By Tom in Oregon
Recently, I realized a 30+ year old dream of going on safari in Africa. While planning this trip was a long 14 months in the making, I quickly decided I wanted to take my own rifle and not rent one from the outfitter. If you have something like this in your future, I hope what I share here can make your trip a bit easier than mine was . . .
Rifle Selection: What I really wanted was a classic double rifle in .375 H&H. After getting over sticker the shock of even a well-used double rifle, I opted for a Remington bolt gun in .375. No semi-autos allowed in South Africa. In reality, unless you’re going after the big five, a .308 bolt gun would work just fine.
U.S Customs: You will definitely want to locate and go to your local customs office a week or two before travelling. The form to fill out is only a one-pager, but without it, you won’t be taking possession of your firearm when you return to the states. The form can also be used to memorialize anything that has a serial number. I was told to log my camera, laptop, scope, rangefinder, etc. on it. It keeps you from having to pay duty on your own stuff when coming home. Avoid paying duty? Yup, gimmie some more pages. The folks at customs will inspect what you’ve described, then stamp and sign your form(s).
Airlines: Our flight was a three-leg journey. Portland to Seattle, Seattle to London, and London to Johannesburg. Leg one was simple, all Alaska Airlines wanted was a simple 3×5 card signed and dated indicating that the firearm isn’t loaded and it’s in a locked, approved case. Original goes in your pocket, carbon copy goes in the gun case. In order to place the CC in the case, it had to be opened. I ask the gal if she wanted me to open it up with all the public standing behind me. She says no, and points to the counter next to her.
Leg two: Uh-Oh. From the U.S to the U.K. — yUcK. Transferring from Alaska Air to British Airways. Apparently, the Brits don’t like guns. But you probably knew that. They most especially don’t like Americans with guns. Man can they hold a grudge.
They require another form. (more about ammo later). We get their form filled out, tuck it inside the gun case, (mistake), and barely make the flight to London. Nine and a half hours later, I’m looking for the exit at Heathrow so I can have a cigarette. At hour 6 of an 8 hour layover, we check back in to the secure area of the airport in time to hear our names over the P.A system. Ruh roh.
We saunter up to the counter, and are rather rudely escorted down into a basement room where there are two SWAT-looking, kitted-up police officers standing next to our gun cases. Quick scan…yup, the locks are intact. A rather smarmy gent in a suit then informs us that we are not allowed to possess firearms in his country. He then turns to the officers and demands that they do something.
They ask if we have documentation for our journey and we both answer yes, inside the cases. Yup, shoulda had ze papers on our persons. After a few more minutes of Mr. Smarmypants, I inform him that “we” aren’t in possession of our guns, “he” is. This actually brought a smile to one of the officers’ faces. The coppers wish us a safe trip and walk out. We watch as a baggage handler carts off our cases. We leave the office with about five minutes to spare, just time enough to catch…
Leg three: London to Johannesburg. About 10 hours later, we walk into the airport lobby and see our guide. Wow, it’s really happening. He escorts us into the South African Police Services (SAPS) office to get our SAPS 520 form notarized and completed. Oops, it’s in the case. Not a big deal really. What we are missing is our Hunting Invitation Letter signed by our outfitter. Slight delay as our guide calls the office. The office faxes our letters to the SAPS office. Good to go. Finally. They notarize our forms, and off we go.
Having watched plenty of safaris on the Sportsman Channel, I thought gun bearers handled your guns for you in the field, then handed it to you when you were ready to shoot. Um, no. I was rather glad that we were allowed to have our rifles the entire time we were there. Even keeping them in our rooms at night. Loaded. But please don’t shoot the warthog that wanders the property. It’s a pet.
Return trip, leg one: Johannesburg to London. Now things get really interesting. We get to the airport with 4 hours devoted to checking in. While you are allowed to bring in up to 80 rounds per caliber, a maximum of two guns, not of the same caliber, you can’t leave with ammo. Having gifted my Professional Hunter, (P.H.), most of my ammo, I had five rounds left. My hunting buddy had 70.
