Dispatches for June 2004:
Click on a date (below) to read expedition reports.
June 8, 2004: Swartkop Airforce Base, South Africa
|1. June 8, 2004
2. June 9, 2004
3. June 11, 2004
4. June 13, 2004
|5. June 14, 2004
6. June 16, 2004
7. June 17, 2004
|8. June 22, 2004|
9. June 28, 2004
10. June 29, 2004
The real thing this time. We got a new prop, the wiring is wired, cameras are a go, and the itinerary is fixed in stone. The tower gave us the old cleared-for-takeoff call, and Peter gave our plane the gas. We were up and away. But five minutes out my camera system was down. Electric failure. I was starting to have flashbacks to Apollo 13. I shouldn't have sent the witch doctor's beads back to California. She made me promise to keep them in the plane.
June 9, 2004: Entabeni
Our first landing was on a mountaintop at a place called Entabeni Game Reserve. This is one of hundreds of private game reserves in South Africa. It's amazing that the natural world can be brought back to land that's been used and abused for hundreds of years. Now there are rhinos, giraffes, and elephants.
June 11, 2004: Oranges in the Low Veld
We visited an old friend—Faan Kruger. He's a Boer farmer and grows oranges in what they call the low veld. This is a place that is just off the Drakensberg Escarpment where the land begins a slow descent into the Indian Ocean. It's a tough business in the best of times and they've had a drought for five years. It seems like wherever I go on Earth, I'm immediately struck by how far irrigation in arid places pushes land use toward something that just seems to be completely unsustainable. I'm not saying it doesn't produce huge amounts of food, it's just that it's kind of a temporary activity until the water runs out.
June 13, 2004: Bunkers, Razor Wire, and Wild Nature
We set down easily on the strip in Punda Maria, South Africa, which was about 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) long and 100 feet (30 meters) wide. It was perfectly paved and painted with white lines, but it didn't appear on our flight maps. There was an eerie silence here. No planes, no buildings, no cars, no people. It was kind of like an episode from the "Twilight Zone." As we taxied to the ramp we made our way into a labyrinth of enormous dirt dikes covered with tall grass and elephant trails. When we got to the apron, which was about as big as a Kmart parking lot, these 30-foot-high (9-meter-high) dikes completely surrounded us and we couldn't see anything.
This was a ghost military airport. It was just one of a large number of outposts that South Africa kept like a string of pearls all along its borders. These outposts were built during a period when South Africa was under attack from the African National Congress and they were engaged in various wars in Angola and Mozambique. As I wandered up one of the dirt dikes I could imagine squadrons of Oryx helicopters, along with the fighter jets and C-130 transports. There was probably a tower and surely machine guns positioned on top of fortifications. It reminded me exactly of the forts I'd seen in Rock Creek Park. They were strung around the limits of Washington, D.C., during the Civil War more than a century ago. Same design, same reason.
Kruger National Park was at the front lines when the war was raging in Mozambique and there were ANC incursions from Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania. Punda Maria was the northernmost outpost. This airfield was not even a minute away from the borders and within easy striking range of any target in most of Mozambique and all of Zimbabwe. Back then there were millions of refugees streaming across the border through the park. They would have had to first negotiate an enormous double razor wire fence and then navigate their way across 50 kilometers (30 miles) of territory filled with lions, rhinoceros, and elephants. Most made it, but some didn't and ended up hiding from the South African military. What is amazing is that during this entire period, Kruger remained a tourist destination. It also retained its rhinos, making it one of the very few places on the continent that did.
Soon we were picked up by a park employee, who kind of appeared out of nowhere in the labyrinth we were in and said he was going to take us to the camp. We exited the maze and all of the sudden we were in Kruger National Park. We saw a beautiful kudu buck with a whole harem of females. There were impala every few hundred meters along the roadside and tons of signs of elephants.
June 14, 2004: Boundaries Between Man and Nature
The next morning we were airborne over Kruger National Park. This was the kind of thing every boy dreams of, cruising at low level over an African game park in your own little Cessna and recording wildlife. I had just about gotten my camera system jerry rigged to a level so that it worked consistently. I had it hooked up to a battery that I could charge in people's shops and had an inverter wired into it. It was taking pictures and capturing GPS data, so I was happy. Our assignment today was to sample the park and then cross the western boundary into what used to be a homeland area. We cruised about 60 miles (100 kilometers) down south over what seemed like endless low velt scrub and grasslands. The land was covered with animal trails and water holes were heavily trodden by elephants and buffalo. It was very clear that nature was intact here and that the ecosystem was functioning.
