Kruger memories and thoughts

Kruger Park, as they say, is bred into one. This certainly has been the case with me. I grew up close to the modern day iMfolozi- Hluhluwe Game Reserves in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa so I was familiar with the bush and wildlife before I ever got to Kruger. Furthermore we subscribed to the publication “African Wildlife” and as a child I would pour excitedly over its contents each month when it arrived in the post. Names such as Sabie, Skukuza and Pretoriuskop began to take on a mystique all of their own.

It was then with great excitement that, aged ten, we set out in December 1958 for White River close to Numbi Gate near Pretoriuskop. The route took us through Swaziland but it was then gravel throughout. Swaziland was still a British Protectorate and I cannot remember any passport control at the border.

Crossing the beautiful Usutu and Mbuluzi Rivers was then very different and happily there was no flooding to halt our progress. We would overnight at the Bamboo Inn atop the Ubombo Mountains at Siteki and then proceed the next day exiting Swaziland through rugged Pigg’s Peak and then on to Barberton.

For some obscure reason, we stayed in the Bushman’s Rock Hotel outside White River from where we made day trips into the Kruger Park via Numbi Gate.

Seething with anticipation, we entered Numbi Gate for the first time. Although we stayed for only a few days I remember very little of that trip other than vaguely seeing a lion in thick bush along the Sabie River road. I remember the incongruous sight of a steam engine belching smoke and fire as it thundered southward from Skukuza.

A train crossing the Skukuza Bridge 1959

An old steam engine now at Skukuza – a relic of those early years.

Although in the scale of Kruger’s history I was a late comer, Stevenson-Hamilton had died only the year before that first trip so his presence still loomed large over the Park. Mysteriously, all roads leading northward across the Sabie river were closed during the summer months which added even more to the aura of an untamed wilderness. Names such as Satara, Letaba, Shingwedzi and Punda Maria now took on a profound fascination in a young mind. Although stories of malaria were put about, now knowing the occasional ferocity of the rainfall patterns at that time of the year, then without high-level bridges and tarred roads it must have been a nightmare for the authorities to keep on rescuing marooned motorists. Far rather keep the tourists in the manageable area south of the Sabie.

So, far from dampening our spirits, our sparse animal sightings just cried out for more. And those great granite koppies near Pretoriuskop, Shabeni in particular, were oh so impressive. The vastness of the Park just enthralled me.

To know too that Jock from the famous childhood book had actually lived out his life along these very roads made it all the more compelling.

So much did we enjoy that trip that the following December 1959 we, together with our neighbours, returned – but this time to stay in Pretoriuskop itself.

Along the way, we stopped off to see the early building works of the Jozini Dam wall.

At Pretoriuskop, we stayed in the family cottages on the eastern side of the restcamp  where they still exist albeit much modernised. From here we made daily forays along lonely roads in the area. We did see a cheetah perched on an antheap on the Fayi Loop and along the road past Shabeni towards modern day Phabeni we came across five more cheetah in the road. The only elephant we saw was near the Sabie River.

The picturesque swimming pool, built into the granite rock, then and now are identical. I do know that at a later date when water was scarce, ellies broke down the fence and made merry in the pool. Although game sightings around Pretoriuskop were not the best, the beauty of the area more than compensated for this.

It was not long after our first trip to Pretoriuskop that a boma was constructed next to the top end of  the Voortrekker Road  (H2) and into which white rhino from iMfolozi were successfully introduced. Their numbers rocketed over the years until recently when poaching began taking its toll.

And so began something that would become  part of me for the next sixty years – regular trips to the Park . During the mid-sixties we began spending our winter school holidays with Dad’s uncle, Dr Arnold Schoch, on his farm, Albatross, directly outside the Orpen Gate, west of Satara. The Schoch’s bushcamp  was sited on the banks of the Timbavati River and the informality of the bush experience was unique. One day Aunty Vera Schoch took us for a drive along the present Timbavati river road (S39) to Olifants Restcamp. Near the present day Timbavati Picnic Site we saw a pride of lion pull down a Sable antelope. I think one would be hard pressed now to see a Sable anywhere in this region. The neighbouring farm, Sandringham, was owned by Oswald Pirow the wartime Minister of Defence in Jan Smut’s cabinet. I recently visited Albatross but it is now a 5 star lodge catering for flush tourists – but at least the animal’s habitat has been secured.

