Beside me and my boyfriend, Marcel, is a group of Germans, wearing shirts that say Deutscher Fussball-Bund. Every time we spot something, they only want to know the numbers.
"How heavy is he?" they ask of the elephant.
"How many meters does he grow?" they ask of the giraffe.
"Is it a .385?" they ask of the ranger's rifle.
A jackal strolls into our headlights, followed by a hyena with a face like a soft-snouted dog. The night animals pause, unperturbed by the sight of us, as we train cameras on them like guns.
Then, a few feet away from our vehicle, two cheetahs jump up on a pillar and sniff it. I stand and lean into the Germans to catch a better view. The cats are black-spotted, high-cheekboned, small-headed, fluff-bellied. They crouch and urinate, marking territory. They stretch, they look around. They stare right at me, at eyelevel. Back home, I've memorized exactly the pause just before our tabby cat springs up onto the windowsill, her posture as she leans back on her haunches, the trajectory of her leap. I know these cheetahs have the capacity to jump into the open-air vehicle and land neatly on our laps.
My heart is suddenly racing. I back off from the window.
We return to our searchlight wanderings, and soon the ranger gets a text message from a colleague and begins speeding up the road so we're bouncing in our seats and scouting out of the window for the glint of an animal's eye. Our vehicle stops with a jerk by some acacias growing in a trench, and we peer down our spotlight's path to find four lionesses tearing through a carcass with their teeth, rolling their heads in gusto, using their paws to steady their kill. The only noise we hear is a constant crackling: the sound of breaking bones.
Inside Kruger National Park is a reverse kind of zoo, where the humans are fenced into rest stops and campsites and their own cars, and the animals have free rein over the territory outside. Visitors are only allowed to walk around in the park on an organized tour with two armed rangers. The reserve stretches for nearly 200 miles along the Mozambique border and is roughly the size of New Jersey.
The first tract of land was set aside in 1898, by Paul Kruger, the Afrikaner president. Other game preserves in Africa operate without fences, allowing the people of the area to continue their way of life among the animals and also to serve as tourist guides. Not so in South Africa. To expand the park, some of the residents were forced at gunpoint to burn their houses, loaded onto trucks, and dumped dozens of miles away. By the 1950s, blacks were banned from visiting Kruger or any other national park in South Africa. After the end of apartheid, people once resident in this area opened land claims covering half the territory of the park, some of which have been settled.
We're sitting in the restaurant of the Pretoriuskop rest stop, having just consumed kudu stew.Marcel is stressed about France's game with Mexico.
Before I planned this trip to Kruger, Marcel had said he couldn't go camping during a France game. "Are you kidding me?" I'd asked. I had not realized that his itinerary included watching games beyond the ones we had tickets for or that he would rather watch televised soccer than see lions and rhinos and baboons. But I called the national park staff and sheepishly asked if there was a television at the campsite. "Television!" I'd repeated over the fuzzy VOIP line from New York. "Is there a place we can watch television in the camp?"
So here we sit, under a lamp made of antlers, with windows onto grazing impala, watching the French succumb to the Mexicans. Marcel leans forward in his seat, face drawn and tense, arms crossed over his chest, foot tapping anxiously, looking as ferocious as any creature whose territory is threatened. I'm tired. The game lasts until past 10 p.m., and we've been up since 4 a.m. for a morning tour. One thing that's nice about soccer is that it ends roughly on time.
" Got some ingwe two clicks down," says Dave, our guide, stopping the truck to speak to another guide in their rangers' dialect of abbreviations and Swazi and Shangaan words—meaning leopards two kilometers down the road. *
Dave's descriptions of the animals we encounter make me think of a cast of superheroes, each with its own powers and vulnerabilities. The cheetah can run faster than anything, but its delicate frame makes it a lightweight for fighting. The leopard can climb trees, but it is solitary and so vulnerable to surprise attack.
One afternoon, we see impalas shooting out of the bush—one, two, three, four. The zebras move, too, and then the wildebeest. At last we see the cause: three wild dogs tearing after them. The dogs are rarer than lions in the park and endangered; a pack of them will pick an impala and chase it in turns until the prey collapses, exhausted. A South African friend we'd made, Cynthia, complained that in her company's grant-making office, there was a lot of money allocated to preserving wild dogs compared with education or community development.
Another day, we see the dogs up close. They all have the same phenotype: colored like tortoiseshell cats, mottled with bright orange and black and white spots, a foxlike pouf of a white tail, and a feral, dangerous look about the amber eyes and black muzzle. But they plop down and sit like any house dog and then pick up and trot right by our vehicle. These animals are perhaps the most surprisingly impressive: familiar but unfamiliar.
Housecats can get into Kruger and mate with the smallest of the wild cats. Wanton seeds blow over from people's gardens, and soon plants like the prickly pear proliferate. Rangers develop programs to remove any plant or animal not native to the place.
But they also intervene themselves. The park employs veterinarians, and if rangers come across an animal wounded by a poacher's snare, they might treat it on the spot or sometimes euthanize it. In the past, rangers have culled the elephants, using sharpshooters in helicopters and on the ground, to stop overpopulation from wiping out vegetation and other species.
What is natural?
In the past year, a stolen vehicle was recovered in the park, and traffickers of drugs and humans were caught moving their goods across borders into South Africa through the park. Now some rangers are dedicated to tracking poachers and patrolling the borders.
Still, "it's the safest place in South Africa," Dave says.
Before we came to Kruger, I'd been excited to see its open view of the night sky, far from the lights of the cities. Marcel had picked up a Southern Hemisphere planisphere, a cardboard chart with a dial to turn to the date and time so it shows the constellations on view. But after dinner—more kudu stew—it's freezing outside. The sky over the veld astonishes, the blackness full of glowing points of white, silver, and even red, like infinitely scattered embers. I've never seen the constellations so clearly: The Milky Way looks like a thick tube of light; Scorpio forms the shape of a spider; the Southern Cross is like a kite; Venus is setting. Yet we take only a quick look, huddling against each other. A shooting star arcs down toward the free-for-all of the savanna, and we move on.