South Africa’s renowned Kruger National Park is a goldmine of animals, birds, insects and natural wonders. But there are also many historical jewels to ‘excavate’, writes Sam J Basch.
Almost every visitor to the Kruger National Park studies the siting boards at each rest camp, gate or picnic spot with intense interest. You simply have to know where lion, leopard, buffalo, wild dog, cheetah and elephant were seen yesterday and today. Rhino is no longer indicated – on account of poaching.
But surely the Big Five are not all the Kruger is about. After all, there is the Small Five. The Ugly Five. And bird spotting… Those people with expensive binoculars often do not even carry a birdbook. They know each of the winged species by name – even that unpronouncable scientific designation – and its call.
Almost every visitor’s game reserve looks different.
Increasingly popular are hikes on foot in the bush amongst wild animals, accompanied by a guide with a big gun. This is Africa!
For others there is the luxury of a five-star lodge. And game drives in early evening on top of an open vehicle, and sundowners at a waterhole as the sun sinks below the horizon.
In the rest camp where the gates have closed for the night, the braai fires flicker among the tents, caravans and the 4x4s of experienced Kruger visitors. Orange, red and shadow brush strokes paint the bush as the darkness deepens, an unpolluted firmament with the Milky Way a haze of shiny stars.
In the night you hear the distant “Umph-umph” of a lion, or the snort of an impala ram. Small geckos dart up the wall of your hut as they hunt insects lured by the light, the darkness beyond filled by the chirps of uncountable numbers of weird and wonderful bugs.
At sunrise, after eating rusks dunked in coffee with condensed milk, and with sufficient supplies of ‘padkos’ packed, binoculars, guide books and camera at hand, you follow the line of vehicles out the gate – to enjoy the richness of the Kruger.
It’s the romance, the pleasure, the excitement, to once again experience the bush, as hundreds of thousands of visitors since the Kruger Park’s earliest days, to relive something of humanity’s prehistoric existence here in Africa.
Almost no game reserve
According to the official history, the Kruger National Park was proclaimed in 1926. Before that, there were two separate reserves, Sabie and Shingwedzi, that were joined together in a national park.
But some of the farmers were not happy. The history shows the ‘Volksraad’ (People’s Assembly) of President Paul Kruger’s Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (South African Republic) had little appetite for the idea of a “game kraal” or reservation and the Sabie Game Reserve was only approved in 1898, just before the Anglo-Boer War – with just one vote in favour.
The reserve only properly got up and running when the Scottish born James Stevenson-Hamilton was appointed game warden. A serving British officer during the war, he preferred to establish himself in South Africa – and what a difference did he make!
Small wonder he acquired the nickname ‘Skukuza’: “the one who sweeps clean.” He had to relocate the indigenous population and farmers from the territory and forcibly remove ivory hunters, poachers and smugglers.
But not before he had an epiphany: in those early days Lowveld farmers’ complaints that lions, leopards and wild dogs from the Sabi Reserve were killing their livestock saw his game rangers enthusiastically shooting these predators on sight. Colonel Stevenson-Hamilton came to the realisation that his mandate was to protect the entire ecosystem: plants, animals, everything.
Olden days in tents
In the early days visitors prepared food outside in the open air and were accommodated in tents. In time, though, the erstwhile Parks Board had rondavel huts built for visitors.
When in Skukuza rest camp, go see the W.A.C. Cambell Museum Hut about 200 metres from the shop, next to an old-fashioned petrol pump. The hut more or less resembles the original Selby rondavels of 1929; at that time it had no windows but an all-round opening under the roof for ventilation. Imagine the cold of winter – not to mention mosquitoes in summer! And those bedsteads with braided rawhide ‘mattress’ could not have been very comfortable.
And then, if you intended leaving the hut, first take a peek through the spyhole opening in the door to check whether it was safe. Some dangerous creature could have made itself comfortable outside your hut. In those days there were no fences around the camp.
Skukuza was then still called Sabi Bridge. Once your motor vehicle was filled up with fuel, you drove the family to the ferry that would take you to the northern bank from where the trip further up into the game reserve could be undertaken. Obviously the ferry no longer exists, but right next to a wooden bench with a view across the Sabie River you can still see the strong steel rod with an eyelet to which the ferry’s cables were anchored.
Whilst in Skukuza rest camp, go visit the dog cemetery where the names of many a beloved animal friend is engraved in stone.
