Many hunters in the western world and beyond, dream of hunting Africa at least once in their lifetime and for most people, an African hunting safari represents a considerable investment of both time and money, therefore choosing the right hunting safari is extremely important. This article is written to help the overseas hunter select his or her first African hunting safari and I hope that some of my tips will be of use.
There's no such thing as a typical safari, safari company, safari camp, safari area, professional hunter or client. All are dramatically different from each other, and for the client to get the maximum enjoyment from his very expensive safari, he needs to decide exactly what his criteria will be, and how he's going to make his selection and then he needs to ensure he settles on a company that will meet his expectations and deliver the kind of product he wants and can reasonably afford and expect.
Robert Ruark wrote the following words many years ago and they are as true today - probably truer, than they were when he first wrote them.
"There is a simple formula to successful safari. First, you must have enough money to go, you must not wait until you get to Mozambique or South Africa to choose your Professional Hunter, on the off chance they will undercut one another in bidding for the job. You do that and you only wind up with some reformed locust control type, and all he will get you is lost. What you want is comfort; not unnecessary hardship, because even on the lushest, plushest safari, there will be discomfort enough. That's to say, you will crawl through bush, walk endless miles, bump on interminable trackless terrain, be scorched by sun, frozen by morning wind, be bitten by every bug ever created, go to the can in the bush, be frightened out of your wits, and bored to distraction in the long waits and perpetual dusty journeying."
Pretty much everyone has a budget to work to nowadays and even those who are lucky enough to have an unlimited amount of money at their disposal, usually like to be sure they're getting value for money in their purchases. African safaris are offered at a wide range of prices and there are many good reasons for this. At the least expensive end of the price scale are the game farmers who have fenced areas and often work on a 'put-and-take' basis. These areas are commonly found in South Africa and parts of Namibia and Botswana, etc. They are often extremely large by western standards and although you may only rarely see a fence when you're hunting, they will be there. These areas won't give you the same feeling as you'd get when you're hunting a true wilderness area such as are found in countries like Tanzania and Mozambique. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these areas and they shouldn't be discounted if that is what the client is looking for, and happy with. The good thing about these areas is that because of lower Government fees and easier access to supplies etc, they're usually considerably less expensive than hunting a true wilderness area. The majority of hunters who come to Africa for their first African hunting safari will choose these areas, mostly because of the lower costs involved.
At the other end of the price scale are those areas that do such things as limit their offtake of game to below the Game Department quota, and pay for the entire quota to keep the aforementioned Game Department happy. These areas are usually in fairly remote, true wilderness areas, and often have more luxurious and stylish camps to make the area more attractive to those hunters who can afford to pay the higher prices needed to pursue this game management policy. Some even go as far as to have camps with Persian carpets on the floor and silver service dining. These same areas have usually been in the hands of the same companies for many years and they will have practiced strict trophy management policies and very often produce stunning trophy quality as a consequence. Sure these areas are very expensive, but they're also very elegant and stylish and the high price is reflected by the high quality of the product. So if you can afford the high prices, don't rule them out and if you can't afford the high prices, don't let your wife see the pictures!
One factor that often brings safari prices down is a declining or bad political situation and/or lack of infrastructure of certain destinations. African countries in a degree of political turmoil or that are relatively undeveloped, often have less expensive safari offerings as a result and many hunters are prepared to accept this in exchange for the lower prices involved. This turmoil and/or lack of infrastructure may result in shortages of basic necessities such as fuel, foodstuffs and alcohol etc. However if the client chooses the right safari company who can manage to overcome the supply difficulties and still have access to good and safe hunting areas, they'll have a good safari. However, the client needs to remember the term 'due diligence' and make sure he only books with a good company. Book with the wrong company and he can find himself in all kinds of difficulties. Anything from being stranded in the bush without fuel and/or food to cheap air charters that use badly maintained aircraft, to being in trouble with the Government of his home country for doing business with the wrong person. Citizens of the USA for example, are bound by the Lacey Act, which dictates that if they do business with the wrong person or even hunt the wrong area, they can face not only confiscation of hunting trophies and fines but also possible jail time.
