Who's game? From the lap of luxury to the company of hungry lions, a vacation in Africa can be as adventurous as you choose. Safari: In the Londolozi Private Game Reserve, visitors aim at the big animals and shoot -- with cameras.

October 26, 1997|By Gary A. Warner | Gary A. Warner,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

It's dinner time for the top of the food chain.

Somewhere out in the tall grass, through the miasma of a dripping hot and humid South African afternoon, the lions are ripping apart one of nature's losers.

The tip-off is the vultures, the undertakers of the bush, sitting quietly in the dead-tree tops. Maybe two dozen, perched patiently on the sun-bleached branches, their red, dime-size eyes focused on the distance.

Our Land Rover from the Londolozi Private Game Reserve lurches and bumps on a kidney-rattling path through the scrub, making its way toward a stand of shade trees in a large oval clearing.

Up a small hill -- and the tracker riding on the front bumper holds up his hand. The ranger cuts the engine, then picks up a pair of field glasses. He starts the engine again and makes a slow, sweeping arc toward the trees. We stop 20 feet away.

"There -- about a dozen," he said. "A pride of lions. Looks like two males, four females and some cubs."

And one very dead impala. The kings, queens, princes and princesses of the jungle are noisily munching a family-size fresh kill. With grunts, swats and an occasional full-throat roar, they argue over who will get the last of the meal, now little more than a rack of ribs resembling a too-rare leftover from a summer barbecue. The impala's graceful, thin, horned head lies beside a tree root, its dead eyes frozen in the terror of its last moment.

In the Land Rover, a half-dozen Nikons and Canons, Sony camcorders and SureShots swing into action, capturing the grisly Kodak moment for the kids and in-laws back home.

The lions give a quick look as the first shutter clicks but then settle back into their bloody repast. One male stands up, lumbers a few feet away and then plops on his side for a snooze.

It's getting dark. We have seen the bull elephant shaking a tree for food, the leopard loping back to her two adorable cubs, the hippo bobbing in a pond and the grumpy white rhinoceros with a cute, red-billed bird atop its head.

We have shot them all -- on film. And now it is time to head back to our lodge for a gourmet meal. Like the lions, we'll be having impala. Only ours will be marinated, peppered and baked into a succulent loaf.

Such is life on a South African safari in the 1990s. Once, people went out to shoot game with rifles, then returned to camp to have the animals stuffed.

L Now, they shoot with cameras and return to stuff themselves.

Popular tourist attraction

These modern safaris are Africa's fastest-growing tourist attraction, an upscale adventure that many hope will boost the continent's lagging tourist industry. Just 4 percent of international tourists visit Africa each year.

By combining the feel of a Victorian-era hunting lodge (sans firearms) with an animal-friendly, ecotourist bent, the lodges are at the forefront of a new style of tourist attraction.

For up to $500 per day, we encamped in a luxurious cottage, took two three-hour game drives a day, got all the zoological chat anyone would want and were treated like British nobles on an 18th-century adventure.

It's definitely "safari light" -- what's known in the travel business as "soft adventure." A little danger. A lot of luxury.

Days in the hot sun searching for dangerous predators. Nights at the lodge, where a cold martini, a dip in the pool, a gourmet meal and a good night's sleep in an air-conditioned bungalow await.

But this is the bush -- there are no fences. And taking your surroundings for granted can be dangerous, even fatal. Each Range Rover is equipped with a Holland & Holland hunting rifle for protection.

At the end of the evening, escorts take you back to your bungalows. One female tourist who decided to stroll back to her lodge alone after dinner at the nearby Phinda Game Reserve ended up as a lion's supper.

"Because we try to make things as comfortable as possible, people sometimes get the impression they are in some kind of zoo -- that's not a correct presumption," said John McNally, a spokesman for Conservation Corp., which runs Londolozi.

The time commitment for a safari also has been radically modernized. President Theodore Roosevelt spent a year in Africa at the turn of the century hunting and cataloging wildlife. Novelist Ernest Hemingway and film director John Huston spent months bagging wild game.

See 'the Big Five'

But those visiting Londolozi and the other luxurious new wave of game lodges average three nights in the bush. Fly in. See "the Big Five." Fly out.

The Big Five are the big draw: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceroses and water buffalo. The name came from big-game hunters, who considered a hunt a success if they shot and killed one of each, the head or sometimes entire carcass salted and shipped back home to be mounted on den walls or in local natural-history museums.

The goal of most guests is to check off the Big Five. There's no guarantee that you'll see all the bush all-stars, but during my two-day stretch, not a single guest missed out on a "full score."

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