WILD THINGS AT PHINDA, A PRIVATE GAME RESERVE IN THE NATAL BUSH, YOU CAN GET AS CLOSE TO THE ANIMALS AS YOU LIKE--SOMETIMES TOO CLOSE

January 29, 1996

I had a hunch that given the choice between shooting the black
rhino and holding fire as the beast charged and tried to impale
me, Joseph, our armed tracker, would not shoot the rhino. It was
nothing personal. There are only 2,200 black rhinos left in the
wild--and fewer than 70 at Joseph's place of employment, the
Mkuzi Game Reserve in eastern South Africa--whereas there is an
endless supply of U.S. tourists. I was the expendable asset. So
I looked around for a tree to climb in case the underbrush
exploded.

There was no tree to climb. We had tracked this rhino on foot to
an almost impenetrable thicket where the tallest tree was little
more than a brier--five feet high, spindly and covered with
thorns. This was exactly the sort of place a black rhino
retreats to when it feels threatened, and exactly the sort of
place we'd been warned to avoid. Joseph, who speaks only Zulu
and bears more than a passing resemblance to an out-of-shape
Walter Payton, signaled for our unwieldy group of seven to take
shelter anywhere we could find it. Cocking his .375 Magnum rifle
with a distinctive ker-chuck, he started cautiously into the
brush, from which, moments before, had come an unwelcoming
guttural snort.

I knelt behind a gnarled Lebombo wattle, hoping to be made
invisible by its four-inch trunk. Peter Hammond, a hulking
Australian who happens to be my brother-in-law, had his eyes on
the same spot. "No worries," he said, shouldering me aside with
his best Crocodile Dundee cockeyed grin. "Plenty of room."

I decided Peter afforded better protection than the thorn tree,
so I circled behind him. "That wattle will be a big help when
the rhino runs right over it," I whispered. Black rhinos,
bad-tempered animals that weigh about a ton, have keen senses of
hearing and smell but terrible eyesight. We'd been told to lie
still if one charged. "I'm going to be doing jumping jacks
behind you," I told Peter.

It felt unnervingly as if we were the ones being hunted, and our
senses had come alive in a way they never had while viewing game
from our Land Rover. A claylike smell, reeking of decay,
permeated the thicket. The breeze, barely discernible, was in
our faces, for Joseph had been careful to keep us downwind of
the rhino. I found myself continually scanning the grass for
snakes. A staff member at the neighboring Phinda Resource
Reserve, the private game park where we were staying, had been
sprayed by a Mozambique spitting cobra in his bed the previous
week. He survived, but he had to have several skin grafts on his
shoulder. These incidents leave an impression on the paying
guest. We'd already seen one baby cobra during that morning's
walk, and with every rustle of wind I imagined I could hear
things slithering through the grass: black mambas, gaboon
vipers, cobras.

The light, rapid crunch of Joseph's retreating footsteps
interrupted this pastoral reverie. He burst into the clearing
and waved his free arm in a gesture that was unmistakable: He
wanted us to get the hell out of there. Bruce Pitt, the
22-year-old ranger from Phinda who had organized this tracking
expedition, had a brief talk with Joseph in Zulu. "Too
dangerous," Bruce translated. "No trees."

The black rhino, a male, was just 50 yards away, and he was
aware of our presence. Once aroused, black rhinos are very
aggressive. If one charges, it is not for show. A rhino will
chase its quarry up a tree, wielding its horn like a pitchfork.
Stories abound of rangers being treed by black rhinos. Bruce
recently had been forced to lie against the trunk of a tree for
40 minutes, ants crawling all over his face, after he'd helped
his last guest ascend and then discovered there was no more room
at the inn. The rhino was scurrying around, looking for them,
and all Bruce could do was lie still and pray the animal didn't
pick up his scent. One ranger friend of his, in a similar
pickle, hadn't been so lucky; he was skewered and carried 50
yards on the rhino's horn before being tossed, still alive, into
the bush.

So after tracking this particular rhino for more than an hour,
following his trail through open savanna and beneath sprawling
umbrella trees, past Ilala palms, under yellow-barked fever
trees, around water holes and, finally, into this fearsome
swatch of scrub, we were turning back without so much as a
glimpse of the beast. "We'll try to find another one," Bruce said.

Rare as black rhinos are, I had every confidence that Bruce and
Joseph would find one, because ever since our group had stepped
off the plane at Phinda's gravel airstrip, we'd been lucky. We
hadn't proceeded 200 yards from the plane before we came across
five cheetahs, which are endangered in many parts of Africa,
sprawled in regal welcome in the tall grass, digesting a meal of
freshly killed impala. By the end of the first evening's game
drive, we'd seen a pride of nine lions, a half-dozen white
rhinos, several giraffes and scores of nyalas, impalas, zebras,
warthogs, duikers and wildebeests--all from only yards away.

One male giraffe had amused us for a quarter hour by playing
with a piece of bone he had picked up off the ground. He worked
it and worked it in his mouth, his elastic lips contorting
sideways, then up and down, his face scrunching like a hand
puppet. He looked like a scrawny-necked, big-eared kid trying to
choke down an outsized jawbreaker, and his expression--the
giraffe never took his eyes off us--seemed to ask, What are you
looking at?

Phinda is a good-news story in wildlife conservation. And it
isn't the only one in South Africa, a country that, despite its
sorry history of apartheid, has for the past 30 or so years made
the most successful wildlife conservation and restocking efforts
on the African continent. White rhinos, whose number in southern
Africa had dipped to fewer than 50 in 1898, the year the immense
Kruger National Park was created in Transvaal province, have
staged a huge comeback. There are now more than 7,000 of them,
despite continued pressure by poachers who shoot them for their
horns, which are ground up and sold to Asians as aphrodisiacs.
"They might as well use old toenail clippings," Bruce told us.
"The horns are made of the same stuff."

The white rhino population is now stable enough for South Africa
to export a few of these animals each year to other countries.
Meanwhile, the beleaguered black rhino has been on the decline
everywhere except in South Africa, where antipoaching efforts
have stabilized the population at 600 to 700. Still, the number
is perilously low.

Elephants, lions, zebras and various species of antelope, which
by the 1870s had been virtually eradicated from South Africa by
agrarian European settlers, have been reestablished in hundreds
of locations throughout South Africa's nine provinces. Kruger
National Park, Hluhluwe Game Reserve and Umfolozi Game Reserve
are the best-known public parks for viewing animals, but much of
South Africa's success in wildlife conservation and management
is attributable to the restocking efforts of private reserves
such as Phinda, of which there are at least 350.

The name Phinda--pronounced PIN-da--is taken from the Zulu phrase
phinda izilwane, which means "return of the animals." Six years
ago the 42,000 acres in Natal province that make up Phinda were
a hodgepodge of farms, most of which raised cattle. The
Johannesburg-based Conservation Corporation, a private company
operating luxurious for-profit game lodges, purchased the
farmland and began reclaiming it, tearing down fences, removing
175 tons of scrap metal that was scattered about and clearing
the acacia thorn bushes that had covered the savanna during
decades of overgrazing. The entire property was then fenced, and
wildlife was reintroduced. More than 1,000 animals were moved to
Phinda, including cheetahs, elephants, lions and white rhinos.
The process continues. Last year a herd of Cape buffalo was
purchased for Phinda's stocks. Total investment in the property
and its animals exceeds $25 million.

Guests at Phinda have their choice of two spectacular places in
which to stay. The Nyala Lodge, which opened in 1991, overlooks
a vast hillside of umbrella acacias and the distant Ubombo
Mountains. The Forest Lodge, which opened in 1993, is tucked in
a lowland sand forest of Lebombo wattles and giant torchwoods.
Between them the lodges can sleep 72 guests, who are catered to
by a staff of more than 300, most of whom are Zulu. That makes
Phinda a far more significant contributor to the local economy
than the farms it replaced.

