On safari with Steph Marais

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My name is Stephen (Steph) Marais. I was born on 19 January 1989 in the small town of Grootfontein, Namibia, as a third generation Marais in Namibia. From the early age of only fifteen months, I was constantly travelling around Namibia with my father, him being the owner of a construction company and moving from one site to the next. My mother was a full -time teacher, so instead of going to a day care, my father took me with him to work.

When I was three years old my father bought the ranch, which today is the heart of the Safari Operation. My father had a lot of ex-military personnel working on the ranch and for the construction company, which helped me gain a lot of first-hand experience in tracking and general knowledge of nature survival as I grew up.

At times while we were on the ranch my parents had a hard time keeping me in the house, therefore my father took one of his trusted trackers and gave him the duty of looking after me. He had to go where I went.

Steph Marais is a PH with Keibeb Safaris

My father and grandfather that loved hunting. We always hunted for meat, which was also the first rule about hunting when I started with a slingshot shooting birds. “You eat what you kill.”

At the age of four, my father started the tradition where every year on my birthday, I was allowed to hunt one animal that I really wanted. So on my birthday, with the assistance of my father, I shot my first animal, which was a steenbok, with a .22 Long Rifle. That was the day I remember I told my father I wanted to hunt for a living.

Steenbok Taken by Bjarne Mikkelsen November 2013

I learned almost everything I know about hunting from my father and grandfather. My grandfather always told me the stories about the “Good Old Days” when he grew up hunting in Africa. During that time animals were everywhere to be seen and not afraid of humans. They hunted elephants for ivory and hippos for their fat, which if cured correctly could last years in the salt-chests under their beds.

I would say the most important thing I had learned from my grandfather and father about hunting is to respect the animal you hunt, and never shoot at an animal if you are not absolutely sure you can make a quick and clean kill shot.

I started my hunting career on Keibeb Game Ranch, in the northern part of Namibia. After finishing primary school in Namibia, I went to South Africa to attend High School in Upington, Northern Cape. Because I loved hunting so much I got my professional hunter certificate in South Africa after High School and started hunting for one of my friend’s father in the Northern Cape Province. I quickly learned that bullet construction made a much bigger difference in the penetration on the African animals then the caliber.

After hunting in South Africa, I returned to Namibia, where I got my Namibian Professional Hunters Certificate in 2007, started my own safari company, Keibeb Safaris, and continued my hunting career in Namibia. I also conducted some hunts in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. I always wanted to experience Africa like in my grandfather’s stories, so when I got clients wanting to hunt in different countries across Southern Africa, I jumped at the opportunity.

If I could return to any time and place in Africa, I would return to the late 1800s and early 1900s when the ivory hunters was going into the Dark Continent to look for elephants to hunt, and where a hunting safari could be as long as a couple of years at a time. Hunting for meat for the camp, moving around Southern Africa, hunting as you move along and just seeing the untamed beauty of Africa before civilization, would have been my dream.

The southern greater kudu is my favorite animal to hunt in Africa. When I was eight years old I made a promise to myself that the day I shot a 60’’+ kudu bull I would never shoot another big kudu again. Over the years I guided a lot of excellent kudu trophies of which the biggest was 63’’, but I never shot a bigger bull than 59⅞ “myself.

The best trophies my clients took over the years were a Cape eland bull measuring 42.5’’ and a waterbuck bull measuring 33’’ in length. It was just a wonderful feeling knowing those animals were really mature and way past their prime. The thickness of the horn bases and the battle scars proved they had had a long and successful life.

One of the two most memorable hunts I had was when I shot my first eland at the age of eight, a couple of days after my eighth birthday. We were driving around the ranch checking the rain gauges when we saw a track of a lone eland bull. The dewlap that was bigger than both of my shoes together was dragging between the tracks. It was early in the morning around 7a.m. when my father asked if I wanted to hunt an eland. I immediately said, “Yes”, and within five minutes I was ready to start following the spoor.

Eland Taken by David Lang 2017

I was armed with my father’s .30-06 and the tracker followed the spoor, I followed the tracker, and my father was right on my heels. It only took about 10 minutes before we could hear the clicking sound of the eland bull as he was slowly walking around. Another 15 minutes passed, which felt like a couple of hours, and there we had the big eland bull standing broadside 50 yards in front of us browsing on the leaves of a bush. It took me forever to get ready and steady enough to make the shot which hit him right in the heart, and the eland ran off. We followed the blood trail and soon found the eland where he had collapsed.

The second memorable hunt was when one of my clients was hunting with a longbow, and we decided to do a walk and stalk with the bow on a big giraffe bull that was always fighting with the younger bulls. We stalked for four hours and twenty-eight minutes before we finally got to the preferred shooting distance of between twelve and eighteen yards. It was a full frontal shot. The arrow hit home, and the giraffe almost looked as if it were going to start stomping at us before it just silently collapsed a mere nine yards from where it was shot.

