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Sierra Magazine
Good Going: Eye-to-Eye in Africa

In the bush,aliens walk upright--and whistle.

by Tracy Baxter

Up until this moment I've been looking at South Africa's vistas and biological bounty as through a Viewmaster. I've stood for awestruck moments on the eastern slope of Table Mountain, a flattened pile of wind-faceted sandstone so enormous it seemed to thrum; then guide number one whisked me away. I've followed the first millipede- and fungi-studded leg of the Otter Trail in Tsitsikamma National Forest, catching intermittent glimpses of a shore that looked raw and newly busted open. Then guide number two hustled me to the airport.

My fingers still faintly pulsing from guide number three's farewell handshake, I turn around to survey the borderless landscape of Manyeleti Game Reserve in Kruger National Park. The guide's promise is that here, finally, I will have a taste of the real Africa, "closer to nature, no tar roads."

The Land Rover that deposited the six of us--our tracker, Howard, four nattily attired German tourists, and me--in this grassy plain has disappeared with an eerie completeness. I could be stranded in a low- budget sci-fi flick, alone with cleverly disguised aliens.

We circle Howard for a foot-safari briefing. "In dense bush, walk single file and close together," he cautions. "If you can touch the person in front of you, that's about right. If you can help it, don't talk. Animals warn you if you're getting too close. If we're talking we might not hear them. And if we should happen to meet up with an animal"--he says this emphatically--"do not run. Throw rocks, scream, but keep still."

To avoid tempting the hairy paw of fate, I position myself directly behind Howard. He's packing heat, a rifle slung on his back. We move out, and hike only the equivalent of a city block deeper into the savannah before running smack into a rhinoceros.

I fixate on the rhino's horned, boxy mug. After a week of leapfrogging there's time to look, to catch my breath. At the moment, though, it's hard to take in a lungful of air. We have stepped out of tall, tawny grass into a clearing at precisely the same time as the nearsighted, two-ton behemoth emerges from the opposite side. "Black rhinos will charge if you surprise them," the tour book had prophesied. An errant wind has blown our scent in the wrong direction, and the land leviathan trundles forward menacingly.

But Howard, whistling and flinging out his arms, shoos the beast off as easily as if it were a yipping terrier. "Go on! Get out of here!" he scolds. The rhino, mortified, turns tail and flees. A long, tense moment passes before it registers: the animal is more rattled by us than we by him. We giggle and fall back in behind Howard the Unflappable.

We have scared hell out of one of the only 2,500 black rhinos that still freely roam the African continent. Their horns, Howard tells us, are regarded as aphrodisiacs in some Asian countries, and the legend fuels relentless poaching. He and countless others hope ecotourism can help save the rhino. There is a singular sense of urgency among South Africans to bring in sorely needed travelers' dollars while retaining the allure of primal wildness. Such stewardship is seen as vital to national prosperity, even as a democratizing force, since the new job opportunities should extend to everyone. Still, it would be easy to make an Afro- Disney mess of things. The 35-million-year history of the rhino may come down to the political decisions of a mere decade.

A lunging creature suddenly grabs at the drawstrings of my jacket. It's only knobthorn scrub. Where are the animals? Perhaps alerted by the rhino, the rest of the Big Five--leopard, lion, buffalo, and elephant-- seem to be in hiding. Still, the fresh droppings in this crackling tangle of bony branches are reminders that this is the stomping ground of beings radically unlike myself. I inspect a buffalo chip that looks like a flattened cinnamon roll. Fired and glazed, it could be a striking mantel tchotchke. It will have to satisfy my craving for creature contact for now.

Howard, meanwhile, has taken a sentinel position atop an enormous termite mound. He gestures urgently. An impromptu game of hide-and-seek begins, Howard in the lead. Finally we come to a Keystone Kops- like halt at a dusty river bed. Howard signals us to crouch low. He cocks his chin at a thicket no more than 20 feet ahead. At first there seems to be only brush, but at last we see a massive trio: three more rhinos, stock still, as though hoping we'll overlook them and go away. When it becomes evident that they've been detected, they begin to shuffle uncomfortably. Finally, exasperated, they crash off into deeper grass, away from our alien stares.

Tracy Baxter is Sierra's assistant editor.


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