Preparing for a South African Safari Involves Planning and Gearing Up - Here's the Lowdown
Updated: Sep 9
Post-COVID-19 Travel Hurdles, Gear Choices, Practice & Perspectives
Note, much of this content in this ultimate safari preparation guide appeared in the July 19, 2021 edition of The Hunting Wire. This version contains additional product information, photos and a rifle set-up video.
Prologue: My grandfather was an artist. A large barn converted into his workshop always smelled of oil paint and turpentine. The ample back bay might have a tanker truck in it, something he was lettering or to which he was adding a hand-painted logo – that’s how things got done back then. The front of the shop was where paintings in various stages of completion resided, everything from landscapes with deer or bear, portraits and, sometimes, large oils on Masonite of scantily clad or nude, usually voluptuous women. It was a fun place to visit.
Reference works were always laying around – especially pages from magazines or calendars. It was in the early 1970s when a 16-year-old me picked up leftover pages from an old Remington Arms calendar laying on a dusty workbench. One painting seized my attention. I didn’t know its name, who the artist was or anything about it, just that I had to try to create my own version.
My grandfather’s artistic skills flowed down through his daughter, my mother, and some of it even made its way into my veins. I enjoyed drawing and painting as a child. Some people say I wasn’t half bad. I even considered a career as a graphic artist at one time. I decided to try to replicate that calendar painting in my high school art class, except I would use a palette knife for the entire piece, no brushes, making it “my own.”
As I worked on the painting, I increasingly wondered if I might ever get a chance to experience any part of Africa, maybe hunting something as incredible, formidable as a cape buffalo. The seed was planted. It grew roots and sprouted over the nearly 50 years that the painting hung in my home. A previous African trip in 2015 was for plains game only, something I later regretted. This year, finally, I am going to try to live out my buffalo dream.
I later learned the original painting was by famed artist Bob Kuhn. It is titled “Turning the Tables.”
The original plan was to make a summer trip in 2020 to South Africa’s Limpopo region to hunt with Phillip Bronkhorst Safaris [https://www.facebook.com/phillip.bronkhorstsafaris/ , the same outfitter I used in 2015 when I took a superb southern greater kudu, a blue wildebeest and an impala. Bronkhorst’s operations base near Lephalale is in the northern portion of Limpopo, a region thick with big game opportunities. Hunters and guests stay in luxurious, by bush standards, tents situated on raised platforms. The gear and equipment are top quality, the food delicious and the professional hunter and tracking teams outstanding.
The 2020 plan was to use a Mossberg Patriot rifle chambered in .375 Ruger. Mossberg debuted the rifle shortly before the global COVID-19 pandemic. Needless to say, that 2020 trip was squashed, but hope remained that the global situation would improve by 2021 and a new trip could be planned. By early 2021, with the emergence of the vaccines and steady return to international air travel, we locked in the safari dates.
Losing, essentially, an entire safari season in 2020 has been devastating for many African outfitters, with continued uncertainty in 2021 waving a Sword of Damocles over many businesses. Bronkhorst said one of his biggest challenges over the last year is getting clients to again commit to International travel. Things such as flight uncertainty, regular cancellations or postponements of flights, rerouted clients, sparse communication from airlines and more caused clients to perceive too much risk in booking something. Fold in questions related to vaccination requirements and such and potential customers were holding tight.
Bronkhorst said he has worked to reassure clients about safari safety, both in transit and in the camp. “I advise clients to travel with a trusted airline,” Bronkhorst said. “We advise most clients to travel on QATAR Airlines. They do have all the checks and balances in place.
“Clients are picked-up in a sanitized vehicle and transported to camp. Each client gets handed a complimentary bottle of sanitizer which he or she can refill when and if needed. Masks are worn by all staff and all cleaning staff carries sanitizer. Wherever they work or touch get sanitized. Temperatures are taken of all guests and if a guest feel sick it gets handled immediately accordingly.” Bronkhorst said clients in 2021 are tending to forego the masks in camp. He said, “Life in camp is very normal, like years before.”
We researched myriad airlines. Clearly routes had changed since our last trip to South Africa. Fortunately, United Airlines signaled in early 2021 that it would begin nonstop service from Newark, New Jersey, to Johannesburg and they made good on those plans, beginning the flights in June.
Set It Up!