Of course there have been some major changes in Kruger. Tarring of the mainroads and construction of high-level bridges began in the mid-60’s and despite much opposition from traditionalists, they have been hugely successful. No dust coats the vegetation lining the roads and of course there are no tiresome corrugations that can make travelling on gravel so unpleasant.

The communal fires which, at picnic sites and in the camps, lent such a feeling of comraderie as visitors shared their daily experiences, disappeared – inevitably. As the tourist numbers swelled so the logistical difficulties of daily collecting tons of firewood from the veld became just too great. Sterile gas cooking sadly took over.

I lived a busy, professional life and found that I could only snatch short bursts of Kruger over many years. In 1981 I was to meet my future wife, Renette, and  one of the first things I did was to introduce her to Kruger. That first day proved trying as we saw little and Renette’s face grew longer and longer. Where were those postcard leopards draped all over the tree branches, where were those lions and elephants around every corner? It must be a ruse to lure gullible tourists – until that evening, driving up the Sabie River road (H4-1) we came across a pride of lions sprawled across the road. Up came Renette’s lip and nearly forty years later it has never dropped again. Renette’s Dad (and her brother) accompanied us on that trip and I can remember with now amusement how incensed he was at having to pay R12/chalet/night (R6pp). I have been very blessed to have had the company of a wife who loves Kruger just as much as I do.

My eldest son, John,  was just four months old when he first came to Kruger and so it has been with all four of my sons.

They were all introduced to the Park at a young age and now that they have all left home I realise how deeply embedded is the bushveld within them. They have travelled to various parts of the world but still say that their favourite destination is Kruger. What a bonding family time it was to be together in a Kombi sharing exciting sightings together, games of cricket on the camp lawns and swims in the pools.

If never ceases to give me a warm bubble of pleasure to see a group of youngsters soaking up the magic  of Kruger, thus passing on its legacy to the next generation.

Although from a young age I had a smattering of bird knowledge, it was only later that I became really interested in birds. And what a colossal window opened up to me. l can remember that very trip when I suddenly realised this rich treasure all around me. We were having a rather lean time and at Satara I heard a strange, mournful bird call from the tree outside the chalet.

Grey-headed Bush Shrike

After an intensive hunt in the dense foliage I suddenly focused upon the beautiful Grey-headed Bushshrike and the thrill that it gave me was to change my Kruger trips for ever. The field of birds is vast and our whole family became focused on building up bird lists on every trip. And the natural progression led on to photographing them, something that has given me so much pleasure over the past fifteen years.

My mother was a keen photographer and I suppose that I got my love of it from her. I do remember how thrilling it was to take a black and white photo of a kudu next to the road near Pretoriuskop. Unfortunately, so many of my early photos, some quite historic, have been trashed. But few of us can enjoy the luxury of being a dedicated wildlife photographer during our young working life. Certainly that was the case with me whereby, despite my many Kruger trips, and up to the age of 55, photography took very much a back seat. A pivotal moment occurred for me one day at Skukuza in about 2003 when I bought a booklet on wildlife photography by Nigel Dennis. So inspired was I that I lashed out and bought a 600mm lens with a matching Nikon film camera.

Snarling Leopard, Salietjie Road (S30) Kruger National Park, Mpumulanga, South Africa

This photo was taken with colour slide film, converted to digital and then enhanced with Photoshop.

Beginning with colour slides, the frustration was immense as it took weeks after I had returned home before I could see the fruits or otherwise of my efforts. That all changed a year later when I became aware that digital camera quality had reached a point whereby film was fast becoming obsolete. I bought a Nikon D70 and an early version of Photoshop and I was away. The thrill of now downloading one’s handiwork immediately and  having full control over the outcome, through Photoshop,  increased my passion for wildlife photography a hundredfold. BUT……………. it came at a price. To achieve quality shots demands quality equipment, especially for birds and there are no shortcuts. I really feel for those obviously talented enthusiasts who just cannot afford quality equipment and thus have their talent, probably far superior to mine, so unfairly snuffed out. I am eternally grateful that at the time I was fortunate enough to afford it. At one stage I was frustrated with my Nikon camera quality and very nearly changed over to Canon but the advent of the D3 camera with its revolutionary sensor rescued me in the nick of time. My subsequent Nikon equipment has been truly superb. I now use a D4S camera and a 800mm fixed telephoto lens with a D3S and 200-400mm zoom as a backup and my faithful Photoshop for processing. At this time of my life I am so fortunate to have a hobby that stimulates me so greatly and makes my Kruger trips so fulfilling.

