For many wildlife lovers, the Kruger National Park is the ultimate go-to location for great sightings and outdoor experiences under unpolluted night skies. But, a great deal of visitors are unaware of the park’s history; how it came to be such an icon and national treasure – not to mention one of South Africa’s most popular tourism destinations.
Before the Kruger
This story starts before European colonization. As far as we know, this sizable area in the north-east of the country has been occupied by man for nearly 100 000 years. Early man in the form of Homo erectus once roamed these parts – with ample evidence found in the reserve as proof of their presence.
Then came Stone Age man along with their artifacts. These have been found from tip-to-tip in the Kruger – over 300 archaeological sites have been uncovered from this period in time, which is estimated to be between 100 000 – 30 000 years ago. More recently the nomadic San frequented these parts from as little as 1500 years ago, rubbing shoulders with the park’s animals we are so familiar with today, albeit not from the comfort of safari vehicles or lodges and tented camps.
Living off the land in these parts would have proved challenging, but not impossible due to the abundance of resources and higher animal populations back then. Summer rains would have provided a much-needed influx of water, welcomed as a blessing from the heavens – and along with it herds of animals suitable for hunting.
Many years passed with the San and then later the Tsonga peacefully co-existing with the wild denizens of the plains up until the South African Republic declared the area a ‘protected site’ and began removing the inhabitants from 1899. One year prior, in 1898, the area was declared as the Sabi Game Reserve, before combining several other farms in the area nearly 30 years later in 1926.
At this time, during British Colonial rule, the last of the Tsonga had been vacated from the area and the land was expanded to become South Africa’s first, and biggest nature reserve.
The first of its kind in South Africa
Since its inception as a nature reserve, the Kruger National Park has become synonymous with game viewing in South Africa. But its humble beginnings are in a stark comparison to the park as we know it today.
In 1927, the first motorists were allowed access into the park for a fee of one pound, and three years later, use was also made of tents for the first time at Sabie Bridge – a part of the Kruger known today as Skukuza.
During the following years, six other rest camps were created including the popular Punda Maria. Originally these huts were built using wattle and daub, as cement was too costly back then. Accommodation would have been extremely rustic and visitor-safety would have been virtually non-existent when compared to the modern-day fenced camps and lodges. In those times travel within the park was restricted to rudimentary tracks and paths, a stark contrast to the 1444 km of gravel roads and 4200 km of fire breaks we have today.
Development within the Kruger blossomed as its popularity increased, with the introduction of more tented camps and eventually lodges providing a haven for visitors.
A haven for wildlife
Today the Kruger National Park boasts an incredibly diverse number of animal species. Over 1547 mammal species, 114 reptile species, 507 bird species, 34 amphibian species and over 336 tree species can be found in the park – in an area spanning two provinces and 19633 km² in size. Part of this ongoing success story can be attributed to the neighbouring reserves that have removed their fences over time, allowing for wildlife to roam freely. From a cultural perspective, the present-day Kruger National Park is home to over 300 archaeological sites, reminders of Stone Age man who wandered these parts.
Now one of the most well-known, and important, national parks in Africa, it’s important to always place conservation first when visiting this icon and remember to take only nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints.