34 YEARS OF TRACKING AFRICA

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34 YEARS OF TRACKING AFRICA
By George Gehrman

It was 1984.

“George,” said Gene, my friend and hunting partner, “let’s book a hunt up in British Columbia this fall.” I looked at him for all of two seconds.

“Gene, we live in Cody, Wyoming, with the mountains right in our backyard. Why do we want to go north and hassle with horses in the dark and cold; sleep in a bag on the ground, and climb up and down the mountains all day for one or two animals? We’ve been there and done that for years. Why not go to Africa instead? Comfortable weather. We‘ll sleep in real beds, be fed great food, and can hunt a number of animals we‘ve never even seen before?”

And so it all began.

As a boy growing up just outside of the city limits of Omaha, Nebraska, I had few playmates.  But I had neighbors, most of whom were hunters, although just for birds and small game, and from them I had access to Outdoor Life magazine. A branch of the Omaha Public library was within walking distance, and one summer I discovered the Africa section of the library, and I devoured those books. The authors laid out the plains of Africa before me. Their names escape me now, but I do remember Teddy Roosevelt, Osa Johnson, and Jack O‘Connor.

Because of all those stories, I knew something about going to Africa, so I started by calling someone in the U.S. Forest Service I was working for at the time – he had been to Africa. His advice was to contact a booking agency. Jack Atcheson and Sons were not far away from us in Montana, so we chose them, and they booked us with ANVO Safaris, PH Volker Grellmann in Namibia.  Neither of us had ever flown internationally, but we followed the advice of our local agent and made out just fine. Our 7-day, 2×1 plains game special couldn’t have gone any better, as we each collected seven animals – mine were kudu, gemsbok, springbok, Burchell’s zebra, Cape red hartebeest, warthog, and black-backed jackal.

And that was it – Africa was in my blood and I was hooked completely. Plans for a return safari were already spinning in my head!

But a transfer to a new duty station slowed things down, and it wasn’t until 1992 that I was able to return to the Dark Continent, on a hunt arranged by Safari Outfitters. This time it was a 10-day Cape buffalo and plains-game special in Zimbabwe with Clive Lennox of Lenton Safaris. The highlight of this hunt was my buffalo taken on the first day. It was August, and it was dry, and getting quite warm by mid-day. The ground was hard, and tracks difficult to follow, but the trackers trailed three bulls for over two hours away from a tiny spring where they had watered. Catching up with them, I took an excellent bull, 41½” wide and with an incredible boss measuring 17½” over the top. We also scored on waterbuck, reedbuck, impala, Chobe bushbuck, duiker, and steenbok.

A remarkable year was 1994. I retired from the U.S. Forest Service in the April, went on a hunt to South Africa in May, and by October, I had signed on as Africa Manager for the recently opened international booking agency, The Trophy Connection. The South African safari was booked directly with PH Tony Tomkinson of Tony Tomkinson Safaris. My friend Gene joined me again on this hunt, and my wife Pat traveled to Africa for the first time. The main target was a nyala, and again, I shot seven animals, all of which qualified for Rowland Ward. I was beginning to wonder if my birth date, 7/7, was influencing the number of animals shot on each safari. This year it was nyala, springbok, black wildebeest, blesbok, Cape bushbuck, impala, and baboon. The best trophy was the bushbuck, with both horns over 16” long. We detoured on the way home to Victoria Falls, an absolute “must- see” at some point in one’s African travels.

Mbalabala Safaris in Zimbabwe was a great find. I’d heard about it from a total stranger and it sounded good. I booked with them in 1997 and that started a warm relationship with the Stanton family – Charlie and Pam, and sons Lindon and Matt. They had a good reputation for leopard and they certainly lived up to it. I took a nice cat, a 42” sable, blue wildebeest, eland, and many impala, mostly for baits. I missed at least four klipspingers, and broke the “sevens” pattern – it had to happen sooner or later!

In 1999, Pat and I escorted a small group to Namibia for a photo/adventure safari that included Etosha Park and the Skeleton Coast.  Northern Namibia is a wild and beautiful place, and the wildlife at Etosha is well worth a stop. When the group departed, I stayed on to hunt two operations – Trophy Safaris with PH Peter Kibble, and Progress Safaris run by his son PH Mike Kibble. We shot a few plains-game species, the best of which was a very good springbok.

In 2000 I went on a month-long visit to several different safari companies in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Spear Safaris in the Kruger region of South Africa, with PH Ernest Dyason, was the first stop. That year there was record rainfall throughout southern Africa and everywhere the grass was very high. Nevertheless, Ernest put me onto good trophies of mountain reedbuck and red lechwe. Then I went to Jan du Preez of Mayfair Ranch in Northwest Province, right on the border of Zambia, where Jan and I took a white blesbok and black springbok before I had to leave for Zimbabwe.

I was concerned about Zimbabwe as Mugabe’s war on the white settlers had begun with two murders just before I arrived to join up once again with the Stantons. However, there weren’t any problems on their concession, and I finally collected a klipspringer and a very nice Limpopo bushbuck. It ended with an extensive tour of the operations of HHK Safaris, managed by Graham Hingeston.

