shorter distances from quick, improvised field positions.
I must also share my trials and tribulations hunting baboon (which by the way are considered a pest in South Africa, much like coyotes in California). If you have seen the movie Blood Diamond (I highly recommend it), you may remember Leonardo DiCaprio’s character recounting his childhood hunting “bushmeat” and emphasizing the cunningness of baboons in particular, and I can affirm that is definitely the case! We made multiple attempts stalking baboons before we were able to successfully take one. On a couple of these attempts, as we made our stalk to a point that would offer a good view and position within shooting distance of where we had spotted the baboons, we would hear the barks of the baboons from a totally different location, and once even from quite a ways behind us. This was their way of teasing us hunters that we had been outsmarted. (To keep the record straight, I also botched a “pearl” of an opportunity that Kim set me up for by taking a bit too long to fire off a shot.) I gained a new level of appreciation and respect towards these animals and likely will not hunt baboons again out of respect for their intellect. “Fool me once…” as the saying begins, but if it’s a baboon you’re dealing with, know that you’re bound to get fooled the next time too.
And to put a bow on the complete safari experience, our team of four changed a flat tire in the bush, not too far from where we had seen some buffalo. There weren’t any lions where we were hunting (and very few in the Eastern Cape overall), but that didn’t stop me from at least momentarily imagining us as the protagonists in a heart-racing Capstick story, with lions lurking in the tall grass.
Sightseeing in the Eastern Cape
Since I had an extra day for sightseeing, Kim and I decided to visit Addo Elephant park (South Africa’s third largest national park) a couple hours’ drive from the Baviaansriver lodge. Visitors are allowed only to drive through the designated roads within the national park, and it’s easy to tell where animals are congregated (usually around man-made watering holes) by the cars pulled over snapping pictures and videos. While it was cool to see the herds of elephants, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, kudu, and other animals, I felt very much as a distant observer watching from a car, and the photo safari experience paled in comparison to that of the hunting safari. Other than elephant, I saw the same species of animals while hunting, and I felt much more immersed in the moment, sharing the experience with the animals. Some parks within South Africa offer walking tours which likely will provide a more immersive experience. But I feel that hunting provides the ultimate safari experience where one’s senses and awareness of his/her surroundings are heightened, and the experience is richer as a result. I felt this impression most clearly while carefully and quietly stalking through tall grass towards an overhang looking over a small herd of blesbok, and two warthogs darted from less than thirty yards away where, unbeknownst to us, they must have been basking under the sun, likely equally oblivious of our presence. “Woaah,” I half-blurted, half-whispered after jolting my head towards the rustle and sprinting hogs. Stalking through the brush, I was on high alert, cognizant of every sound I heard and step I took, and experiencing such an interaction in that state of mind felt different and elating; that sensation can’t be felt while driving or casually hiking.
And perhaps a part of that sensation is driven by man’s inert desire to hunt that remains engrained in us, and I think Ruark expressed that drive and desire best:
“The hunter’s horn sounds early for some, later for others. For some unfortunates, poisoned by city sidewalks and sentenced to a cement jungle more horrifying than anything to be found in Tanganyika, the horn of the hunter never winds at all. But deep in the gut of most men is buried the involuntary response to the hunter’s horn, a prickle of the nape hairs, an acceleration of the pulse, an atavistic memory of their forefathers, who killed first with stone, and then with club, and then with spear, and then with bow, and then with gun, and finally with formulae.”
The unforgettable people of Crusader Safaris
My trip would not have left such an indelible mark without the people that were pivotal in creating this unforgettable experience.
Kim set the bar for the ideal professional I could want to guide my hunt. He is extremely knowledgeable and experienced, a very genuine and warmhearted man, and he is a true conservationist, able to call in almost any bird by mimicking its sound; he had even discovered and documented a subspecies of bird in an area where it was not previously known to inhabit. We talked about his young grandchildren, the Border War he had participated in, and life in South Africa in general. “Yeohh” he would often answer when I asked if such and such was true – be it about buffalo (he has quite the first-hand stories), the war, or something else. Safaris and four-wheeling go hand in hand, and Kim casually navigated terrain in his Toyota Land Cruiser – just “Cruiser” in local lingo – that would likely cause a competition off-roader here in the States to stop and think twice, but in Africa that was just part of “living in the bush”. And at 60 years of age, his physical fitness was incredible, and it’s a safe bet that he could out-hike all of us younger guys at camp.
