Who's game? From the lap of luxury to the company of hungry lions, a vacation in Africa can be as adventurous as you choose. Safari: In the Londolozi Private Game Reserve, visitors aim at the big animals and shoot -- with cameras.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's dinner time for the top of the food chain.

Somewhere out in the tall grass, through the miasma of a dripping hot and humid South African afternoon, the lions are ripping apart one of nature's losers.

The tip-off is the vultures, the undertakers of the bush, sitting quietly in the dead-tree tops. Maybe two dozen, perched patiently on the sun-bleached branches, their red, dime-size eyes focused on the distance.

Our Land Rover from the Londolozi Private Game Reserve lurches and bumps on a kidney-rattling path through the scrub, making its way toward a stand of shade trees in a large oval clearing.

Up a small hill -- and the tracker riding on the front bumper holds up his hand. The ranger cuts the engine, then picks up a pair of field glasses. He starts the engine again and makes a slow, sweeping arc toward the trees. We stop 20 feet away.

"There -- about a dozen," he said. "A pride of lions. Looks like two males, four females and some cubs."

And one very dead impala. The kings, queens, princes and princesses of the jungle are noisily munching a family-size fresh kill. With grunts, swats and an occasional full-throat roar, they argue over who will get the last of the meal, now little more than a rack of ribs resembling a too-rare leftover from a summer barbecue. The impala's graceful, thin, horned head lies beside a tree root, its dead eyes frozen in the terror of its last moment.

In the Land Rover, a half-dozen Nikons and Canons, Sony camcorders and SureShots swing into action, capturing the grisly Kodak moment for the kids and in-laws back home.

The lions give a quick look as the first shutter clicks but then settle back into their bloody repast. One male stands up, lumbers a few feet away and then plops on his side for a snooze.

It's getting dark. We have seen the bull elephant shaking a tree for food, the leopard loping back to her two adorable cubs, the hippo bobbing in a pond and the grumpy white rhinoceros with a cute, red-billed bird atop its head.

We have shot them all -- on film. And now it is time to head back to our lodge for a gourmet meal. Like the lions, we'll be having impala. Only ours will be marinated, peppered and baked into a succulent loaf.

Such is life on a South African safari in the 1990s. Once, people went out to shoot game with rifles, then returned to camp to have the animals stuffed.

L Now, they shoot with cameras and return to stuff themselves.

Popular tourist attraction

These modern safaris are Africa's fastest-growing tourist attraction, an upscale adventure that many hope will boost the continent's lagging tourist industry. Just 4 percent of international tourists visit Africa each year.

By combining the feel of a Victorian-era hunting lodge (sans firearms) with an animal-friendly, ecotourist bent, the lodges are at the forefront of a new style of tourist attraction.

For up to $500 per day, we encamped in a luxurious cottage, took two three-hour game drives a day, got all the zoological chat anyone would want and were treated like British nobles on an 18th-century adventure.

It's definitely "safari light" -- what's known in the travel business as "soft adventure." A little danger. A lot of luxury.

Days in the hot sun searching for dangerous predators. Nights at the lodge, where a cold martini, a dip in the pool, a gourmet meal and a good night's sleep in an air-conditioned bungalow await.

But this is the bush -- there are no fences. And taking your surroundings for granted can be dangerous, even fatal. Each Range Rover is equipped with a Holland & Holland hunting rifle for protection.

At the end of the evening, escorts take you back to your bungalows. One female tourist who decided to stroll back to her lodge alone after dinner at the nearby Phinda Game Reserve ended up as a lion's supper.

"Because we try to make things as comfortable as possible, people sometimes get the impression they are in some kind of zoo -- that's not a correct presumption," said John McNally, a spokesman for Conservation Corp., which runs Londolozi.

The time commitment for a safari also has been radically modernized. President Theodore Roosevelt spent a year in Africa at the turn of the century hunting and cataloging wildlife. Novelist Ernest Hemingway and film director John Huston spent months bagging wild game.

See 'the Big Five'

But those visiting Londolozi and the other luxurious new wave of game lodges average three nights in the bush. Fly in. See "the Big Five." Fly out.

The Big Five are the big draw: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceroses and water buffalo. The name came from big-game hunters, who considered a hunt a success if they shot and killed one of each, the head or sometimes entire carcass salted and shipped back home to be mounted on den walls or in local natural-history museums.

The goal of most guests is to check off the Big Five. There's no guarantee that you'll see all the bush all-stars, but during my two-day stretch, not a single guest missed out on a "full score."

"I've seen all these animals in the zoo -- but it's something very different to see them in the wild," said Claudia Vilim, an executive working in international trade. "Watching a pride of lions argue over a kill or a leopard walking through the brush on the way back to her cubs is amazing."

The animal life doesn't end with the Big Five. I saw giraffes, zebras, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, wildebeest, wart hogs, giant turtles, baboons, monkeys, impala, scorpions and what seemed like a million species of birds.

The lodge managers also know how to meet guests' fantasies of a bush camp. After one hot afternoon spent driving through the )) rutted roads chasing the Big Five, we were eager at sundown to get back to camp for dinner.