I walked outside, opened my suitcase, took the five rounds and put them in a garbage can. My buddy called the PH who was only five minutes away and gave them to him. They, British Airways, were rather butthurt that they didn’t catch the ammo thing on our way in two weeks before.
Next, we go through security. Apparently, the dude running our particular line really liked my walkie talkies. In some mixture of Afrikaans and English, they aren’t allowed on planes. They are only allowed in his house. For his kids. Then British air extracts an $80 dollar firearms handling fee, a $60 dollar extra bag fee, and a fee fee. Payable only in pounds sterling. They also insist on a bright orange flag that says “FIREARM” on the pelican case. Three and a half hours later, we’re boarding for . . .
Leg two: An 11-hour flight followed by a nine-hour layover in London. I’m good with the layover, though, as my sister moved there and I haven’t seen her in a year and a half. Good, but really expensive lunch. Pretty much everything in the UK is really absurdly expensive. Petrol was a bit under $11.00 per gallon. Maybe my math was wrong between litres, pounds sterling, carry the 3.14159, divide by 1 stone.
As we make our way through security, My buddy Sean wants to make a bet with me about a gun hassle before boarding. I’m still on cloud nine over the hunting, fishing and sight-seeing. After five countries over the past two weeks with nary a problem, I take him up on his bet. That was stupid.
In order to make it difficult on a gun thief, I have the habit of removing the bolt from my rifle and keeping it in my luggage. But that rather bored-looking guy sitting in front of the x-ray machine was actually was paying attention when I went through. He spots it. They make me empty my back pack, then tell me that since it’s a gun part, I have to check my bag. There was zero argument I could come up with to change his mind or the two supervisors’ or the Bobbie’s. Another $60 extra bag fee. Then it’s off for a nine hour flight to Seattle for…
Leg three: We arrive in Seattle. I’m kind of in a bad mood. OK I’m in a pissy mood. I want a cigarette and this snippy bitch in a British Airways skirt-suit (not pictured above) insists on a 2-hour hassle to move our guns from “her” line 50 feet away to the Alaska Air check-in line. We miss our connecting flight to Portland. Then miss the next one. I reach down and grab my gun parts back-pack from her cart. She protests and tells me that I can’t open checked baggage. I tear the tag off the backpack and advise Her Bitchiness that it’s now a carry on. She was one of those “Can’t Understand Normal Thinking” types.
I go outside and have a couple of smokes. When I return, nicotine mercifully coursing through me, we finally locate an Alaska employee who rolls her eyes and quickly takes care of us. We catch the third flight for the short hop to Portland.
Lessons Learned: It would have been easier and cheaper to rent a gun in Africa for the $25.00 per day fee.
If you’re dead set on bringing your own rifle, have all of your customs docs, SAPS 520 paperwork, your Hunting Invitation Letter and — most importantly — your passport with you at all times. Keep duplicates in the gun case. The paperwork is rather easy to fill out, and not very time consuming. If you plan on hunting with a hand cannon, you must have prior approval from SAPS at least 60 days in advance. If you plan on hunting in Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, or Namibia, the same 60 day rule applies. I was told it’s the same for Mozambique. Have your paperwork done WELL in advance.
Pro tip: you are not allowed to buy ammo in South Africa. Not from a store, anyway. Your outfitter will gladly sell you what you need. You are, however, allowed to buy a suppressor for your rifle at the local gun store. For about 500 rand, ($50), a rather nice .30 caliber suppressor can be bought with no paperwork, no approval, no waiting list, no fingerprints, no photographs. No shit.
When, not if, I go on another hunt in South Africa, I will bypass British Air and any stops in London. I learned from two other couples there that they flew Delta from California through Atlanta then J-burg. Their flights were shorter, and they suffered zero hassles.
Go to whatever bank you bank with and get currency for the countries you will be travelling through. Get a mix of small and large notes. A lot of places will not make change. They just take whatever you hand them. Whether it’s rand, pula or pounds sterling. One hundred dollars each will likely work. ATMs aren’t behind every Baobab tree.
While the travelling portions of this trip had more than a few hiccups, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. If you plan a trip like this, I hope just one of these tips help to make your trip easier than mine was. Oh, and try the blue wildebeest. It’s delicious.