Conservation Corporation officials hope that in the near future
the fences will come down, and the private land of Phinda and
public land of the 84,000-acre Mkuzi Game Reserve will become
open range. The animals of each park would then roam freely back
and forth, as wildlife does along the 21-mile fenceless border
between Kruger National Park and the private Sabi Sand Game
Reserve. Ultimately the dream is to see the fences in the entire
eastern part of Natal torn down, so Phinda might become one
small portion of something called the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands
Biosphere: a tract of 741,000 acres that would stretch from
Umfolozi east to the Indian Ocean and north into Mozambique's
Maputo Elephant Park. Wild animals would be free to migrate
among a half-dozen public and private reserves that now operate
independently.

Even if the grand plan fails to come to fruition, Phinda stands
beautifully on its own. Any notion I had that the property was
little more than a large, expensive zoo was dispelled when I
learned that in 1993 a lion had killed one of Phinda's guests
and mauled her husband. The woman was returning to her bungalow
after dark for a pair of sneakers. Lions have superior night
vision and become emboldened after sundown. As a consequence,
anytime we ventured outside after dark at Phinda, we were
escorted by guards carrying flashlights and two-way radios. I
had assumed that they carried guns, too, but Bruce set me
straight on my third and last night there. "They're just
supposed to keep you from running," Bruce explained. "Then
they'll radio for help."

None of the guards looked big enough to keep me from running
from a lion, but it was instructive to know how I was supposed
to behave as an item on the buffet table of life. Do not run or
otherwise call attention to your freshness. For someone whose
boyish features make him look about 16, Bruce is a pretty handy
guy to have looking after you in the wild. He served on a crack
antipoaching patrol in Umfolozi as a teenager but joined Phinda
when he heard about the grandiose biosphere plans. Committed,
idealistic, knowledgeable, he speaks with missionary zeal about
the project. Bruce is also something of a hero at Phinda, having
saved a celebrity from a lion a few months before our visit.

Dan Aykroyd's wife, actress Donna Dixon, and her friend Elana
Ryan had been watching the stars one evening after a game drive
with Bruce. They were lying on blankets a few yards from their
Land Rover when Elana heard something coming toward them through
the grass: pum-pum, pum-pum, pum-pum. Elana looked up and saw an
animal silhouetted against the night sky. She thought it was a
wildebeest. What Donna remembers is the animal's distinctive
odor. "I'll never forget that smell," she says. "It was so
pungent. Then suddenly there was total chaos, and Bruce was
yelling, 'Get back in the Rover! Get back in the Rover!'"

Bruce had heard a noise, too, and he'd hopped onto the hood of
the vehicle to shine his spotlight into the darkness. A few feet
away from the two women, crouched low in the grass, was a male
lion. The light froze him. "I got up on all fours," Donna
recalls, "and three arm's lengths ahead of me, looking at me
eye-to-eye, was this lion. He, too, was rising up. It was like
looking into the mirror."

Donna and Elana took two long strides and leaped into the Land
Rover, which Bruce jammed into gear and promptly drove straight
into a ditch. But the lion, after pausing to look down on them,
turned and disappeared into the night. "Bruce definitely saved
our lives," Donna says.

On our second evening at Phinda we had an encounter with that
same lion. A giraffe had died of natural causes on the property
a few days before we arrived. The carcass hadn't yet been
scavenged, but it was smelling pretty ripe, and the rangers
checked now and again to see if hyenas or lions had found it.
When we drove up to the dead giraffe that evening, the lion that
had given such a fright to Donna and Elana was asleep in the
road, a hundred yards away. It was the dominant male on the
property, a seven-year-old that weighed some 400 pounds and had
a beautiful tawny mane. The sound of our approach woke him up,
and he eyed us sleepily, without rising. Our ranger on that
ride, 24-year-old Andrew Ewing, turned off the engine so we
could watch without disturbing him. As long as we stayed in the
vehicle and remained quiet, Andrew assured us, the lion wouldn't
recognize us as human. We were no more threatening (or
appetizing) than a large, smelly hunk of metal.

