Kruger – the oldest wildlife reserve in Africa

The Kruger Park can easily rank as one of the most magical and beautiful places to visit in the world. Its huge size and wide diversity of animal life and vegetation have made it a haven for many of Africa’s most endangered species as well as making it an extremely popular destination for people wishing to see Southern Africa as it truly should be.

Today, the area that makes up the Kruger is a 20 000 square kilometre piece of land in South Africa. The park shares its border with the South Africa/Mozambique border, which stretches from north to south for about 350km along the Lebombo mountain range. On average the park is about 60km wide from east to west, forming a long rectangle of perfectly preserved nature. There are eight main rivers that feed the park – The Limpopo, Luvuvhu, Shingwedzi, Letaba, Olifants, Timbavati, Sabie and Crocodile. Most of the seven gates into the park are on bridges that cross over these rivers, allowing for fairly well controlled access.

The History of the Park

Probably as much as half a million years ago there were stone-age hunter gathers known as the San who lived in that area. They are very famous for their rock art paintings, over a hundred of which have been found in the Kruger. These paintings are preserved and looked after with as much care as the animals and plants, and although no native people actually live within the reserve anymore they can still be found in some other areas of Southern Africa. There are also about 300 Stone Age archaeological sites and many cultural artefacts of the San and Nguni people have been found.

The first documented occasion of outside people exploring and developing in this area comes from Dutchman François de Cuiper who led a Dutch East India Company expedition into the area looking for local inhabitants. These ‘natives’ were found, or rather, they found the Dutch and it wasn’t long before they were driven back to the coast. It was only with the arrival of the Voortrekkers in 1838 that Europeans were able to establish safe and permanent outposts in the area. As many years passed more and more people arrived in the Lowveld area. They were drawn there by tales of huge wealth to be found digging for gold and hunting for ivory and animal skins and it wasn’t long before the animals that had been living there for centuries began to come under increasing threat.

Hearing stories of these wild animals and the hunters that were making fortunes out in the bush as well as seeing the evidence with their own eyes, those in power at the time became wary of the destruction that was happening. The president, Paul Kruger was particularly affected by the tales of the animals’ plight and in 1884 he proposed a sanctuary be made to protect the animals. However once he’d spoken of his ideas, he received fierce opposition - first from the people in the area and then from the other politicians too. However 12 years later, after much work and persuasion, he finally managed to get his revolutionary vision off the ground and together with the Transvaal parliament drew up a plan to try and protect the wildlife. In 1889 The Sabie Game Reserve was created on a piece of land that was protected on all sides (by the Crocodile and Sabie rivers on south and north borders, and the Lebombo and Drakensburg Mountains on the east and west. Today this land makes up only a small southern portion of the park.

During the Anglo-Boer war the plans for the park were abandoned, but after seizing control of the area the British decided to continue and to extend the park. In 1902 James Stevenson-Hamilton was given the task of protecting indigenous animals in the area from hunters, cattle farmers and ivory poachers. Once the war was completely over he was appointed as the first park warden and 25 years later the park had become a very well established part of the area. On the 31 May, 1926 the National Parks Act was proclaimed and Sabie merged with the smaller and newer surrounding parks to form Africa’s fist national park – The Kruger National Park. In 1927 it was decided that the park should be opened up to visitors (for a fee of 1&pund;) so that people could see wild animals and plants in an area where they were protected, both the visitors and the animals that is. James spent the next 40 years dedicated to helping protect what years of unbridled pillaging as well as the war had destroyed. He was also the man responsible for gaining control over an additional 10 000 hectares for the parks animals to roam in.

After World War I the park came under the control of the nation’s government and more people were employed to oversee its running. The first game ranger to live inside the park was Paul Bester who constructed a rondavel on the site which is now the parks headquarters and is called Skukuza.

To this day the park is controlled by the environmental and tourism arms of the government and has been applauded both locally and around the world for its long-term approach to preservation when dealing with its wildlife, vegetation and people. The park now extends over an area that is approximately 2 million hectares. In 2003 the park became one of the 3 to join together in what has been termed a Peace Park called The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. This now colossal reserve incorporates The Kruger National Park, The Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and The Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.

Fauna and Flora

The ecosystems within the park are extremely varied and there are 16 different vegetation zones that can be differentiated, this is an extremely large amount, even for an area of its size. Generally the northern areas are mostly made up of dense Mopane woodland which changes into more open and bushy savannah plains that are spotted with watering holes and large acacia or marula trees in the central regions. In the southern areas the vegetation is mostly lush and dense with large granite outcrops and boulders that are called koppies. At last count (2001) there were 336 different tree species and 1980 plant species within the park.

Naturally, such a wide range of ecozones encourages the spread and growth of many different types of animal species. This has lead to Kruger becoming one of the - if not the - premier game watching reserve in the world. There are 147 different types of mammal and 507 types of birds as well as many different types of reptiles, amphibians and fish. It is possible, and indeed very common, to see all of the classic Big Five animals but the beauty of Kruger is that it has so much more to offer. Many large game parks in Southern Africa have small populations of these animals as a draw to either game watchers or hunters, but Kruger is the only place one can find such dense concentrations that are in totally natural surrounds. There are also numerous other types of smaller, less well known and endangered animals that can be even more exciting to see. Many of the bird species are not found anywhere else in the world.

The park likes visitors to take note of these other animals and plants by making available its list of ‘5 other big 5’s’. These are the things that aim to make people more aware of what’s in the park, as well as giving them a way to try and know what to look for so as they go away having seen the ‘most important’ things.

