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.

Nov 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

One night this past summer, staring through a wrought-iron gate topped with gleaming strands of electrified wire, I found myself standing only a few feet away from a spotted hyena. We made eye contact, which was all the gate permitted. I was in Kruger National Park, the oldest national park on the African continent and one of the most efficiently run wildlife preserves in the world. Situated in northeastern South Africa, Kruger drifts like an embattled landlocked island within the embrace of a vast fence. It's a strange place for a wild place to be. I had come to see how Kruger, established in 1898 as a fortified enclave for the pleasure of white animal-lovers, was faring in a post-apartheid world.

Kruger has about it the eerie stillness of the eternal. A long, narrow strip of land about as big as Israel, the park encompasses roughly five million acres of bushland—more than twice the size of Yellowstone—and runs some 260 miles from South Africa's border with Zimbabwe in the north down almost to Swaziland in the south, glancing warily the entire way over its long eastern boundary fence at Mozambique. The thick brown shrubs and stunted trees on its rolling savanna seem to stretch out endlessly beneath the frosted blue of a painted backdrop. Among its catalog of wonders: 147 species of mammals, 507 species of birds, 116 species of reptiles, 1,745 different plants, and 235 kinds of grass.

Most of the million or so tourists who visit Kruger each year don't come to look at the grass. In safari-going, which is big money, size counts, and Kruger is the cash cow of the South African national park system. Its profits—close to $10 million in 1998—subsidize smaller parks. Visitation at the park has doubled since the dismantling of apartheid in the early nineties, when, as one park manager told me, "we became acceptable to the world." The typical pilgrim spends his days cruising Kruger's 1,650 miles of paved and gravel roads hoping to catch a glimpse of the Big Five: buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard, and rhinoceros. Only the truly unlucky will strike out entirely. The animals, you see, can't get out. As one leading African ecologist told me, "It's an apartheid approach to conservation."

An electrical engineer named Louis Van der Merwe is Kruger's territorial fencemaster, and he suffers the continual headache of maintaining an estimated 650 miles of boundary wire. Sitting in his drab office in Skukuza, the park's administrative headquarters, one pleasant afternoon in early August, Van der Merwe, who has a close-cropped beard and a severe and suspicious manner, explained that the fencing of Kruger began in 1961. During Mozambique's long, South Africa–sponsored civil war, a portion of the fence on the park's eastern boundary conformed to military standards—meaning it was capable of providing interlopers with a lethal shock. The fence on the western boundary, built to keep out domestic foes, was strung with steel barbs. In recent years, Van der Merwe's workers have been busy installing a fence that is more in keeping with peacetime conditions; it stands about eight feet high and is composed of five thin lines of electrical wire. "The new fence generates an intermittent pulse of 10,000 volts," he said. "I tell you, it's not much. Yes, OK, it gives you a hell of a jolt. It's not pleasant, I assure you—but it won't kill you."

Every morning at 6 a.m., when the gate of the visitors' compound where I was staying was opened (it closed at 5:30 each evening, and stragglers were penalized with hefty fines), I would drive out and spend some time on the park's beautifully maintained roads, trying to catch a glimpse of the animals that Kruger's staff of 3,800 works so hard to fence in. I was rarely disappointed. It seemed as if the roadsides were littered with clusters of tawny impalas, their antlers swept back and their hindquarters marked with a black blaze like a brushstroke. Tallied at well over 100,000, they're the common pigeon of the territory. Blue wildebeests, sables, bushbucks, and waterbucks were less ubiquitous, but I encountered groups of them numerous times, as well as the occasional pride of lions reclining in the shade along the road, cooperating with the clicking shutters of amateur photographers. I would drive up a hill and come upon a vista of open terrain overrun by a huge herd of galloping zebras (Kruger has 30,000) or catch a sudden glimpse of masses of African buffalo (21,000) beside a stagnant pond. Once, when I stopped to watch some hippos wallowing in the mud along a riverbank right beside a pair of enormous crocodiles, I was taken aback by the sight of a giraffe chewing the leaves of an acacia tree not 30 feet beyond them; a few minutes later, five elephants moved out of the trees to wade in the stream. It gave me a hell of a jolt.

I was seeing the world as the fence-builders had intended it to be seen. Yet I was too disarmed by the park's beauty to ask myself if the zebras could no longer distinguish between wet and dry seasons because of hundreds of artificial watering holes, or what might befall the elephants if the park's guardians determined—as they traditionally have—that the size of the population was growing out of hand. Nor did I ask myself why it seemed that Kruger provided adequate representation of all indigenous species but one—African humans.

Such questions tend not to occur to those who spend time inside the fence—the fence that, true enough, was nowhere in sight from my vantage point each morning. Still, I knew that somewhere in the background, behind the groves of bushwillow and fever trees, the fence was there, doing its job, protecting the animals and maintaining the territory in a state of astonishing beauty, serenity, and artificially guaranteed wildness. Good fences make good nature.