SOUTH AFRICA: Trip Report - browningbbr - East Cape
My wife and I hunted with Bowker Safaris in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa from May 9th to May 17th, 2009. We arrived at camp in the late afternoon of the 8th and left for home on the morning of the 18th. This was our first safari and first time on the African continent.
I guess how you would evaluate a hunting trip or safari depends a lot on who you are, your past hunting experiences and what your expectations were before leaving. The outcome of the trip also depends on how and how well you prepare, so here's a little background on us and what we did to get ready for the hunt...
My wife and I are in our mid-50's and grew up in Iowa. I spent just about every free minute of my youth hunting small game, waterfowl and whitetails. I've spent my entire professional career managing meat processing plants of one sort or another. My wife is a registered nurse and has grown to love the outdoors by spending time afield with me. She likes to hunt, but mostly as a reason to be outdoors seeing and learning about wildlife. Our 3 kids are mostly grown up, but are still in college and graduate schools. We spent the last 26 years raising a family and are now at the point in our lives where we can do some of the things we have always wanted to do.
I've never really been a trophy hunter. Yes, I have a couple of turkey fans on the wall and mounted duck or two, but getting that 10-point buck has never been a priority for me. I own a bow simply because it gives me a reason to be sitting in the woods for a dozen extra mornings each fall. Ditto for my muzzleloader - it lets spend a few more days hunting after the regular gun season in WI closes. You get the picture. I like to hunt for the sake of hunting - and like most people who have a passion for hunting, the idea of hunting in Africa has always fascinated me.
When we decided to hunt in Africa and specifically with the Bowkers, it was on the basis of a recommendation of a friend in our gun club. He had hunted on the continent 3 times and one of those hunts was with Bowker Safaris. Based on what he told us, we had several expectations:
To see a lot of different species of game.
To hunt on large tracts of land in a fair-chase, ethical manner.
To hunt with a PH who would teach us a lot because we were novices.
To get opportunities to take nice trophies.
To spend time with people that were a lot of fun to be around.
Our other major expectation was to have as much fun after the hunt each day as we did in the field: Nice dinners, meeting other hunters, BS around the campfire, etc.
As far as preparation was concerned, we really focused on 5 things:
Travel and airline requirements.
What to pack and what not to pack.
The history and geography of S. Africa and the Eastern Cape.
Making sure rifles and handloads were as accurate as they could be.
Making sure our shooting was as accurate as the rifles (practice)
Several weeks before leaving, I discovered this website and learned a lot more by reading posts and asking advice of the hunters and PH's who use it. 'Just cannot say enough good things about how helpful everyone was.
After 2 years of preparation and 1-1/2 days of travel (with no real issues - thank goodness), we finally arrived at Bowker Safaris and the fun began!
Rather than report on the blow-by-blow of each hunt for each animal, I'm going to tell about the things that were most important to us. If you want to know more about the animals we shot, email me. There are also pictures in my gallery. Here goes:
The Bowker ranch (Thorn Kloof) is steeped in Eastern Cape history. Several of the structures date back to the 1840's including the original farmhouse where we stayed. The courtyard, the walls, some of the fences and many of the buildings are built from the native stone and all have the trademark Eastern Cape green metal roofs. All of the grounds and facilities are as modern as you need them to be (en suite) and as period as you want them to be (cannon from the ship their ancestors traveled on in 1820). The lodge is decorated with trophies and is well stocked with after-hunt conversation lubricant! The dining room is similarly decorated and was the site of some of the finest meals we've ever experienced. The fire pit in the center of the courtyard was just the place to hear stories about everyone's hunt and a nightcap. We didn't want to be staying at some spit-and-polish 5-star hotel. We really wanted to be at a truly African hunting camp and that was exactly what we got. Just wonderful!
The nicest folks that you could ever want to meet. Not only do they run a very good operation, they are genuinely warm, friendly people. Some days, we were the only hunters in the camp and that gave us the chance to really get to know some of the family. Other days, there were 4 other hunters in camp with their PH's and we got to see them interact with other PH's on a professional level. It was clear, they really know their stuff on hunting and outfitting. It seemed like everyone we met had a lot of respect for the entire family, including the staff of trackers, skinners, maids and cooks - it told us clearly that they are very good people.
I never really did figure out how big the ranch was or how much total land was in the conservancy (several adjoining ranches working together for hunting and animal management) but it was HUGE. This is a working cattle and sheep ranch and we saw herdsmen on horseback checking stock almost every day. The ranch is a mixture of open grass land, and deep wooded gorges surrounded by mountains on each horizon. If anyone ever tells me again that hunting on a ranch in South Africa is just shooting penned up animals, I'm going to kick them in the ___. No question, on a tract this large, every hunt is a fair chase.
The least number of game species we saw on any give day was 12. Most days it was a lot more. (This was a huge "WOW" for a couple of people from the Midwest...) In addition to the game, we saw mongoose, marshall eagles, bustards, tortoise, puff adder, etc, etc. The populations of kudu and springbok in the conservancy are so high, they were planning a cull hunt for later in year.
I started the hunt by telling our PH that taking record book trophies was not a priority for us. His reply: "You are going to shoot animals that will make record books." He wasn't kidding. The hunting was spot-and-stalk and every single attempt was a thrill. I don't have time to relate all of them here, but I wrote down every one of them in my journal at the end of each day so I could remember them for the rest of my life. To me, the hunt (spotting and stalking) is 95% of the enjoyment and the kill is 5%. Every expectation that I had for African hunting was exceeded! Two things will be burned into my memory forever: The first was 9 attempts to stalk the same herd boss impala ram over 4 separate days ending in the one you can see in my gallery page. The second was a 1000+ yard stalk for a kudu bull most of which was down a rocky, steep hillside ending in a 45 degree down-angle shot from 273 yards... yes, it's the one posted too.
I had to save the best for near the end - our PH was Denham Bowker. Denham is the younger son of Frank Bowker who we learned was one of the pioneers of professional hunting in the Eastern Cape. I'm not sure where to begin in my description of Denham...He's a great hunter and seemed to be able to spot tons of game where we saw none. He's a modest guy, but tells wonderful stories of his past experiences when asked about them. He has great insight when it comes to people and seemed to know intuitively when we needed help, advice, coaching or encouragement. He treated our Tracker and Skinner with respect and it was clear that they respected him (and not because he was the boss.) Denham "made" our hunt. We just could not wait to get into the truck with each morning. He's also a devoted father and it was treat watching his two young daughters "wrap him around their fingers" each morning at the breakfast table. He did an especially good job of getting my wife to be more at ease on her first hunt for larger game.
One of the days of our safari, we were hunting on a ranch in the conservancy that had been hunted the day prior by the president of Libya (Kadaffi's oldest son). We were about 2 hours into the day and were headed to another hill top for more glassing when one of the ranch hands met up with us and told us that we had to leave right now - Kadaffi Jr had showed back up unannounced! Plus he had brought his 13-man security force with him! Not wanting to be on the wrong end of a stinger missile attack (a lot of folks don't like this SOB), we got the hell out of there in a hurry.
OK, I'm sure it is obvious, this safari was way better than I had ever dreamed it could be - for me anyway. Here's what my wife thought about it: On the plane ride from J'burg to Washington, she told me, "When we go back, it needs to be for at least 15 days. 9 days of hunting is just not enough and don't even think about getting the 7mm back, I'm keeping it."