Why Hunting Africa Has Nothing To Do With Trophy Hunting

The people, culture and beauty of the land are what keep us coming back to pursue plains game

Tyler Freel with a Zebra he shot in South Africa.
The author with a Zebra he shot in South Africa.Tyler Freel

The first time I heard about calamari was probably in 7th grade. I remember seeing the word and photo in a Spanish class textbook and upon learning it was squid, decided it wasn’t for me. I was a Hamburger Helper, meat and potatoes kid, and carried that mindset into adulthood.

Eventually, I tried calamari…and loved it, so much so, that to this day, I will not pass up the opportunity to indulge. We all can relate to a food we presumed wouldn’t appeal to us because of a preconceived bias or notion that it tasted awful. In the context of hunting, I thought of Africa in the same light.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to experience Africa (there are some hunters who think they have an aversion to going, getting wrapped up in their own hunting world or finding it difficult to see the draw—I hope this article changes those perceptions). Living in Alaska, I became spoiled with hunting opportunities, and going to Africa remained on the fringe. That changed abruptly after an invite to hunt plains game in South Africa with Norma’s new Bondstrike bullets.

I cut my teeth hunting Alaska, picking my way up rocky ridgelines to slip above an unsuspecting Dall ram, listening to the hermit thrushes echoing through the woods at night on a bear bait, and straining to get the first glimpse of a bull moose thrashing in the brush. We all have a picture of what hunting Africa looks like, positive or negative, but every experienced person I knew said I would love it. Still, I found it hard to get excited about hunting animals I had no experience or exposure to. I think this is very common amongst hunters. We enjoy our comfort zones, often pigeon-holing ourselves into a mindset of disdain for anyone who doesn’t do things the way we do. So, I decided to set all my pre-conceived notions and stereotypes aside, and do my best to learn and enjoy the experience.

Tyler Freel hunting Impala in Africa.
In Africa, hunting sustains animal populations.Tyler Freel

Hunting Drives Protection and Management

Not having traveled extensively, it was hard to wrap my head around landing in South Africa, hunting animals that (to me) might as well have only existed in fairy tales. Hunting and wildlife management in Africa is much different than in North America. Hunting drives the protection and management of Africa’s wildlife, and without it, many species would already have perished. Unless the wildlife is valued by hunters (and brings money to the economy) the animals will likely be poached, market hunted or displaced by farming. In South Africa, hunting areas are typically fenced, and the wildlife is carefully managed by landowners. Public-land doesn’t exist there.

We hunted on the Burchell Game Reserve with Frontier Safaris in the mountainous Eastern Cape. The reserve was roughly 75,000 acres, and although fenced, is larger than several “free range” islands I know of. I had some apprehension about what hunting a fenced ranch would be like, but quickly noted that the fence wasn’t like high fences I have seen in the states, more piecemeal, and at about seven- to eight-foot tall, many of the animals could jump it. From what I gathered, it was geared more towards keeping poachers out. I don’t think it came into play in my hunting experience. It was a small detail in a rugged, rolling landscape of rock, sand, sagebrush, and acacia trees.

The first evening in camp, I quickly spotted over eight species of animals, most of which I couldn’t identify. After a night of much-needed rest, I watched my first African sunrise over a cup of coffee. We checked rifle zeroes and verified elevation corrections out to 800 meters (875 yards). I was anxious to start hunting, and thankful for the opportunity to get a feel for a new rifle, a Bergara B14 Ridge chambered in .308, as we discussed our afternoon hunt plans over lunch.

Tyler Freel kneeling behind a Blesbok hunted in Africa.
The author—with a blesbok—hunted with PH Scot Burchell, whose family has deep roots in African hunt culture.Tyler Freel

The Experience of Africa

We paired off, two hunters per PH, setting out in trucks to various hunting areas. I quickly learned that although we spent a fair amount of time bouncing along the rocky two-tracks, the strategy for hunting many of these species wasn’t much unlike something you would encounter in the western U.S., just with a much higher game density. The strategy was to hit good vantage points, glass hard, plan, and execute a stalk. But we also walked a couple miles of folds and gullies, trying to spot wary antelope.

These animals were tuned up and spooky. Although with the antelope, it seemed we could get away with more movement at longer distances than you might with a Dall sheep. Should an ostrich see you, forget it. You could also walk anywhere on the hard, dry dirt and rock, unlike Alaska. There was no muskeg or tussocks, just cobras and puff adders, it was wonderful.

As the heat of midday began to subside, we set out for our first evening hunt with Scot Burchell. His family has deep roots in South Africa, including the naming of the Burchell’s Zebra. Even at 23 years old, his experience at spotting and hunting game was superb. I had much to learn from him. We weren’t working with an extravagant trophy list, just on the lookout for culls to get the ball rolling. After locating a couple herds of blesbok from over a mile away, we approached from the backside of the ridge they were on. Peeking around a bush at the top revealed a heard about 180 yards away, still grazing. Scot set the shooting sticks and singled out an old ewe. With the crack of that .308 the ice was broken. Until that moment it was all a dream, solidified as reality by the rolling reverberation across the valley.

I started to realize how fast this adventure was going to pass, and was happy to watch the other hunter in our truck take an impala and blesbok. On the ride back to camp in the dark, with the cool air blasting through open windows, my mind focused on how I could slow down, to milk every bit of enjoyment out of my short time here.

