PILANESBERG, South Africa - Twenty years ago in this extinct volcano bowl, Operation Genesis began. It was a program to turn back the clock, to return settled farmland to nature, to replace man and domestic
animals with wild beasts.
Today this 136,000-acre wilderness is once again home to the Big Five: the lion reigns supreme; the elephant roams fearless as ever; the rhino is at home in the bush; the leopard prowls by night, and buffalo now graze where cows once mooed.
Pilanesberg National Park is the result of the largest translocation of animals in the world - initially 5,957 animals of 19 different species. As the guidebook says: ``Even the fabled Noah did not have to contend with 50 elephants, 1,937 impala, or 19 critically endangered black rhino.''
More than 300 species of birds fly free here. Less beckoningly, several poisonous snakes - the deadly black mamba among them - slither through the undergrowth or bask on the sun-baked rocks.
Twenty years after its recreation, Pilanesberg is a wildlife wonderland, set among the hills and valleys left by the earth- shattering explosion 1,300 million years ago. It now even exports surplus animals to less endowed parks.
If Kruger National Park, the world's first natural animal sanctuary, which celebrated its centenary last year, is the jewel in South Africa's natural crown,
Pilanesberg is its secret treasure.
It lies just a two-hour drive from Johannesburg, the country's commercial center, and 30 minutes less from Pretoria, the national capital, yet it is rarely crowded.
It receives only 120,000 visitors a year, compared with Kruger's 900,000. As at Kruger, most of the visitors are white, a legacy of the apartheid years when blacks, if not actually banned, were certainly not welcome in the national parks.
This is now changing, with the country's first black majority government making efforts to encourage all South Africans to enjoy the nation's incredible natural wealth. And with the emergence of a burgeoning black middle class, the cost of a safari is coming within reach of many more of ``the previously disadvantaged.''
Pilanesberg offers accommodations ranging in price from $27.50 per person per night to $200 a night.
At the lower end, you stay in a self-catered, air-conditioned chalet in one of two camps, Bakgatkla or Manyane. The chalet has a bathroom inside, and a patio and barbecue outside. The camps, which also cater for actual campers, have a swimming pool, playground, restaurant and shop.
You can drive yourself on safari, paying a single park entrance fee of $2 a car and $3 an adult for the duration of your stay, or take the three-hour, ranger-escorted morning and evening safaris for $17 a trip.
At the top end, you stay in a luxury safari lodge, Tshukudu, with all meals served, game drives organized and escorted, and every wildlife whim catered for.
Between the extremes are two game lodges, Bakabung and Kwa Maritane, that provide comfortable, hotel-style accommodations with buffet breakfast and dinner included.
From the lodges, escorted game drives in open-sided safari wagons are available at $20 a trip, and for a mere $250 dollars you can go on a hot-air-balloon safari - as long as you are willing to wake at 4:30 a.m., when the air is cold enough for the balloon to fly.
Whatever your pocket will stand, you have a sporting chance of spotting most of the Big Five and an assortment of other animals on almost every outing. Nothing, of course, is guaranteed and the sharp eyes of a trained ranger are an obvious advantage.
We stayed in an air-conditioned chalet at Bakgatkla at the northern end of the park. The cost for two: $55 a night.
Outside, it had the appearance of a brick-built army block, but inside it was cozy enough, with a small kitchen, equipped with two-ringed heater and refrigerator, and breakfast counter, which overlooked the living area with soft settee and two wicker chairs around a wicker coffee table.
A double bedroom was next to the bathroom, with bath and shower. Above the bedroom and reached by a ladder attached to the wall, was a loft with three single beds, ideal for young children.
Outside on the patio was a set of plastic picnic furniture and the permanent barbecue, all looking directly through the electrified fence into the wild beyond, into which the sun sank with splendid, fiery display each evening as the nocturnal chorus of roars, squeaks and grunts started.
The only problem was that our next-door neighbor seemed unable to control his car alarm, and at 5 each morning we were awakened by his dawn departure for the prime game-viewing hours. The animals tend to be at their most active in the cool of first light or sunset.
One day when the neighbors returned, the two little girls put their heads into our living room while we were still having breakfast and announced that, between their morning drive and their outing the previous evening, they had seen two bull elephants fighting and the big cats - lion, leopard, and cheetah.