Josh is young, cheerful, and full of energy. At twenty-two, and after trying his hand as a fishing guide and working on super-yachts in the Mediterranean, he was starting his career as a professional hunter. And no doubt, he has a bright career ahead. He shared stories of hunting buffalo in Zambia during a prior apprenticeship in training as a PH, we played darts at the lodge, and Josh educated me on the shapes and sizes of Kudu trophy horns using the many mounts at the lodge as examples. Josh is also an accomplished marksman, having represented his home province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa’s high school air rifle championships. My interest in history extends to military history and firearm development, and as a result, I have a keen interest in marksmanship as well. I have also shot competitively in various shooting disciplines, so Josh and I enjoyed talking quite a bit about shooting and rifles and calibers, including the Winchester Model 70 rifle chambered in .375 H&H magnum he was planning to buy as a “proper” (extend the “o” and soften the “r” to pronounce it the African way) African rifle. I had brought some cigars for us to enjoy in the evenings around the campfire (though I am not a regular smoker by any stretch), and Kim and I gave Josh some tips as he smoked his first cigar.
Kim and Josh, as well as Andrew and several of the other PHs that I had a chance to talk to all had deep, multi-generational roots in South Africa, and the love for the land they lived on and called home was palpable. They maintained a very family-oriented culture with traditional values. And sitting around the campfire sipping local Lion beer and whiskey – though we talked a fair bit about local politics and other concerns of the day – I could not help but feel and appreciate the simpler lifestyle away from the computer screen, tucked away in the beautiful landscape of Africa. “This is my office,” Kim joked when I shared with him a bit about my job of meetings, emails, and business presentations. And what an “office” he has indeed.
Simphewe and the camp staff also helped to complete the wonderful atmosphere and experience. I was surprised to learn that many of the indigenous Africans did not speak fluent English as it was not taught consistently in local schools. Kim spoke fluently in Zulu and Xhosa, the latter being the predominant ethnic group in the Eastern Cape, but my conversation was limited by the language barrier.
Nosipho, our chef, always greeted us with a warm smile and something tasty she had prepared. Breakfast consisted of bacon and eggs (at the Baviaansriver property, the pigs and chickens were home-raised), and we’d complete the meal with some butter and local jam spread on warm toast. Lunch and dinner ranged from macaroni and cheese to stews, and barbeque that Kim, Josh, and I would grill on the fire outside. We’d have pies or ice cream for dessert, and then go out to the campfire and enjoy some beer or whiskey under the clear night sky. Most meals would contain the game meat that we hunted (usually from a couple days ago to allow the meat to age a bit). And on a few occasions, Nosipho served delicious, sweet bread which she baked from scratch.
My choice of safari gear
In terms of preparation, packing, and gear, there was no need to pack heavy. I prefer to hike in pants and long sleeve shirts, and I had bought a couple new khaki colored “safari” shirts, primarily because I felt that a khaki-colored shirt is de-rigueur for an old-school safari. I took a couple sweaters and a vest to be able to dress in layers. And I took a tan oilskin “safari” hat, for protection against the sun as much as for completing the hunter’s look. The time of year will dictate how to dress, but laundry was done daily by the camp staff, and two to three pairs of each type of clothing would certainly suffice.
Guest rooms at the lodge were basic, but very clean and comfortable. With regards to gear, as with many things, simple and good quality proved to work the best. Of course, good, comfortable boots and wool socks were a must as were quality binoculars for glassing, and a comfortable method for carrying them. I used a chest pack harness which did a good job of protecting the binoculars especially when I had to crawl or drop to shoot from prone but was rather bulky and noticeably noisy when trying to access the binoculars on the last leg of the stalk when keeping quiet is key. Kim used a simpler, much lower profile stretch-cord harness that certainly had its advantages. I also brought a light hiking backpack, an ammunition belt pouch, a hunting knife, and rangefinder that proved useful for longer range shots, though Kim (and I assume other PHs as well) carried a rangefinder too. As I had mentioned, I opted to use one of the rifles Crusader had on hand (a well-used, but also well-cared for Winchester Model 70 in .270 Winchester), and it did its job just fine.
There was certainly no need for the newest long-range rifle, most powerful cartridge, or a high magnification scope; again, keeping it simple was the way to go. And whether one is bringing his/her rifle or using one provided by the outfitter, taking time to train at the shooting range prior to the trip is critical.
Having shot competitively, I felt quite confident in my shooting, but nonetheless, I made sure to practice taking quick shots from field positions as well as shooting from sticks.
Reflecting on my experience
As I reflect on my trip, I can confidently say this was the best one I have taken to date. I have done a fair bit of traveling within the States, South America, and a good part of Europe, but most of my trips consisted of sightseeing within cities or hiking to a certain point or landmark. These trips have their memorable effect too, but they often lack immersion into the place one is visiting. Here, the experience is the destination. And spending time with the locals, sharing their way of life, and enjoying the African wilderness, even for a brief week, is something that I will always remember with a smile. No doubt that there are other immersive and remarkable trips and experiences that one can plan elsewhere, but I think the allure of Africa, it’s magnificence of wildlife and landscapes, should be experienced at least once, and there is no better way to do it than on a hunting safari.
I will definitely be returning, and if you have the opportunity to go, keep an open mind and – trust me – just take what will become the trip of a lifetime.