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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Game Ranch Hunts - A Budget Friendly African Experience

Above: On a typical South African game ranch hunt accommodations may vary from a traditional type lodge as shown above, to renovated historical homes.

Although originally derived from the Arabic word safar, safari is the Swahili word for journey. It’s a word that invariably evokes romantic notions of exciting travel and adventure in Africa. The word first appeared in the English language circa the late 1850s and we have the intrepid explorer Richard Francis Burton to thank for it. Classical African safari certainly isn’t what it used to be during the heyday of big game hunting, with lines of heavily laden porters weaving their way along narrow game trails through the African bush, whilst the bwana and his PH were stalking bull elephant, and the like.

Currently a classical safari in the true sense is normally a costly affair, and is mainly confined to certain areas in Tanzania, Mozambique, Botswana & Zimbabwe. The extreme Northern Mozambique though, should probably be considered a risky venue given the Islamic insurgency bubbling away in the region. On a classical safari the scenery and hunting methods might not have changed much, however, the camps are certainly far more luxurious and the modes of transportation and communications more modern.

Above: New Zealander Chris Ellis and PH Keith Gradwell at right, glass for kudu on an Eastern Cape game ranch.

In our modern era where time costs money, the days of going off on a 2 or 3-month safari spread across a few African countries are also long gone. Even a 28-day African safari is now beyond the reach of most, and it goes without saying classical African safari is expensive. And yet, there are still places where one can truly enjoy a budget friendly African hunting experience of 5-, 7-, 10- or 14-days’ duration. Game ranch hunting safaris in South Africa and Namibia, also afford an entire family a fun holiday. It’s merely a case of shopping around and doing your research correctly. Or of dealing with a reputable booking agent, and if it’s approached this way there’s absolutely no reason why one shouldn’t have a safari experience that’ll stay with them for the rest of their lives.

To me as an African PH of longstanding, now retired, I’ve always found it a little strange that many international sport hunters are seemingly averse to hunting inside a fenced game ranch. In the southern African context, commercial wildlife ranching is defined as the management of game in a sizable game fenced system, with minimum human intervention. None of the wildlife found inside these game ranch boundary fences is human habituated; to the contrary, it’s normally extremely wild.

Above: The late Bill Haslett out of Pennsylvania, poses with an excellent red hartebeest taken in the Eastern Cape on his third Southern African safari.

Ethical, fair chase, is the term most often used when sport hunters discuss hunting. On well-managed, and run, game ranches, hunting is truly ‘fair chase’, with the chances of success not always assured. Normally, and obviously dependent of the species being hunted, I’ve always used 8,000 acres as the minimum land mass barometer for fair-chase hunting of common African plains game species like impala, zebra, wildebeest, kudu, warthog etc. Species like the diminutive blue duiker, and secretive bushpig, and even caracal (lynx) are invariably hunted on open mixed stock farms using hounds. These stock farms aren’t game fenced although the hunt may well take you across paddock systems and past grazing livestock. Not unlike hunting in many other parts of the developed world.

On a game ranch or large conservancy such as Zimbabwe’s Bubye Valley or Save Conservancy, varying topography and habitat mean you could possibly hunt for days without going anywhere near, or even seeing, the boundary game fence. Vehicles are merely used to reach a hunting area on the ranch. Thereafter, it’s a case of hunting on foot across varying and more often than not, rugged terrain. Over the years, and following a hard day’s conservancy hunting, my client and I have often returned to the lodge on our chin straps. And without an animal in the salt. On many game ranches too, and unlike hunting in a number of developed countries, the client with his PH & trackers will probably be the only people hunting across, say, 10,000 acres of savannah. Completely free of any internal fences.

Above: Due to progressive wildlife management practices based on scientific sustainable yield take-offs, South Africa has stable and constantly increasing wildlife populations. In this photo a large bachelor group of black wildebeest are in the foreground, with a blesbok herd in the background.