Despite the best efforts of those involved there are still cases of illegal poaching in the park. In particular, people duck the border from Mozambique or Zimbabwe into South Africa and hunt within the park getting their treasure back out either in unguarded or unmarked places at the border or by bribing guards at the border post. In the last few years this has been greatly reduced thanks to better policing, harsher penalties and new fences around the park. There have even been reported cases of remains of illegal poachers being found after having been trampled by elephants or mauled and eaten by lion, cheetah or leopard.

Climate

During the summer months the park can receive very large amounts of rain, although, like so many parts of Africa there are also years of intense drought. September to April are considered to be the summer months in which rainfall usually occurs as heavy afternoon thunderstorms. This brings great relief for both the animals and visitors as summer day time temperatures are usually between 35 and 40 degrees celsius, although much higher ones get recorded on rather frequent occasions. During winter (MayAugust) there is little, if any rainfall, and the park becomes very dry and windy which brings with it a very big fire risk. The temperature will usually be in the low to mid 20’s during the day but often reaches freezing point at night, particularly during June and July.

Visiting the park

As mentioned, Kruger has become the world’s best place to come on safari, see game, take part in bird watching and see places of great archaeological and cultural significance to the area. It is estimated that about 1.5 million people visit the park each year. As this is such a large industry and the money generated by it is now vital to the parks survival, there are numerous places to stay and ways in which to enjoy the park.

There are fancy lodges, tented camps, bungalows, self-catering chalets and camping grounds to cater for any type of visitor. The park is normally entered by car through one of the seven main gates – as well as people coming to stay, day visitors are also welcome. More recently there has been an airstrip created at Skukuza which links to all of South Africa’s major airports (Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town).There is a well mapped out network of roads running throughout the park with many places to stay or camp spread out over the entire area. Visitors may either drive themselves around the park or they may go with other guests on a guided tour. This is usually a better option for over-seas tourists or first time visitors as they will be accompanied by an experienced guide who will be able to help them get the most out of the holiday.

It should be noted that there are two very real and serious dangers to visitors of the park. The first is that there are no fences within the park. All the animals are free to roam wherever they choose, thus it is vital to take note of the warnings in the park – do not get out your vehicle. It doesn’t matter what happens, there are no exceptions, even if it seems like a good idea at the time. The animals can be dangerous if they perceive you to be too close, in the way or threatening to them or especially their offspring. For this same reason you should also always make sure to stay on the marked paths and not drive off into the veld. If you are staying in a camp site it is wise to stay on the look out for wild animals. They will not generally come near the sites as they do not like the noise or the commotion, however they may wonder in there looking for food or even by accident – mainly at night.

The other, less visible danger is malaria. Although malaria may often be a word associated with game parks in South Africa, in-fact the only park that deems it a necessity to take medication is Kruger. Malaria is extremely prevalent in the park, especially in the wetter southern areas. It is an absolute necessity to take anti-malaria prophylactics when visiting and you would do well to take as many other precautions as possible to stop yourself being bitten by a mosquito.

Recommendations

From personal experience I can tell you that the Kruger truly does live up to its reputation. Having travelled through much of sub-Saharan Africa I still find Kruger to be a very special place. There is a feeling of true greatness as you begin to explore and appreciate the huge size of the land and the great array of life that it holds. From the truly spectacular scenery to the large herds of animals that you may sit and watch for an hour or more at a watering hole, there is a definite sense of seeing something very natural and so precious that you have to feel a sense of pride for the people that cared enough to bring such a place into being. It is a perfect safe haven for all that nature has to offer.

On a practical note, I would most recommend going during the winter months. The reasons for this are many. First of all, this is Africa, it’s hot! During the summer months the heat can be pretty unbearable; this applies to the animals too. They normally just lie down and sleep the whole day, so the only time you really have a good chance of seeing anything is just before dawn or at dusk. Also, summer brings the rain, and rain brings insects. The risk of malaria is significantly less in winter (although this shouldn’t be a problem if you’re being sensible and taking medication), but anyway, it’s just not nice being covered in itchy bug bites.

The fact that there is no rain also means that the grass is very short and dry, you can see for miles and miles which obviously means you’ll have a better chance of spotting some groovy animals. In the summer when the grass is long a lion could be lying by the side of road and you could drive straight past it, it would be so well hidden. Also, the lack of water means that many types of animals tend to appear in large herds at watering holes. This means that should you be lucky enough to sit watching at a popular watering hole you could watch a veritable procession of fantastic animals parade themselves in front of you for hours on end. However this does have another side to it. In the summer months the park itself is much more spectacular, everything is growing and blossoming and changing. You can have the chance to see herds of animals migrating with their young, as well as a large increase in the number of interesting birds and insects.

I think it’s perfectly safe to recommend Kruger to anyone, whether you’ve been solo hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro or never been more outdoors than the back yard. Just be sensible and plan for it before. If you’re not into camping don’t think this would be a good time to start, it’s very rustic and really can put a damper on the whole thing if you’re not up for it. The other extreme such as the five star tented camps are stunning, although they can be hideously expensive – probably not so much if you’re paying in dollars or pounds mind. The self-catering chalets are always a good option to get a bit of everything and are usually pretty cheap too. But bear in mind that you won’t be the only one with that thought, the place gets very busy and you will have to book well in advance if you want to get in.

The experience is nothing short of spectacular, if you truly want to experience something of nature, something of Africa – then this is the place.


Helpful sites

http://www.krugerpark.co.za – General info about accommodation and tours offered
http://www.krugerpark.org – More info. Has good contact details and you can make reservations
www.parks-sa.co.za – Details about Kruger and all the other National Parks in South Africa
http://www.krugersafari.com/webmap.html - Really nice map, you can click on it to find out about specific camps or areas

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