Once I had a couple in camp where the husband was hunting and the wife was an observer. She had Alzheimer’s which I only became aware of by the third day of the safari when she got lost after deciding to follow her husband and me. We were stalking a group of zebra that we had seen earlier. When we left the truck and started out following the zebra, she stayed in the truck, but as soon as we left she told the trackers that she wanted to go with us. They could still see us so they let her follow, and while she was following us she wandered off and somehow got lost after a couple of hours in the bush, and forgot where she was or where she was going.

It had started raining soon after we left the truck and we had a very hard time tracking the old lady down. Luckily I had some really good trackers that had experience in tracking humans. The rain made it very difficult to follow her tracks, but in about three hours or so she was found unharmed and brought back to camp. For the rest of the nine days we started every morning with the same stories about her life and had to reintroduce ourselves to her every time she saw us. That became a very long week of hunting.

In 2017 I had an accident with my one trucks and broke my left leg really badly. I had to undergo surgery, where the doctor had to remove 11 small bone fragments and then attach the remaining bones with a metal plate and screws. At first the doctors wanted to amputate my left leg, but luckily I found a doctor willing to operate and save my leg. After the surgery, while still in recovery I had clients coming to hunt, and getting a replacement guide at such short notice was quite difficult. So it was a very big challenge at the time to hunt, because I was not as mobile as I used to be, but I pulled through and guided a few hunts with crutches, and later on in a boot. That was probably my toughest year throughout my entire hunting career.

When clients ask me about what type of rifle they can hunt with when on an African safari, I always say that a smaller caliber like .308 Winchester or .270 Winchester with which a hunter can shoot very accurately is a better choice of rifle for the first-time hunter in Africa. You can use a lighter bullet of good construction with a precise of the shot on plains game rather than a bad shot placement of a bigger, heavier recoil bullet or rifle. If you are to bring a bigger caliber, be sure to practice with it beforehand. No guide wants to have a hunter wound and not find an animal.

Another recommendation would be to practice shooting off shooting sticks before you get to Africa, as most of your shots will be off shooting sticks under 200 yards. For your safari you can only bring your rifle and ammo, binoculars and camera. There is no need for a rangefinder as your guide will give you the range. Clothing for an African safari can be two to three pairs of hunting clothes, light khaki or natural colors like olive, brown and grey, with good, well broken-in hunting boots, two sets of casual clothing and shoes for the evenings. Washing will be done on a regular basis normally every day.

For a backup rifle I use a Ruger M77 in .458 Lott with a 550-gr bullet when hunting dangerous game as well as for any wounded plains game. The pure reason for this is that it has more than enough stopping power if you need to stop a charging elephant, buffalo or lion, and for plains game you do not really have to worry too much about branches or bushes that are in the way. It will pass right through it and keep travelling in a straight line to the target.

The only time that I really had a close encounter with death was when I had a wounded leopard which we followed into a really thick acacia scrub area. The leopard charged at us after it killed one dog, while the young hunting dog in training ran away towards us. From the moment we heard the dogs getting mauled till the moment we saw the leopard was in a blink of an eye. I took a full frontal shot on the leopard with my .458 Lott, hitting it just above the left eye and dropping the leopard seven yards from us.

The hunting industry had changed quite a bit over the past decade, with the media and a lot of uneducated people trying to put hunting off as a barbaric way of just killing animals for their horns. This is not true by the way, because everything from a hunted animal gets used in Africa, nothing goes to waste. In the last couple of years it seems to me that more young people are getting into hunting again, but we have a generation gap within the middle-aged hunter. It has also become more of a unisex sport rather than a mainly male sport as it used to be in the past.

When booking a safari always make sure what is included and excluded from a safari package.  A lot of people compare prices and just take the cheapest price they can find, which might not be the cheapest at the end of the hunt. Make sure to read the fine print and also make sure to book with an outfitter in an area where you want to hunt and that they have the animals that you are looking to hunt. If you have physical disabilities or are not so young and fit as you used to be, do not book a mountain area hunt as it will be very hard on you, and at the end you might not be able to get the trophies you are looking for. Rather book a hunt in an area that has a flat and even terrain that would make it easier for you to walk and stalk. Always tell your outfitter about any and all handicaps or disabilities you might have so that they can prepare for that beforehand.

The only way conservation of African wildlife will work in the long run, is if hunting is used as a form of conservation. Wildlife in Africa has a value and that is only measured by the meat and food it provides and the money it puts on the table of hundreds of locals, directly or indirectly involved in the hunting industry. The moment you take the value away, nobody will care about it and it will be destroyed and killed to give domestic livestock better grazing opportunities. Also, predators will be killed to avoid human wildlife conflict as well as to protect livestock. As long as people are generating money or food from themelves, everybody will help protect the wildlife which then has a value for them.

Lastly, my ideal safari would be if I could have a month or two to go on safari to hunt the African Big Five like in the old days. Tracking a big, black-maned lion and leopard on foot in the Kalahari from the first day you see the track until you track them down and maybe get a shot at them, or hunting the Cape buffalo in the Caprivi and Luangwa Valley. Taking very old, well representative trophies of a species, and not necessarily going for the biggest trophy even if it means it is a younger animal.

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