Is Southern Africa the New Argentina?
By Ken Bailey
For years, dedicated dove and pigeon hunters seeking high-volume shooting opportunities have descended annually en masse to Argentina. Just uttering the word “Córdoba” brings knowing grins to the face of legions of enthusiastic wingshooters. And why wouldn’t it, as that province in north-central Argentina is the acknowledged capital of dove hunting, where daily bags of 1000 birds or more per day are possible, if not common, for those willing to put in the time, energy and investment.
I know firsthand how Argentina garnered its reputation, having visited and hunted there a few years ago and experiencing the best of that country’s dove and pigeon hunting. Stopping in for “a quick little shoot” on the way from the airport to the lodge, as one example, I knocked down 340 Eared doves in just a couple hours. I must say, it was an exhilarating beginning. The next day I shot 800 or so, with several handfuls of squawking, green parakeets, another agricultural pest, thrown in for good measure. Had I been so inclined to extend my shooting, 1000 on the ground for the day was a definite possibility.
As much as I enjoyed my hunt in Argentina, however, I found it do be a “one and done” experience; I have no burning desire to go back. After three days of shooting, with the novelty having worn off, I’d lost my edge. I wasn’t leaping out of bed to get back on day four. In fact, by then I was actually getting a little bored with it all. And I’m not alone in this assessment. I’ve talked to others who enjoyed their Argentina dove hunting experience but who harbour no urgency to return.
Still, Argentina remains the world’s most popular dove and pigeon hunting destination, particularly among North Americas. Slowly but surely, however, South Africa, and to a lesser extent Namibia, are gaining a dedicated following of hunters seeking a more diverse and rewarding dove and pigeon hunting experience.
To be sure, there are both remarkable similarities and stark differences between Argentina’s and southern Africa’s dove and pigeon hunting. Let’s examine a few of them.
When you visit Argentina, it’s all a numbers game. A bird boy sits beside you as you shoot, ensuring you always have your next box of shells at the ready while he keeps a running tally of the birds that fall. 500+ bird days are pretty standard, even for average shooters. 1000 doves is just a matter of putting in the requisite hours, as the birds don’t stop flying through the daylight hours. And for those hell bent on running up the score, I suppose 1500 – 2000 birds isn’t out of the question.
By those standards, South Africa can’t compete, but 300 – 500 birds per day is certainly possible, and for most of us, that’s enough. Robbie Stretton of Stormberg Elangeni Safaris (www.sesafaris.com) says they’ve had several pigeon/dove hunting safaris this year and have averaged 750 – 1000 birds per day for their groups. Similarly, Reiner Linde of Legelela Safaris (www.legelelasafaris.co.za) says that eager hunters at his camp will shoot more than 750 rounds daily. If you assume a 50 – 60% success rate, that’s 375 – 450 pigeons.
If there’s one word that summarizes Africa’s wildlife, it’s “diversity”, and their doves and pigeons are no exception. Cape Turtle doves, Laughing doves, Red-eyed doves and Namaqua doves are the most common, depending upon where you hunt, although there are another four or five dove species present in the region. As to pigeons, Rock, Speckled and Rameron species are most common.
Argentina doesn’t boast as broad an assortment; you’ll shoot Eared doves exclusively, along with Rock and, possibly, Picazuro pigeons. If variety turns your crank, southern Africa certainly has the upper hand.
Get beyond the dove and pigeon family and you’ll find both Africa and Argentina have excellent waterfowling that can be added to your hunt. It’s tough to make a distinction between the two, actually, as both offer great abundance and diversity of species, but one of the great attractions in African waterfowling is the Spur-winged goose, generally acknowledged as the largest species of goose in the world. To some, size matters.
For upland bird hunters, Argentina offers perdiz, a partridge-like bird that comes in several varieties. Renowned for exploding suddenly out of the grass and getting beyond range quickly, seasoned shotgunners love this little bird.
