Despite lure of Victoria Falls, the country has few tourists


December 30, 1990|By Josh Hammer | Josh Hammer,Universal Press Syndicate

Every evening, just before dusk, the elephants come down to drink in the Ngamo Flats at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Groups of a dozen or more lumber across the sand toward the "pans" that turn to mud in the southern African dry season. They siphon water with their great trunks, trumpeting angrily whenever the occasional train roars past on Hwange's border.

Chris Van Wyk, a strapping Afrikaner, likes to think of the rituaas his own private elephant show. "I've been running safaris here for three years," he told me, rolling his R's in classic Boer style. "And I don't think I've missed a single performance."

Tonight, as we emerged from the acacia forest in Mr. Van Wyk'Toyota Land Rover, he gestured sharply to his right: A herd of 50 elephants rumbled away in fright, kicking up clouds of white Kalahari desert sand. But one old bull lingered in a water hole 50 yards from us, oblivious to our intrusion. Mr. Van Wyk descended from the vehicle, scattered sand, then, satisfied that we were downwind of the keen-smelling, nearsighted beast, silently motioned me forward till we were just a few long strides away.

Suddenly, he froze -- we'd moved a little too close. The bull haemerged from the pan and was plodding straight at us, raising his mud-covered tusks. Mr. Van Wyk began running backward, slapping a cartridge into his Winchester and locking the bolt. Distracted or confused, the elephant turned away.

Hwange National Park sits on the high semidesert plains in thnorthwest corner of Zimbabwe, formerly called Rhodesia after British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. This arid "safari belt" once was the country's war zone. My visit during the African winter last August came 10 years after black Patriotic Front guerrillas, led by Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe, triumphed in their struggle to topple the white-minority regime and created the new nation of Zimbabwe.

The Rhodesian war, which lasted from 1972 to 1980, killed more than 15,000 people in sporadic bush clashes and raids on army bases and white homesteads. Within a few months of independence, 150,000 of Rhodesia's white population of 250,000 had fled, many resettling in South Africa. There they could continue the life of privilege that had disappeared from the rest of the continent.

Today a traveler in Zimbabwe has the sense of a nation finally apeace. Some of the 100,000 white "Rhodies" who remain are prospering like Mr. Van Wyk by running safaris in the very bush where they spent the civil war. Blacks, who constitute 99 percent of the 9.5 million people and who were held back under the white-minority regime, now dominate the civil service in Zimbabwe's cities and, in the bush, are making slow inroads in the tourist business.

The apartheid that blights South Africa has become an odioumemory here -- although many Rhodies' sense of racial superiority hardly has dimmed with black independence.

Zimbabwe does resemble South Africa in one respect -- in effortprotect its resources. The 14,000-square-mile Hwange has 18,000 elephants, among the greatest herds in Africa, and the Zambezi Valley is the last sanctuary of the endangered black rhino. Because of the Civil War, tourism has been slow to develop in Zimbabwe, and concessions that dole out huge chunks of wilderness to a single safari operator, like Mr. Van Wyk, aren't that unusual. That has kept Zimbabwe from becoming marred by the crowds and the commercialization of Kenya, which most Americans think of when they consider an African safari.

Even Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe's prime tourist attraction, feels virtually undiscovered. In the early morning, I reached the 300-foot-high falls via a dirt path through the rain forest. I paid one Zimbabwean dollar (40 cents) to a sleepy clerk, and then walked along a muddy precipice in solitude before the misting, mile-wide cascade. But nowhere is the wildness, openness and isolation of Zimbabwe better experienced than at a camp such as Mr. Van Wyk's, a handful of tents down a gravel track in the southeast corner of Hwange Park.

A half-dozen luxury tents -- each equipped with a cot, kerosenstove, night table and folding chair -- were pitched beneath leadwood and ebony trees, lush green canopies that offered protection from Hwange's easterly winds. Mr. Van Wyk and his Ndebele workers were moving the camp from one clearing to another 500 yards away, digging latrines, laying pipe from a well and erecting thatched canopies to shelter the tents. I was his only guest during the transition period.

Mr. Van Wyk spent three days driving me in his Land Rovethrough the acacia forests, sand flats, palm groves and savannah of Hwange. Frequently we descended from the vehicle and tracked the reserve's bountiful game -- giraffe, rhino, bush buck -- on foot. We saw no other tourists, no other vehicles.

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