May 17, 2016
I don't know where your journey began. Not exactly, anyway. It could have been while you were still at your father's knee or under the Christmas tree sometime around your seventh year. Maybe it was during a visit to an uncle's or, better yet, your grandfather's farm on a long-ago summer afternoon.
Possibly it happened at Scout camp, along the midway of the county fair, or in a hardware store. What is certain is that it began the first time you held a rifle. Whether it was a BB gun or a .22, and if you hit or missed with that inaugural shot you just could not wait to take doesn't matter. Holding that rifle changed your life forever. Something awakened. A fuse was lit. While I don't know where your journey began, I can tell you where it will lead. To Africa and her dangerous game, if you are very lucky.
For those born to the hunt, Africa's pull is inexorable. The afflicted don't just hope to go or plan to go, they simply must go. The worst part, if indeed anything approaches a worst in this instance, is that once you have hunted Africa you will never come all the way home. What you will almost certainly do is keep going back until age, ill health, or nature's cruel blending of the two make it impossible to return. Comes that time, you will just swing a big rifle onto your shoulder and take up the track in your dreams.
I have long tried to understand what there is about hunting Africa that overtook my imagination at such an early age, kept me in a state of restlessness until I went for the first time, and since then has occupied the majority of waking thought. Why was it that I, at only four years of age, would dump a box of animal crackers on the kitchen table, sort out the Big Five, stage them along the counter, and then shoot at them with a rubber band stretched from my fingertip?
Why did I take the time to discover that a folded piece of paper launched from that same rubber band right-angled between splayed fingers extended my practical range and hit with more authority? I even let on that asparagus was a favored vegetable in order to top off my battery with the thick blue bands that held the stems together. A paper bullet fired from one of them would shatter an elephant as though it had been struck by the divine thunderbolt of Zeus. Those asparagus bands were my double rifle.
My first African hunt was in the company of a great friend. It was a quick trip with modest goals, but we had the time of our lives. Those few days made such an impact that I booked another safari over an airport payphone on the way home. That second effort was infinitely better, and each successive trip since has been nothing short of spectacular. My favorites among them have been those shared with family, so I'll say it here and again that taking my family to Africa is the best money I've ever spent. Those who have done the same will no doubt be quick to agree.
Before experiencing it for myself, I made the quite natural assumption that the sheer numbers and tremendous variety of game would be what made hunting Africa so special. Well, you know what is said about assumptions. Africa's true magic comes from the realization that something you are hunting, happens to be where you are hunting, or is hunting the same thing that can hunt and kill you right back. Accepting this risk brings great rewards, and once understood it all seems so incredibly fair.
Most who hunt Africa follow the same path of progression I did, if for no other reason than it seems to offer the least resistance. Initial efforts are usually for common plains game with headliners being kudu, gemsbok, and, maybe, eland. Along the way, just about everyone will take advantage of an opportunity for species like springbok, blue or black wildebeest, impala, and warthog. Many want a zebra as well — rightfully so, as a zebra rug is a wonderful trophy.
Second and even third safaris are often marked by a concentrated effort on something previously not brought to bag, as well as bettering one or two of those already taken. Likely candidates for the top of the list include waterbuck, nyala, sable, and western roan. Of course, everyone always hunts for a big kudu, as well they should. I know I do.
Repeating hunters also seem to pace themselves just a bit, inadvertently enhancing their appreciation of Africa's depth and beauty. They fire fewer shots, take more pictures, and maybe dedicate an afternoon to passing birds at a waterhole or an evening to calling jackals. The experiences and successes of other hunters in camp, especially if there is a rookie among them, makes a more significant contribution to their overall enjoyment.
Then it happens.
A sound you have never heard yet somehow viscerally recognize jolts you from a dream. Hoping he will roar again, you wait, not daring to breathe, listening through canvas walls that are, come to think of it, most disconcertingly thin.