The Mossberg Patriot is an inexpensive rifle, carrying an MSRP of just over $500. It has a detachable, magazine that holds three cartridges. The 1:12 twist barrel is 22 inches long. With a fluted bolt and synthetic stock, this push-feed rifle weighs just 6.5 pounds – not a lot of heft for a heavy magnum shooter.
The rifle comes with adjustable field sights, but we removed those and crowned the gun with a GPO (German Precision Optics) 30mm 1-6x24i scope. The “i” means the reticle can be illuminated with a center red dot, adjustable according to lighting conditions. GPO has since reconfigured its rifle scope lineup and now offers this scope in its array of Spectra models. As GPO pwner Mike Jensen explained, “To do this we changed the turret a little making it easier to swap out for the ballistic guys. It’s a new easy lock cap, no tools required to remove it, and we set up a deal with Kenton industries for custom turrets.” The scope is now a more affordable, price-competitive $799.
Mike Norman, firearms manager at Green Top Sporting Goods in Glen Allen, Virginia, professionally mounted the optic, ensuring perfect alignment, and using a collimator sighting tool to get the rifle/scope combo as close to zero as possible on the workbench. Due to the caliber and the heavier recoil, Norman recommended using steel bases and rings versus the aluminum found in many products today. He did a great job – the rifle was zeroed at 100 yards with just two shots.
Bronkhorst recommends optics that give the shooter a wider field of view when hunting dangerous game. “The main concern on scopes for big game is that you must be able to use it when following up on a wounded animal,” Bronkhorst said. “That applies also on any game I would say when you hunt areas with thick vegetation. “Imagine the following,” he continued. “Look into thick vegetation normally. You have a wide angle of view. Look at that same spot through a toilet roll. Your vision is now very limited to the sides of the circle.”
Shooting at lower magnification affords a wider field of view, something needed when quick action is needed. Bronkhorst said he has experienced situations in thick brush where a client was told to shoot at a specific animal and he shot the wrong one because he could only see so much though the high magnification.
Bronkhorst has also used scopes that could be removed using quick release mounts, allowing him to quickly use the field sights when needed.
The GPO optic’s field of view at 100 meters ranges from 113 feet at a magnification level of 1 to 19 feet at full 6-power magnification. The nearly 4 inches of eye relief is also welcome when dealing with heavier magnums. The scope weighs 18.7 ounces.
Knowing that the gun offers exceptional power downrange with manageable, but still stout, recoil on the backend, I took the precaution of adding a Kick-EEZ Sorbothane pad to the comb on the stock. I have had tooth crowns break free and teeth crack from extensive practicing with some of the heavier magnum rifle and shotgun loads over the years. I also bought a medium-weight PAST pad for my shoulder, which helps disperse the felt recoil. Practice is essential with any hunting rifle and, for me anyway, using available tools to minimize recoil effects made eminent sense.
The Right Ammo
While the Mossberg Patriot has offered a .375 Ruger chambering for just a couple years, the cartridge has been around since 2007. It is a proven option for dangerous game, seriously rivaling the esteemed .375 H&H, its most comparable competitor. The beauty of the .375 Ruger is that it can be used in standard-action rifles versus the .375 H&H which requires a longer stroke. Longer, however, does not equate to more firepower. The .375 Ruger design lets it be loaded to capacities that deliver higher velocities than the .375 H&H.
As Hornady’s Seth Swerczek noted, “It’s basically a compact package, designed for a standard action and short barrel with no loss of performance. “There is definitely no shortage of energy with the 375 Ruger, regardless of bullet weight,” he added. “The .375 Ruger exceeds the velocity of the venerable .375 H&H across all bullet weights.”
Hornady was instrumental in assisting with ammunition for safari and we were able to obtain four different loads for consideration. Swerczek said much of Hornady’s large caliber ammo is manufactured seasonally. “We have seen an increase in demand on virtually all ammo SKU’s to include the traditional dangerous game cartridges,” Swerczek said. “The fact that the large caliber ammo is ran seasonally and that there is an increase in demand for it, those two things compound each other, and availability has become a bit more difficult. With that said, the availability of the more popular dangerous game calibers is typically better than that of the more traditional rifle and pistol cartridges.”
The first of our four loads, the 250-grain GMX, is the one I am considering for any antelope and smaller species I may hunt in addition to cape buffalo. The rifle liked that load. Fired from a solid benchrest at 100 yards, it grouped just a little more than 1.25 inches.
