The best safari outfitters, who have the best areas, the best camps, the best staff and the best equipment have not developed this reputation overnight. They are, more often than not, booked out more than a year in advance. And nowhere is it more true than in the hunting industry, that you get what you pay for. In my experience, it is extraordinarily rare to find a good cheap hunt, in fact, I think the phrase, ‘a good cheap hunt’, like the phrase ‘military intelligence’, is an oxymoron.
Nothing is more expensive than spending even one day of your time hunting looking for an animal that is not and has never been in the hunting area. When you multiply this experience by 7, 14 or 28 days, the cost becomes devastating, not only from the point of money, time and effort flushed down the toilet but in the frustration, irritation, anger and mental anguish that will live with you for years after. No-one likes to be lied to, cheated or defrauded but this is doubly galling when, in retrospect, if you are honest with yourself, you know in your heart of hearts that a little bit of research could have avoided the situation in which you found yourself.
Of course, hunting is not about, ‘dial-a-buffalo’ or ‘rent-a-herd’, and an essential element of this amazing sport is its infinite uncertainty. A novice on his first hunting trip to Africa may take a world record on his first morning out of camp. An experienced, dedicated, African veteran may spend many years of his life looking for a particular trophy class animal and never obtain one. But everyone who has paid to hunt a particular species, in a particular area, with a particular outfitter, should have a chance, if not an exactly equal chance, to take the animal of his dreams. As such, I believe it is better to save up and wait for an opportunity to hunt in the best area, at the best time, with the best outfitter and professional hunter that you can afford. I believe that it is axiomatic that, if you pay peanuts you get monkeys and, although I shot a colobus monkey once in Ethiopia, to mount above a bongo I had previously earned in the Central African Republic, it is the only monkey I have ever wanted while on safari.
Luck occurs when preparation meets opportunity and, in booking a safari, the more research you do, the fitter you are, the more you practise your shooting skills and prepare, the luckier you will be on that important hunting trip of a lifetime. Having said that; people often do not think past the hunt itself. I believe it is just as important to prepare for what happens after the hunt is over. Which people am I going to need to tip and how much? On this score, once I know how many people are going to be in my hunting team and, roughly, what their functions are, I take some small gifts with me to give the team both before I start the hunt and/or during the hunt, as well as the normal monetary tip at the end of the safari. The word ‘Tips’ stands for, ‘To Insure Prompt Service’ and these little gifts do just that. They often help cement the team, ensure a happy, friendly and co-operative atmosphere, as well as raise the spirits of the team when, as can often be the case, times are tough, enthusiasm is waning and spirits are low. As James Mellon writes in African Hunter, ‘On any difficult expedition, especially on a foot safari, the gravest danger is always sinking morale. So keep your spirits up at all costs.’ Over the years, I have taken many such gifts with me in the form of T shirts (emblazoned with the South African flag), warm woollen hats and gloves – all of which are unbreakable and easy to pack – simple Swiss army knives, inexpensive digital watches, sweets and necklaces (for the wives and children). Clothing, however, is the all-time favourite and, like the army, in Africa, there are only two sizes that count – too big or too small.
Where are you going to send your trophies at the end of the hunt? In my opinion, the best taxidermists for African animals are in Africa and, for the most part, they are less expensive than those overseas. Outside of South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, there are no taxidermists, as opposed to dipping stations, the quality of whose work I trust. Having said that, I believe it is important for the hunter to verify the standard of the taxidermy by actually visiting the studio, seeing how the work is done and by whom and, if necessary, speaking to other customers of the taxidermist he has in mind.
A good taxidermist will give you a sheath of printed forms on which to note the various measurements of the trophies you take. I think it is important to fill these in, particularly in the case of unusual animals which your taxidermist may not know well. I try and make a point of visiting my taxidermist when my trophies arrive at his studio. I take along the forms plus photographs of the animals concerned. We check the trophies together and discuss how I want them mounted, taking his suggestions into account of course. If you merely make the arrangements telephonically and the trophies turn out badly what can you do then? The taxidermist will usually blame the professional hunter and he will return the compliment. None of this will replace the hair that has slipped, the horns that are burnt, the tusks that aren’t yours or allow you any recourse.
If you do not follow this procedure and, to compound matters, you are dealing with an inferior taxidermist, you run the risk that your Harvey’s duiker is going to be mounted on whatever the taxidermist believes is the closest type of animal in respect of which he has a mould or form, such as a southern bush duiker. The fact that the resulting full mount bears no resemblance to the live animal does not seem to bother many taxidermists nor, for that matter, some clients. Over the years, particularly in North American trophy rooms, I have seen some very strange sights – Lord Derby’s eland that look like Cape eland, nyala like bushbuck, a leopard like a lioness and so on. The worst was a springbok that looked as if its face had got lodged in a pencil sharpener.
Worse still, imagine hearing that your trophies have been lost, damaged or stolen while at the taxidermist or, taking delivery of your prize kudu only to find that the horns have been replaced with an inferior set, or your luxurious, perfect cape has been exchanged for a moth eaten one. This means that, even after a long day in the field, it is important to show an interest in your trophies, to accompany them to the skinning shed and to check, at regular intervals, how they are being caped, skinned, salted and labelled and how they are treated subsequently. For example, in humid or wet conditions, the salted skins must be opened and aired every day. And what insecticide is being used to prevent bugs making a meal of your hides and horns? And how are your skulls being cleaned? How many hunters do you know who let the skinners boil their heads only to find that, at the same time, the horns attached thereto have been badly burnt?
Most good taxidermists will provide you, free of charge, with a set of labels to be attached to your trophies to ensure that the correct ones arrive at the correct destination. In this regard, I also obtain my taxidermist’s advice on which airfreight forwarding and clearing agents to use. I do not send my trophies by sea.
In the years to come, especially when you can no longer hunt the way you once did, it is wonderful to have a record of your hunts. I would urge you, therefore, to take lots of photographs and not just of dead animals. Photographs of people and places, sunrises, sunsets and scenery and also of those inevitable hunting mishaps – a flat tyre, stuck in a river crossing – and then of all aspects of the hunt such as building a blind, hanging a bait and so on. Also, if you can, keep a diary and, if not every day then, at regular intervals, jot down notes of what has transpired. When you return home write up your diary and keep it together with your photographs as a permanent record and memory of your hunt. In the years to come you will be very glad that you did so and, who knows, if you do this often enough, you may have sufficient information and photographs, if not for a book, then for a number of interesting magazine articles, which will help other people to avoid some of your mistakes and book a decent safari.