The two-foot-wide circle pressed into the sand catches your professional hunter's eye. "Big bull," he whispers. A smooth, rounded edge wraps around the back of the track in the shape of a crescent moon. He touches it and then adds reverently, "Old."
"It would be better to keep a bit farther from the water," cautions a young apprentice. "Some things in there have big teeth, and two people from the village were taken just last month." Taken.
The tracker turns and points at his nose. You smell it, too. Like a distant barnyard. Then you hear, or maybe just imagine you hear, a grunt. "Buff," mouths the hunter. "We'll go around."
The cook flicks the weak, yellow beam of his flashlight at something on the trail leading to your tent. "Ongwe," he says softly in Lozi. Realizing you don't understand, he points politely and adds, "Spoor." Finally, he manages, "Leopard."
At some point, the realization that hunting dangerous game is really what has drawn you to Africa will hit hard enough to take your wind. The plains game trips will have been wonderful, for sure, but they were just the prelude necessary to help you build up enough nerve to admit it, convince yourself that you can afford it, or realize that you had it in you to do it. Once you see the light, everything moves in a blur.
One of the first big steps, at least for most, is buying a heavy rifle. Getting lost in this part of the experience is wonderful and easy. Getting confused is even easier. Everyone who has ever shot at so much as a rabbit will volunteer insight and wisdom, if for no other reason than they want to be part of your adventure oh so badly. Of course, those who offer the most extensive advice tend to do so in proportions directly inverse to the amount of time they have spent across the big pond or hunting the kind of stuff that can hit back.
A child in a candy store does not shop with greater enthusiasm than an Africa-bound hunter does for his dangerous-game rifle. A good place to start is choosing between a magazine rifle and a double, but that's a decision that tends to make itself after a glance at the checkbook balance. Prices for bolt guns usually top out right about where those of serviceable doubles begin. In truth, you don't have to try very hard to pay more for a double than the upcoming hunt itself, but who hasn't dreamed of following the ivory trail with 12 pounds of English best riding on his shoulder?
Most hunters will opt for a magazine rifle with a barrel so big that it wouldn't look out of place plated in brass and attached to the stage in a gentlemen's club. As long as it's chambered in nothing less than .375 H&H Magnum or, even better, something that begins with "4," all will be well. Just add a low-power variable scope in quick release mounts so open sights can be brought into play and head to the range. What matters more than anything else are the absolute dependability of the rifle's operation and loading it with a premium bullet that is up to the task.
After it all comes together, fire at least 200 rounds over the course of several sessions and from different positions to flush out any surprises. This is all true as long as the hunt isn't for leopard. If that is the case, stick with whatever has been working for plains game and practice by shooting Oreos at 60 yards while imagining each is a rosette that's low and centered on his shoulder.
A final word about gear, mostly because guys ramping up for dangerous game tend to become horribly obsessive. Just lace Russell boots on your feet, cover the rest of you in Filson cotton, and don't forget sunscreen. Everything else will take care of itself.
Next to the hunt, the best part of it all is settling on just exactly what it is that's going to get hunted. As with choosing a rifle, the checkbook thing comes into play, so consider the approximates of today. All in, a hunt for a Cape buffalo costs about the same as one for leopard or a combination for hippopotamus and crocodile. Going for bull elephant costs about twice as much and a wild lion or white rhino even more. There are deals to be had on everything, to be sure, and pricing can change quickly for endless reasons.
Another way to make a dangerous-game hunt happen is to take advantage of opportunities that turn up while in Africa for plains game. It isn't unusual for a leopard to kill a calf or an elephant to trample a crop. When that occurs, your hunter might be able to offer you the chance to take a specific animal on a special permit and at a significantly reduced price. Mine did.
I said yes three times and now have a beautiful leopard rug and a pair of tusks to help me remember two of the most exciting hunts I've ever experienced. I am certain the third would have been interesting as well, but the lions didn't cooperate.