There's an old saying that if something looks too good to be true, then it probably is, and this applies in spades to African hunting safaris. It's a funny thing but when someone sets out to buy themselves a car or a rifle or make pretty much any other large purchase, they know that you only get what you pay for, and if you pay too little, you don't get quality. They can't and they don't expect to buy a Rolls Royce for the price of a Ford or a Holland & Holland double rifle for the price of a Brno... but many people fail to remember this when buying an African safari. So to make sure the client makes the right choice of safari, he needs to bear in mind that there are good and bad areas, camps, vehicles and times of year. Research is the key and a lot of that can be done via the internet. I'd recommend asking the safari company for exact details of area, age of vehicles, photographs of camps and details and experience of the relevant professional hunter. Always remember that the lowest price won't give the best safari, it'll give the cheapest safari.
Incidentally, while we're talking about budget, don't forget the issue of staff tips. Whilst not compulsory, they are traditional and these tips make up a large part of the income for all staff (including professional hunters). The actual amount you need to budget for varies dramatically from area to area, company to company and country to country and the best way to discover how much you should allow for this is to ask your chosen outfitter beforehand. I appreciate that some countries have a culture of either not tipping at all or tipping minimal amounts, and my advice on this would be that its only reasonable to adopt the policy of 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do'.
Some clients will try to haggle with the safari company they want to book with. Some companies are prepared to negotiate and some are not, but remember, that a good safari company won't need to do this and those that will do it, are likely to be short of business. Usually for a very good reason. Haggling will also mean the company involved won't have as much leeway or inclination to help if the client's plans change and he needs to alter his arrangements. Try not to make the mistake of thinking safari companies are out to milk you. They're not, or rather the reputable ones aren't and it's the reputable ones you want and need to do business with. All we want to do is give a good quality product at a fair price and make a living along the way.
The hunter needs to decide whether he should book direct with the safari company or through one of the many hunting agencies available. My advice here would be that if you do want to use an agent, make very sure you use a good, reputable one who has been in the business for many years, has been to the hunting areas you're considering himself and actually knows what he's talking about. All it takes for someone to become a hunting agent nowadays is a phone line and the ability to set up a website. It's very common for a one or two time safari expert to arrive home and set up a website to represent the interests of his new found best friend in Africa. These people usually know next to nothing about the vitally important details of African safaris and it's not at all uncommon for them to make promises that can't be kept and/or give wildly erroneous information. This behaviour can, and often will result in a ruined safari for the hapless client involved. On the other hand, if you can find a really good agent that truly knows his business, he can be a big help. Alternatively, the hunter can do his own research and book direct with the safari company. By doing this, he'll have all his questions answered by the people he'll actually be hunting with and who have an intimate knowledge of the area and facilities, and can therefore give accurate answers to his questions.
Whether the hunter books with a hunting agent or direct with the safari company, its imperative he gets everything detailed in a written contract. If an agent or outfitter tells him such things as, 'my word is my bond' and/or, 'I do it on a handshake' etc, my advice would be to look elsewhere. If there's any kind of a dispute in these kind of deals, it'll always end in a he said/she said situation. If it's all written down in a properly detailed safari contract, then there can be no debate about who said what and who pays for whatever etc. Costings for African safaris are extremely involved and differ enormously from country to country, so the hunter needs to have not only, every single expense detailed in the contract, but also what is not included in the pricing. That way, he knows the exact bottom line cost. The policy of our own company for example, is that we don't accept any payment from the client at all, until the safari contract is agreed and signed by both parties.
Another factor the hunter needs to consider is to ask himself exactly what and why he wants to hunt. The what is usually fairly easy to answer. Even a first timer to Africa will have his own dream list of species, and of course, if he's sensible, he'll know how much of that he can allow for in his budget. Traditionally, most first timers to Africa tend to choose a plains game hunt for their first safari. I'm not sure this is always the best way to do it. By the time most hunters are ready to visit the dark continent, they are (or at least, should be) fairly experienced and competent hunters, and as flights are so expensive and so time consuming and time is such a valuable commodity to most of us these days, I tend to believe that the hunters time and money might be better spent by booking a combined dangerous game and plains game hunt right from the start. A good example of this would be a 10 day hunt in Tanzania where one can hunt a handful of plains game and also two Cape buffalo bulls. Admittedly, you can't do this for the same price as a simple plains game hunt in South Africa, but the cost isn't much more and it works out considerably less money than a plains game hunt one year followed by a buff hunt the next year.