A gentle rain was falling, and the lion shook its mane. We were
so close we could see the droplets fly off in an arc. When the
lion sneezed, we saw the spray. Still waking up, the lion yawned
once, twice, each time displaying a fearsome set of canines. To
my astonishment, Peter and his wife, Diana, yawned back in
sympathy. Traveling with those two was like traveling with a
couple of chimps.

The lion seemed oblivious to our presence. He rose, stretched
and then ambled toward the carcass of the giraffe. I was struck
by how big the lion was--his head stood at least four feet off
the ground--but how narrow he appeared from behind. Muscle and
bone. His paws were huge, "like pudding plates," as Bruce later
described them. When the lion neared the giraffe, he sniffed,
but instead of feeding he began to mark his territory by
spraying several surrounding bushes with urine. He circled the
carcass, then returned in our direction and marked a bush within
eight yards of the Land Rover. Then he plopped back down in the
road.

The lion might have stayed there until dark. He looked very
settled. But when we began snapping pictures, something, perhaps
the motor drives of the cameras, irritated him. He rose and, as
if taking note of us for the first time, came toward the
vehicle. I avoided making eye contact, remembering that some
animals--gorillas and dogs are two--consider eye contact a direct
challenge. The lion was standing in front of the Land Rover,
looking in. Andrew's rifle was still in its case--no good to
anyone. Then Diana did a peculiar thing. She snorted.

She later claimed she was paralyzed with fear and was merely
trying to get oxygen to her lungs. Some people whimper when
they're afraid. Others cry. Diana snorts. The problem is
adenoidal. But the resulting noise is a nearly perfect imitation
of a warthog, which happens to be one of the lion's favorite
meals. We froze, not breathing, as the lion circled within five
feet of Diana. Her face had lost all color.

No matter how many times you are assured that a lion will not
attack you in a Land Rover, it's a difficult notion to accept.
It's still a lion. You're helplessly exposed. If, just this
once, the lion decided to smack that large, loud, smelly hunk of
metal, particularly now that it had snorted, who could blame
him? Andrew made one move toward his rifle case but gave up the
effort as hopeless. It was the lion's call. He sniffed in the
direction of Diana, then ambled back down the road. At the
nearest tree he stood upright and began to scratch the trunk,
nine feet off the ground, to clean or sharpen his claws. Finally
he trotted out of sight. We had just begun to breathe again when
the lion began to roar--12 to 15 deep, savage blasts that raised
the hair on the back of my neck.

It was great stuff. Curiously, that lion never returned to feed
on the giraffe. Nor did any of the other lions in the reserve,
or even the hyenas. The best guess any of the rangers could make
was that the giraffe had been diseased, and the animals could
tell. That didn't stop the white-backed vultures, though. On our
last morning at Phinda, a hundred or more of them descended on
the carcass. Scrabbling and fighting grotesquely among
themselves, they picked it clean.

We also had a bit of an adventure with three bull elephants.
Phinda's elephants--there are 58 of them--have all been moved in
from Kruger National Park and from Zimbabwe within the last four
years, and they're still unsettled. The adage that an elephant
never forgets apparently is true, because of all the animals at
Phinda, the elephants, Bruce explained, display the most obvious
signs of homesickness. At night we could hear them bugling
forlornly, presumably for lost relatives. All the elephants were
skittish around the vehicles. They were difficult to find,
choosing the most wooded areas of the reserve in which to hang
out--and, when spotted, they were difficult to keep in sight. It
is amazing how quickly a grown elephant can make itself vanish
in a forest of moderate density.

