A Day in Polokwane Game Reserve, South Africa

This story is an excerpt from Back to the Bundu, the book I wrote about my trip to Botswana last year [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ].  You can also view my Flickr gallery of photographs from this adventure.

—–

I was dying to get to Botswana, to help out with the conservation research work being done in the Tuli Wilderness, and even more so to just immerse myself once again in the African landscape and lifestyle. But to get there I first had to go through South Africa, my old stomping ground.

On the way to Botswana, I had to make an overnight stop in the town of Polokwane, South Africa to wait for my ride. I decided to add an extra day or two there, to see a little bit of a part of South Africa that I had never seen before—and to experience an Africa completely different than the Africa I would be getting in the Tuli Wilderness.

There were only three flights a day from Johannesburg to Polokwane, the first arriving at about 11 a.m. and the last arriving at about 5 p.m. Since my ride up to Botswana was picking me up at the airport at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning, this meant I had to arrive in Polokwane on Tuesday and spend one night there.

After thinking about it, I decided to arrive in Polokwane on Monday afternoon, and spend two nights there before departing for Botswana. This would give me time to rest, relax, acclimatize, and adjust to the time change.

Rest. Relax. Adjust. It was a great idea. Then I started looking at a map.

Only a few miles away from my hotel was the Polokwane Game Reserve. Sandwiched between almost every kind of development imaginable, it was a wild island in the midst of modern chaos, like a jewel of nature carved out of the suburban jungle.

I made reservations to take a guided safari tour there on Tuesday. Polokwane Game Reserve versus the Tuli Wilderness would be the ultimate contrast, and my return to Africa would be a tale of two game reserves: one fenced, one free; one managed, one wild; one mostly modern, one almost primeval; Polokwane versus Tuli.

Walking across the tarmac and into the Polokwane Airport, I was instantly struck with how modern, clean, well designed, and just plain nice the facility was. I could have been standing in almost any small, ultra-modern airport in the world. Driving out of the airport towards my hotel, I was immediately reminded that I was in Africa. There were numerous haphazard wooden shacks set up on the side of the road—some even in the center divider—selling food. Surrounded by stacks of firewood, many were cooking potjie, a South African stew, in cast iron pots over open fires, the thick smoke rising from the fires. They were selling cheap, ready-made meals to the working poor. This was the Polokwane fast food district.

A lot had changed in my 35 year absence from southern Africa, but there was much more that was immediately familiar.

I was back.

—–

Situated on the Great North Road to Zimbabwe, Polokwane is in the heart of South Africa’s Limpopo Province. Formerly known as Pietersburg, the town was renamed Polokwane after the fall of apartheid, when many geographic names with a colonial history were changed.

Today, Polokwane is the capital of the Limpopo province and boasts a bustling population of more than half a million people. When South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it literally put Polokwane on the map: Peter Mokaba Stadium was built in Polokwane to host part of the tournament, one of five new stadiums built across the country to support the World Cup.

Before the Peter Mokaba Stadium came to town, the primary attraction in Polokwane was the Polokwane Game Reserve. Owned and operated by the provincial governing authority of the Limpopo province, it is one of the largest municipal game reserves in South Africa. Featuring a beautiful mix of grassland, acacia woodland, rocky outcrops, and open savannah, it is a completely fenced, carefully managed game sanctuary. It preserves one of the only remaining examples of the Pietersburg Plateau false grassland, a localized ecotone that is home to a number of rare birds and plants. The carefully selected combination of animal species in the reserve were free to roam anywhere they wanted on its 13 square miles of territory, but no further.

Compared to the Tuli Wilderness, the Polokwane Game Reserve is not a wild place; with no predators present on the property, it is a heavily managed, almost manufactured big game experience. But that’s not to say it has no value. It plays a vital role in conservation, preservation, and education.

The Polokwane Game Reserve was the polar opposite of what I would be walking in to in the Tuli Wilderness less than 24 hours later. But for many people living in modern Africa, it was as close as they were going to get to real, wild Africa; Polokwane Game Reserve was the New Wild.

For me, it would be my only chance to see a rhinoceros in the wild on this trip.

