Prepping For Your First African Safari

By Brad Fitzpatrick

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silohetted afrian animals

Fifteen years ago, I booked my first safari to Africa. I’d dreamed of going for years, and as I sat in the window seat of a 777 jet traveling from Atlanta to Johannesburg, I could only hope Africa was as magical as I had dreamed. That was early in my career, my college debts had come due, and safaris aren’t cheap. But Africa had been a dream, and I had deferred long enough. I could eat Ramen and cut the cable for a few months, but I had to get Africa out of my system.

As you might have guessed, that first trip didn’t help me get over my desire to hunt Africa. But it also didn’t disappoint, and as I listened to Cape turtle doves calling in the morning and smelled the smoke of mopane fires at night, I never once regretted spending the money on that safari. Before I left, I was already planning my next African adventure, and I’ve been back to Africa six times since.

Don’t Wait—Prepare

When I hear people saying they’d like to go on an African safari, my first question is always, “why haven’t you booked one already?” I understand money can be a significant issue—I didn’t have a wife and kids when I first hunted Africa and was willing to do without some domestic comforts to feel my boots sink in the sand there, but not everyone will be in that position. Still, if Africa is on your bucket list, you should certainly make every effort to get there. You won’t be disappointed.

dead gazelle next to Federal Premium ammunition

Your safari will be better if you know what to expect beforehand. To that end, I’ll share everything I’ve learned that I feel is pertinent for the first-time hunter. The following is the best advice I can offer, and much of it was learned by making mistakes. Hopefully you’ll avoid some of the hassles I’ve encountered so your first safari goes smoothly.

Where To Go

Africa is a big place with lots of game in varied habitats, so choosing the right destination for your first safari is important. Most first-time hunters head to South Africa, and that’s a good choice. Game ranching in South Africa is a huge business and there are many outstanding safari operators in the country. Habitat varies widely across this massive nation: On the fringes of the Kalahari, you’ll find semi-arid desert, in KwaZulu Natal you’ll encounter dense forests, and in the Stormberg Mountains expect wide-open country and cold temperatures in winter.

Hunting prices in South Africa are modest and logistics are relatively simple since most hunters fly into Johannesburg. But understand that most South African hunting is done on fenced game ranches. That’s not the case everywhere, and most of the hunting properties are so vast that the game is wild and you might never see a border fence.

If you’re looking for a free-range hunt, those exist in South Africa, but you’ll find more in Namibia. That country is largely arid, and there are huge tracts of land to hunt with abundant game. There are also a few free-range hunting areas in Botswana, and they are equally fantastic. All three of these countries are a great option for your first plains game safari.

What To Hunt

Africa offers a list of available game animals that is unrivaled anywhere else in the world. Of course, everyone knows the Big Five, and many seek out Africa in part to spend time in wild places with dangerous game. But understand that lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalo and leopards aren’t wandering everywhere. Many plains game areas don’t have members of the Big Five, though leopards can be found on many ranches.

African animal in front of a cactus

Most people concentrate on plains game for their first safari, and that’s a great idea. Hunting plains game doesn’t have the high cost or pressure of hunting dangerous game, and many areas let you take a long list of trophies on a short hunt. Plus, your deer rifle and favorite hunting load will usually work just fine, and as you’re out stalking one species, you’ll likely see a wide variety of other animals.

If you want to hunt dangerous game, the cost increases and these hunts become highly specialized. Many dangerous game areas require charter flights, which can be quite expensive, and you’ll focus on a few species. Most leopard hunts, for instance, last 14 days and you’ll spend much of that time in a blind. You can book a plains game safari that’s half as long for considerably less. Plus, you’ll be driving or walking in search of game, not spending long days and nights in a cramped blind.

Africa offers some fantastic plains game species like kudu, gemsbok, eland, springbok, impala, wildebeest, zebra and hartebeest just to name a few. Focus on areas where the game you want most is present. Namibia is known for great kudu, oryx and springbok, while KwaZulu Natal is the place to go for common nyala. Some species like zebra and wildebeest will likely be available in most areas.

Booking & Travel

If you’re serious about hunting Africa, travel to the annual Dallas Safari Club, Houston Safari Club, or Safari Club International conventions. Attending these shows (which are generally held in January or February each year) gives you an opportunity to talk to safari operators face-to-face and ask all the questions you’d like. You can see pictures of the game, the country and the lodging, and you’ll begin to develop a rapport with your PH (professional hunter).

