FREDERICK — — If fiftysomething basketball players can spend thousands of dollars on fantasy camps with the likes of Coach K and MJ, if golfers make similar pilgrimages to the sport's birthplace in Scotland, why shouldn't hunters do the same at exotic venues in Africa?
That is what Johnny Schickerling and his wife, Mariana, have been counting on, having converted their family's 37,000-acre cattle ranch into Agarob Hunting Safaris— a hunting-on-horseback operation in Namibia — more than 20 years ago. It is what Erik Terblanche, a former electrical engineer, was relying on when he started Amanita Safaris around 1995 in his native South Africa.
They and others have targeted a large, passionate and financially stable audience — Americans interested in big-game hunting — and turned it into profitable businesses. Though not quite as bulletproof as before the recession, these outfitters remain a viable option for folks trying to check off a line on their hunting bucket list or just celebrate a birthday with a big round number.
"They might have come for seven or eight days before, and now they come for three or four days," Mariana Schickerling said. "But they still come."
Mariana Schickerling said Namibia's government is pro-hunting because the U.S. dollars help in the country's animal conservation and because relaxed gun laws make it easy for hunters to get through customs with little hassle.
Though the costs can be eye-opening — reaching five figures quite easily and escalating from there, depending on the animals, or trophies, that are shot — the African safari outfitters who came to the E-ventplex at the Frederick Fairgrounds this weekend for the annual NRA Great American Hunting & Outdoor Show say hunters can spend as much going to Alaska or taking their family on a Caribbean cruise.
"You can make up your own little package, because the package can change every morning," said Mariana Schickerling, who along with her husband was making her first trip to a Maryland show after coming to other shows across the country for the past 11 years. "They will see an animal and say, 'Can I shoot this? It's not on the package.' We have clients who have to call their wives to wire them more money."
Johnny Schickerling favors Americans over Europeans "because they don't smoke, they don't drink too much, they're easier to be with." He said he books 25 to 40 hunts per year, mostly from April through September.
"You don't want to kill off all the animals in a year," Johnny Schickerling said.
Those who have experienced hunting on the Schickerling's ranch prefer it to hunting in the United States because the ratio of animals to hunters can be tenfold, even hundredfold.
It's the proverbial kid in the candy store, except that kid is carrying a high-powered hunting rifle.
"If you go to Namibia with an open mind, every time the horse crests the hill, you never know what you're going to see," said Ed Carter, a retail store manager from Ephrata, Pa., who went on his first trip there three years ago and is returning this year with his wife, Beth, for their 25th wedding anniversary. "When you hunt around here, it's for whitetail deer or turkeys or bears — that's it."
Rege Podraza, a retired schoolteacher from outside Pittsburgh who now helps book hunts for Terblanche on his 5,500-acre property in South Africa, said American hunters accustomed to seeing a small herd of whitetail are awed by the numbers of animals they see in close proximity.
"You're not going to see one; you're going to see 100," Podraza said.
With nearly two dozen species of animals to take as trophies — mostly elklike kudus as well as oryx and Hartmann's Mountain zebras — the Schickerlings' clientele has transformed from mostly European to "99 percent" American, many of them repeat customers.
One of her favorite visitors is a Texan who came for three weeks in the spring of 2010, returned for a month later in the year and last year came for three months. Another is an 81-year old man from Montana who is returning for his second two-month stay in as many years.
Maybe it's the mean zebraschnitzel Mariana Schickerling makes.
"I can remember eating the zebraschnitzel, but I don't think I touched anything else on the table," Ed Carter said. "If she had it here, we'd be fighting over it."
Having hunted all over the United States, Carter said hunting in mountainous Namibia "is a completely different environment." Even the 52-mile drive from the country's airport in the Namibian capital of Windhoek "is breathtaking," Carter said.
Local regulations permit hunters in Namibia to shoot only two of a certain species, Johnny Schickerling said, with the exception of leopards (only two per year on the property) and cheetahs, which are not allowed to be imported into the United States.