—–

Lisa, my guide for the day in the Polokwane Game Reserve, picked me up at my hotel a little after 8 a.m. We drove in her pickup truck to a location just outside of the reserve where we switched into her Land Rover. I was the only one on the tour with her that day. “I normally don’t do tours for less than six people,” she said. “But you booked so far in advance, I decided to go ahead and take you.” And just like that, for less than the price of a tank of gas back home, my simple little group safari had become a totally private tour.

The drive through the streets of Polokwane brought back so many memories of my youth…there’s just something about driving around South Africa; it has a unique feel to it that’s just impossible to describe. Or maybe it’s just unique to me because I lived there at a formative time of my life.

We drove by the massive new Peter Mokaba Stadium. It was stunning, but it seemed like such a waste—similar to the Olympics, where a country spends a lot of money they can’t really afford on massive sporting infrastructure improvements to impress the world, then when the event is over most of the new infrastructure falls into disuse and becomes a blight on the community. I wondered if this massive new stadium, plopped down seemingly in the middle of nowhere, ever got used now that the World Cup had come and gone.

Upon entering Polokwane Game Reserve, the first wildlife we saw was an ostrich. Soon after, it became quickly apparent to me that Lisa has a lot going on. In addition to guiding safaris in her Land Rover, she has 23 horses and takes people on horseback riding safaris and tours; she also stables horses for other people; she has at least one rental unit in town; she runs a custom clothing business; she helps her husband with his environmental consulting business; and who knows what else. She was a true entrepreneur.

I was amazed at how Lisa was able to drive her Land Rover down rutted dirt roads with one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand on her Blackberry, scanning the bush for wildlife while talking, texting, checking her emails, or surfing the web on her smart phone. She’s what I would call a hustler, but in no derogatory sense of the word; she was scratching out an existence here and there, doing this and that, all to make ends meet. And rich or poor, white or black, urban or rural, I increasingly got the sense that this was the way that most people here survived; that in modern Africa, most everyone was a hustler. At least the successful ones were.

Partway through our mini safari, Lisa stopped the vehicle in front of a large, beautiful tree with two huge male kudu standing underneath it. But the kudu were just a coincidence—it was the tree she had stopped to tell me about. It was a marula tree, which produces a fruit little-known outside of South Africa that is used to make a wonderful, creamy liquor called Amarula. The seeds of the fruit are also ground up and release an oil that is used for beauty products. But I actually heard very little of what she was saying, as I was completely overcome by an amazing fragrant smell wafting through my nostrils.

“That smell,” I interrupted her, “…is that the marula tree?”

“No,” she said, “I think what you’re smelling is Salvia africana-caerulea.”

She jumped out and broke a small branch off of a nearby bush and handed it to me.

“Is that what you smelled?”

Yes, it was. It was South African sage. It was unlike the coastal sage, mountain sage, Mexican sage, and other sages I was so used to in California. This had a completely different smell to it. It took me a few minutes to realize, but I completely recognized the smell and it began to trigger memories of my adolescence in South Africa. It was something I had experienced in my wanderings through the bush in the vacant lots and other open spaces near where we used to live. It’s amazing how something as innocuous as a small sprig of leaves and flowers from a bush can almost instantly transport the mind back in time some 35 years…

—–

Lisa was a big proponent of what I like to call “managed ecosystems,” the Polokwane Game Reserve being a perfect example. Because the animals are protected (from humans, as well as from natural predators—there were no carnivores in the reserve), from time to time it becomes necessary to cull the herds in order to keep the population of animals at a sustainable level. In the Polokwane Game Reserve, instead of (directly) killing animals, their preferred method of management involves capturing surplus animals and legally selling them at auction. The animals are then purchased for relocation to private farms or game reserves, some of which may allow hunting, as well as for public game reserves and parks, zoos, etc.

I told Lisa about my upcoming trip to Botswana, and she was very familiar with the Tuli Block and the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Five or six years prior, she had worked in the eastern section of the Tuli block, where the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers converge and where the borders of Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa meet. She also leads safaris up there from time to time, and had just returned from one about three weeks earlier. She spoke of the extensive damage there from the recent floods, the most devastating of which may have been the removal of the topsoil from the landscape, as well as the destruction of much of the mature tree canopy along the Limpopo River corridor.

