HLUHLUWE-UMFOLOZI GAME PRESERVE
ZULULAND, SOUTH AFRICA
Six thousand miles and a world away from Copenhagen, an open-air Jeep trundled across the trackless wilderness of South Africa.
The heat already sweltered, searing the savanna and casting up shimmering mirages. In the rearview mirror, the plains baked brilliantly under the sun, interrupted by thorny thickets and solitary stands of red bush willow. Immediately ahead rose a low knoll, studded thickly with knobby acacia and skeletal leadwood trees.
"Is that the place, Doctor?" Khamisi Taylor asked, twisting the wheel to bounce his Jeep across a dry creekbed, the dust rising in a rooster tail. He glanced at the woman beside him.
Dr. Marcia Fairfield half stood in the passenger seat, her hand clamped on the windshield's edge for balance. She pointed an arm. "Around to the west side. There's a deep hollow."
Khamisi downshifted and skirted to the right. As the current game warden on duty for the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Preserve, he had to follow protocol. Poaching was a serious offense—but also a reality. Especially in the lonelier sections of the park.
Even his own people, his fellow Zulu tribesmen, sometimes followed the traditional way and practices. It required even fining some of his grandfather's old friends. The elders had given him a nickname, a word in Zulu that translated as "Fat Boy." It was said with little outward derision, but Khamisi knew there was still an undercurrent of distaste. They considered him less a man for taking a white man's job, living fat off of others. He was still a bit of a stranger around here. His father had taken him to Australia when he was twelve, after his mother died. He had spent a good portion of his life outside the city of Darwin on Australia's north coast, even spent two years at university in Queensland. Now at twenty-eight, he was back, having secured a job as a game warden—partly from his education, partly from his ties to the tribes here.
Living fat off of others.
"Can't you go any faster?" his passenger urged.
Dr. Marcia Fairfield was a graying biologist out of Cambridge, well respected, a part of the original Operation Rhino project, often called the Jane Goodall of rhinos. Khamisi enjoyed working with her. Maybe it was just her lack of pretense, from her faded khaki safari jacket to her silver-gray hair tied back in a simple ponytail.
Or maybe it was her passion. Like now.
"If the cow died birthing, her calf might still be alive. But for how long?" She pounded a fist against the edge of the windshield. "We can't lose both."
As game warden, Khamisi understood. Since 1970, the population of black rhinos had decreased ninety-six percent in Africa. The Hluhluwe-Umfolozi reserve sought to remedy that, as it had the white rhino population. It was the chief conservation effort of the park.
Every black rhino was important.
"The only reason we found her was the tracking implant," Dr. Fairfield continued. "Spotted her by helicopter. But if she gave birth, there'll be no way to track her calf."
"Won't the baby stay close to its mother?" Khamisi asked. He had witnessed the same himself. Two years ago, a pair of lion cubs had been found huddling against the cold belly of their dam, shot by a sport poacher.
"You know the fate of orphans. Predators will be drawn by the carcass. If the calf is still around, bloody from birth…"
Khamisi nodded. He punched the gas and bounced the Jeep up the rocky slope. The rear end fishtailed in some loose scree—but he kept going.
As they cleared the hill, the terrain ahead broke apart into deep ravines, cut by trickling streams. Here the vegetation thickened: sycamore figs, Natal mahogany, and nyala trees. It was one of the few "wet" areas of the park, also one of the most remote, well away from the usual game trails and tourist roads. Only those with permits were allowed to traverse this section under strict limitations: daylight hours only, no overnight stays. The territory ran all the way to the park's western border.
Khamisi scanned the horizon as he inched the Jeep down the far slope. A mile away, a stretch of game fencing broke across the terrain. The ten-foot-high black fence divided the park from a neighboring private preserve. Such reserves often shared a park's borders, offering the more affluent traveler a more intimate experience.
But this was no ordinary private preserve.
The Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park had been founded in 1895, the oldest sanctuary in all of Africa. As such, the neighboring private reserve was also the oldest. The chunk of family-owned land predated even the park, owned by a living dynasty of South Africa, the Waalenberg clan, one of the original Boer families, whose generations stretched back to the seventeenth century. This particular reserve was a quarter the size of the park itself. Its grounds were said to be teeming with wildlife. And not just the big five—the elephant, rhinoceros, leopard, lion, and cape buffalo—but also predators and prey of every ilk: the Nile crocodile, hippo, cheetah, hyena, wildebeest, jackal, giraffe, zebra, waterbuck, kudu, impala, reedbuck, warthog, baboons. It was said that the Waalenberg preserve had unknowingly sheltered a pack of rare okapi, well before this relative of the giraffe had even been discovered back in 1901.
But there were always rumors and stories associated with the Waalenberg preserve. The park was only accessible by helicopter or small plane. The roads that once led to it had long since returned to the wild. The only visitors, occasional as they were, were major dignitaries from around the world. It was said Teddy Roosevelt once hunted on the reserve and even fashioned the United States national park system after the Waalenberg preserve.
Khamisi would give his eyeteeth to spend a day in there.
But that honor was limited only to the head warden of Hluhluwe. A tour of the Waalenberg estate was one of the perks upon acquiring that mantle, and even then it took a signed affidavit of secrecy. Khamisi hoped one day to achieve that lofty goal.
But he held out little hope.
Not with his black skin.
His Zulu heritage and education might have helped him get this job, but even after apartheid, there remained limits. Traditional ways die hard—for both black and white men. Still, his position was an inroad. One of the sad legacies of apartheid was that an entire generation of tribal children had been raised with little or no education, suffering under the years of sanctions, segregation, and unrest. A lost generation. So he did all he could do: opened what doors he could and held them for those who would come after.
He would play the Fat Boy, if that's what it took.
In the meantime…
"There!" Dr. Fairfield shouted, startling Khamisi back to the tortuous unmarked track. "Make a left at that baobab at the bottom of the hill."