As we neared the western boundary, I could see a line along the border of the park as far as the eye could see. This was an absolute boundary between wild nature and humanity. Elephants, rhinos, and lions ruled one side while humans dominated the other. Conservationists call it a hard boundary.
Kruger is a tribute to man's forethought and a window into the future. At the turn of the century wildlife had been largely eliminated from the entire area that is now South Africa. White settlers were extremely effective in dominating the land. Then a group of people got together and said, "OK, boys we need to set up a protected area otherwise we are going to lose nature." The result was Kruger National Park, some 200 miles (300 kilometers) long and 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide. Over almost a century, elephants in Kruger have gone from zero to more than 10,000. Rhinos, buffalos, wildebeests, impalas, and a large number of other species have also repopulated the land. But as human populations grow, they tend to move closer to the artificial boundaries of protected areas until one day somebody has to put up a fence.
As we flew outside of the park, we saw African settlement areas where the land had been overused for mass cultivation and cattle grazing. There were wall to wall fields and masses of people on the ground. Little of the land could still be identified as wild. Farther on, we hit white farm areas, where the land had been irrigated well. Although it looked like a giant oasis, I wondered what the cost was in terms of fossil fuel and ground water. Even farther out, we saw a great hole in the ground. This was Phalaborwa Mine, one of the biggest open pit mines in the world and extreme example of eliminating nature from the planet.
We had just gotten a taste of the complex land issues in this country of more than 44 million people, where the distribution of land and wealth is still skewed in favor of a minority. But this is also a nation that recognizes this dilemma. And for one of the first times in human history, we're seeing a nation looking systematically and objectively at land distribution and attempting to even the playing field.
June 16, 2004: Mala Mala Land
We spent the morning with Roelof. He was giving us the grand tour of the facilities. First stop was headquarters where we went to make a courtesy call on Dr. Mkhize, the director of Kruger National Park. Then we spent time with a few of the Kruger National Park science guys: Dr. Freek Venter, specialist HOD Conservation Services; and Danie Pienaar, the head of Scientific Services. The Kruger management team is known the world over among park people as the top. These are the guys who go to the best schools, have long years of experience, and who manage a national park using science. They do complete counts of the elephants and buffalo every year, and can tell you exact trends.
We got down to the airport and we met with an old friend Ian Whyte. Ian is an elephant specialist for South African National Parks and in charge of the elephants in Kruger. I only see him every several years, and of course whenever I do I ask him about elephants. He said that on this year's count they were probably going to be more than 12,000. This is several thousand more elephants than they would like to have in Kruger. Back in the old days, before elephants started to get wiped out in most of Africa because of the ivory boom, the guys in Kruger would cull elephants. That is they would shoot the excess, process the meat, and send it, along with the tusks, to market. This was a good source of revenue for the park and a good incentive for the government to keep elephant management well financed. Then came the ban in 1989 and everything changed. Long before that the Kruger guys found themselves embroiled in a hot debate about culling. Now with the ban they couldn't really even find a market for the ivory. It is now 2004 and they still really haven't found a solution. They give away live elephants at great cost and there are schemes to open borders and let them range into Mozambique. Ian is a quiet guy and keeps his cards close to his chest, so you don't really know what he's thinking.
Our mission for the day was to get to the Mala Mala Game Reserve. Most people who have ever heard of the high-end private game reserves have heard of Mala Mala. It's like when you buy a car. Mala Mala isn't a Mercedes or BMW; it's the Ferrari.
We said our goodbyes to Ian and Roelof and lined up on runway 35 and had about a 10 minute hop over to Mala Mala. As we neared Mala Mala, we could see what you might expect at a Ted Turner ranch in Montana. Clean black tar, bright white markings, a wind sock, and a proper apron. By the time we were on the ground, there were two shiny Toyota Land Cruisers and John, our guide, waiting for us. He was a skinny red-headed dude that looked like he would have been just as comfortable catching a left break in Malibu as he would guiding game drives in Africa. My guess was he was about 25.
Soon we were off with John. His job was to show us game and he obviously took that task seriously. We took it slow at first. There were a number of wildebeest and impalas around. We also ran into a giraffe that had some kind of skin disease, but looked healthy otherwise. Then we sped up the pace. Some lions had been spotted at another location. We drove for quite a ways and finally we came to a place where there were two lionesses standing in the road. They just kind of ignored the trucks on either side of them as they ambled down the road. It was a mama and a daughter. Mama was out front and she just kind of walked right by the truck about a meter away. When it was the daughter's turn, she lost her nerve and kind of halted. She looked trapped. So she left the road and made her way through the grass, out of harm's way, before coming back onto the road. We followed them for a ways until they disappeared into the dense bush.
