COLUMNS

The Bright Side of South Africa

  • Capital Connections ®
  • |
  • December 03, 2006

by Karen Feld

capconn
South African President Thabo Mbeki, as well as many of the country’s other influential leaders including Nelson Mandela, come from South Africa’s eclectic Eastern Cape. The region is rich in natural beauty but economically the poorest of South Africa’s nine provinces.South Africans are also proud of their top diplomat in the U.S., Ambassador Barbara Masekela.Also from the Eastern Cape, she was an anti-apartheid activist, former chief of staff to Nelson Mandela, and the sister of the great jazz trumpeter, Hugh Masekela.

President Bush and President Mbeki are meeting at the White House this coming week to discuss: combating AIDS, the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, the recent election of South Africa to a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and economic development.

I visited the Eastern Cape last February and explored informal roadside settlements that lacked electricity, running water and adequate health care facilities as well as gorgeous beaches and malaria-free private game reserves.

These newer game reserves play host to the hallowed “Big Five” of gaming: lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, and buffalo. And as a bonus—they are malaria-free. Although malaria has been absent in the U.S. and Europe since the early 1950’s, this mosquito-borne disease still kills nearly one million people per year in Sub-Saharan Africa.However, because of its diverse climate and terrain, the Eastern Cape Province has never been affected by malaria.

You can see the ‘Big Five,’ but these reserves are in their infancy.Indigenous animals and vegetation have been relocated from the more established reserves to these newer private ones. It takes years of breeding to build them up and balance the reserve.

While visiting the Eastern Cape, I stayed at Pumba Private Game Reserve in Walmer, Port Elizabeth – only 12 miles from historical Grahamstown.Pumba, however, takes the idea of a Safari lodge to another level by offering modern luxury in the midst of the bush.Each of the eight cabins has an individual outdoor plunge pool on a private terrace overlooking Lake Kariega.Every detail has been considered to cater to visitors: even electrical adapters for every country are built into the wall. Tourism in this region has great economic potential but it’s still relatively undiscovered at least by Americans. I am prepared for my first game drive wearing neutral colors as advised — so as to be safely camouflaged in the open-roofed Land Rover.Rangers conduct game drives twice a day – both in the early morning and at dusk – when it’s slightly cooler and the animals become more visible.

We spot a three-year old lioness on the horizon.All of the other animals on the grassy plain turn and face her, standing at attention. “She’s on the hunt,” Graham, our ranger, explained. “Let’s give her some space.” We spot a second lioness making a kill.The baby wart hog, or pumba, is dangling from her mouth by its rear. She brings it over to our open vehicle.It is amazing to view this close up, although as an animal lover it’s not something I relished watching. “We want them to kill as they would in their natural environment,” said Graham.The afternoon drive is four hours, and we’re at the same time exhausted and exhilarated from the wind blowing dust in our faces while staying alert to spot game.

Later, back at Pumba, we are hungry and dine on Karoo lamb and South African Stellenbosch Pinotage as we brag about our lion sighting to other guests.I soon learned that mealtime conversation centers on close encounters with South African wildlife: “How many of the ‘Big Five’ did you spot today?” It’s almost a competition among the rangers and the guests.After dinner, a ranger escorts each of us to our respective cabins with the promise of a 4 a.m. wake-up call for the morning game drive.

No two drives are the same. That’s why those who engage in the sport return time and time again.Once you stay at a fancy cabin in the bush and see incredible animals in their natural environment, you’ll never again view a zoo in the same way.

Also on the Eastern Cape it’s amazing to see the progress under way in the dozen years since apartheid ended. Pilot programs are transforming informal settlements into viable communities through skills training and education without displacing the residents. For example, people in one such community were proud to show me a recently acquired brick-making machine so residents could build their own houses. Some have also been trained as guides so tourists can experience the local culture under the leadership of a resident guide.

Yes, this trip was refreshing and eye-opening. The sunny optimism of South Africa, shaking off its shackles and racial hatred, gives us hope and a different view of the often petty jockeying, both locally and on Capitol Hill.

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