Made up of about seventy regions comprising different habitat types, South Africa can support a wide variety of wildlife species. During the early 20th century, however, wildlife in South Africa had no economic value and was regarded as being competitive with livestock for grazing. At one stage bontebok numbers dwindled to 19, blesbok to 2,000, and white rhino to 30. Eventually though, and back in 1894 sanity prevailed. With wildlife now having a commercial value the game populations on private, and state land in South Africa are greater than they ever were over the previous 150 years.

If we include arbitrary opportunistic safari ‘fillers’ like baboon, jackal and porcupine, close to 50 species can be hunted in South Africa (across the entire country). There are about 30 record book trophy species that can be hunted, excluding variants arrived at through selective breeding like copper springbok etc. On a personal note, I disagree with the breeding of any wildlife variants. On the antelope front there’s blue and black wildebeest, eland, kudu, nyala, impala, bushbuck, blesbok, bontebok, sable, lechwe, reedbuck (common & mountain), springbok, waterbuck, gemsbok, rhebok, duiker, steenbok, grysbok, suni, oribi, klipspringer, hartebeest, zebra, bushpig, warthog, and the big stuff, including the likes of buffalo and elephant.

Above: With a vast array of different species, South Africa is an attractive sport hunting venue. The key to success is ensuring you hunt with an ethical, conservation minded, and experienced operator.

All of the above makes South Africa an attractive safari venue with a trophy bouillabaisse awaiting the keen hunter. If the different provinces, scenery, and species variety is considered, it’d take at least three visits to complete an experience of the whole. Accommodations and cuisine are normally superb with most game ranches within easy reach of the big cities. The country has world class medical facilities, and attractive places of interest for activities other than just hunting. The Southern and Eastern Cape too has an additional plus in that they are malaria free.

The strong showing of the British pound sterling, and the US dollar against the SA Rand add to making South Africa an attractive holiday, even with air travel thrown in. SAA the national carrier is a hunter friendly airline, and taking guns into the country isn’t a big issue provided one does the paperwork correctly. The SAPS520 Temporary Firearms Import Permit can be downloaded off the internet. Trophy fees and daily rates are invariably quoted in US dollars, and they’re competitive. Because of sheer variety, when considering a South African or Namibian game ranch hunt it’s a good idea to look at what’s on your bucket list by way of trophy animals. Or are you just as content with hunting representative non-record book qualifying but fully mature species only? If so, there are ‘management’ hunts on offer at lower rates than normal trophy hunts. As a father/son combination management hunts are popular.

Above: Most leading safari operators abide by ethical practices. Here PH Doug Snow oversees pre-hunt zero checking of a client's rifle. This normally takes place on the first morning of the hunt before going out into the field.

What of the species mix? I’d strongly recommend for a first time hunter to Africa they start with the common although popular trophy species. Perhaps one of the smaller antelope, a duiker or steenbok, then an impala (no one should go on safari without shooting an impala), then a warthog (male only, they’ve got the warts and the big tusks), and if they’re available the iconic springbok, a blesbok, a black or blue wildebeest (all dependent on where in South Africa you’re hunting, in some places you can hunt both species) perhaps for décor, a zebra, and to round it off a kudu, and maybe a bushbuck, which would add two spiral horned species to the mix.

Seven days is about your average South African ranch hunt duration, and the species listed above total what would be comfortable to hunt at leisure, without spraining muscles and overdoing it. If you booked a 10-day vacation, you’d be left with 3 days to enjoy a national park, or one of the country’s lovely coastal cities, although there is a huge selection of activities to choose from.

Calibre wise, I’d suggest you only take one gun. For most of South Africa’s plains game species, any of the following calibres using premium grade ammunition are adequate; .270 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .308 Winchester, .300 Winchester Magnum (or the .300 H&H) and any one of the 7mm family.

In closure this post may come across as a promotional or marketing spiel, however, I most certainly haven’t intended it to be interpreted that way. Rather, as an ex-African PH now retired I’ve had years of exposure to first time sport hunters visiting Africa, and I never tire of seeing their excitement at experiencing African safari first hand. Thus, if I can encourage people to go and experience a game ranch hunt, I will. Enjoy.

Above: Even on a game ranch hunt, the midday break can still allow one the feel of being on a classical safari.

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