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November 1994
In a Strange Land: South Africa's Kruger Park

By Mia MacDonald


It is difficult to know what to say about South Africa, such a strange, disturbing and yet familiar and exhilarating place. Only five months after this year’s elections, the country is really a whole new world; and yet, the old world is still readily found.

In a week’s trip that took me to Johannesburg, Soweto and Kruger Park on the eastern border with Mozambique (another country about to enter the “recovery” stage), I saw hippos sheltering their sensitive skin wading neck-deep into the Sabie river, stood in front of Nelson Mandela’s Soweto home — the fence posts painted in ANC colors — and listened to township jazz with black and white yuppies in an upscale Johannesburg winebar.
Why would I travel 1000 kilometers within South Africa to see uncaged animals when it is newly unfettered people who are the big story? Maybe, I thought, I could experience both, and get a better sense of what this strange new South Africa was all about. So I booked a four day tour with a Johannesburg-based company, at the expensive price of about $400 for transportation, lodging and breakfast and dinner each day.

Departure was at 6:30 am in a small white minivan, our safari car for the trip’s duration (visitors are not allowed to leave their vehicles in Kruger). The driver/guide was a young (white) woman and seasoned wildlife watcher, who remained skeptical about the changes taking place in South Africa. “Mandela’s OK,” she said, “but what if the next president is one of those Marxist types? Then what?” The other four members of the tour were a Canadian couple and two spry 77 year-olds from New Zealand.

We drove northeast from Johannesburg, through vast agricultural lands, the remnants of gold mines, and the Drackensburg mountain range that in many places looks like the Grand Canyon. Along the way, we passed small groups of black farm workers, waiting by the side of the road for private minivan taxis that are their only source of transportation. Our van had six people; many of the “taxis” regularly carry 20 or 25 people. We also passed several groups of women traders selling fruit, carved statues and wood necklaces by the road.

At one stop, I bought oranges, bananas, and a beaded necklace imported from Swaziland. One woman asked if I could help her get a job in Johannesburg. “There’s no factory near here,” she said, “and I need a job.” Feeling inadequate, I told her I was sorry I couldn’t help her; here I was seeing the dislocations and dispossession of centuries of racist policies. The conundrum of South Africa; small islands of huge wealth, surrounded by a vast sea of poverty.

We reached Kruger Park at about 11 am on the second morning of our journey, and entered through an inauspicious-looking gate. Two giraffes were eating buds from trees nearby. Giraffes! I said they must be tame, wards of the gatekeepers. No, our guide assured me. “They’ve known cars and people all their lives. They see the van as some kind of strange, humming animal and they’re not afraid.” In those first hours in the Park, we saw more giraffes (almost always in pairs or threes), herds of kudu — a type of antelope — impala (graceful, small gazelles with black and white rumps), a hornbill, zebra and, visible only through binoculars, a large male lion resting after a meal. As we pulled into one of the many camps in Kruger, we saw at least six elephants, watching and eating nearby. They were bigger and grayer and calmer than their sad relatives who fill our circuses and zoos. The landscape was a mat of dried grass, light brown from the sun and lack of rain. There were more trees than I expected, singly and in clumps between low bushes and open ground. Few trees or bushes had leaves, the landscape just emerging from winter. Greenery was abundant only near the dry riverbeds and watering holes.

During that first day’s lunch I thought about what I had seen. It was hard to accept: the animals were real, autonomous beings doing what they naturally do. It was like a form of cognitive dissonance to me, so used to dioramas, Disney, natural habitat zoos and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. How could this not be just like Wildlife Safari or some other ill-named place in New Jersey I drove through as a kid where lions and elephants surrounded our car as if on cue? No one had lured the lion to his spot under the tree, just close enough to be seen, or had encouraged the elephants to come near our lunch spot to eat. That tree branch placed just there, that acacia tree providing just the right nesting place for the tawny eagle, the sandy riverbank perfectly suited for a crocodile’s afternoon snooze.