She went on at length about the elephant “problem” in the Tuli, and said that going back now, even after just five or six years, the change was dramatic—the Tuli area had become much more desolate looking, almost like a desert in spots, because of the elephants destroying the mopane trees. I asked her what had caused the dramatic increase in the elephant population in recent years—was it due to the lack of predation caused by the elimination of many of the predators in the area? She replied that carnivores really don’t predate on elephants, except maybe on the very young or the very weak; no, the elephant population was not actually increasing, it was just that increased development throughout southern Africa meant that there was less natural area for them to forage for food. Their historic range has been heavily compromised by the encroachment of man. To make matters worse, in a move to establish a large trans-boundary park/reserve system, fences have been removed, which brings more elephants from the outside into the area.

Lisa is what I like to call a “true” environmentalist; like me, she believes that sometimes unpopular solutions are the best answer to vexing environmental problems. For example, sometimes you need to kill wild animals to help preserve a wild ecosystem live. She talked about how many so-called environmentalists want to protect and save animals at any cost, no matter how impractical, or how in the long term it very well could result in destroying an entire ecosystem.

In addition to the direct ecosystem benefits of culling, we also talked about more benefits to the local community. If carefully managed and controlled hunting is allowed in the form of culling, it can actually be an economic boon to the local community. The skin of the animal can be used to make clothing and shelter and for a variety of other purposes; the meat can be used to feed poor people; and in the case of elephants, you could even sell the ivory (if it wasn’t illegal) and pour all of that money back in to the local community. Lisa’s views were certain to be unpopular with the majority of people who refer to themselves as “environmentalists.”

—–

Because of its proximity to such a large urban population, I asked Lisa if poaching was a problem in the Polokwane Game Reserve. She told me a story about how a few months earlier she had been leading a safari through the reserve on horseback when they came across a female rhinoceros with a tranquilizer dart stuck in her hind quarters. The dart had not fully penetrated the skin, so the tranquilizer had not taken effect. Lisa immediately used her cell phone to call the local authorities, who immediately sent out helicopters to search for the poachers. They never found the poachers, but a week or two later they found the carcass of a male rhino in the reserve that had been poached for its horn.

Before that incident, the rhinoceros population in the Polokwane Game Reserve had been 15; it was now down to 14. And, she told me, the day before our safari, in a different reserve about 30 miles west of Polokwane, authorities had found two more poached rhinos. The killing of rhinos for their horns has always been a problem in southern Africa, but in the last year or two it had escalated and was now reaching a level which was unimaginable.

She said that arresting one poacher is not the answer to the poaching problem; as soon as you arrest one, there are 5,000 more waiting in line to take his place. She sees the mafia as the real problem, and the solution is taking down the organized crime kingpins, not the individual poachers.

I disagree. I think the real problem is poverty, which is why people kill rhinos for their horns. As Jane Goodall says in her TACARE program, “to take care of the animals, you must first take care of the people.” If the people are not taken care of, they are going to use any method possible to take care of themselves—even if that means poaching an endangered animal

After giving me some rough estimates of what various species of game animals would sell for at a legal auction, Lisa noted that the value of a rhino is next to nothing because they are such a huge liability to own. She sees legalizing the sale of rhinoceros horns to be a solution—taking them off of the black market and instead regulating the legal sale of the horns so that there is a financial incentive for ranchers to buy and breed rhinos, and to harvest their horns without killing the animals.

In general I agree with this idea, but would take it even further than that: using genetic engineering techniques, we should work to isolate the DNA for rhinoceros horn, and then create a hybrid rhino/cow that can be raised for milk and when it is mature can be slaughtered for its meat and horn—and then watch how quickly the world market for rhino horn collapses. While we’re at it, let’s also isolate the DNA for elephant ivory as well, and then create a hybrid cow with rhino horns and elephant tusks. It’s an idea that may seem radical to some, but it’s an idea whose time has come.