It is also a good idea to have a first-day-in-camp conversation with the professional hunter about animals that might be available but are not already on the hunt contract. Problem animals aside, some of the safaris earlier in the year might not have filled out. It never hurts to ask, and great things can happen simply because an interest has been declared.
Something of a mad science seems to apply itself to the selection of a professional hunter. Depending on what is at the top of your list, the number of countries you can consider might narrow itself rather quickly. Keeping in mind that Africa isn't a big zoo with trophies lounging in the shade of the trees nearest camp, the next order of business is to determine which hunting areas in which countries will give you the best odds. Also, add the all-important issue of timing to the mix. Some concessions can be nearly void of game at some portion of the season and overflowing just weeks later, a right-place-right-time thing.
If the same pro from your plains game hunts can put you on the hairy and scary, count yourself fortunate. I was. And I know quite a few other hunters who have gone this route as well. If this isn't possible, one of the best ways to gather both comprehensive and current information is through a professional hunt booking agent. Several come quickly to mind, and it doesn't cost a penny to take advantage of their service.
Another good way to conduct your search is by walking the aisles of the Dallas Safari Club and Safari Club International shows. The booking agents are there, as are virtually all the professional hunters worth their khaki shorts. If you haven't been to one or both of these shows, make plans to attend. The art, taxidermy, fine firearms, and accessories are beyond description and more than justify the trip.
Probably the most important part of your research is checking references, and most hunters are more than willing to help one another out in this regard. The more recent the better, so try to contact those who hunted the same thing at the same time of year. If everything sounds good, you can be pretty sure that you are on the right track.
I had the occasion to spend an evening with someone who, I suspect, has as much African experience as any living hunter. He had just returned from a safari in an obscure place I've never even considered, so I asked if there was a particular attraction. "I've always wanted to see as much of Africa as possible," he quickly replied. "For me, that's the greatest draw."
I am pretty much the opposite, having hunted with the same pro in the same country for a dozen trips and counting. For me, it is all about what we are hunting, not where, although we're careful to plan each trip around a primary objective and choose time and place accordingly. I've been fortunate, too, and have managed some fantastic trophies along the way. Hopefully, our good run will continue for we are now planning a safari for what matters more than anything ever has or ever will: a lion so old that the last freckle of pink has faded from his nose.
I can imagine how his roars will lead us closer while darkness gives way and Africa takes form all around, coming upon him just as the first rays from the rising sun slip past my shoulder and riot along the black of his mane. I will want to look into his eyes, for they are surely nature's most perfect color. It can be no other way, for in an old lion's eyes lives the very soul of Africa.
Afterward, I will rest his great head across my lap and cry and laugh and marvel at his teeth and his feet and his claws. That night I will dance the lion dance with the trackers. Later still, I will fight away sleep, knowing this has been the best day of my life, not willing to let it end.
Your journey will lead you to Africa as well, if you are very lucky.
Editor's note: "The Spell of Africa" is an article Dwight Van Brunt, a long-time African hunter, submitted for publication a couple of years ago. It was a fine bit of writing, but I thought it answered a question no one was asking. So I held it, trying to think of the right time to run it. Why not Africa?" should be the question. Africa holds so many alluring aspects for hunters: adventure, ancient cultures, dangerous game, incredible diversity of species.
When the Cecil incident happened, the Internet was alive with anti- and non-hunters asking, ''Why would anyone want to travel to Africa and kill such a majestic species as a lion?'' This didn't surprise me as the same misguided souls also wonder why we hunt any animal, including our beloved whitetails.
But then I started having hunting acquaintances ask me why anyone would want to hunt Africa. That struck a nerve. It is a question I have a hard time answering even though I have thought about it many times. I love Africa; I consider it home away from home and a place I often think of, even when I am hunting elsewhere. But that doesn't really answer the "why" it pulls so fiercely at me and so many others. When I reread Dwight's article, I knew he did a far better job in answering, and the time was right to print it. Enjoy.