After about 24 hours and 15 giraffes, 10 elephants and a mother and infant black rhino (highly endangered throughout Africa, due to the market and its horn serving as a medicinal potion or a dagger handle in China, Taiwan, and Yemen), I got used to seeing the animals: a very green parrot in a leafless tree; vervet monkeys grooming each other aggressively by a water hole, smaller and quicker than I expected; zebra gathering by the road — each pattern unique — and watching their skins blend into the surroundings as the sun fell lower in the sky; a tawny eagle, finishing a meal. The most American of birds, he was absolutely exotic to me, never having seen one in the landscape of my own continent. Animals appeared and didn’t; often we drove for miles without spotting any fauna and our eyes got lazy. In the early morning a harried-looking hyena ran across the road and into the low bushes; more elephants sheltered below the trees, moving slowly to make sure the small ones (just visible through binoculars) stayed with the rest of the family; and about eight buffalo munched on buds just beside the road. A baboon jumped on the van’s window, his dark, wizened face looking into mine before rejoining his compatriots, including several mothers with nursing infants.

I was not jaded by experiencing these things, just more secure in knowing and seeing that they were real and free and just being (who and what they are).

For two nights our camp bordered the Sabie River (still full of water, unlike the riverbeds we saw — empty). I could hear the roar of hippos as they became more boisterous in the evening. The sky was dark, and the unfamiliar Southern hemisphere stars bright until the moon appeared; the bugs were loud all night. In the afternoons, elephants roamed the opposite riverbank, feeding on trees and buds and the dry grass.

The “camp,” as our guide Chris called it, was casual, pleasant and not too obtrusive to the landscape. It too, however, had elements of unreality. Strips of dried ostrich were packed in plastic bags and on sale in the camp shop for snacking. The five course dinner in the timbered Great Hall-type restaurant featured “game” each evening. Tuesday was kudu kebab, but not the same kudu we had gaped at and photographed earlier that day. One of my Canadian tourmates indulged. I gulped and enjoyed my overboiled vegetable plate. Roast leg of warthog was the centerpiece Wednesday (s/he is a tourist sight when living). I ate alone and savored my rice and canned asparagus. Vegetarianism, it seems, is not big yet in Kruger Park. Chris assured us that none of the dinner fare came from Kruger — the kudu and warthog and buffalo and other entrées were raised on private game farms bordering the park.

The other oddity that hit: every tourist was white (South African, European and me, the only American I saw), while every service person was black — the cabin cleaning staff, the waiters, the guards at the gate, the cashiers. Just about every manager was white and kitted out in brown shorts and a shirt. Relations between the races seemed cordial, but the color divide was eerie, like a Eugene Terreblanche script for the new South Africa made real. Most of the rangers are black, although the chief ranger staff is predominantly white. Chris said many of the young black men were coming up and would soon become rangers of higher rank, running the park someday. She said this in good faith and I believed her.

Our last morning in the Park we looked for a pride of lions, as we had each morning. They did not cross our path. A starling and a cormorant did; we also saw a tsessebe antelope (rare, Chris said) and an acacia tree. We left through the Kruger gate, past a huge statue of the founder, a Boer who had had 16 children. Soon after leaving the Park, the landscape changed into fruit groves and cultivated fields. By the roadside young men sold carved wood animals but we didn’t stop until we got to the Golden Egg restaurant and rest-stop an hour from Johannesburg. I sat on a bench and had tea. Kruger Park seemed far away.

Two days later I went to Soweto with a friend who had grown up there. We sat in her mother’s house and drank Coke and she explained that the house was hot in summer and cold in winter because the roof, like most in Soweto, was made of asbestos. Soweto had almost no trees. The apartheid government chopped them all down before they built any shacks or bungalows. Trees, they reckoned, provide shade, succor, life — and a place to hide.

When I think of South Africa, I think of hippos barking or braying or singing in the twilight; of the extraordinary transformation taking place in that country; and gather hope from the fact that, within the desiccated sprawl of Soweto, President Mandela’s house is surrounded by tall trees.

Mia MacDonald is a long-time animal activist and writer. She lives in Brooklyn.


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