June 17, 2004: Clear-Cutting for Conservation — Watch Video
We've been across South Africa to the east, through the entire Kruger Park. What a place it is. We ended up today in a place called the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, a beautiful coastal park right on the Indian Ocean that's full of hippos and crocodiles. We all face challenges as conservationists, but a man named Andrew Zaloumis, who is managing this place, is doing the ecological equivalent of building a city from ground zero. He's taking thousands of acres of pine trees out of this landscape and building the vegetation back to something that not only looks natural, but is the original veld there. He is fending off titanium mining by creating competitive amounts of employment. Rhinos now range here again. I hope to meet more like Andrew along the way.
June 22, 2004: Sardines and Gannets — Watch Video
We crossed into the old Transkei and on-the-coast development just kind of stops at Port Edward, coming down from Durban. It's kind of like going from Miami Beach to the coast of Maine. The beaches are pristine—no people, no development, just bucolic pastures with cows and little settlements dotting the landscape. We did a little jaunt up into the Drakensberg Mountains. Wow, what a trip that was. In about an hour we went from the sugar cane fields of Cuba to the moorlands of Scotland up to about 11,000 feet (3,400 meters). There was no snow, but there were frozen creeks up there. An hour later we landed in Port St. Johns. They are fighting the titanium mining there too.
We rushed down to a place called Wavecrest that has an airstrip right on the coast. We could feel that we were at the end of the continent now. We ran into humpback whales, making their way back up the coast to Madagascar or Oman. Farther on we hit what we were looking for: Wave after wave of gannets (they're kind of like giant terns) were dive-bombing the water by the thousands. It was the beginning of the annual sardine run and every shark, porpoise, and gannet in southern Africa were following these guys up the coast to eat, eat, eat.
We moved away from the coast, and this time it was like going from the coast of Ireland to the high desert of the Mojave. We first went over the commercial ranches of the Free State on the west side of Lesotho. It looked like most of these guys were either out or going out of business. There were huge amounts of serious erosion in the homeland areas to the south. We went to a place called Kwandwe, which is another spot that's trying to rehabilitate the landscape through high-end tourism. This place had class and was managed as well as any national park I've ever seen. We were lucky to hit this place on a day when they were reintroducing wild dogs. It was amazing to see the dogs, exploring for the first time, a place far from any they have known. We cruised up through Addo Elephant National Park. Last time I was there it was tiny—now it covers 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) and goes right into the sea. Our destination was Karoo National Park and it's one of South Africa's newer national parks. We were picked up at this godforsaken runway at the base of a mountain in a town called Beaufort West by Gerhard Pretorius. He was second in charge in the park. We drove through town and before we knew it we were entering what looked like a rock garden with enormous aloe trees and other bulbous trees that looked like miniature baobabs. Gerhard's major preoccupation was how to get more land out of the hands of unsustainable sheep farmers and integrate it into the park. This seems to be the challenge of the day in the South African national parks, which is kind of the opposite of what some might expect. There's more expansion of national parks in South Africa under new rule than ever before. Seems like it's an all-out blitzkrieg to acquire property. I say right on.
June 29, 2004: Leaving the Cape
We promised old Gerhard that we would do some photography of his park. I was really looking forward to it. He said, "You might have some wind, so be careful." I kind of grinned, saying to myself, Yeah, we know about wind. We've flown all over. Five minutes out of Beaufort West we were doing about 60 miles an hour (100 kilometers an hour), normally we would be doing about twice that. We hit our first wind pocket behind a hill, and everything in the cabin went into suspended animation, the tablet computers, the GPS, the cups, toolbox, the pilot. Peter hit his head real hard. You could see him wincing. I luckily had my seat belt on so I was spared. We tried for a few more minutes and there was no way. It felt like an icy road, and if you turned the plane ever so slightly it felt like it was going to flip over, right off the road. We hit the mountains just north of the Cape and we could see that front coming in already, black clouds moving lightning fast. We hit the vineyards and it was impossible to turn over them. I was getting a bit nervous that we wouldn't be able to negotiate these mountains or turn back either. Our ground speed had varied from about 55 knots to about 180 knots, which meant we were dealing with about 75 mile-an-hour (120 kilometer-an-hour) winds. Every time we hit the back side of a hill we held our breath and battened down the hatches. We landed at Stellenbosch Airport. I felt like we were arriving back on the cliffs of England after a bombing run over Dusseldorf.
||These dispatches are edited versions of e-mail reports sent from the field. They have not been researched and represent the viewpoints of individual expedition members.