The African counterpart to the perdiz is the francolin, or spurfowl; again, several different species are present and all offer gunners an exciting and challenging experience. But Africa being Africa, it doesn’t end there. Those seeking upland birds also have their choice of a handful of quail and buttonquail species. Sandgrouse, which are more pigeon that grouse, are numerous where they’re found, with Namibia a popular destination. And the pièce de résistance is the ubiquitous guineafowl, a bird with an odd mix of characteristics. For North Americans, think equal parts wild turkey and pheasant, with both the best and most challenging attributes of each. It’s an absolute “must-do” hunt, either walk-up or driven.
Other Hunting Opportunities
This is simply not a fair fight. No part of the world has the number and variety of big game animals found in Africa, period. Better still, most African bird hunting outfitters will gladly tee you up for a crack at a springbok, impala, kudu, zebra, or just about any other species of common African wildlife you care to hunt, generally on the same properties – or very close by – to where you’re hunting birds. It’s only the Big Five and a small handful of other species that are somewhat difficult to add to a bird hunt. Trust me on this – if you’re an avid big-game hunter who’s not hunted Africa previously, you won’t be able to stop yourself from carving a day or two out of your bird-hunting activities to pursue one or more of the many iconic species you’re sure to see.
Argentina has some excellent big-game hunting, but in comparison the number of available species is significantly fewer. Further, most often you’ll have to travel a considerable distance from the prime dove hunting grounds to get into quality big-game country.
Food and Lodging
My personal experience is limited to one trip to Argentina, while I’ve been to more than a dozen lodges in southern Africa, but it’s clear to me that the Argentinians have borrowed from the African playbook.
I’ve never had a bad experience as far as food and lodgings go in Africa – quite simply, they look after visiting hunters at a level that sets the bar for hunting lodges around the world. Invariably the food is both plentiful and superb, the local wines are exquisite, the beer eminently drinkable, and the rooms are always immaculate and comfortable. I should live so luxuriously at home! Daily laundry service is one of the great pleasures of most camps, and the staff are generally friendly and helpful to a fault. In short, African hospitality is near impossible to top.
If any destination comes close, however, based upon my experience and discussions I’ve had with others who’ve hunted there, it’s Argentina. Once again, the food and lodging are first-class, and their malbec wines need little introduction to those who enjoy the grape. So if you enjoy being pampered, you’ll get more than your share of attention whether you hunt Africa or Argentina.
For most North Americans, whether travelling to Argentina or southern Africa, at least two long flights are in order. I live in Edmonton. When I hunted Argentina I went via Minneapolis, then Atlanta, on to Buenos Aries, then another two-hour flight into dove country. A day and a half all-in, however you cut it. I’m flying to South Africa later this week – Edmonton to Calgary, then to Amsterdam and, from there, down to Johannesburg. Again, a day and a half.
There’s simply no escaping the fact that both destinations involve considerable travel for many of us. From some parts of the U.S., a long day may do it to either destination. The perception among many, however, is that southern Africa is a lot further away than Argentina, or at least takes a whole lot longer to get to, but that’s not the case. Pack a book, your iPod, a pillow and some patience, and you’ll be in either place before you know it.
On a dedicated bird hunt, costs are pretty similar between the two destinations. Daily fees are very reasonable in both – not much different from lodging and dining at your local Hilton. Shells tend to be the greatest expense whenever you’re high-volume shooting. Fortunately, quality ammunition is available in both locations and you can expect to pay about the same, somewhere in the $12 – $14 per box range.
When you compare Argentina to southern Africa as a high-volume dove/pigeon destination, you’ll find that travel, service, food and lodging, and overall costs are very similar. You’ll likely shoot more birds in Argentina, important if numbers are your primary objective. Where Africa shines is in the variety it offers – the number of species of doves/pigeons is greater, the array of additional game birds is broader, and the other hunting opportunities are immeasurably more. Further, there’s no substitute for the African backdrop – when you’re hunting birds it’s not unusual to see any one of a dozen species of antelope or other recognizable African wildlife. For my money, the natural sights and sounds of Africa are unequalled anywhere in the world.
Africa has not been marketed as a bird-hunting destination to the extent that Argentina has, and today is considered by most knowledgeable accounts to be one of hunting’s best-kept secrets. If you’re a passionate wingshooter, you owe it to yourself to hunt southern Africa. But be forewarned: nothing in Africa bites quite like Africa herself. You won’t go just once.