Early on in my stint with the Trophy Connection, I met PH Natie Oelofse, a South African who was operating mostly in Tanzania.  He liked teasing me about my African experience by asking when I was going to come to the “real” Africa, meaning Tanzania. And so, in 2001, we arranged for me to do just that, with 15 days in the Lake Natron concession in Masailand and the Moyowashi in the west-central part of the country. And Natie was right – this was like the Kenya and Tanganyika of days gone by. I was on an extended buffalo and plains-game hunt, as well as for much of what the country had to offer, and still offers today. Natie and I teamed up on a huge, battle-scarred 43” buff, plus Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, East African bushbuck, topi, and bohor reedbuck. Sadly, Natie passed away a few years later from cancer.

In 2003, we hooked up with old friends Don and Merilee Fuller, traveling to Namibia to visit and evaluate a new operation, Ozonduno Safari Ranch, a fenced ranch with very comfortable accommodation and good hunting for plains game. I shot a zebra there and Don bagged an eland. Then we moved to South Africa to catch up on Mayfair Game Ranch with Jan du Preez. There weren’t many changes, and I took an outstanding 25” plus impala and black springbok, and a long-sought porcupine.

Generally, I have gone to a new destination and/or PH on most of my safaris to broaden my experience and to familiarize myself with the operators I was representing. A few stand out in such a way that I went back more than once. Mayfair Ranch with Jan du Preez was one – Pat and I returned for a short hunt with Jan in 2006, primarily for a bontebok and white springbok. We got good specimens of both, plus a last-minute very nice kudu bull.

At the Nebraska SCI Chapter banquet, I ended up the winning bidder on a safari donated by good friend and business associate PH Ernest Dyason of Spear Safaris. This was a great opportunity for a family member to have a great first safari at a very good price. Our son-in-law Dan Anderson joined us with Ernest in South Africa. Dan took several heads of plains game, while I added an oribi to my record. I also scored a first for me – I shot a zebra and lost it! It was recovered the next day by the landowner, but the hide was ruined by predators.

In 2010, Pat and I planned a long itinerary, supposedly to be our last “Hurrah” in Africa.  We booked two safaris, each with operators we hadn’t previously hunted with – Lindale Safaris, with PH Rex Amm in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, and Shona Hunting Adventures, with PH Johann Veldsmann in the Etosha region of Namibia.

With Rex, we hunted several species that I hadn’t taken before, notably the Vaal rhebok and Cape grysbok. The hunt for the rhebok was classic in every sense – high up on a windy ridge I took a nice trophy with a single shot. The grysbok turned out to be big enough to go into the top twenty in the SCI book of records, and it was larger than any Rex had shot.

Between the two safaris we spent several days in Cape Town doing and seeing things we hadn’t done before. Shona offers unfenced hunting for the usual Namibian plains game, and we had a few days in Johann’s tented bush camp, finishing up in his Tualuka Lodge, which certainly ranks among the top three lodges I’ve been to in Africa. This turned out to be a safari of many stalks, but few shots. However, I did take a Hartmann’s mountain zebra, a warthog, and gemsbok for meat.

And so much for a last hurrah!

We hadn’t been home very long when our daughter Sara and her husband Jim Holden called and asked when we’d be off to Africa again. They thought they had better get on the bandwagon before it was too late! After considering the many choices, they zeroed in on Shona Safaris, and so it was that we all booked with them for 2012.

 

Nothing had changed at Tualuka since we were there in 2010, and we spent a most enjoyable time. Jim and Sara took all the animals they were after. Jim hunted some with his bow and took a warthog, and Sara made her old Dad proud by nailing a very nice springbok with his .338-06 after a good stalk with Johann. We ended our time with Johann with a two-day tour and an overnight in Etosha Park where we were overwhelmed with the bonanza of wildlife. The highlight was the huge lion that dropped by (to help us?) while we were fixing a flat tire. Some shopping in Windhoek, and dinner at Joe’s Beer Hall ended a wonderful family outing.

 

Five years passed by, and I was pretty sure that trip was our last to Africa. Then I received “an offer you can’t refuse” from PH Bert Meyer of De Duine Safaris headquartered in Vryburg, South Africa. It was just the kind of deal that could allow my son, Bill, the opportunity to experience Africa at a very affordable price. And so we booked a 9-day plains game hunt with Bert. Bill got a very good kudu, impala, and springbok, while I ended my African hunting with a very large eland, 37-½ inches, two management blue wildebeests, and a cull impala.  We viewed Bert’s fantastic prides of lion, and spent time at three places, and had a good variety of experiences. We spent an extra night at the Afton Guest House on our way back to unwind and enjoy their hospitality once more, having stayed there on our arrival in Johannesburg.

 

It’s hard for me to believe that 34 years could fly past so quickly.  As I review my safaris, one thing I note is the lack of any close calls.  Zero charges from any of the Big Five.  No run-ins with snakes. In over 120 days in the field I saw only three snakes – one black mamba in Namibia and two puff adders in Zimbabwe.  None posed any danger.  No problems with any exotic sickness from insects or whatever other causes.

