The British invented safari and today that world of professional hunters, dangerous game and canvassed luxury still exists – at a price. Safari has always been exclusive. But there’s more to Africa than plains game. Cheap flights and kind time differences are attracting a new breed of sporting adventurer keen to explore the continent’s abundant bird-shooting. There’s now a world-class sporting ex-perience to suit every pocket.
“We are blessed with a tremendous variety of species, wildfowl as well as upland birds, that inhabit such a wide array of habitats. This enables us to hunt all year round and all over our beautiful country,” enthuses outfitter, guide and professional hunter Hilton Sanders. “There is very good wing-shooting to be had throughout South Africa. However, if one were to choose the specific areas where the bulk of the wing-shooting takes place, I would split the country in a couple of regions based on habitat and not province.”
Dividing the country into habitats (grain-producing agricultural areas, mountainous Eastern Escarpment, Northern Cape and northern North West Province, and wetlands) is an efficient reflection of the quarry species found there, but to quote Sanders, “This is where things get complicated.” Each of South Africa’s nine provinces is equipped with its own Nature Conservation Department, set of laws, seasons, bag limits and licensing requirements. Most of the gamebirds are in season from 1 May until 31 August. Your outfitter or professional hunter should be able to advise you, but it is well worth being aware of these dates, especially if you are planning a multi-venue or multi-species expedition.
“We have the greatest variety of gamebirds of anywhere on earth… something very close to 50 species that are allowed,” Peter Johnson informs me, explaining why travelling in colonial high style on the Rovos Rail train Pride of Africa captures the diversity of African shooting. “It is the best way of going on an exciting and romantic trip and only having to pack and unpack once. And you’ve travelled several thousand kilometres in the process.” Johnson and his colleagues at Gamebirds Southern Africa are passionate conservationists: the shooting they offer is over private land, enabling them to be involved in conservation strategies and increasing employment of farm communities. For the 20 years since their inception, revenue from the train shoots has also gone to the university in Cape Town to fund research into southern African gamebirds.
“In Africa we are dealing only with wild birds. There is nowhere in Africa where any gamebird that is shot is raised, bred and released,” Johnson explains. “Because nothing is bred, nothing is for sure.” Not that the vagaries of wild birds affect bag numbers. “We change the number of days we shoot rather than the size of the day. We also prefer to do flighted shooting in South Africa and driven in Zambia, so that clients get to see Africa at the same time they get to see the best driven shooting,” he continues.
High-volume rock-pigeon and dove-shooting has garnered South Africa’s breadbaskets (Free State, Gauteng, Limpopo, North West Province, the Highveld of KwaZulu-Natal and the fields of the Western Cape) comparisons with Argentina. Lured by the temptation of an agrarian banquet (maize, wheat, oats, soya, sunflower, oilseed rape and even peanuts), the pigeon and dove can provide prolific shooting as flight paths and feeding patterns become established. A range of upland birds and waterfowl joins the pigeon and dove at the banqueting table.
“Very few of our gamebird species are truly migratory, however they do tend to change areas where they feed, roost and drink,” Sanders explains. Once tracked and noted, these changes in habits make the quarry predictable and enable guns to get under flight paths that readily produce multi-species bags from the same hide.
If it is birds from a hide you are after, sporting agent Tony Jackson of Imbasa Safari recommends planning a trip for the South African winter when the grain crops are just reaching their harvest and then being ploughed in. “You can shoot until you virtually run out of cartridges,” he says with a smile, “and know everything will be used by the lodge or the local community. Nothing goes to waste.”
The breadbasket provinces are excellent places to pursue other upland birds: red-necked, Swainson’s and Natal francolin, quail and guineafowl are all shot over pointers on walked-up shoots. Guineafowl are also shot in a manner similar to British driven birds or using the Natal surround method. Best described as the South African version of Chicken, this requires around 20 steady guns to make it work. The guns and beaters form a large circle and walk towards the centre (and each other). Once virtually elbow to elbow, the guns turn and face outwards while the beaters continue slowly to the centre, flushing birds as they go. Flushed up and over the guns’ backs, the guineafowl are shot going away. This requires absolute trust in all the other guns or it could end up like a shoot-out at the OK Corral.
GUINEAFOWL AND WILDFOWL
“Everyone has this idea that South Africa will look like Out of Africa [set in Kenya],” Jackson observes, “But it isn’t. It varies enormously from the very flat agricultural land near Imbasa on the edge of the Kalahari to the East Cape, which is almost like Scotland with its hills.” The mountainous terrain of the Eastern Escarpment where coastal plains rise up to meet the interior Highveld represents yet another habitat, home to much of South Africa’s sheep- and cattle-farming. Three francolin species: red-winged, red-necked and the elite grey-wing are pursued here, walked-up over pointers.
Sandgrouse are found in the Northern Cape and northernmost parts of the North West Province where the short grass and arid climate of the dry savannah and semi-desert they favour predominates. Their appearance and habit of roosting on the ground caused Linnaeus to add them to the grouse family, an error reflected in their common name. With different breeding seasons, Burchell’s and Namaqua sandgrouse are shot in the same areas at different times of the year. These fast flyers are usually on their way to or from water (between eight and 10 in the morning).
I went out with a team of six and having debated the choices of quarry and agreed a style of accommodation, we set out for Johannesburg. While both Bloemfontein and Kimberley airports upped their standards for the World Cup, Jo’burg remains the gateway to South Africa, about an hour’s flight from either town. Ever intrepid, we opted to travel by taxi, a five-hour straight shot down roads in a condition several Home Counties would admire. It would be a simple matter of collecting our luggage, guns and driver.