Boxes of Norma Bondstrike in .308 Winchester
Norma Bondstrike in .308 Win. and a flat-shooting Bergara were the tools the author used in taking several species of plains game.Tyler Freel

Slow Down, Enjoy Africa

By now, I had taken a beautiful impala ewe, a heavy blesbok ram, and still had time to stalk zebra before lunch the following morning. We returned to camp, a welcome reprieve from the 105-degree heat. “Tyler, grab you rifle!” said Scot. He spotted a troop of baboons in the valley below camp, which was perched atop a cliff.

The PH’s made it clear the local baboon population badly needed culling. Baboons are smart and see very well, so we crawled across the ground and eased the rifle onto a sandbag, peeking over the edge. The first shot was easy at 275 yards. The second baboon stepped out at 495 yards, and the third, a big male, sat atop a termite mound at 814 yards. With an educated guess on wind conditions, I squeezed off a round, and saw him flinch just before jumping off the mound and running out of sight. At this point, all the PH’s were watching, and the consensus was 50/50 on miss or hit. It took half an hour to get out there, but the big male was lying dead not 20 yards away, hit through the chest. I couldn’t believe the size of his canines, longer than a grizzly’s!

I noticed that both Scot and our tracker Mzonke washed their hands thoroughly after touching a baboon, and followed suit. Baboons prey on birds and newborn animals, and are destructive to buildings and property.

As we headed back out, I was more determined to slow down with just three days left to hunt. I planned on only observing for the evening, but that changed when my hunting partner ran dry on ammo after wounding an ostrich. They run fast, and as the bird was quickly approaching my maximum elevation correction, I cranked the turret, and the bird stopped. I held about three feet into the wind and touched off a round. The bird flopped to the ground. Scot gave me a range for another ostrich, and that bird dropped as well. If we’d had a 55-gallon drum of peanut oil and the Colonel’s spices, it would have been a hell of a fry.

The coolness of the night was already melting away as we hopped in the trucks at 6 a.m. It took us about an hour to reach the area we wanted to hunt, spotting a herd of blesbok at the head of a small valley. After a short stalk, my hunting partner made a beautiful shot on a nice ram. Our next mission was to find gemsbok. It took some doing, but we were within about 150 yards of a group of six. Their sharp, straight horns skylined the sagebrush. An Oryx spooked, circling below us to get our wind. We moved quickly down and across the hill, hoping for a shot. Scot saw a bull laying low in the brush less than 100 yards away. My truck-mate Anton capitalized. It was the highlight of the day.

As we came back to camp in the fading light, Scot spotted an impala ram with a broken horn, perfect for a cull. We raced the coming darkness, and somehow got a perfect, clean shot through a hole in the brush.

The next day would bring even more heat, so we set out early to find a zebra. They had been elusive, but we bumped into some bouncing through the scrub trees. They saw us, so we instantly shut the truck off and stopped, watching their heads and manes stir nervously as the sunrise filtered through the dust . Our PH let them move away, then got on their tracks. We made it to about 50 yards, but never could get a clean shot. This time, they spooked hard, and ran over a mile before turning down into the thick brush.

The sun started beating down while we hiked to the top of a bare ridgeline to glass the basin on the other side. We circled the peak, more reminiscent of sheep hunting, and had just cut the jeep trail when six zebras came spilling out at 100 yards below us. There was no shot as they moved over the next rise. They were still walking away at 350 yards as we crested the hill. I was able to find a rock to lay on, and when they stopped, I shot at 440 yards. It was a solid hit. One more through the lungs put the zebra down.

Stunningly beautiful, and wonderful table fare, it’s one of the coolest animals I’ve been fortunate to take. We quickly gutted the zebra and hustled back to camp to get it skinned and meat cooling. A cold shower and afternoon nap were welcome in the shade of our huts. That evening and the following morning, we helped another hunter in camp get a beautiful gemsbok.

Why Africa Is So Appealing

On the final afternoon, Scot, Mzonke, and I set out to look for wildebeest. It had been a long journey to get here, and I was going to soak up the fleeting moments of this trip. We spotted 40 or so blue wildebeest feeding on new growth in a burned area atop a low ridge. With the wind in our favor, we let them feed away from us and circled above. We eased forward, right behind the herd. A well-aged cow was 80 yards away. I got on the sticks, squeezed off a shot, and put her down as lightning crashed in the distance.

Scot’s dad Barry Burchell and his family hosted us in their home for drinks and stories that evening, and as I stuffed my face with calamari (of all things). I thought about how ridiculous my apprehension to this hunt had been. Everyone that comes to Africa says the same thing, “When am I coming back?” For me, it was not about checking a list or collecting trophy animals. The experience, and dreams and imaginings of the next one, are what matter most. The “trophy” is just the culmination of an experience, the same in Africa as it is in North America.

I’m convinced a hunter who says Africa doesn’t appeal to them is either wrong, ignorant of its majesty, or a scrooge. The shooting itself isn’t what drives the hunger for more, that’s only momentary. The more you learn, the more you realize you have yet to learn. I may never be able to hunt buffalo, sable, or some of the high-dollar trophy animals, but I saw them, and I had just as much fun chasing cull animals, and would do it again in a heartbeat.