Over the last year we have been receiving more and more interest in rock pigeon shooting in South Africa and, as I sit at my desk reminiscing about my recent trip, I understand why. I was joined by three guests, two of whom had travelled with me in 2017, on a trip which showed the other side to looking for reliable destinations. It was a disaster, the outfitter promised high volume shooting and we hardly saw a pigeon, but we did have a taste of what should have been on offer. Fortunately the trip had always been sold as a research trip and the guys were very understanding. They both immediately signed up to join me again in 2018.
In the build-up it was decided that I would travel with my gun to experience the process in order to advise clients that might be interested in taking their own. My advice would remain the same, borrow a gun out there and they have promised to get some 20 bores as soon as they can. The reason for this is you never know when something is going to happen that can severely impact your plans, as happened to us on the return journey, more on that later. Up until that point the whole processes had been pretty simple although frustrating at times. At least 30 days before departure you need to fill out the SAPS 520 application form. We then use Africa Skies Lodge to preauthorise all the paperwork in advance for you. This removes any paperwork on arrival at Johannesburg. With the check-in process done at Heathrow and the rather eye-watering bill of £180 paid for the extra bag and the firearm levy paid (note that was each way), I was handed over to G4S who escorted me through the airport to their offices where we dealt with the accompanying paperwork. The final stage in the process is checking the gun out of the country with customs. Easy to do if there is a customs official, but we had to wait 45 minutes for someone to travel from Terminal 3 to 5. How it is acceptable to not have any customs officials in one of the busiest terminals in the world, I don’t know. With the gun checked out of the country I was cleared to go.
We arrived into Johannesburg with the team meeting up either at the baggage carousel or in the arrivals hall. There we were met by Ralton who was one of the professional hunters that would be looking after us for the duration of our stay. Ralton took me to the firearms officials where my gun was waiting. After a quick serial number check we were cleared and on our way, super easy. The normal routing for this trip would be to fly into Johannesburg then on to Bloemfontein. Unfortunately for us, South African Airways had decided to cancel our flight down, so rather than rebook a later flight we opted for the four-hour journey by car. This would get us to the hotel in time for lunch and into the shooting fields shortly afterwards. The journey was fine and went without a hitch; a couple of us spent most of the journey catching up, while others relaxed and caught up on some sleep across the back seat.
We arrived at the Tredenham Boutique Hotel where we met Dylan and his girlfriend Zaendre (or Poppie as she is known). Dylan was one of the other professional hunters that would be looking after us. Poppie was there to help ensure everything went smoothly and also was in charge of preparing our food in the field. Lunch was waiting for us as planned. As its name suggests, the hotel is a small 10-bedroom boutique hotel on the outskirts of Bloemfontein. The rooms are spacious and well equipped and the service is on point. The food was excellent and very well presented, I could only fault it because there was too much of it.
After lunch we changed and met our bird guides at the front of the hotel. Each gun is assigned a guide for the week and if you return they try to ensure you get the same guy again assuming you got on well! My guide was call Gorpse and he was one of the most attentive guides I have ever had; it was the little details such as making sure my ear defenders were switched off each night (although he might not have bothered as my gundog in training took them out of my bag this morning and dismantled them!). Introductions out of the way and we were back into the van and off to the shooting fields, where we were told the pigeons where streaming in! The journey time was approximately 30 minutes, some days it will be longer, some days shorter, it all depends on where the birds are feeding. Working out where the birds are going is the job of Albert, the head scout.