Photographing birds means that the summer months are the best as the migratory birds arrive from the north. And visiting Kruger in summer, particularly the months December to March comes with the risk of floods. Kruger swings from the dry,  balmy months of winter to the heat of summer which invariably brings violent storms and torrential tropical rains. With the catchment area along the escarpment to the west, the major Kruger rivers are prone to spectacular flooding.

The Sabie River flooded violently in February 2000 ………….

………….. whilst the Shingwedzi camp was inundated by floodwaters in January 2013.

Sunrise at Satara with a cyclone to the east.

Cyclones regularly strike the Mozambique coast adjacent to Kruger and make their presence felt.

In March 2017 we set out early across the Lower Sabie dam/bridge over the Sabie River and a couple of hours later returned to find this scene. This temperamental river had flooded across the road, dropped its debris and then subsided within hours.

At the end of December 2013 I was at the reception desk at Skukuza and noted a flurry of activity amongst the staff. A helicopter took off from nearby. Upon further inquiry I learnt that a crazed elephant had attacked a car near Pretoriuskop and the injured occupants were  being airlifted by the helicopter to hospital in Nelspruit.

By the next day I had learnt that the incident had in fact taken place along the S65 road west of Skukuza and a visit there revealed this sight. This incident is still a popular clip on YouTube and readers can find it under “Elephant attacks car in Kruger”. Suffice to say that the English girl driving the car froze in terror unable to move and the ellie took exception to her not backing off. He got shot for his trouble. Over the years there have been a number of incidents where elephants have attacked cars and in nearly every case it has been caused by motorists not respecting a bad tempered male in musth. Although I have sometimes had to back off quickly, I have never had a really close shave with an elephant. Once though, south of the Muzandzeni picnic spot, (S36) I most fortunately saw a big elephant ahead charging at us through the bushes but managed to stop and back off in time. Had I not seen him coming then I am sure that he would have smashed into us. Ironically the closest I have ever come to being ‘pinged’ was by a white rhino in the Hluhluwe Game  Reserve where only a smoking, wheel spinning reverse on a tar road allowed me to escape his very aggressive charge. This bizarre behaviour by what are usually very docile creatures had to be a result of poaching.

A mystery to me has been that baboons now never climb onto motorcars. Whereas twenty years ago it was the norm for baboons to clamber all over cars and even venture inside to help themselves from picnic baskets, now it never happens at all and I wonder why the change of  behaviour.

Post 1994 corruption became rampant throughout the Park. At most shop and restaurant till points the assistant would use a calculator to tot up the purchases and then give the customer their change – without a till slip. Coming from a cash business myself I knew exactly what was going on but despite me reporting it to the authorities and even writing to the press, nothing was done over a long period. Having suffered millions in lost revenue, the Park was finally forced to privatise their shops as well as their catering. During this period the manageress of the Satara shop was charged, together with the camp manager of fleecing the shop of over a million Rand. I reported to the elderly manager at Skukuza what was going on but he said that he was retiring the following year and did not wish to jeopardise his pension – so he did nothing. At the Lower Sabie I made a written statement to the shop manager about a fiddle going on at a till. A month or two later the manager phoned me at home to thank me as my statement had secured a dismissal.

Not long after this incident the thatched shop at Lower Sabie burnt down. Later the manager he told me that an assistant named Elias, had set fire to the shop to destroy evidence of wrong doing. What Elias failed to realise was that the office within the shop was bricked in and with the door closed, all the evidence was preserved. Exit Elias. I was at the reception desk at Lower Sabie a few months later and I heard a tourist enquire how the shop had burnt down. The receptionist replied that a “Tokoloshe” was responsible to which I interjected that the Tokoloshe’s name was Elias. The receptionist’s face was a picture.