The preferred load for the buffalo will be the 300-grain DGX cartridge, with a copper-clad steel jacket bonded to a lead core. The bullets expand to 1½ to 2 times their original diameter. They have a rated velocity of 2,344 feet per second at 100 yards with a potent 3,660 pounds of energy at that same range. Energy at the muzzle is a whopping 4,713 pounds. The other option is the 300-grain DGS cartridge, a solid, flat-nosed round with a copper-clad steel jacket and high antimony lead core. It is designed to hit hard and resist bullet deformation and deflection. Both 300-grain options grouped at about 2 inches. Honestly, I think some of the extra spacing in the groups is totally on me, the shooter, and not the rifle or ammo.
Confounding the decision, though, is the performance of the 270-grain SP-RP Super Performance cartridge, a spire point round considered a dangerous game bullet. This bullet grouped ever-so-slightly bigger than the 250-grain’s number. What is so impressive is that this bullet carries 4,052 pounds of energy at 100 yards and 4,835 at the muzzle. The SP-RP stands for "spire point - recoil proof," and the design of this bullet eliminates the problem of tip deformation during recoil.
Swerczek said if he was looking at taking an old "dagga boy," he would go with the heavier bullet. “We would really recommend using the 300-grain DGS or DGX-Bonded for cape buffalo. These are tough, aggressive animals with a notoriously strong will to live,” Swerczek said. “While our other bullet options could be used, the DGS and DGX-Bonded offer the hunter the best penetration for such a robust animal.”
Bronkhorst has heard good reports regarding hunters using the .375 Ruger in Africa.
“I think it will work; it has to. Hornady makes great ammunition. A lot is dependable on the operator (a wry challenge to practice, I think),” he said.
Cape buffalo are related to cows in that they are bovines; but if you think a farm bull is ornery as it chases you out of the field, they have nothing on cape buffalo, a species that has never been domesticated. “Do not think there is a textbook on hunting buffalo,” Bronkhorst warns. “It is very seldom the same. Be prepared that anything can change. Get mentally fit to make decisions quick and get your brain reaction gears in high speed.”
Bronkhorst recommends hunters, especially when hunting dangerous game, study the position of the target animal’s vital organs; be able to shoot offhand and off shooting sticks; and to practice reloading and chambering another round quickly and efficiently.
In selecting a dangerous game cartridge, Swerczek advises choosing a cartridge adequate to kill the intended game but not so aggressively large that you cannot stand the recoil. Having a gun that fits the shooter helps greatly. “A well-placed shot is of chief importance and a cartridge and rifle that are easy to shoot and fast for follow up shots can be a game changer,” Swerczek said. “They also help to reduce bad habits developing when you’re shooting before the trip.”
Finally, he recommends selecting the right bullet for the job. “There are a lot of bullet options out there. Do some research on the animal you’re after and the bullet options available. This will ensure you get the best results, which is a fast and ethical kill,” Swerczek said.
It may reflect the current situation in terms of ammunition availability, but Swerczek said regardless of what caliber a hunter chooses, ammo availability at both home and destination country needs to be considered. “It’s important to practice and be familiar with your firearm and how it reacts from various shooting positions, so being able to source ammo before the hunt in quantities that allow you to practice is important,” Swerczek said. “Likewise, in an event where your ammunition doesn’t arrive with your firearm, being able to secure some in the country you’re traveling to may be a good consideration.
”Many African dangerous game hunters don’t want to go afield unless they have the most potent firepower, guns like a .416 Rigby or .404 Jeffrey. Still, I return to an admonition heard from a Wyoming biologist 30 years ago about elk hunting, namely, “A .270 through the ribs beats a .338 in the ass any day of the week.”
“The bigger dangerous game rounds certainly have their place, no doubt,” Swerczek said. “Shootability is an incredibly important thing, and the slight reduction in energy and bullet diameter gives the shooter a much lighter recoiling and easier to shoot cartridge. Bigger is most certainly not better - better is better. The .375 Ruger with a 300-grain DGS or DGX-Bonded is plenty to confidently take a cape buffalo.”
SIDEBAR –Trip planning and logistics
There are myriad personal, logistical and regulatory requirements to consider when planning an African hunting trip. Following are a few examples.