Before discussing the shooting I would like to explain the logistics further and what equipment to take. One of the massive bonuses of South Africa over Argentina is the ease of getting there. A ten-hour overnight flight followed by a further one-hour flight or a four-hour transfer and you are there ready to go with no jet lag. Compare this to Argentina which typically takes two days to get to and jet lag comes into play. The return journey is equally simple, making this a great trip for a long weekend. In terms of kit, it is fairly simple as well. You will need 2/3 sets of field clothing, casual clothing for the evening, a comfy set of boots, shooting glasses, gloves, ear protection and a shooting jacket. My personal kit was a couple of pairs of linen trousers and shirts in drab colours. During the five days we spent out there the temperature sat at a steady 24° during the day so sun cream was required. I also packed my trusty Courtney boots which have not missed a beat in 12 trips to Africa and you could argue they are only just getting worn in. For a shooting jacket I took a Schoffel Stamford Vest which was perfect for the job. Some other recommendations are a good field bag such as the Frontiers’ field bag, arnica cream, a clicker and some waterproof clothing just in case you get caught in some unseasonal rain. The hotel offers a same day laundry service which is fantastic and helps you cut down on what you need to take with you.
We were a team of four, so the guys had set up four pigeon hides in a line, each about 40 yards apart – think a line of grouse butts. We did not draw pegs but decided as a team to move hides each day. This was a great way of doing it as each hide offered something different and unique but most importantly everyone got plenty of shooting. The shooting was done on flight lines rather than over decoys. Typically there are two flights per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. As these are wild birds it is subject to change. We experienced non-stop action from about 10.30 am through to 3.30 pm when the tap turned off and the birds stopped flying and we had a much appreciated sundowner. Having said that you do need to go out there and be prepared for a degree of flexibility. The Frontiers’ team before us were up at 4.30 am and had two very distinct flights. On most days they opted to return to the hotel for lunch and to freshen up before heading back to the fields for the afternoon flight. Each day can be different and you need to be prepared to adjust.
So what makes this shooting so special? Well, the Rockies (or rock pigeons) can claim the credit for this; they are fast, alert and numerous. So how fast are they? We were told they think they fly at about 62mph (100 km/hour). Can I confirm this? Not exactly, but what I can tell you is they easily pulled away from my drone which has a max speed of 40mph (65km/hour). I have no reason to not believe this claim. This means these birds are flying at 8 mph slower than a grouse – the fastest of the game species. Are they alert? As with all pigeon species once you point a gun at them they react and react quickly. There were times when all of us found ourselves waiving our gun at a covey and having them whip over our heads without a shot being fired. This certainly gets you scratching your head! Are they numerous? With humans having a larger impact on nature than the Almighty intended it is not really surprising that species are having to adapt. Rockies got their name because they used to nest on rocks and cliffs. This has now changed as more and more urban development spreads across Africa. Houses, offices and shopping malls provide the ideal breeding grounds for these birds. They are prolific breeders, each pair will lay 1-3 eggs 2-3 times a year, incubation last 14-18 days and the chicks leave the nest 20-25 days later. Their feeding habits are where they come into conflict with humans. One of their favourite food sources is the sunflower seed and they will travel up to 100 km in a day to dine out on a ripe field. A pigeon will consume 30g of seeds each day and farmers lose on average 20-30% of their sunflower crops. In some instances, it is so bad it is not even worth the farmers harvesting the crop and they just plough it back into the earth and start over.
Back to the shooting! As mentioned previously you are in a line of hides spaced about 40 yards apart. On the end of the lines the team put out flags and park the vehicles in visible spots to help funnel the birds into the line and this works. The rock pigeons will never land on the lead edge of the field, they prefer the centre as it is a safer location for them so decoys are not required. The pigeons fly into the fields in packs of 10 to 100 birds which come fairly continuously during the day. There is the odd lull but these breaks are appreciated as it gives you a chance to take a drink of water and catch your breath. Throughout our five days shooting we experienced various conditions which affected how the birds flew. If you have wind then they hit the deck and come through the line like grouse. We did have a game fence in front of the hides which caused them to lift slightly but if that had not been there then we would have been in the best grouse shooting school on the planet. On our final day the wind dropped which caused the birds to lift, but this provided some equally challenging shooting which caused some averages to plummet.
