According to local lore, this parched, desolate area of southern Africa was once the base of a legendary South African poacher who preyed upon the plentiful African wildlife, reportedly killing more than 300 elephants.

The poacher, Bvekenya Barnard, favored this area, so the story goes, because a beacon marked the point where the borders of South Africa, Rhodesia and the Portuguese colony of Mozambique come together. When fleeing the police of one territory, Barnard would head for Crooks Corner, then simply move the beacon to put himself outside the jurisdiction of whatever police force was pursuing him.

Today Crooks Corner has become the unlikely site of occasional cross-border raids and confrontation between black- and white-ruled states.

Two months ago, South African soldiers reportedly crossed the dry riverbed of the Limpopo River, which divides Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and South Africa. They clashed with Zimbabwean troops in what Prime Minister Robert Mugabe described as the beginning of a destabilization campaign against his government.

Three white South African soldiers, formerly members of the Rhodesian Army, which fought to prevent Mugabe from gaining power, were killed and 14 blacks escaped across the border.

South Africa has confirmed the incident but has denied any intention to destabilize Zimbabwe. The troops were on an unauthorized mission, according to Gen. Constand Wiljoen, chief of the South Africa Defense Force.

Strangely, for an area of reported military confrontation, there is little sign of troops on either side of the Limpopo. A party of reporters drove more than an hour along the Zimbabwean side of the border this month and only encountered one military roadblock, manned by about 40 soldiers.

A military source said the troops in the area were not the country's best. He explained that priority was being given to operations against dissidents farther west in Matabeleland where six foreign tourists, including two Americans, were kidnaped three months ago.

The troops at the roadblock were stationed on high ground above the river 1 1/2 miles from the border. They said they can see South African forces on the other side of the border through binoculars.

But a recent humid hike through the bushland, dominated by huge baobab trees, to the riverbed produced no sign of troops of any nationality on either side of the river. The main occupants were a few Shangaan tribe herd boys, their cattle and swarms of flies.

Appearances, however, can be deceptive. A woman washing clothes in the river was shot and killed by South African soldiers at the nearby village of Sengwe in May.

Even though the border appears to be lightly defended, Mugabe's concern about destabilization seems well founded.

Most of the almost 2,000-mile stretch across the southern tip of Africa, roughly following the Cunene, Zambezi and Limpopo rivers from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans, is the theater of a variety of proxy wars in the confrontation between black and white rule.

In differing degrees, the black governments support organizations seeking to overthrow white rule in South Africa and Namibia (South-West Africa), which is controlled by South Africa. Pretoria responds in a variety of ways, depending on the target.

Thousands of its troops invade Angola at will to seek out guerrillas fighting for the independence of neighboring Namibia. In the process, South Africa also gives support to guerrillas fighting the Marxist government in Luanda.

Despite routine South African denials, Mozambique accuses South Africa of supporting rebels seeking to overthrow the Marxist government of President Samora Machel. There have been persistent reports of South African military aircraft crossing Zimbabwean airspace to supply the rebels, known as the Mozambique National Resistance.

Zimbabwe charges that South Africa maintains a camp for the rebels and former Rhodesian soldiers backing them at Palaborwa, near Kruger National Park, in the northeastern part of South Africa.

South African activities in Zimbabwe, however, have been more circumspect, possibly because of the significant support by Western nations for the Mugabe government.

There have been unsubstantiated allegations of South African involvement in a number of sabotage incidents, but South African influence seems to be exerted mainly in the economic field where trade patterns established in the days of white rule provide Pretoria with substantial leverage.

The incident near Crooks Corner could be an escalation to the military arena as Mugabe claimed or it might simply be a spillover from the Mozambican theater of operations. Or it could be a case of some South African soldiers acting on their own as sometimes happens in guerrilla wars.

The Mugabe government said the infiltrators entered Zimbabwe from South Africa aiming to knock out the railway and repair facilities along the line connecting the Mozambican capital of Maputo with Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe.

There are other reports that the South African troops were in Mozambique to support the rebels and retreated across the border during heavy fighting,.

The Zimbabwean military will only say the South Africans were killed about five miles inside the border in an area about halfway between the Limpopo and Mwenezi rivers.

Ironically, Zimbabwe's main line of defense along the Mozambique border appears to be mine fields laid by the Rhodesians during the country's independence war to prevent Mugabe's forces from infiltrating. The mines have not been removed so the new Zimbabwean Army reportedly does not venture into the area.

The border is marked by a game fence. On both sides live members of the Shangaan tribe. Thousands of Mozambican Shangaans have fled to Zimbabwe, sometimes risking mine fields and walking for days, to avoid the continuing violence.

More than 1,500 refugees have settled around the village of Chibwedziva. So far, the government has only provided very limited food aid and the children are not attending the local school. They are scheduled to start in January, however, which will add 300 students to the overcrowded eight classroom primary school where 17 teachers, only two professionally trained, teach 700 students.

Fernand Manual Makaxi, 27, said he and his two wives, two children and in-laws fled seven months ago just before the Mozambican rebels captured their village. The rebels, he said, made no attempt to win over the people but instead brutalized them, forcing the men to join their fight and cutting off the ears or noses of government supporters.

Makaxi said his family survives by selling cattle they brought across the border. Interviewers got the distinct impression that the cattle might have been rustled in Mozambique. Other refugees have taken on poaching in nearby Gonarezhou game park, where elephant, zebras and a variety of antelope are abundant.