Chances Are You Can Do It Cheaper Than a Premium Elk Hunt
My palms hurt and my knees were bloody from crawling over rocks. My legs ached. My lungs were threatening to quit on me if I had to climb one more mountain chasing a herd that was skittish to the point of paranoia. The guide and I had pursued them up and over so many mountains and glassed them from so many hidden vantage points that I had no idea how much territory we had covered or how we'd ever find our way back to the truck.
When the shot opportunity finally came, it was a long one — 320 yards from our spot on a hill to where the bull was feeding on the opposite ridge. Hold a foot high, the guide said, and that turned out to be dead accurate. The cows scattered in a panic at the blast, and not long afterward we were standing over a mature bull I had worked harder for than any animal I've taken before or since.
Sounds like a fairly typical elk hunt, right? Except it wasn't an elk and I wasn't in Colorado or New Mexico. It was a red hartebeest, and I was in South Africa.
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Afford a Dream Hunt
That's because an African safari is much less expensive than most people realize. In fact, it's a good bit cheaper than a typical outfitted elk hunt. Don't believe me? Look at the numbers.
I hunted with Tollie's African Safaris and booked the hunt through SHE Expeditions, a full-service booking agent. Over the course of five days, I shot that red hartebeest, a springbuck and a beautiful impala ram. Tollie's outfit is no bargain-basement backwoods lodge — it's a top-rate place with excellent food, comfortable accommodations and luxuries such as a spa and a first-class taxidermist on-site. It's also almost entirely free range; an extraordinarily rare find in South Africa. Total cost for the trip breaks down like this:
- Lodging, food, and all necessary hunting services for five days: $2,250
- Springbuck trophy fee: $400
- Impala trophy fee: $520
- Hartebeest (or kudu, gemsbok, duiker or wildebeest) trophy fee: $1,200
That's $4,370. Add in airfare and a few odds and ends such as immunizations, tips and gun permit fees and you're coming in around $7,500 for the whole deal.
It's not cheap, but compare it to a stateside elk hunt at a comparable lodge. SHE Expeditions recommends a New Mexico lodge that runs in the average price range for an outfitted elk hunt. Total cost for this trip:
- Lodging, food and five days of hunting: $10,000
- Hunting license: $550
- Meat processing not included
Tack on tips and the cost of getting there and you could be pushing $12,500 or more. And you can shoot one animal as opposed to the three (or more) you could have shot in Africa.
My mounts were done in Africa by Tollie's taxidermy service and the cost was about what my local Alabama taxidermist would charge. On top of that, I had airfreight and customs broker fees of about $1,300 for three wall pedestal mounts.
Other potential costs for a South Africa trip are firearm permits fees (around $100); immunizations you might need; additional airline baggage fees and the cost of any extra services or day trips you'd like to tack on. I recommend the hot-stone massage at Tollie's spa and a day on the beach in Jeffreys Bay.
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Know Before You Go
- The services of a booking agent are highly recommended. I booked through SHE Expeditions, which caters to hunters with a focus on female- and family-friendly locations. They handled every detail of the hunt, and believe me, there are dozens of little, but very important, details that you will overlook without such a service. It does not cost you anything to use their booking services, and they are absolutely invaluable, especially if this is your first hunting trip abroad. Whatever booking agent you use, make sure the agent has personally hunted at the lodge you plan to go to.
- The Johannesburg airport is not a safe or secure place and corruption among the employees (and police) is a problem. There are safe house services you will want to use if you must stay in the area overnight; ask your booking agent if they don't mention it. We used the Afton Guest House, and its representatives met us at the Johannesburg airport and escorted us through the process of collecting our firearms and gave us safe lodging for the night until our connecting flight the next day. Don't ask me how I know this, but its services are absolutely essential to keeping you out of jail should the slightest thing go wrong with your firearms permits — and there are many, many things that can go wrong. For that reason:
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- Consider using the outfitter's guns. There's a small fee for this ($40 a day at Tollie's, which includes ammo), but the tremendous hassle of flying internationally with a firearm, not to mention the potential risk of having your gun confiscated or stolen (or getting yourself arrested) at the airport makes the fee more than worthwhile. Your booking agent should have personally hunted with the outfitter's guns to verify that they are accurate and the optics are reliable. If you are comfortable with the calibers available and you don't have special requirements, such as an extra-short length of pull or a left-handed bolt, you will save yourself a lot of hassle by not traveling with a firearm.
- Find a travel doctor (most major cities have one). Make an appointment to be immunized a couple of months before you leave, and make sure your passport is current. Health insurance often does not cover immunizations, so be prepared to pay a few hundred bucks. It's worth it to avoid malaria and typhoid.
- Hunting season in South Africa runs from March (fall) to November (spring/early summer). I hunted at the end of August and the weather was ideal — early spring weather.
- Most South African hunting lodges are large-acreage high-fence operations. If that's OK with you, fine, but know what you're getting into ahead of time. This is not the case at Tollie's African Safaris, however. They're a mostly free-range ranch with access to more than 180,000 acres and more than 30 species of plains game. Big Five hunts can be arranged, but then you're getting into major dollars.
- What to pack? Most lodges do your laundry every day, so you need two or three hunting outfits and a couple sets of casual clothes for traveling and hanging around camp. If you're traveling with a firearm, make it a .270 or bigger for plains game, and plenty of ammo (up to 100 rounds) because it is very expensive to purchase over there if you run out. You'll also need the appropriate electrical outlet converters to run any appliances or chargers. Pack well-broken-in, supportive hiking boots with good socks, a rainsuit, wear kneepads for crawling, and be ready to dress in layers. Be prepared to shoot from the prone, sitting, kneeling or standing positions with or without shooting sticks, and practice those kinds of shots before you go. This isn't whitetail hunting from a shooting house over a greenfield, as I quickly found out.
If you've always dreamed of an African safari, or if you haven't let yourself dream of one because you thought it was a financial impossibility, I'm here to tell you that dream is closer than you think. For the money, you can't beat an African plains-game safari. I still dream of going on that elk hunt someday, but it's been replaced as top priority on the bucket list hunt schedule!
Nearly all African bowhunting takes place from blinds stationed at watering holes, so bowhunters generally will not see as much of the landscape as rifle hunters. But nothing beats the thrill of having such amazing animals only yards away from you and taking them with a bow. It's critical for a bowhunter to visit Africa at the right time of year — and that might be different from region to region. Ask your booking agent or outfitter.
Traveling with a bow is easier than traveling with a firearm, but there are still extra steps to be taken. You might need to pick up your bow at a different place than your luggage and sign for it, for instance.
If something goes wrong with your bow, you'd better know how to fix it yourself and have the tools and spare parts to do so. Consider taking a second bow as a backup or using the outfitter's rifle as a backup.
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Editor's Note: This was originally published on February 14, 2012.
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