Grunting hippos herald South Africa's New Year

January 01, 1993|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

PILANESBURG GAME RESERVE, South Africa -- There were no fireworks but lots of action on New Year's Eve in this ancient valley.

Before dawn, the hippos could be heard snorting and grunting as they grazed in the darkness. When the blazing sun comes, they will return to their watering holes for protection.

A francolin, a partridge-type bird, squawks furiously in the distance, and every 30 seconds a jackal squeals. Our guide says the jackal was summoning friends to feed on something, maybe an unfortunate little antelope.

There are 10 of us on the game drive, an Indian family from Johannesburg, two white South African couples and a black American reporter. All ringing in the new year in a uniquely African way, on safari.

As day breaks, we drive down a narrow dirt road and come to quiet stop. A mother rhinoceros and her calf are lounging in the grass almost close enough to touch.

"If these had been black rhinos we wouldn't be here. They would have charged us by now," says Gerhard de Lange, a young blond-haired game ranger at Pilanesberg Game Reserve, a two-hour drive from Johannesburg.

But these are white rhinos, the more passive cousin of the aggressive and rarer blacks. They hardly seem to notice us, a pack of tourists frantically snapping our Nikons, until Mr. de Lange starts the engine of the oversized Land Rover.

The mother rhino stands and looks straight at us, but she probably doesn't see much. Rhinos are practically blind to whatever is not right in front of them. She and the calf move slowly into the thickness of the African bush.

Another mile or so down the road, we come across a herd of six more white rhinos. They trot across the road, six tank-sized, prehistoric-looking animals with horns in the middle of their faces.

We see all this before 8 a.m. on the final game drive of the year from Bakubung Lodge, named after the indigenous Bakubung tribe who inhabited the area before it was a park. Their name means "people of the hippos."

The sun will be hot this New Year's Eve, when it emerges from behind the clouds. It is mid-summer and the middle of the rainy season. The hills are thick with vegetation.

In ancient times, there would be fireworks here supplied by nature.

The Pilanesberg Game Reserve is set on the ruins of an old volcano that collapsed more than a billion years ago and formed a ring of mountains around a lake bed.

"This was the highest peak in Africa, higher than Kilimanjaro," says Mr. de Lange, who was a professional hunter for four years before he decided to be a game ranger. Now his clients shoot the animals with cameras.

In more recent times, the Pilanesberg region was farm land, worked by white farmers and black tribesmen.

Then 12 years ago it was purchased by the government of Bophuthatswana, one of the 10 black tribal homelands set up by South Africa.

The Bophuthatswana government re-stocked the land with animals that had roamed here in earlier days. Park officials say it is the largest re-stocking of wild animals anywhere in the world.

The park itself is the fourth largest in southern Africa, with 140,000 acres. It has every animal known to this region except lions and spotted hyenas, the most dangerous predators.

But the park has only 32 of the rare black rhinos, with those deadly horns, who charge at each other as well as tourists. "They are their own worst enemy," explains our ranger. More black rhinos die in the park from fighting each other than from any other cause. The replacement cost is about $120,000.

The park is seeking permission from its governing board to allow aging black rhinos to be shot by hunters for a fat fee, maybe $50,000-$80,000, which would be used to buy young replacements. White rhino hunting is already allowed, for $2,500. Officials say the fees are used to upgrade the park.

In the distance, we see three giraffes, their long necks bobbing up and down as they walk awkwardly amid the acacia trees.

A zebra herd stops abruptly as our Land Rover pulls near. The animals stand in a row staring at us before turning their backs, forming a wall of black and white stripes and perhaps making a statement on our presence.

Mr. de Lange stops the truck to inspect a line of big round tracks in the road. "Elephant," he says emphatically. "A female and three calves."

We follow the tracks down the road until they disappear into the bushes. We strain our eyes and crane our necks, but there are no elephants in sight.

When they stand perfectly still behind the trees, you can miss a whole herd right in front of you, Mr. de Lange says. But we decide that today the elephants have moved on to another part (( of the park.

On the drive back to camp, we come across the same rhinos grazing near the side of the road. Hours have passed, but feeding time is not over yet.

Suddenly, a sable, the rarest of antelopes, crosses the road ahead of our Land Rover. As we approach, he is followed by two others, prancing proudly.

Already we have seen virtually every type of African antelope, from the small, fleet-footed impala to the big-tan colored eland. But the dark brown sable, with its white facial markings and horns that curve backward, is the most magnificent.

They trot up the hill then stop and strike a majestic pose, a half-turn to check out the intruders. We move away as they disappear up the hill.

With that, the drive is over and we alight to await the new year. It will be greeted, as every new day here is, with the sound of hippos grunting.

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