The winter of 2013 was fading into spring when, almost ritualistically, Helen, my wife of 28 years, and I began to think about possible destinations for our next family summer escape. The recurrent question of staying in the US or traveling to a European destination became the bulk of the conversation that evening. The truth be said, myself and my youngest son Michael recently returned from a turkey hunt in Kentucky that spring where one of the other guests extolled tales of his recent safari to Africa. I cannot deny that going to the African Continent on a safari was fresh on my mind and was in many of my dreams. As destinations were considered I reckoned I should take the shot and introduce the idea of a safari to Africa as a possible option for our next family summer destination. Did I just propose a family-hunting safari to my wife of 28 years that never fired a gun or expressed any interest in hunting? Yes I did and her response was, “Sure, why not, I’ve never been to Africa, just make certain that there is something for me to do”.
I knew very little of Africa but I did know that there was no way I can plan a family vacation in 4 months so we decided instead to postpone our trip until the summer of 2014 but we would begin the planning immediately. I had considerable trepidations about the vacation so with time on my side I wanted to make certain the itinerary would allow all of us to have a wonderful vacation. The choices on travel to Africa are as varied as the continent itself so I had to begin to narrow down the country to visit, the outfitter and other activities. It all seemed overwhelming. After a month of internet searches and data overload, I came across a US based travel agent, Corinna Slaughter of Family Expeditions, that specializes in family hunting vacations. Who would of thought that such a niche market even existed? Having explained to Corinna my wishes she made a few key suggestions. First off, she suggested that hunting or not, during the family’s first trip to Africa we must have the opportunity to see the at least four of the big five game animals. The second suggestion was to focus on an African outfitter that was comfortable with having non-hunting family observers present in the safari and lastly, if non-hunters would prefer to do “non-hunting activities” they should be readily available from the hunting camp so the family can maximize time together. Working together and reviewing her suggestions the itinerary was set. We chose Namibia as the country we would visit, spend some time on a non-hunting game reserve and then complete our safari with Marina and Joof. Marina has written extensively on non-hunters accompanying hunters on safari and as she put it when I met her at one of the trade shows prior to our trip, ‘I suggest we play it day by day. Our PH’s are used to having observers on safari and Helen will more than likely want to accompany you, but if she gets bored there are many other opportunities including horseback safaris” as she knew Helen was an avid rider.
The sixteen months of planning this long shot family vacation had come and gone and we were now in Namibia arriving at the Erindi game reserve. An expansive private game park located about a two and one half hour drive from the Namibian entry city of Windhoek, Erindi eased us into essence of Africa. The game drives gave us the opportunity to see lions, elephants, leopards, cheetahs but the white and black rhino remained elusive. With wonderful Erindi in our rear view mirror my uneasiness with bringing the family to Africa for a hunting safari once again began to creep into my thoughts as we traveled eastward toward the edge of the Kalahari. Finally we passed the gates of our new Namibian home, proudly displaying the Namibian Flag alongside the Stars and Stripes, a warm welcome for the incoming guests from the United States. A mile passed the gates our home for the next nine days came into view. The lodge was an exquisitely tasteful stone and thatched roof structure that fit perfectly into the surrounding savannas, rocky hills and bushes of acasia and camphor. Helen, Michael and myself were welcomed by Marina, Joof, their son Hans Louis, all the staff and Jack, Marina’s Jack Russell as if we were close relatives coming home. We settled into our room, a roaring fire burning in the fireplace and then pinched each other as if to make sure this was all not a dream.
The following morning at breakfast we met our PH, Johnny and his tracker Martin. Michael and myself were anxious to begin our hunt and Helen was equally anxious to join us. On the way to the range to sight in our rifles Johnny brought the safari green Land Cruiser to an abrupt stop as Martin signaled that there were tracks on the ground. We all got out of the Land Cruiser as Johnny showed us the tracks Martin had spotted. The tracks were of a Leopard dragging its prey. We followed the tracks about 100 yards to a camphor bush where there were scant remains of a juvenile impala that ended up on the wrong side of a leopards breakfast. At that point it hit all three of us. Unlike nature reserves, a PH has a different perspective of the African bush and for the first time we saw the reality of the circle of life.
Later on that day our group successfully sighted and stalked and I was able to take a large bull Blue Wildebeest. The Wildebeest was taken to the local skinner and Helen had the opportunity to see that no part of this fine animal would be wasted. Having the ability to participate in a few stalks throughout the first day including the one the resulted in the taking of a trophy, and seeing the process to its end, Helen was beginning to understand this sport her husband and son were so fond of. Four days into our vacation I was now at complete ease as I saw the entire family truly enjoying the safari. The next day, Marina had arranged for Helen to horseback ride so she did not accompany Michael and myself. Although she had a terrific day on her horseback safari, later that evening around the fire pit she asked if it would be possible if she can learn to shoot and, if it all works out, possibly play a different role in the hunt. I was shocked at the request since in my 29 years of marriage Helen never had the slightest interest in the hunting or the shooting sports. Although I was in shock, the hosts and PH’s around the fire told us this often happens in Africa.
The next morning it was off the range for Helen’s shooting lesson. We all decided that it would be in everyone’s best for Johnny to give the lesson while Michael and myself remained silent and virtually invisible. With unbelievable patience, Johnny took Helen from never discharging a firearm to grouping the 300 Winchester Mag off a shooting stick at 100 yards. Johnny felt compelled to temper our astonishment, “Woman are much easier to teach than men”. Michael and I looked at each other but neither of us said a word. Later that day Helen had the opportunity to stalk a large boar warthog and a bull Hartebeest. Despite getting unbelievably close, she was never able to get a shot off but with each stalk her smile broadened and her respect for the hunt and the animal became deeper. In her mind, she felt
that you did not have to end up with a trophy to have a great hunt. Kobis, a PH that also joined our group would kid her after each stalk with “…Helen, sometimes you just got to take the shot” knowing that neither Helen nor her PH Johnny would allow any random shot to be taken. Sitting around the fire pit that evening, Helen’s account of the day’s events could not have been anymore animated even if the hunts ended with a trophy being taken. The next afternoon a large ram impala was sighted. Helen and Johnny went in pursuit while Kobis, Michael and myself stayed at the land cruiser as the game were particularly skittish that afternoon due to high winds. Forty-five minutes later we heard the report of the .300 Winchester Mag hitting its mark. Kobis, Michael and myself looked and one another and quipped, “she took the shot!”. We get word to come on over and by the time we arrive Helen and Johnny were standing over her first African trophy, a nice Impala Ram.
At the fire pit that evening, as Helen recalled the day’s events she began to think about how Africa transformed her and her family. Although she was thrilled with her accomplishment of first learning how to shoot a rifle and then having the opportunity to take her trophy, there was so much more. She went on to point out the differences of the almost zoo like nature of a reserve compared to animals showing their true survival instincts in the wild when not tainted by the constant onslaught of onlookers. She learned that just like in nature, hunting in Africa yields no waste. The impala will supply protein, income and jobs to the local community. Lastly, by taking the shot and agreeing to come to Africa for a safari, she expanded her horizons, learned about the incredibly warm and welcoming people of Namibia and her misconceptions of ethical African sport hunting was forever changed.
This was written by Dr. Joe from New York City