Lunches were either done in the shade of an acacia tree or in your hide depending on your preference. A couple of us opted for the shade while the other two paused to inhale their lunches before getting back to work. Interestingly enough this was very much reflected on shot tally. Speaking of shot tallies, excluding myself, the team averaged between 550 and 650 shots per day. I shot about half the amount of the others as I was working my camera and drone footage. The best total for one gun was 244 in one day, that is one hell of a day on the pigeons and stuff we dream of back home but here it happens nearly every day. The team was made up of very experienced guns who all shoot well. Between us we fired 10,300 cartridges and shot about 3000 birds, averaging 3.5 to 1 over the 5 days – the team on the ground were quite impressed.
Before we knew it our time in the fields had come to an end and all that remained was to settle up our extras. On top of the cost of the trip, the other costs to consider are the cartridges and tips. Our largest cartridge bill was £1,200 and the tips per person worked out at £340, which covered the professional hunters, bird boys and hotel staff. So time for us to head home. After a quick lunch at the hotel we headed on our way. We arrived into Bloemfontein airport an hour and a half early to find our flight had just been delayed. This cut our transfer window in Jo’burg from three hours to two, and I started to feel the pangs of regret for travelling with my guns. Flying internally in South Africa with guns could not be easier. You present your gun and paperwork at check-in and the gun gets taken away along with the paperwork. The paperwork returned about 10 minutes later and all was done. There was no having to pay for extra bags, the G4S service or being escorted through the airport, it just happened like the old days and it was refreshing. Upon arrival into Johannesburg things started to fall apart. Once you collect your bags in the domestic terminal you have to go to the Firearms counter. Unhelpfully the counter is not marked so you have to go into the arrivals hall where I located it. The kind lady then pointed out my gun would not fit through the bank tellers style window and I would have to go back to the luggage hall. The others left me at this point to go check in. Now airports are great if you follow the one-way system but if you try and fight against it you quite rightly get stopped and questioned. This happened when I tried to return to the luggage hall. With that out of the way I located the little black door opposite carousel 5.
The lady did not have my gun but made a phone call. “It’s on its way,” she assured me. 15 minutes later still no sign of it, and she went off to look for it. 15 minutes later she returned and we completed the paperwork. I grabbed my trolley and started to run through the airport. Boarding for my flight started in an hour. Fortunately, I have spent quite a lot of time in Jo’burg airport so I knew where I was going. I got over to the BA check-in desks 45 minutes before boarding time. I got what everyone who has ever travelled with guns dreads, a check-in assistant who has never done a firearm. Tick Tock. I stood there for another 40 minutes getting more and more frustrated. The hold-up was she could not work out how to take the payment for another £180. The G4S lady was waiting and at one point threatened to walk off, I had to beg her to stay. As the clock struck boarding time they took payment. The G4S lady was once again super-efficient and earned a nice tip as a result. I strapped my running shoes on again and headed for gate A17. I made it just as the rest of the team were boarding the plane. So if you ask me if you should travel with your guns I will answer, “No”. There are too many variables that are out of your control that can potentially ruin your trip, I had a close call but I am still youngish, if I had not been able to take the airport at a run I would not have made it.
Some final thoughts. The four of us who went on this trip were all in agreement that we would prefer South Africa to Argentina. Logistically its easier with no jet lag and shooting pigeons vs doves is just that much more challenging. That said if numbers are your main focus then Argentina will still remain the king of the high-volume shoot. If you are a regular grouse shot then nothing I have experienced to date will offer you the same opportunity to practice as this and for the cost of three brace a day it should certainly be a consideration for keeping your eye in during the off season, the one caveat to this is you really need a breeze to push the birds down. A note on team sizes: they can cater for 2 to 10 guns, but we all felt that a team of 4-6 would be the ideal group size. The ideal times to go are March (needs to be booked later in the year as the availability will depend on the rains and when the crops get planted), April and May. The guys that came with me all signed up on the spot to return next year providing the dates work for them, which says a lot for the product and the team on the ground that made it all possible. A big thank you has to go out to Mark, Dylan, Poppie, Ralton, Albert and the team of bird boys that made the week so enjoyable, also to Keith and Simon who returned once again and of course to Peter for joining the team, it was a good craic!