A Vein Of Gold In The Bush

We move in a crouch, slowly and quietly, up from the bottom of the shallow ravine toward the flat ground. This is the dry season, and leaves rustle underfoot. A magnificent bull elephant wanders over to investigate, trunk swinging as he lumbers to the edge of the meadow and looks down. We freeze, but our hearts race as we watch five tons of raw energy glowering at us from 100 feet away. Our guide's rifle looks unimpressive against the prospect of a charging elephant.

This is the latest in a series of encounters with wild beasts in the game-rich bush country of South Africa. I've seen the sensuous, kinetic grace of a leopard surging through the bush and the brutal ballet of a pair of giraffes fighting for dominance by neck-butting--whipping their heads through the air and smashing their necks against one another. I could hear the thuds.

EXPANSION PLANS. I'm a guest at a privately owned game reserve on the edge of South Africa's Kruger National Park. Located in the northeastern part of the country, Kruger is nearly as large as Israel and one of the country's top tourist attractions. It hosted 700,000 visitors last year.

Tourism is booming in what locals invariably call the "new" South Africa, the country that was reborn 19 months ago when Nelson Mandela took office as its first black President. Kruger's best bush tours are booked up months ahead, so I've gone to Honeyguide Tented Safari Camp, one of dozens gf private reserves on Kruger's western boundary. In the first seven months of this year, overseas tourist visits to South Africa were up 70% from last year, and the number of visitors from Hong Kong, where I live, is up 150%. Officials expect that the number of overseas visitors will triple, to 2.3 million, by 2000.

"Ecotourism is a critical reason for coming to South Africa," says Ernie Heath, deputy executive director of the South African Tourism Board. His sentiment is echoed by virtually everyone. "We predict fantastic growth," says Paul Marais, one of the partners of Enter Africa Safaris, the Johannesburg-based travel agency that arranged my safari. Four-year-old Enter Africa, which specializes in trips into the bush for overseas visitors, projects a 90% increase in its business this year.

Southern Africa's future as a major tourist destination depends in large part on its ability to offer a wilderness experience unlike any other. So government officials want to effectively triple the size of Kruger, now 7,333 square miles, by setting up contiguous parks in Mozambique and Zimbabwe and taking down fences that separate Kruger from adjacent game reserves. Other nations, such as Germany and Norway, promise financial support, and the World Bank is providing feasibility studies and technical support. Robbie Robinson, chief executive director of South Africa's National Parks Board, says he believes park expansion will happen "in the next few years."

But expansion depends on political stability in the region. Kruger has been plagued by refugees and poachers from Mozambique, until recently the scene of a brutal civil war. Officials here hope the end to fighting will make both refugees and poaching easier to control, allowing the government to pay more attention to the new park.

RESENTMENT. Local people must be convinced that parks and game reserves are more than playthings for the rich. Four of every five rural black South Africans live at or under subsistence level, often earning less in a year than the cost of a night in a posh game lodge. Tourism accounts directly for about 480,000 jobs in this country of 42 million people, and Heath says that growth in tourism is expected to create some 110,000 more jobs in the next five years. Tourism is one of South Africa's top foreign-exchange earners and is expected to bring in more than $20 billion over the next five years.

Although the conspicuous wealth of foreign tourists doesn't sit well with many locals, there is widespread support at the top for the parks. Shortly after Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Robinson invited him to Kruger. "It was a very moving experience for me as a white South African to try to convince a person our society locked away for 27 years how important national parks are," he says.

Under Mandela, who has appointed a close ally to oversee national parks, the government is trying to make sure the benefits of tourism trickle down to local communities, particularly to the black population. "It's part and parcel of the whole transformation of South Africa," says Robinson. So operators of the national parks, which run on a profit-making basis, are making an effort to buy more locally grown food and market locally made handicrafts. Instead of bringing in heavy machinery, some game preserves hire local workers for tasks such as clearing bush, and they're training locals to operate heavy equipment. In a country that badly needs to generate jobs to defuse its racial and economic tensions, tourism could be one of South Africa's best hopes.

WINE LIST. Most of my fellow Hong Kong travelers endured the 13-hour flight to Johannesburg to enjoy its game and gaming, since South Africa boasts casinos as well as crocs and kudus. I'm taking my risks in the bush, not at the tables, so I proceed directly to Honeyguide, named for a local bird. Located in the Manyeleti reserve, Honeyguide and its tents are designed to evoke the Africa of Ernest Hemingway--without the hunting.

But the staff outnumber the dozen guests, and the service is more like that of a hotel than a camp. Our hearty, family-style meals are accompanied by a well-chosen selection of South African wines. Spacious tents allow us to feel more a part of nature than we would at a pricier lodge.

Our days at Honeyguide begin at dawn, with the thud-thud-thud of a drum, the bush equivalent of an alarm clock. After a breakfast of tea and rusks, left outside our tents, we climb into Land Rovers that have rifles racked on the dashboards.

Howard, our guide, drives, while Colin, the tracker, sits on a special seat mounted on the front of the vehicle. He flicks his index finger toward a tree where two giant eagle owls sleep in the thick foliage. Disturbed, they fly off, lumbering on massive wings through a wooded streambed. We come upon a herd of more than 200 buffalo clustered around a water hole, their blue-brown horns looking like ill-fitted wigs. As we stop for morning tea, we watch crocodiles, hippos, monkeys, and an African spoonbill. In the afternoon, there are game walks. I observe a tree full of green pigeons and admire termite mounds that rise higher than my head.

Over the three days, I see Africa's so-called Big Five--elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard--as well as warthog, wildebeest, impala, zebra and other animals. We watch a pride of lions sunning, herds of zebra grazing, giraffes drinking. One of my biggest surprises is discovering that with a few exceptions, such as black rhinos, big game is plentiful in much of southern Africa. In fact, Kruger has so many elephants that it must cull them annually to keep them from destroying the vegetation. Last year, rangers killed 300 elephants.

It is a superb place indeed. I hope the dreams of Robinson and others come true and that Kruger becomes an even more magnificent reserve on a globe where wilderness tends to be hacked away.

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