The late Peter Capstick described an African safari as “one of the greatest adventures our modern world can still offer.” I can’t say it better. An African hunt is indeed one of the last great adventures—and a first safari is a life-changing event that, honestly, can never be repeated—although many of us have spent our lives trying to recapture that level of magic.
Africa captivated me at an early age. I devoured the great old books, and spent all too many hours dreaming of Africa. I was still a kid, just 24, when I saved enough pennies to go on my first safari. My intention was to get Africa out of my system once and for all, but that didn’t work very well. After 35 years and more than 100 African hunts I still dream of Africa, and wait anxiously to return. That first safari was in Kenya, at that time the most traditional African country, but closed to hunting just a few weeks later. Based solely on that fact, I can probably lay false claim to having seen the last of the great old days of safari. The truth, however, is in the past 35 years I have seen many changes in African hunting, and not all for the bad. Here are eight reasons why African hunting today isn’t what it used to be.
Like many changes this is neither bad nor good; it just is. But there is one good outcome: today’s outfitters and professional hunters must operate in particular areas, usually called concessions. They will hunt those areas for successive seasons, so they come to know them well, and they must manage them properly for sustained yield and consistent quality.
Almost universally in today’s Africa, since hunting areas will be used for multiple seasons, outfitters build more or less permanent camps that will serve as a base of operations for multiple years. Gone is the romance of moving into what seems truly wild country, but in its place the modern African camp is more comfortable and better appointed. The range is limitless, from near-luxury lodges common in southern Africa to thatched huts and tented camps elsewhere. The latter will probably be on permanent cement slabs, and genuine running water is far more common today than the bucket shower and “long drop” toilet of years gone by.
This concept, coupled with the eager safari market, has created a massive game-ranching industry. This is strongest in those southern countries, but is spreading north as more and more landowners see value and better utilization of land in game and are investing in protection and breeding stock. I first hunted both South Africa and Namibia (then Southwest Africa) in the late 1970s. They were good then, but I am convinced both countries hold at least ten times more wildlife than when I first visited them. There is a downside: Breeding stock is costly, and under this system wildlife that has great value must be protected, so game fencing is now almost endemic in southernmost Africa and is being seen more often in countries where this was once unthinkable.
This actually works just fine, because today’s shorter safari must of necessity be more specialized and much more focused on properly hunting very specific animals. Today’s “buffalo safari,” for instance, may include a small selection of plains game (varying with the area)—but the primary quarry is the buffalo and, by definition, the safari has been fully successful when the buffalo is in the salt.
Second, although telegrams and cables were possible, routine communication was not. When you were on safari, you checked out of the net. In some parts of Africa cell phones work better than in much of the U.S., and satellite phones and Internet hookups work everywhere. It’s easy to check in with family, much easier to respond to emergencies, and I even have friends who continue to run their businesses while on safari.