The Family Plan 

The Limpopo Bushveld Is No Place for a 6-Year-Old Girl. Or is it?

By Benjamin R. Hess

Originally published in the January/February issue of SAFARI Magazine

When my wife and I had the opportunity to go to South Africa for a 10-day hunt in the bush, I was beyond excited. We purchased the hunt with Diekie Muller Safaris during an auction at the 2023 SCI Convention in Nashville. 

I had never been to South Africa, and my wife, Kristin, had not been since she was a little girl with her father.

But we have a 6-year-old daughter. Was this trip something she could do? 

We had mixed feelings and some apprehension as we discussed and planned our trip. Could she manage the long flight? Would she or should she go out on the hunts? Would my wife or I have to stay back with her? What is a 6-year-old going to do at a hunt camp in the bush of South Africa for 10 days? 

We discussed our concerns with our hosts, Diekie and his son Dawie, at Diekie Muller Safaris, who reassured us that they had a plan. They let us know that they have hosted families with young children before. 

For the trophies on our hunt list, they felt we would not need the whole 10 days and recommended we split our trip into two parts: spend the first half hunt and the remaining days on a private guided tour through Kruger National Park. 

Additionally, on the drive from Johannesburg to camp, to give our little girl a little taste of Africa, we would make a stop along the way at an elephant sanctuary where we would have an opportunity to see and interact with several rescued elephants. We agreed it was a great plan.

Our first stop in South Africa was Adventures with Elephants near Bela-Bela. Rory Hensman and his family have rescued and rehabilitated countless orphaned and injured elephants since the late 1980s.

Today it educates, promotes conservation, and offers the chance to get up close and personal with the largest of all land-dwelling mammals. Our daughter loved it. She stood with, fed, loved on and learned so much about these magnificent animals. I could see her excitement about Africa growing.

We arrived at camp at Diekie Muller Safaris late in the morning and were welcomed by our hosts Diekie and his delightful wife, Hettie. You instantly felt as if you were back together with family and friends that you had not seen in way too long. 

Diekie, an accomplished hunter in his own right, is also a member of PHASA, the Professional Hunting Association of South Africa and currently serves on the executive committee. 

The property in the Limpopo Province was beautiful, remote, traditional and everything that I imagined it should be. Set upon the red African earth, the property came complete with baobab trees, palms, cacti, a mature orange orchard, garden and lodges ornamented with amazing trophy animals, each with its own exciting hunt story. 

There were four main buildings, all with thatched roofs: Diekie and Hettie’s home, a guest house, the house for the PHs and one where we’d have our family style home cooked meals. We enjoyed eland tenderloin, kudu stew, as well as the evening braais with a good brandy and Coke in hand. 

We were introduced to what my daughter would come to affectionately call the fox terrier nation. When not on the game trail, these dogs were sweet and playful, and our daughter fell instantly in love. 

Our hunts took place over 30,000 acres of sprawling bushveld, dense woods and open plains that teemed with wildlife. The property boasted 43 different species and included wildebeest (blue and royal), impala (common and black), ostrich, zebra, blesbok, giraffe, eland, kudu, Cape buffalo, sable and roan to name a few. Our quarry for the week was sable, roan, kudu and gemsbok.

It was amazing to be out with my girls. Seeing, feeling and experiencing this beautiful place, I could see Kristin’s soul smiling as we rode around in the open-air safari outfitted Toyota Hilux that served as our hunting vehicle. With her little binos affixed to her eyes, our daughter was happy as could be, scanning and calling out the animals she spotted.

We were successful in our hunts, harvesting a 54-inch kudu bull, a beautiful 28-inch roan and my wife’s monster sable with an SCI score of 106.5. 

The best hunt story of the week was, by far, my wife and the pursuit of her gemsbok. 

They had eluded her all week. They were skittish, tucked too deep in the bush, moved before a good shot could be taken or only coming out at dusk when visibility was poor. She had come to joke as the week went on and the encounters passed that “that wasn’t the right one anyway.”