Still, Bruce took us into an area where three bulls were known
to be feeding. We'd driven for a half hour on a little-used
road, nearly washed out in places, across a rugged hill that was
overgrown with acacias. Bruce turned off the engine and waited.
After a few minutes I saw a distant tree start to shake. The
gray of one bull elephant's head came into view; then, much
closer, a second head appeared, and, farther away, a third. The
nearest elephant was browsing in our direction, feeding on a
tree that shielded us from his vision. His trunk, amazingly
dextrous, curled around the top of a 15-foot acacia and bent the
branches into its mouth. The elephant was eating the tree from
the top down, as a child would a popsicle. After a few minutes
he moved past the tree, coming still closer. He yanked a branch
off another acacia. Bruce explained that as each tree was
browsed, it secreted a tannin that was bitter to the elephant.
But the secretions took about five minutes to kick in. It was
nature's way of preventing the elephants from destroying a
primary food source.

The nearest bull was no more than 30 yards away when he spotted
us. He continued feeding for a minute, then stopped. Bruce
started the engine. The elephant, unhappy that we were directly
in his path, put his ears out from his head and made a mock
charge. Bruce revved the engine and kicked the metal door on his
side of the vehicle, making a racket but holding our ground. The
elephant pulled up short, 15 feet from the front of the Land
Rover, his long white tusks bobbing up and down in some sort of
display. Moments later he moved off to browse in a different
direction.

The other two bulls behaved in exactly the same manner. Each
one, when it spotted the Land Rover, came closer, surveyed the
situation and made a mock charge. Bruce had anticipated this
hostile reception. He was far more nervous around these
elephants than Andrew had been around the lion. Elephants are
less predictable than lions, and one helluva lot bigger.
Elephants have been known, at other South African reserves, to
tip over Land Rovers and even stomp on them.

It was with the greatest care that Bruce followed the three
bulls as they retreated through the woodland, and his caution
proved well founded. The largest elephant, fed up with our
intrusions, turned and charged us with ears flapping, closing
from a distance of 75 yards to 10. At that point Bruce had one
hand on his rifle, the other pounding on the side of the door,
while his foot revved the accelerator until it screamed. The
ruckus finally persuaded the bull to pull up, and he turned away
with a menacing wave of his trunk. But this had been an
impressive display. My photographs of the episode are wildly
blurred--evidence that the elephant had me convinced of his bad
intentions. But Bruce later told us that as long as the bull's
ears were out, away from his head, the charge was a bluff. When
an elephant really means business, its ears lie flat against its
skull, and its trunk is curled beneath its body, so only its
tusks protrude.

A much calmer, more peaceful sight awaited us that evening when
we went out in search of a leopard that had been spotted earlier
in the day. Leopards are shy, solitary animals. This one, a
female, had been discovered when a ranger followed the markings
of a fresh kill she had dragged through the grass to her den;
otherwise we might not have run across her in a million years.
She had two young cubs, and her den was in a dense thicket well
away from any trail. We wove our way through the bushveld in the
Land Rover, arriving at the thicket at dusk, but we could get no
closer to the animals than 40 yards. The mother leopard was so
well camouflaged that even with binoculars she was difficult to
see. Finally a paw took form. Then a tail. Then her majestic
head. The cubs remained hidden from view, but their mother was
placid and seemingly unconcerned with us. She eventually got up
and moved, literally disappearing without a sound. Later, after
dark, we could hear the eerie sounds of the family chewing on
the bones of the kill.

It was the black rhino, however, that I most wanted to see. I
was infatuated with its rarity. Had I ever seen a creature of
which just 2,200 remained? I doubted it. But I was also
intrigued by the process of following this animal on foot:
examining the ground for tracks, looking for fresh signs of
browsing, staying downwind, moving quietly through the veld.
Then, if one were lucky, scrambling for safety in a tree. We
rose at 4:45 a.m. on our last full day, and by 8 o'clock we had
already given up on that first rhino, the male we had tracked
for an hour. Now Joseph directed us back into the Land Rover and
took us to another location. He knew rhinos frequented it
because of a dung pit he'd found. Ten minutes later Bruce
pointed toward an open area on our right. "White rhino," he
said, nodding toward a cow and a calf grazing in the middle of a
clearing.