So now we've dealt with the what, let's move onto the why. Does the hunter want to hunt for the joy and thrill of the hunt in its purest form or does he want to hunt solely to get his name in the Safari Club International or Rowland Ward record books or something in between. There are degrees of desire in the 'inch hunter'. Most see the record books as an interesting entertainment and if they manage to take a trophy that'll put their name in those books, it's a bonus, but for a few sad souls, the search for inches totally dominates all aspects of their hunt. Personally, I think this is a mistake and from my experience these kind of hunters lose the joy, thrill and essence of hunting and replace it with a dogged perseverance which makes them miserable if they don't get what they want...similar to a spoilt child in a toyshop when he's told he can't have everything he wants. Needless to say, my advice would be to view the record books as an interesting entertainment but not too much more. I guess my feelings on this mean that I'm not the ideal PH for someone who is just interested in hunting for the book! My advice would be to try to take good mature specimens that are a good representative of the species and if you do better, then it's a bonus.
Nothing remains the same in Africa for very long so unless you're seeking an ultra rare species hunt such as mountain nyala, bongo or lesser spotted hipporhinosaphant, there's no point in researching countries, areas and companies for a safari you hope to do in 5 years time. By the time your hunt date has rolled around, the country might have been taken over by a mad dictator, the area changed hands to a fly by night operator or the game all eaten by poachers or transient refugees. Try to begin your research about 18 months or 2 years before you hope to go and get the hunt booked and the deposit paid about a year before the hunt. This should give you enough time to do all your research, decide on a company and area, buy all your goodies for the trip and book your flights. Another option is to wait till the last minute in the hope of picking up a late cancellation. This might save you a few dollars, but last minute cancellations with good companies are few and far between.
Now let's deal with how to pick your safari company. These days we are lucky enough to have the wonders of the internet and this is a great way to research companies, countries and areas. Internet hunting forums can be very useful indeed, but be warned, they can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, you can ask a lot of people questions about XYZ Safaris or ABC hunting area, and you'll get a lot of responses very quickly, but you need to bear in mind that some of these responses will be from people who have an axe to grind and others who are the instant safari experts, who think that just because they've spent a few weeks in one African country, they know the entire continent and all it's hunting intimately. Even these responses might well give you a degree of useful information though, but remember the due diligence I mentioned earlier! The good news is that you'll also get responses from people who actually do know what they're talking about and are not afraid to admit a lack of knowledge on those aspects they don't know about. So you do need to be able to sift the wheat from the chaff.
Hunting & hunting association publications are also a useful source of knowledge and information, but here, you also need to remember that very few hunters will write about bad hunts as it might also mean they're also writing about their own failures or lack of diligence in their own research, and as magazines rely on advertisers for a large part of their income, it's unlikely they'll publish a piece about a company who either advertise with them or might do so at a later date. These magazines are brilliantly useful in that the pieces from hunters who had a good hunt will tell you so and you'll often find articles from professional hunters who are writing 'how to' articles and this will help you judge the professionalism, experience and knowledge of the author. Adverts in the magazines can be a good source of initial information and you should look carefully at the pictures of camps, vehicles and trophies and then go back to the good old internet to research the exact hunting area that's piqued your interest.
A popular way for hunters to research a hunting safari company or hunting area, is to ask for references. This is helpful to a degree, but remember that no company, (safari or otherwise) would give you contact details of a dissatisfied customer for a reference! Probably one of the best ways to judge a company is to look at how long they've been in business. If the hunting safari company is well established, they're obviously doing most things right. Also ask about the professional hunter you'll be hunting with. Matching his hunting style and experience to your own will be essential to the enjoyment of your hunt.
Hunting conventions such as the ones held by Safari Club International and the Dallas Safari Club are another popular way for hunters to select a safari company suitable to their needs. The conventions are great fun, very informative and a lot of hunters book their hunting safaris there. But remember, not all hunting safari companies attend. Cost to the hunting safari companies of doing the conventions is considerable, not only does the exhibitor get charged a fortune for the booth, carpeting, cleaning, furniture, lighting, power and everything else, he also has to pay air fares, hotel bills & other expenses such as advertising and hospitality etc. On top of that, he then has to make a donation to the organisers, which is usually an entire hunt. All these costs have to be calculated, spread over the season and passed on to the cost of the hunts. Add on the fact that many of the better safari companies sell out a large percentage of their season by repeat bookings, recommendations and internet sales and you'll realise why some companies might prefer to put that money into delivering a better quality product to the client rather than attend the conventions.
All that's left is for me to wish you good luck in your research and in your hunt and to point out that this research is almost as much fun as the hunt itself and maybe we'll get to share a campfire somewhere along the road.