But none of my time in Africa was boring – adventure was always present.  Different sights, sounds, and smells were always new and exciting. The people and animals are all so different from what we have in the U.S. that one learns something new every day. Various naysayers will say that Africa is on the way down and hunting will be ending there. Don’t you believe it!  While things have certainly changed since 1984, most of it is for the better. And the one thing that never changes in Africa, is that it is constantly changing!

 

That is why one must be careful when booking any safari, and due diligence is the watchword.

It can be good to book on the advice of trusted friends who have been there. But you end up looking at only one company, one place, and one country. Using an established booking agency is the best way to ensure that you will have a good variety of venues to choose from.

Another reason for using an agent is that they normally support and advise you from the very start of the booking process through to getting the trophies back to the U.S. And their services are free to the client as they are commissioned by the hunting operator.

 

The large hunting shows are another popular place to book a safari.  Shows such as the Safari Club International held annually in Las Vegas or Reno are well attended by hundreds of outfitters from all over the world. One must be a member of the SCI to get into the show, but the price of a membership is very reasonable and the money goes to support various hunting and conservation causes.  The show put on by the Dallas Safari Club in Dallas every year is much like the SCI show, and offers a mind-numbing display of worldwide hunting adventures.  An all-Africa show is put on by the African Hunting Gazette magazine in locations in both the U.S. and Canada.  The African Hunting Gazette may not be really well known as a means for booking a safari, but it is actually a very good source, as they offer a service whereby they “visit and verify” a good number of hunting venues throughout Africa. They feature profiles of several of these in each issue of the Gazette, and a complete listing can be found on their website www.africanhuntinginfo.com. Indeed, it was from a listing in the magazine that I selected Shona Hunting Adventures with whom I hunted in 2010 and again in 2012.

 

With reference to the hunting shows: Nearly all shows at all levels require the vendors to provide a hunt or whatever it is they are selling as a donation to be auctioned off by the show’s sponsor as part of the cost of a booth. SCI supports various chapters, usually at a state level, but it is sometimes broken down even further in states with large populations. And various other sporting organizations of all sizes do pretty much the same thing. As a result, there are large numbers of hunts auctioned off every year at these banquets where they often sell for pennies on the dollar. So – a great place to book your hunt at a bargain-basement price, right? Not so fast. Some of these hunts have restrictions on them which make them not such a good deal. This can also work both ways when one purchases a hunt and then tries to amplify it in some way without a corresponding change in price.

 

The number of organizations sponsoring fund raisers has greatly increased since 1984.  Many, such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Foundation for North American Sheep, etc., are well known, and the number of their chapters has greatly increased over the years.  And they have been joined by various other organizations advocating other species (mule deer, wild turkeys, etc.) and causes, until the market is flooded with hunts being put up for auction. The bottom line is some hunts are good, some are bad, and a buyer must really check things out before getting stuck with a trip they may not even use. Vetting is the word needed, and one really needs to apply it in this situation before buying that super deal.

 

So once one makes the decision, what then? Cost is most likely the first and main consideration, but it is really not that big an obstacle. There are safaris to suit every budget.  The price of a safari consists of a daily rate to cover accommodations, meals, local travel, services of your PH, and support staff.  A trophy fee is charged for any animals shot or wounded and lost. The final price depends mainly on the length of the hunt, animals shot, and species. There are some safaris available for as low as $4000. Additional costs are the travel to Africa, gratuities to the staff, and shipping the trophies home. Travel to southern Africa is nearly all through Johannesburg, South Africa, and one is well advised to use an agency that specializes in travel there.  Medical requirements are few: check with the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA for the best current advice. In the end, the cost is really just a matter of priorities – how much do you want to go to Africa? A very good plains-game safari is way less than a new car or pick-up.

 

Changes over 34 years? Probably the biggest is the numbers of safari operators who have disappeared to be replaced by new names. The oldest names you’ll see are still here because they have consistently performed well. If they didn’t, they’d be gone.  New kids on the block must perform well to succeed as in any business.

 

The technological changes have also been huge. When I started in the business, communications with our companies in Africa were almost 100% via fax. Some PHs handwrote their faxes rather than typing them, and time was lost trying to deciphering what they wrote. Communication by cell phone and Internet, is a great improvement on faxing.

 

Shooting sticks were foreign to American hunters back then. But when used successfully in Africa, American hunters took to them in a big way. You can now select from an amazing variety of monopods, bipods, and tripods.

 

Family participation in the hunter’s adventure is a fairly new. The safari industry is starting to do a good job in providing side adventures for non-hunting members of a party, and children, and so we are seeing more and more families on safari.  There hasn’t been any appreciable influx of “black rifles” to Africa yet, but they may be coming in light of how popular they have become in the U.S.

In closing, I can only say – Go hunting while you’re still able.
George Gehrman
President, Tracking Africa