While we were driving around the reserve, Lisa pointed out a strange tree that I had never seen nor heard of before. There are many species of aloe native to South Africa, the most familiar to inhabitants of the rest of the world being aloe vera, but the “tree aloe” (aloe barberae) grows to a height of 30 feet or more and looks like a palm tree, except that at the top where you would expect to see palm fronds, there is an aloe plant. The aloe trees of Polokwane Game Reserve are all mature, nearing the end of their natural life cycle, and no young ones are sprouting to take their place. Lisa’s theory is that the seeds were transported to the area and planted by the local inhabitants about 300 to 400 years ago, because you only find these plants in areas where there is also evidence of pre-colonial habitation.

—–

Polokwane Game Reserve is completely boxed in by human land uses. It’s surrounded by a silica mine, a platinum smelting plant, coal mining, rock quarrying, residential housing, and agricultural and other land uses. And as South Africa increasingly becomes a player in the global economy, these types of activities are increasing at an alarming rate, with little or no government planning, regulation, or oversight.

Near the end of our suburban safari, Lisa stopped the Land Rover and said we would finish by taking a hike up a nearby kopjie (an Afrikaans term for a hill covered with rocks). We walked through the remnants of stone walls and a large hut circle constructed by the Bushmen who lived here 300 to 400 years ago, and she said that little is known about these archaeological sites because no research or study of them has been done.

We walked along the trail towards the top of the hill, looking for animals, when I smelled smoke and saw movement out of the corner of my eye in the bush off to the right. It was a person, who looked like he was barbecuing and having a picnic. As we approached, I realized that this was in fact our lunch! Even though I was the only one on her safari that day, Lisa had still gone through the trouble of having her assistant come out hours earlier to start a fire and cook us a meal.

She introduced me to her assistant, Joffrey, who had prepared a delicious meal of brown rice, Malay chicken curry, carrots, green beans, and butternut squash over the open fire. We also ate a salad made from fresh vegetables Lisa had grown in her garden, some fresh bread, and cheese. We sat down to an elegant lunch in the bush, the midday heat cut to a manageable level by the large shade trees we sat under. Dessert was a delicious lemon tart that Lisa had made from scratch.

Over lunch I got to know Joffrey a little better. Joffrey was nearing the end of a 3-month internship working for Lisa, sponsored by the local college where he was studying tourism. After working with Lisa, he was now interested in continuing with his studies and focusing on conservation biology. He was a very nice, smart young man, and an excellent chef. I believe he has a great future in tourism, wildlife management, or whatever he ultimately chooses. He represents much of the future of Africa.

On our short trek back to the Land Rover, Lisa pointed out an aardvark den in the middle of the trail, but the aardvark was nowhere to be seen as they are usually only active at night.

As the day progressed, it got increasingly hot under the harsh African sun. The only thing that made it bearable was an occasional breeze, and the canvas canopy over the top of Lisa’s open Land Rover. Most of the animals were hiding in the shade themselves now, so by the end of our safari we were seeing almost nothing.

On the drive back to my hotel, I noticed a huge crowd filling Peter Mokaba Stadium. I don’t know exactly what they were there for, but it was good to see the place packed almost three years after the end of the World Cup, in the middle of the week. Ironically, at the nearby Polokwane Game Reserve, weekends can get quite busy, but weekdays can be practically empty. Lisa and I were the only two people I saw that Tuesday in the reserve. South Africans love their animals, but apparently they love their sport even more.

In the end, although we never saw any of the 14 elusive white rhino that day, we saw quite an impressive array of wildlife in the reserve, including ostrich, waterbuck, impala, duiker, kudu, zebra, blesbok, sable antelope, red hartebeest, tsessebe, blue wildebeest, giraffe, springbok, vervet monkey, a leopard tortoise, and countless birds. Even more important than the animals I saw that day was the experience of the place—a carefully managed yet still intriguing game park, the polar opposite of what I was about to see in the Tuli Wilderness, and the company of a fine guide who made it personal.

—–

This story is an excerpt from Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ].  You can also view my Flickr gallery of photographs from this adventure.

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