I don’t book my own travel anymore. Instead, I use a specialized safari travel company like TWG, Gracy Travel, or Travel Express Agency. These companies can book your flights and hotel rooms, as well as help arrange travel with firearms. Using a travel agent costs a little more, but not much, and they help streamline logistics. They’ll provide the needed paperwork for firearm imports ahead of time and can arrange meet-and-greets at the airport. Meet-and-greets are particularly beneficial for the first-time hunter because a professional will be waiting at the airport to help you clear customs and get you to and from your hotel if you need to overnight.

sunset on the African hills

Travel agents (and sometimes your PH) will also help you book additional travel while you’re in Africa. If you can afford it, this is something I highly recommend. You’ve paid for a flight to Africa so you might as well spend a few days sightseeing if possible, traveling to the big parks like Etosha in Namibia or Kruger in South Africa (where you will see dangerous game up-close) or one of the smaller safari parks. Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and red sand dunes are incredible, and you can enjoy a few days in the coastal town of Swakopmund. In South Africa, there are even more choices that include trips to the wine country, Cape Town, and shark cage diving.


How much do safaris cost? That’s a difficult question to answer. The simplest part will be booking your actual safari, which should cost around $10,000 or less for a week-long plains game hunt. Again, this varies. Many safari operators have packages that let you hunt a certain number of species. One of these I saw recently by a reputable PH in Namibia offered a five-day hunt for kudu, gemsbok, springbok, warthog and wildebeest for $6,000, and that included everything except tips, alcohol, dipping and packing (cleaning the hides for shipment to the U.S.). That’s lower than the cost of many mule deer hunts back home.

Additional fees on such a hunt will include flights, trips and lodging before and after the hunt, and trophy care. You can choose to have your trophies dipped and packed and shipped to the United States to have them mounted close to home, but you’ll have to hire a brokerage company to help you clear customs, unless you plan to do that yourself at the port of entry. I hire a company to handle that because by the time I traveled to the port and handled everything myself, I don’t think the savings would be worthwhile. Taxidermy can be done in the U.S. or, if you prefer, you can have your trophies mounted in Africa and shipped to your home.

Gear & Guns

Everyone assumes Africa is hot, but that’s not always the case. Most safaris occur during winter in the southern hemisphere (our summer), and the temperatures can be quite cold in places like South Africa and Namibia. Last July on my way to a safari in Mozambique, I overnighted at Africa Sky Lodge in Johannesburg, and the fountain in the center of the grounds was frozen. A single wool or down jacket should be plenty, but Africa can be surprisingly cold. Other than that, long pants or shorts (I prefer the former because of thorns), a few light shirts and a good pair of boots is all you need. Most safaris have daily laundry service, so you shouldn’t need more than three sets of hunting clothes. Make sure your boots are worn in, choose camouflage, olive, brown or dark khaki clothes, and be prepared for thorns.

Depending upon where you go, you might need malaria medication, which a doctor can prescribe. I also take ample sunscreen, a pair of shooting glasses, camp shoes and a broad-brimmed hat. Good binoculars are also very important, and I wear gaiters on my boots to keep thorns and grass seed away from my ankles.

dead wildebeest behind a box of Federal Custom Shop ammunition

Whole volumes have been written about the best rifles for hunting Africa, but your deer rifle will probably do fine for most plains game species. I’ve whittled my African caliber list down considerably over the years; I take a 30-caliber (either 30-06 or 300 Win. Magnum) for plains game and a big bore (375 H&H or 416 Rem.) for dangerous game. Sixty rounds of ammunition per rifle will generally suffice. For all plains game, I want a tough, heavy bullet. Federal’s 200-grain Terminal Ascent 300 Win. Magnum is, to my thinking, the perfect all-around African hunting bullet. It’s suitable for long-range shooting (which is relatively rare in most areas of Africa) but the bonded construction is suitable for taking large game like eland, zebra and roan.

If you’re hunting dangerous game, the Federal’s Premium Safari line is excellent. My 416 Rem. Magnum loves both the 400-grain A-Frame offering and Woodleigh Hydro Solid, both part of their premium safari line.

Federal Custom Shop is also a great option. You can choose from some of the industry’s best bullets for large and dangerous game have them handloaded for your hunt.

Don’t give up on your dream to hunt Africa. Instead, start making the adventure a reality. But be warned that Africa gets in your blood, and chances are your first safari won’t be your last.