Our Land Rover bounced along, an occasional tree branch pouncing out of the dark to whack us in the face.

Rounding a corner, we spotted a long trail of lanterns on either side of the road. We followed until they ended at a large bush.

From behind the scrub, Peter Siebert, a Londolozi manager, stepped forward.

"Welcome. We're all having dinner under the stars tonight," he said. "Follow me."

It was a scene out of a Victorian hunting party. A table with roasts, fruits, nuts and cheeses. Another groaning with dozens of bottles -- premium liquors, top-ranked wines, beer in an ice-laden bucket, soft drinks and juices.

"Stolichnaya and orange juice," a British tourist ordered from the white-smocked bartender.

On the other side of a small meadow, tables were lighted brightly with candles shining off the finest china and silverware. Behind each was a white-liveried cook or waiter, who smiled and greeted us.

Over roasts, impala kebabs and fresh pineapple, we chatted about our day. Out in the bush, out of view, was a small squad of men with rifles making sure our interactions with the beasts of the bush didn't include unexpected guests at the dinner table.

The meals often included some of the lesser animals of the range -- notably impala and wart hog. The game sometimes confused guests. During one lunch, slices of a deep red meat were served by a waiter.

"What is this?" asked a Dutch tourist, an obviously wealthy and imperious businessman.

"Pastrami, sir," the waiter said.

"Pastrami -- what kind of animal is that?" the man asked.

Later in the day, as the Land Rover cruised the bush, a wildebeest shot out of some underbrush and ran across the road.

"Is that the pastrami?" the Dutchman asked earnestly.

Nobody had the heart -- or gumption -- to explain it to him.

While many of today's game reserves have their roots in hunting lodges of yesterday, Londolozi is leading the way into a new, politically correct kind of safari.

The lodge is owned by Conservation Corp. -- called Conscorp locally -- a British company that has lodges spread around southern and eastern Africa.

Nearly all the lodges sell well, with the company registering a 1996 profit of $30 million. However, the company isn't immune to the political uneasiness in parts of Africa. Recent rioting in Kenya has centered on Mombassa on the coast, but Conscorp's lodges hundreds of miles away in the interior have seen a drop in reservations.

"People sometimes don't realize the vast distances in Africa," said McNally, the Conscorp spokesman. "Trouble in one place is thought to be trouble everywhere. The entire continent gets tarred with the same brush."

The company is in tune with the post-apartheid realities of South Africa, where the bulk of its lodges are located. At Londolozi, at least, the days of the Great White Hunter are dead.

In the United States, racial segregation once meant sitting at the back of the bus. In South Africa's wild-game parks, apartheid meant staying on the front bumper.

Up until a few years ago, blacks who worked at game parks could only hope to rise as high as tracker -- the man who rides the bumper of the Land Rover, looking for signs of the Big Five.

But to be a guide -- to drive the car and talk with the white guests, you had to be white. Not today.

"There is hope now that you can work hard and get behind the driver's wheel," said ranger Julius Ngwenya, who is black. "Now my son can follow in my path, if he wishes. That is something very new to us."

Conscorp's rangers closely reflect the mix of today's Africa. There are white men, black men and some white women. Only black women have yet to make it into the ranger ranks.

Londolozi is a rarity. At the airport where tourists fly in to be met by rangers from dozens of lodges, most of the rangers-in-waiting are white men, looking much like the South African army soldiers many once were.

Conscorp also gets involved in the communities surrounding the game reserves. Our guide took us to the village built for workers.

The locals -- mostly from the Shangaan ethnic group -- have their own store and council and make their own rules. Locals are hired to help build and maintain the lodges, and serve as maintenance, security and service staff, and are increasingly involved in the actual game safaris.

Conscorp staffers are fond of telling the tale of Zibane Mazibuko, who was caught poaching antelope on the nearby Phinda Game Reserve.

Instead of calling in the police, Conscorp turned him over to his tribal elders, who decided that he should make bricks at Phinda for three months to repay the lodge for the animal.

Mazibuko did his time -- then asked to stay. Conscorp helped him get money to open a small brick-making operation, then bought the bricks for some of its lodges.

Many South Africans hope these "new-age" game reserves can help boost tourism in their newly free country.

"Right now we are the flavor of the month," said Tania Fischer, 56, a tourism consultant in Johannesburg, whose clients often book with Londolozi.

"It's easy to get people here the first time. The trick is going to be to make sure they come back again."

When you go...

Getting there: South African Airways offers services from New York, with connecting flights in the United States via American Airlines. Current economy-class prices are around $1,500 round trip, per person. Some consolidators can offer tickets for less than $1,500.

Getting ready: South Africa requires a passport for entry, but no visa. Check with your local public health department for details on inoculations.

The camps: Conservation Corp. runs nine private reserves in South Africa. Londolozi is the oldest and most respected. Rates start at about $450 per day in the Main Camp. Rates are higher in the smaller Bush Camp and Tree Camp. Prices include airport transfers, all meals and two guided game drives per day.

Booking it: Many U.S. travel agents can book you into Conservation Corp. lodges. If you want to contact Conservation Corp. in the United States, call 888-882-3742.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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