Eyes on the Veld

Deep in South Africa's interior sprawls Kruger National Park, the crown jewel of game preserves with 2,500 lions, 2,750 rhinos, 8,500 elephants, 30,000 zebras, 100,000 impalas...and 650 miles of boundary wire keeping animals in and poachers out. Welcome to the postmodern Eden, where everyone behaves—or else.

Outside

Outside    

 
   

Kruger's "general code of conduct" for visitors lists 18 items, 17 of which begin with the phrase "It is an offense." (The 18th employs, for variety's sake, the injunction "You may not.") I felt like I was reading Leviticus. "It is an offense," begins item number 11, "to drive or park in such a manner that is a nuisance, disturbance, or inconvenience to other people."

On entering the park, you will have your trunk searched for contraband, and you will be handed a "travel document" that you must carry everywhere. Your travel document will remind you that when heading off on a self-guided "game drive," the primary form of recreation in the park, you must "stay in your car at all times," or at least until you've reached an official, fenced-in rest camp. That is, of course, for your own protection; there are real wild animals out there. (In 1998, a refugee was devoured by lions, and a park ranger was killed by a leopard.) The speed limit is a strictly enforced 50 kilometers (31 miles) per hour. On my third day in the park, I was caught cruising ten miles per hour over the limit and flagged down by a pistol-waving patrolman. I surrendered my passport; he gave me a stern lecture. "How long do you stay in Kruger?" he asked, initially addressing me in Afrikaans, which is, much to the chagrin of Afrikaners, no longer the sole official language of South Africa. Two more weeks, I replied. "Then you are in trouble," he said. "You speed again, we expel you from the park."

 

If you are inclined to experience Kruger on foot and you're one of the lucky few who has reserved a coveted spot on a "bush walk," you will walk in a single file, accompanied at the front of the line by a voluble white section ranger and trailed by a silent black assistant, both carrying automatic rifles. I went on one such stroll in the remote northwestern fringe of the park. My chipper guide, Frank Watts, wore tight khaki shorts and bright green gaiters and took my group along the banks of the sluggish Letaba River, which was lined by thickets of mapane trees. Watts enthusiastically pointed out the remarkable, sand-castle-like formations of termite mounds, which spiraled ten feet above the ground; implored us to admire a herd of grazing waterbucks; and instructed us to listen to the exhalations of hippos wading in the current. Wilson, the black assistant, scouted the terrain for signs of danger like a Secret Service marksman. It was hard not to feel like a prisoner allowed out for his hour of recreation.

  

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