Bringing your shotgun or rifle to South Africa is easy provided you follow the right steps. “Each member of the team will need an invitation to hunt, which the outfitter provides,” lodge owner Bob Goss advised. “And the SAPS 520 form which you can download and fill in (with black ink) before you leave Britain.” What we hadn’t counted on was the police photocopier breaking down. Perhaps that’s why Jackson and Goss recommend allowing at least four hours between arriving and hopping a flight to your end destination, should you choose to fly. By the time we fell out of the taxi 500km later, we’d seen the best of industrial South Africa. A refreshing cast for catfish on the River Vaal, some impala steaks in the thatched great hall and we were ready to tackle the dove.
Each day began with an expansive sunrise above a cold mist and saw our team rolling out of bed and into the layers that accommodated the coming day’s temperature range from autumnal chill to midsummer heat. We’d pile into the back of the buggy and bounce across the veldt, dodging diamond-mining vehicles and the gaping holes they left behind to get to the main road for a quick dash on Tarmac to reach flight lines in farmers’ fields. Nestled into hides that could have been in Wiltshire but for the field of peanuts, we overlooked rotary decoy machines loaded with rock pigeon and an array of dove waiting for the first breakfasting birds.
As the mist lifted, we could see the birds perching on ir-rigation booms before dropping into the crop. At first it was just twos and threes, but within 10 minutes of the first birds stirring, the sky was full of hungry avians. The shooting was so intense in our hide that there wasn’t time to think about how our neighbours were faring, let alone judge their success until the flight was over and the field had settled back into growing peanuts and not pigeon. Our team of six averaged more than 300 head of dove and pigeon a flight. While we stalked out of the cover quite pleased with ourselves, Goss (a dyed-in-the-wool pigeon guide) would only shake his head and mutter apologies for the poor flight.
One morning we found the buggy full of goose decoys of indeterminate species: spur-winged and Egyptian geese don’t resemble each other in the least. Apparently, despite all their nous, what’s good for one goose species is good for another, and all the geese would be attracted by our plastic Judases. Settling ourselves beneath the irrigation boom in a peanut field, we didn’t have long to wait.
Spur-winged geese are the largest African waterfowl, topping out at 22lb. “Shoot where the food goes in and you will have success,” opined my fellow gun Tony Watson. “It’s just with spur-winged you have to watch out after the shot. What starts out looking like a demented broken umbrella lands like a sack of spuds.”
Mixed in with the spur-winged and much smaller Egyptians were rock pigeon and dove, making judging speed over a trajectory incredibly challenging for me. The prudent stuck with wildfowl. Ever-valiant, Martin Broad seemed to have no such problems, bagging a heady blend of 98 pigeon and dove along with 18 geese (while trying to swap between 3s and 7s) in a half-hour flurry. His hide mate had given up and gone in search of warthog only to be welcomed back by piles of empty cartridges and enough goosedown to fill a duvet. “Where’s breakfast?” was Broad’s sole comment.
The rigours of five dove-and-pigeon flights, two goose flights and a brace of duck flights on a farm pond (for southern pochard, red-billed teal, yellow-billed duck and South African shelduck) were ameliorated by a day’s walked-up and shooting over Goss’s pointers. The thrill of the unexpected added a certain frisson as the grass ahead rustled to life. In addition to francolin, quail and a lone sandgrouse, we flushed steinbok and warthog that disappeared as rapidly as we could identify them.
Driving between bits of land, Goss spotted guineafowl and improvised a pair of mini drives based on two strips of maize. Three of us were sent to stand at the crop’s end while the others pushed the birds, feathered rockets that sat on their tails and exploded skyward. We managed a respectable baker’s dozen before moving on.
For the cost of a decent 300-pheasant day in the UK, six of us enjoyed five days of unforgettable wing-shooting in a sporting lodge complete with braai and local food. Dusty, slightly sunburnt and with sore shoulders, we reboarded our taxi and spent the journey to the airport regaling each other with the tall tales we’ve been dining out on ever since. Except Broad, of course, who is simply telling the truth about the best half-hour’s sport he’s ever had.
Where to go
To experience wing-shooting from the luxury of Rovos Rail with Gamebirds Southern Africa, contact Peter Johnson. The expectation on duck, geese, sandgrouse, pigeon/dove is
250-500 cartridges per person per day. Driven birds in the “traditional English” way carries a minimum daily expectation of 100 brace, and the day stops at 150 brace to 10 guns. A six-day, all-inclusive package for 10 guns, covering internal travel and four days’ shooting, costs around $30,000 per gun, with non-shooting guests welcomed and entertained by an array of excursions for $5,000 to $7,000 per guest.
tel 00 27 11 466 2647
To stay at Imbasa safari camp contact Tony Jackson. Five days’ sport and six nights’ accommodation starts at ¤2,140. Expect an average bag of 20 birds a day if you are shooting upland game and waterfowl. Including pigeon in the mix increases bag numbers.
tel 01460 220038 (mobile 07866 911262)
To stay under canvas or in a number of thatched and stone lodges at venues across South Africa, and shoot with Hilton Sanders or Bob Goss, contact Howard Day at Outside Days. Five days’ sport and six nights’ accommodation starts at £1,600. Expect bags in the region of 50 to 100 birds per gun in five days if no pigeon or dove are shot. If shooting pigeon and dove the bag can exceed 100 per day per gun.
tel 01794 390065