A Perfect First Safari

Our founder, C.J. McElroy, said that the only hunters he envied were those experiencing Africa for the first time. I don’t know how many times McElroy hunted Africa—I know that in a video in his later years he mentioned “more than 50 African hunts”—and that wasn’t his last safari. I can double that number, although with film work in recent years the total includes a lot of “hunting safaris” where I’m not doing much of the hunting. That doesn’t matter much, especially at a certain point. Africa is a wonderful place, and for people like us hunting is certainly part of the wonder…but while there are some African animals I never tire of pursuing, there are quite a few species that I have no reason to bother further.

But “Mr. Mac” had it exactly right: There is simply no thrill in the hunter’s world that can equal the first African safari. It’s not just the variety of game…it’s the sights, the sounds, the smell…the incredible perfection of an African hunting camp (especially the African camps most of us visit early in our safari experience). The problem is that, no matter how hard or how often we try, it is almost impossible to recapture the wonder and the adventure of that first safari. For many years now I’ve been part of the “First African Safari” panel seminar at our convention, always attended by a whole room full of people in some stage of planning a first safari. My own first safari is now 36 years in the past—and I envy every one of those folks.

Left to right: Videographer Matt Young; Brittany and Caroline Boddington; outfitter and PH Carl van Zyl; Craig and Donna Boddington. This is Caroline’s zebra, taken on her first African safari. The thrill of that first safari can never be replicated…but sharing a first safari is the next best thing!
Left to right: Videographer Matt Young; Brittany and Caroline Boddington; outfitter and PH Carl van Zyl; Craig and Donna Boddington. This is Caroline’s zebra, taken on her first African safari. The thrill of that first safari can never be replicated…but sharing a first safari is the next best thing!

No matter how many times we manage to return to Africa—concepts such as “enough” or “too much” don’t apply—we will always savor the experience, but the magic of that first safari is gone forever. Well, not quite. One of the best ways to come close is to share another hunter’s first safari, preferably someone you care about.

This past two weeks I was able to do exactly that with my daughter Caroline, joined by elder daughter Brittany and wife Donna (who I introduced to Africa some years back, of course understanding I was starting an addiction). There are almost innumerable options, but for most of us—and certainly for a youngster or any beginner with limited hunting experience—the logical starting place is plains game, and the two most likely options are Namibia and South Africa. Brittany’s first safari, her high school graduation present, was in Namibia with our friend Dirk de Bod, and it was marvelous and perfect.

Fast-forward a full decade and it was Caroline’s turn, also on the event of her high school graduation. We could have done exactly the same thing again, but these days it’s a lot harder to get a booking with Dirk than it was back then…and, since it’s all good and would all be new to Caroline, I thought it would be great to see some new country. So, almost as if it were my own first safari, we checked around and shopped around. Especially in southern Africa there are so many more great outfitters today than when I started African hunting; even with my experience and contacts it wasn’t an easy decision! I was struck by how difficult and daunting the task must be for a first-timer shopping for that all-important first African experience, a good lesson I’ll keep in mind both for future writing and seminars!

Ultimately, we let a friend make the decision for us. For several years now I’ve been hunting with Mark Haldane’s Zambeze Delta Safaris in Mozambique. Although a great country, area and operation, Mozambique wasn’t on the table for Caroline’s first safari…but I’d sort of forgotten that Mark’s home is South Africa and his original operation is Game Hunters Africa in Natal. He reminded Donna and me of this around a fire in Mozambique; already as confused as any first-time safari shoppers, we gratefully turned Caroline’s safari over to him!

Left to right, Donna, Craig, Caroline, and Brittany Boddington and videographer Matt Young. This is Matt’s first African animal, and his smile says it all!
Left to right, Donna, Craig, Caroline, and Brittany Boddington and videographer Matt Young. This is Matt’s first African animal, and his smile says it all!

The plan was simple and very good. We would spend a few days at his Baynesfield concession, a big piece of unfenced farming country in Natal. Primarily used for bird hunting, big game species are limited but what’s there (bushbuck, reedbuck, duiker) is plentiful and exceptional in quality. The theory: With limited species, we could avoid the “covey rise syndrome” and let Caroline get her feet wet concentrating on just a couple of good trophies. Then we’d move south to the Eastern Cape and spend a week with Haldane’s buddy Carl van Zyl of John X Safaris. The Eastern Cape is one of my favorite areas, also typically big country with varied terrain that offers an extensive game list. In addition to a number of “Eastern Cape rarities,” the area holds large populations of more typical African species such as impala, gemsbok, hartebeest, kudu, springbok, wildebeest and zebra. We wouldn’t try to hunt them all, but we’d see what came along and enjoy the country.

And that we did. Baynesfield proved an ideal starting point. Caroline made picture-perfect shots on a huge bushbuck and very good reedbuck…plus a humbling, sobering and most educational clean miss on a duiker. With Carl we hunted three distinct areas–his home country near the coast, and two huge areas over the mountains and into the Great Karoo. Caroline continued to shoot exceptionally well, taking gemsbok, black wildebeest and zebra—but we never managed to get her onto a shootable kudu, which is also a good lesson in African hunting: You don’t always get everything! Brittany did get the Eastern Cape kudu she had long coveted, Donna took a couple of nice animals and, on Fathers Day, the girls actually allowed me one shot, which I expended on a very good Cape hartebeest.

On the last day, back at Carl’s “home place” at Lalibela, we got two special bonuses. Lalibela is a private “big five reserve,” and on a sundown game drive we managed to see lions and elephants, a marvelous thrill for anyone’s first safari (and, after all these years, still a thrill for me!). The other bonus came earlier that day. Our friend and cameraman Matt Young was with us, recording the hunt. It wasn’t exactly his first African experience, but he’s a Montana deer and elk hunter who had never hunted in Africa. With all the rest of us satisfied, both our bag of animals and video, Carl gave Matt a turn and he made a wonderful shot on a fine old blesbok ram.

Like C.J. McElroy said, the only hunters worth envying are those on their first African safari…and like I say, the next best thing to that first African experience is sharing it with someone else. Behind the camera, Matt Young is pure business…but when he approached that downed blesbok his excitement at least rivaled Caroline’s throughout the safari. So I got an unexpected double dose of sharing the awe, excitement and wonder of a first African safari—and it made the years fall away to that marvelous adventure that was my own first safari, so many years ago.– Craig Boddington

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