South Africans to show glimpse of wilderness |

South Africans to show glimpse of wilderness

Next time you’re commiserating over whether you can squeeze wine and cheese into your backpack for a trip into the wilderness, think of the problems facing Keith Roberts.

Dangerous animals pose enough of a threat where Roberts treads that someone from his group must stay up all night to tend the fire. Then there’s always the danger of running into poachers.

Roberts is part of a delegation from South Africa that is in Snowmass Village this week at a conference for wilderness managers and workers in national forests, national parks and other federal lands. The members of the Boosmansbos Wilderness Team were recruited to offer a different perspective to the American wilderness experience.

The three members of the team will make a presentation this evening in Snowmass Village that is open to the public. The free slide show will be held at Schermer Hall at Anderson Ranch from 7 to 8:30.

Roberts will be joined by Pierre van den Berg, wilderness manager at Boosmansbos Wilderness, and Sonja Krueger, ecologist at Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park.

They will be discussing some very different wilderness issues they face in their country.

Van den Berg said he’s scrambling to get more people to come to Boosmansbos, or the Angry Man’s Forest. The 35,000-acre reserve in mountains and forests sees only about 500 visitors per year – about the same number that rush to the Maroon Bells in RFTA buses during a busy summer day.

His job is quite different from those of his counterparts in the United States, who are struggling with overwhelming numbers of visitors and accompanying resource damage.

Although wilderness was created in South Africa nearly 50 years ago, few know about it, and even fewer visit it. Van den Berg said there is a big push in his country to make parks, game preserves and wilderness land economically self-sufficient.

The trick, he said, will be to do that without ruining some of the most ecologically diverse places on the planet.

“The big challenge is to keep wilderness wild,” he said.

His goal is to generate money from activities on protected lands buffering the wilderness, and to keep the wilderness intact. During two months in the United States, he will also be studying how to harness volunteer groups to work for the benefit of the wilderness.

Krueger works in a wilderness area that already draws slightly more visitors, at up to 10,000 annually, but it could be overrun due to its cultural and natural value.

The Ukhahlamba, or Barrier of Spears, was declared a World Heritage site in 2000. It has more than 500 painted rock art sites from ancient man.

The massive area is managed with other national lands so that animals can roam freely. Krueger advises land managers on management policies.

Like public land managers in the United States, Krueger noted that chronic understaffing and underfunding challenge her agency’s ability to manage some of the most stunning wilderness in the world.

Roberts is a wilderness guide who leads some of the lucky few into those special lands. He formerly directed the anti-poaching efforts in the Umfolozi Game Reserve. Rhinos were some of the regular targets for poachers using dogs and spears and others using automatic weapons.

Their horns were sought, although not for an aphrodisiac as popular myth says. About 60 percent of the illegal use was for dagger sheaths for boys who were becoming men in Yemen, Roberts said. Horns were also sought for medicinal use and for witchcraft.

Along with his anti-poaching efforts, Roberts trained as a wilderness trails guide and took clients into some of the most remote corners of South Africa. He now guides for the Wilderness Leadership School, a nonprofit that brings kids and adults into the wilderness for trips of five to 15 days.

The travel on primitive trails into the land of dangerous animals makes for a special experience, he said. It allows for introspection and places as much emphasis on the internal or spiritual journey.

“The wilderness talks to them,” he said.

The workshop is designed to explore that relationship that wilderness provides, as well as help workers enhance their management tools. The five-day conference features everything from a presentation on fire and wilderness to a backcountry cook-off to see which ranger makes the tastiest food on a backpacking stove.

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