As the week grew on and confidence and hope were beginning to wane, on our last day of hunting, the stars aligned. We had been moving most of the morning through the dense bushveld, seeing the occasional gemsbok horns through the thicket, but unable to get close enough or them be still enough for a shot. We decided then to move out of the dense bush. As we did, we found ourselves in a large open field and there they were. 

A grouping of 10-12 several hundred yards away were too far for a safe, confident shot. As we approached, the group moved from the open field and dove quickly back into the bush. My wife, Dawie and Jaco moved quietly on foot through the bush as my daughter and I stayed on the truck. 

Back and forth my wife and the gemsboks moved from open field to bush and back again. If they were not running across the open, they would be tucked into the thickest of the thorn trees not allowing you to get close. 

After what seemed like forever, the group settled down all together back in the open. Sun overhead scattered wispy clouds, a slight breeze over the shoulder from right to left and her moment came. 

Dawie was able to get eyes on the gemsbok she had been waiting for. They shuffled back and forth amongst each other like a shell game until finally there it stood, unobstructed, broadside facing left at 225 yards. 

As if taken from a pages of “The Perfect Shot,” she calmly put that .308 bullet right on the money. She was exhausted and elated. It measured at 39 and 38 inches with 7 ½-inch bases. 

It was the hunt that she will never forget. The struggles and challenges of the preceding days paired with a terrific shot, made for an epic experience. For my daughter to see her Mama do hard things, persist and be successful, makes the experience all the sweeter for all of us.

The next morning, we prepared for our trip to Kruger National Park. Ronnie Haywood, who owns African Adventures based out of Lephalale, picked us up. Upon first meeting Ronnie, you feel as if you are catching up with an old friend. He is tall, kind with a joyful smile, excited and professional. We would spend our remaining five days in South Africa with him. 

When my wife and I were planning our tour with Ronnie, we expressed how important it was for our daughter to see more than the beautiful parks and animals of Africa. 

We wanted to go to a school, a small local village, a medical clinic and interact with the people. My wife and I have done decades of medical mission trips all over the world. She grew up on medical mission fields internationally since she was 5. 

Interacting and playing with other children around the world make up some of her fondest memories. So, for us, it was paramount our daughter had a similar experience at an early age. 

For those of us fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to travel internationally and experience distinct cultures and ways of life, you cannot put a price on the way it enriches you.

In the days that followed, we traveled with Ronnie and Jaco and shared many experiences. We met a village healer and learned about her traditional methods for treating illnesses. 

We saw a mobile medical clinic, which was little more than a retrofitted minivan. We bought and delivered food from a local market to a school where we played and interacted with preschool children. 

It’s true that no matter where you are in the world, children are children and even when you don’t speak the language, kindness, smiles and fun stickers are a universal language. 

Our time in Kruger National Park was breathtaking. Our journey began at its western gate at Phalaborwa. It teemed with wildlife, rolling bushvelds, open plains, rivers and craggy rock formations. 

We marveled at herds of Cape buffalo, elephant, zebra, giraffe, hippo and even saw lions feeding on a fresh wildebeest kill. All the quintessential big African game animals were on display and countless species of birds. 

Our last evening, before exiting south out of the park at the Phabeni Gate and heading back to Joburg, we sat overlooking the Sable River in Skukuza as the African sun set. 

Savoring every remaining moment we had, that night we enjoyed a traditional Braai, cooked up impala sausages and relived our favorite moments of the past 10 days as the Southern Cross rose in the sky above us. 

It was a trip of a lifetime indeed, but not once in a lifetime. We will be back, that is for certain. The experiences I had with my wife and daughter are priceless. 

I will treasure countless memories, such as piggybacking my little girl through the bushveld as we tracked animals, or watching my wife’s heart swell and soul smile as she got lost gazing into the African sunset. 

The opportunity to hunt here is no doubt amazing, but Africa is not just a hunting destination. You do not have to be an avid hunter to go and enjoy it. There is so much more to experience. 

As R. Elliot once wrote, “If you only visit two continents in your lifetime, visit Africa twice.”

Benjamin R. Hess, M.D., is an SCI member who lives in Griffin, Georgia.  

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