If you’re sleeping over in Shingwedzi rest camp, it might be interesting to pay proper attention to the hut in which you’re overnighting, specifically those with low numbers in A-circle. As the huts in Punda Maria, these are still some of the originals build around 1931. Note the leadwood supports on which the thatched roof is resting. Even at that time, the pioneers realised the wood from this tree (Androstachys johnsonii) is resistant against borer insects.
Check underneath the overhang; even the rough beams are visibly handhewn and bound with rawhide thongs.
Many of the historic facts, however, are not as visible; for those you’d have to excavate and have an especially keen eye. A handy guide is Ron Hopkins’s ‘Historical Sites of the Kruger National Park’ – also available in Afrikaans in the game reserve shops. The Kruger mapbooks also indicate these places of interest.
‘Excavate’ is the suitable word in this instance. Up in the north of the park is the mineshaft of Jan Gerber who was looking for gold. On the S30-route, the Salitje road between Skukuza and Lower Sabie, are the graves of unknown prospectors – also goldseekers. They were part of the late-1880s Lowveld goldrush when places like Pilgrims Rest and Barberton came into existence.
What is probably less known, is that the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indiesche Compagnie – VOC) much earlier already had dispatched an expedition under the command of Frans de Cuiper from Delagoa Bay (now Maputo in Mozambique) to find gold. In the conservationist Dr Willem Punt’s publication ‘The First Europeans in the Kruger National Park 1725’ he describes it as the “adventurous journey to the fabelled Monomotapa, land of gold.”
Dr Punt’s book is based on De Cuiper’s handwritten diary that is preserved in the National Archives in Pretoria. The expedition was attacked by indigenous warriors on 12 July 1725 near the current Gomondwane waterhole on the H4-2-route between Crocodile Bridge and Lower Sabie and had to return to Fort Lijdsaamheid in Delagoa Bay.
Important to know is that De Cuiper’s meticulous notes, along with Voortrekker leader Louis Trichardt’s diary, contain important information for geologists, ethnologists, entimologists, botanists and others who wish to study the rich fauna and flora of the Kruger National Park.
David Bristow writes in his recent book ‘Of Hominins, Hunter-gatherers and Heroes’ that the Kruger boasts 336 tree species, more than the Okavango Delta. Not to mention the Kruger Park’s huge numbers of bird species, insects, reptiles and what more.
Of course there were other people in these areas centuries earlier. A gem for anthropologists today is Thulamela, now a heritage site close to the current Pafuri camp, where a civilisation traded with Arabs and Chinese more than a 1,000 years ago. According to Hopkins evidence points to human habitation 1.5 million years ago.
In the south you see markers to indicate the 19th century routes of the Voortrekkers and transport riders between Delagoa Bay and Lydenburg through the Kruger Park. Jock van die Bosveld-country. Just inside the Phabeni Gate you should stop at João Albasini’s trading post – now just a ruin, but check the exhibition. Alabasini was born in Portugal from an Italian father and Spanish mother. Juwawa was a loyal friend of both the indigenous tribes and the Voortrekkers, especially Trichardt. He and his wife Gertina Petronella Janse van Rensburg had nine children.
Nowadays you enjoy warm water in your accommodations. It was not always like that. In the 1930s the Parks Board’s view was that warm water was an “unnecessary luxury”.
At that time, board member, Herbert Boshoff Papenfus KC, proposed the introduction of regular aircraft flights between Johannesburg and the Kruger Park. His idea was rejected. His proposal of a hotel at each rest camp was similarly rejected. Still, the imposing sandstone clock tower in Skukuza was erected in his honour.
Today your flight does land inside the Kruger. You might even be staying in the new Skukuza Safari Lodge. In the not so distant future, you’ll have an even more luxurious option: the Kruger Shalati Train Hotel that is soon to park on the old historic Sabie Bridge.
Visit the SANParks website for tariffs and more information: https://www.sanparks.org
Sources: Hopkins, Ron. 2014: Historical Sites of the Kruger National Park;
Punt, WHJ. 1975: The First Europeans in the Kruger National Park 1725;
Bristow, David. 2019: Of Hominins, Hunter-Gatherers and Heroes – Searching for 20 Amazing Places in South Africa;
Frandsen, Joy. 2018: Nationale Kruger Wildtuin Kaart;
This article was published in South Africa’s major Afrikaans-language Sunday newspaper, RAPPORT, in the travel section, Rapport-Beleef, on 2 February 2020.