Happily Kruger has largely sorted the shops and restaurants and nowadays, through privatisation, things are run far more professionally – but it certainly went through some tough years. What still remains to be improved on is the maintenance in the camps which is so poor compared to the Cape National Parks.

However, it is so easy for us Saffers to lose perspective. Yes, it is irritating to see lax management, corrugated roads and shoddy standards but when compared to the rest of Africa, Kruger is excellent value for money – especially if one camps or caravans.

Speeding motorists in Kruger are always a problem as illustrated by the accompanying photograph. From my experience it is usually service vehicles and park employees that are responsible and very seldom genuine tourists.

In 2014 whilst staying at Skukuza, we could hear noisy revelry coming from the nearby soccer field where a match was in progress. Later we went down the Sabie river road (H4-1) and  came across this scene. A speeding reveller had taken off down the road and collected an impala ram which was lying dead nearby. A police van arrived but there was no one to arrest. The  driver had fled the scene.

Alcohol abuse by day visitors to the Park began to get out of hand some years ago and we once visited a hide on the Kanniedood Dam at Shingwedzi to find a full blown party in progress with loud music and beer bottles raining into the surrounding bushes. Very fortunately the final straw happened near Crocodile Bridge when a drunken motorist left his own vehicle to go over and punch another driver. Of course everyone in Kruger carries a camera so the whole episode was well recorded. The Park authorities then took the very wise decision to ban alcohol for day visitors. This has had a hugely beneficial effect whereby visitors are now coming to enjoy the reserve as it was intended rather than as a drunken party venue. I have not seen any unsavoury alcohol induced behaviour now for years. Well done to Sanparks.

Instances of wild animals finding their way into the Restcamps are quite common. Only a year or so ago driving to the Skukuza gate in the half light for an early start, our one son came across a hyena at the circle near the clock tower. Some unsuspecting tourists were busy making their way on foot to the gate at the time. Recently a boy  was attacked in his tent at Croc Bridge by a hyena. One should remember that there has never been a case of a hyena attacking anyone on their feet – only when they are sleeping. Two lion also recently made their way into the  Lower Sabie camp and ended up in the Picnic area. One night I was returning from a late evening shower at Skukuza when a ratel broke cover and trotted ahead of me as dog would do on a walk. Two years ago a leopard inside Letaba camp caught a bushbuck which he hauled up a tree above the carpark near Reception. Of course monkeys are a nuisance in all camps and picnic spots. But…… we have the perfect answer.

Renette found a very lifelike leopard toy in a Chinese shop in Richards Bay and our ‘sentry’ ensures that we have never had any problem from monkeys since. Yes, they will sit and chatter in the trees but never come near us.

Other campers are very envious.

With over a million tourists pouring through Kruger each year, it is inevitable that tragedy is always lurking. Motorists being washed off flooding causeways, children drowning in the Restcamp swimming pools or in one shocking case, a vehicle crashing off the bridge into the Letaba River killing all four foreign occupants. Leopard attacks on a woman jogging in the Skukuza staff village and the young tour guide also attacked as he sat on the Matjulu bridge railings next to his tourists. But there are the lighter moments. On our recent trip, along the busy Sabie river road (H4-1) we found a Chinese woman photographing on foot, off  the road whilst her husband prepared to launch a drone from his car roof for some aerial shots. His face registered utter bewilderment as he was berated by passing motorists.

I recently read in a booklet of perhaps the most unusual of all tourist incidents. South of the Muzandzeni picnic spot on the S36 road near the Talamathi  Bushcamp lies the sizeable dam, Modzweni, in which reside hippos and crocodiles. One night the occupants of a Park night drive bakkie were surprised to come across a car parked at the water’s edge in the dark. A German man emerged and flippantly told his goggling audience that he and his wife had decided to spend the night out at the dam. But what really turned the situation utterly bizarre was when his wife emerged into the headlights from the dark waters in which she had been swimming – starkers together with the crocodiles. Foreigners are notoriously ignorant about the wilds of Africa but this stupidity really takes some beating.

We are at a fortunate time of our lives when we can spend limitless time in Kruger. We will be visiting in August and then again in November/December. But next year we have a booking from 20th January to 20th June during which we will be wandering at leisure about the entire Kruger  region. I look forward to sharing our experiences with you.