We'd seen a number of white rhinos already. The name does not
refer to the animal's color, which is light gray. Rather, it is
a bastardization of the Afrikaans word wyd, which means "wide"
and refers to the rhino's flat, square upper lip. By contrast a
black rhino, which is smaller than its cousin and sometimes
appears darker, has a hooked, almost triangulated upper lip.

"Stop," Joseph told Bruce in Zulu. Bruce pulled over, and Joseph
picked up the binoculars and zeroed in on the feeding cow and
calf. "No--black rhino," he said excitedly in English. "Black
rhino! Black, black, black." He was beaming, his entire face
alive. He could not believe our luck.

We climbed out of the vehicle as quietly as possible, but the
mother rhino, grazing about a hundred yards away, had heard the
engine and was looking our way. She had a huge front horn, with
a defined point, and ugly hooded eyes. The calf was half her
size and less than a year old. The mother knew something was up,
and she didn't like it. She began moving away from us, the calf
at her heels.

Joseph signaled for us to crouch lower. There was a patch of
woods to our right, and he quickly led us in that direction so
the trees would hide our approach. The wind was right, and the
cow and calf, still wonderfully exposed in the clearing, stopped
their retreat. The cow raised her head and sniffed. Her ears,
one of which was missing a chunk, were pricked forward. Hearing
nothing, she resumed grazing.

We kept slipping closer, stepping slowly to avoid breaking dry
branches. Five minutes later we had reached the edge of the
wood. The rhinos were still grazing, no more than 50 yards away.
Joseph tugged on my arm and pointed to a six-foot-long and
three-foot-deep depression at the edge of the field. It was
teeming with huge beetles, and it smelled powerfully. "It's
called a midden," Bruce whispered. "It's a dung pit. It's almost
like a daily newspaper for the rhinoceros. Whenever one comes
along, he uses it, so the next rhino knows who else is in the
area."

One small acacia stood between us and the two black rhinos.
Bruce asked us to climb into a nearby tree, a smooth-barked
marula, which bears a figlike fruit from which South Africans
make a liqueur called Amarula. Five of us scrambled up quietly.
But photographer Bill Frakes wanted to sneak closer. So he,
Bruce and Joseph, creeping low, moved into the field, toward
that lone acacia, keeping the tree between themselves and the
rhinos. When they reached it, they were no more than 40 yards
from the cow and her calf.

When Bill started taking pictures, however, the mother rhino
turned, her ears alert, and without further warning started her
charge, keeping her head high in the air. Joseph cocked his
gun--ker-chuck--while Bruce tried to give Bill a hand into the
acacia. But the first branch Bill grabbed on to broke with a
loud crack, and the rhino stopped dead in her tracks. She looked
around, found the calf and then wheeled and started running in
the other direction.

Joseph jumped into the open and put his hand to his mouth. He
gave a high-pitched, mournful cry--"Cawwww ... awww"--which, he
later told us, was the distress call of a rhino calf. The mother
slowed when she heard it, but when she saw her calf close to her
flanks, she continued with purpose. The last we saw of them--and
may God grant them speed in fleeing all poachers--they were
loping into the bush, their tails straight up, their long,
curved horns in the air.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES [Elephant approaching people in vehicle] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Rhinos' mammoth footprints and sharp horns send the same message: Keep your distance [Two rhinoceri; man's feet next to rhinoceros's footprint] TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS [Partial map of Africa showing South Africa and surrounding countries; detail map showing Phinda Resource Reserve] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES You're never too old to climb a tree, especially when an angry rhino prowls the veld [People in tree] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKESBig game is so abundant at the reserve that you can order a longneck anytime you want [Giraffe crossing in front of people in vehicle] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES One link in the food chain: Vultures eat giraffe carrion passed up by other scavengers Phinda COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Tourists shudder at the sight of a lion's fangs, but humans aren't really on his menu [Lion with open mouth]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)