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A year ago this spring a knowledgeable big-game hunter from Massachusetts set out for Africa to go on a three-week river-boat safari. Everything had been planned months in advance. The letters from the white hunter had glowingly described the abundance of game, the tranquility of the river at night and the comforts of houseboat living. But when the hunter arrived, he discovered that 1) the river was bone-dry and had been for three months; 2) even if the river had been brimming, thick clumps of weeds made it unnavigable for most of its length; and 3) the "luxurious home afloat" was in reality a badly battered barge with a fiberboard shack for a cabin. This unfortunate experience is not as uncommon as it might seem. Talk with any 10 Americans who have hunted or fished outside the U.S. and you will hear tale after sad tale of sleazy outfitters, drunken guides, tasteless food, poor accommodations, and on and on. More often than not, these sportsmen have been swindled by outfitters who sell through intriguing advertisements in outdoor magazines and by direct mail. Often equally unreliable are those travel agents who sell hunting trips as sidelines to their regular tourist business, agents who have had no firsthand experience in the countries, let alone with the outfitters they are representing. Thus the problem for sportsmen has been not so much where to go, but whom to believe. Now, happily, an organization that can be believed proposes to help solve the problem. Winchester-Western, makers of sporting arms and ammunition, is going into the travel business. Under the name Winchester Safaris, the company is offering package hunting tours to nine foreign countries as well as to Alaska and several areas in the continental U.S. The tours, which will be sold through key Winchester dealers, run the gamut from duck, goose and dove shooting in Baja California to wild boar, puma and stag hunting on the Argentine pampas, brown bear in Alaska, red-legged partridge in Portugal, a tiger shikar in India and African safaris in Kenya and Tanzania.
"It all began a year ago when we took a hard look at the future of recreational shooting in the U.S.," says Winchester's Jack Peat. "Our first major endeavor had been the Winchester public trap and skeet program [SI, Jan. 17, 1966]. The next step, started last year, was a shooting and hunting seminar program, in which we develop new shooters—men, women and children—from the ground up, by offering a weekend of instruction in gun safety and handling, as well as shooting at clays and game birds on a preserve. Winchester Safaris is a natural extension of this—to promote new and exciting places, with the Winchester seal of approval, for Americans to shoot."
During the past year Winchester representatives and Peter Capstick, the president of Sportsmen International, Inc., a Manhattan-based travel agency that specializes exclusively in hunting and fishing, personally surveyed all of the areas on the list. None of the tours will be cut-rate, nor will they be so expensive that only a select few can afford to sign up. Says Peat: "We are offering a variety of total service tours, with shooting and all the other arrangements—licenses, gun permits, guides, beaters and interpreters where necessary, and fishing whenever it is available—as promised. We will also be in constant touch with all of our outfitters. Thus if there is a poor partridge nesting season in Portugal and the shooting prospects look bad we'll cancel tours to Portugal."
Winchester is well aware that it is putting its reputation on the line, but if a recent survey trip to the company's setup in Scotland is any indication, Winchester's gamble will permit Americans to shoot around the world with complete confidence.
The county is Caithness, a remote part of northeast Scotland. The view from the manor house, Lochdhu (black lake), is a vast stretch of rolling hills covered with heather and peat and cut by scores of gurgling becks and burns. The laird of the manor is the Hon. Robin Sinclair, a tall, imposing man in kilt and otter sporran, hobnail brogues, trench coat and deer-stalker hat. Sinclair controls some 60,000 acres of grouse and stag moors, as well as the salmon fishing rights on the peat-stained Thurso River (1,636 salmon for 58 rods last year) and 25 inky lochs full of Loch Leven trout. Except for his schooling in England and five years as an RAF fighter pilot during World War II, Sinclair has spent his life on the Caithness moors, and he still finds them formidable.
But not even the wild land is quite as formidable as Lochdhu, a rambling heavy-stoned Victorian castle that was built in 1895 as a rustic shooting lodge by Sinclair's great-grandfather, Sir Tollemache. Sinclair has remodeled the building and made it more comfortable for shooting and fishing guests.
"Oddly enough," says Sinclair, "Sir Tollemache was not a sporting man, but he was a businessman. At the turn of the century Lochdhu was let for �1,000, a lot of lolly at the time. But the sport was really quite respectable."
The sport is still quite respectable—and reasonable enough by today's standards. A Winchester safari to Lochdhu— a week of "mixed sport" that includes grouse shooting, stag stalking, salmon and trout fishing from late August through the first week of October—costs about $750, not including air fare. Sinclair also offers, at lower prices, "rough shooting" for duck, snipe, partridge and pheasant, as well as stalking hinds (female red deer) from early November through January 15.
The red-grouse shooting on Sinclair's moors has always been done over well-trained English and Gordon setters. "If our bags aren't impressive by driven-shoot standards [a good average for two guns on a leisurely day's shooting is 10 brace]," says Sinclair, "they are big enough for most Americans used to far smaller limits. We can shoot our beats longer than we could by driving birds, and we can offer the sport at a more reasonable price."
The English sporting magazine The Field has compared the flight of a covey of red grouse to "bumpers bowled six at a time at cricket." What this means to American shooters is that the grouse uses every peat hag and heather clump to dip and dodge behind, and the most experienced guns may miss more birds than they bag.