First, COVID-19 is still an issue for travelers. Many countries, including South Africa, require a negative PCR (not the rapid) test within 72 hours of departing on your flight. Make sure you anticipate this need and have a testing site located and available. The United States’ CDC also requires incoming travelers, including U.S. citizens to be tested. Make sure your outfitter can handle this requirement. United Airlines was offering an advance purchase of a mobile testing kit that you could buy in advance and complete as required, recording the results in an app. As of early June, the CDC still listed South Africa as a high-risk destination for COVID.
Things beyond COVID can get you. Some parts of South Africa are considered prone to malaria. The specific hunting area we visited was not a malaria-designated area, although some potential side trips, such Kruger National Park, are malaria zones. Preventive medications can be taken to reduce chances of contracting malaria. The CDC web page referenced above lists a multitude of possible ailments and the precautions that should be taken. My doctor made sure my tetanus immunizations were current and gave me a hepatitis vaccination. Typhoid is another possibility. Ensure your outfitter has purified bottled water. Use the bottled water to brush your teeth and beware drinking any water when showering. Beware eating uncooked fruits or vegetables. At a minimum, bring a bottle of broad-spectrum prescription antibiotics, some powerful anti-diarrheal and anti-nausea medicines, aspirins, antibiotic eye ointments or drops and something small to clean and dress any wounds. While most outfitters will have a first-aid kit handy, responsibility for your own health and safety first resides with you.
Malaria is spread via mosquitoes. Mosquitoes and ticks, common in many hunting areas, must be considered. I like to ensure that my clothing, especially my field clothing, is fully treated to deter these biting insects. I obtained a couple pairs of treated pants, shirts and socks from Insect Shield. I even got a treated neckerchief since some rides in safari vehicles can be dusty. Their garments are sufficiently treated to hold up through dozens of washings.
I also used a bottle of their aerosol permethrin spray to treat some new socks from Minus 33, a New England company making comfortable, all-day hiking and hunting merino wool socks that are excellent “bush wear.” I must say they are very comfortable and fit exceptionally well. I ended up spraying the socks with a permethrin-based spray as insect protection. What I especially liked was I had non-insulated boots and the mornings were about 38 degrees - even as the day rapidly warmed, my feet stayed comfortable in the merino socks. I recommended them to other guys in camp, too.
Hearing well is essential in a field setting, especially when it involves hearing and detecting dangerous game and the ability to clearly understand communications with your professional hunter. My hearing bad – so bad on the left side that a recent test by audiologist Bill Dickinson of Tetra Hearing couldn’t even register a couple of frequencies. I began getting comfortable with Tetra’s Multi-Pursuit Alpha Shields protection and amplification devices, which were custom programmed for my specific hearing loss. These innovative tools have subtle adjustments to offer best hearing across a variety of hunting scenarios. That’s a separate story for later. When I first tried out the new hearing aids, programmed specifically for my hearing loss, I was astounded at how loud - almost irritatingly loud - the world around me sounded. "That's because your brain has learned how to deal with your hearing loss," Dickinson said. "It'll take a few days for your brain to adjust." Amazingly, he was right and the situation improved daily. The new normal in terms of hearing was refreshing. The only downside was I realized, again, how bad of a singer I really could be on some tunes.
Most outfitters have a recommended packing list. They also do laundry, typically, every couple days in camp. Pack light, but pack enough. Check advance weather forecasts just before traveling and adjust as necessary. If your equipment (camera, hairdryer, laptop, etc.) requires 110-volt service, bring a step-down power convertor that will reduce 220v to 110v.
Get your paperwork in order: Passports; outfitter’s letter of invitation to the safari; a completed, but unsigned SAPS (South African Police Service) form 520 which will be your temporary gun permit during your stay; a signed U.S. Customs Form 4457, which proves you are the owner of the rifle being imported and serves as the document needed to get your gun back into the USA – make sure the expiration date on that form is after the safari dates. Getting this form requires a trip well before your departure to the local servicing office of U.S. Customs, often located at an international airport; and, a copy of your itinerary, showing return flight tickets to your country of origin.
Ensure your banks and credit card companies know that you are traveling and may incur some significant charges. You don’t want to have to deal with a fraud alert or freeze on the card. Notify your smartphone carrier of the travel and sign up for any international phone and data plans, if desired.
Ensure your gun is packed in a crash-resistant plastic or metal case that locks to TSA standards. Verify your airlines policies for traveling with firearms and ammo before departing for the airport.
Email your outfitter or PH and ask if there is anything they desire from the states. Sometimes, little conveniences or even necessities can be hard to find in remote areas. A little consideration never hurts.