I have not visited the Kruger National Park for a long, long time and this weekend, after a brief visit, a part of me wishes that I didn’t.
Driving through the Park I was haunted by amazing childhood memories of a very different Kruger. Sure, in time our memories filters out the bad and leave us with a slightly exaggerated, possibly even romantic account of things we have done and places we have visited but I just could not get myself to reconcile the two versions of Kruger I was faced with.
The landscapes were exactly as I remembered – beautiful. The SanParks staff at the gates and rest camps were helpful, very friendly and truly professional. The facilities were all clean and well maintained. The Kruger itself was, by all accounts, perfect. There was something else that was wrong. Something that felt wrong.
I would like to believe that I entered the Kruger without any preconceived ideas and sitting here now, between Lower Sabie and the Crocodile Bridge Gate, I am still trying to convince myself that I am wrong. I am trying to convince myself that the way I feel is a result of too many stories about bad behavior and lack of respect for the wildlife and fellow visitors to the Park. I am trying but it’s not working.
After entering the Kruger Gate and leaving the friendly SanParks staff behind, it only took an hour for my childhood memories to be dashed and the stories I have only heard about to become a sad reality. It took me only 60 minutes – 60 minutes! – to see two people sitting on top of their vehicle in an elephant sighting, another guy walking nonchalantly around his car to get a better photo of some kudu, people having a full go at each other through their car windows while trying to get into a better position to see an elephant which was about 300 meters from the road and for numerous cars to overtake me, and I was driving at the given speed limit, and disappear down the road. Oh, and I almost forgot about the guy in his Land Rover Discovery that decided off road to get closer to a herd of… impala.
Another thing that I noticed, but perhaps this is the result of my old school memories of visits to the Kruger, was that very few of the people actually greeted me back. I recall sitting next to my Dad as a young, wide-eyed kid and waving at every car we passed. I recall that, almost without fail, every time we would get a wave back and quite often people would stop to say hi and share sightings. I thought then, and still do now, that this was how things were done. Based on what I experienced this last weekend, I guess it’s not the case.
People seemed rushed to get around. So rushed that there is no time to greet someone else back or make way for someone else in a sighting – and with this rush came an underlying tension on the roads and at the rest camps. Serious faces everywhere, rushing to be first in line, no consideration for the experience of others.
Now I am not a real stickler for the rules and believe that rules should be challenged at times but there is a line. There is a line which, in a place like the Kruger National Park where they are there for the greater good of the environment and the very things we go there to see, we should not cross. The rules need to be followed, end of discussion.
Etiquette on the other hand is something I believe in completely and a lack of the customary code of polite behavior is something that, based on what I saw in the Kruger, is going to create an exceedingly unpleasant environment, which is not conducive to the very reason we feel the need to visit the Kruger.
Am I being over sensitive here? I don’t think so as I was very much looking forward to getting back to the Kruger. Sure, I guess I could just have had seriously bad luck and somehow ended up with a whole bunch of assholes who make things very unpleasant for everybody around them with no regard for rules or etiquette, but based on the few articles I have seen online, I don’t think so. If not, is this the new status quo in the park and the Kruger I remember is now something I can only reminisce on and tell my kids about one day?
I refuse to believe it.
The Kruger is too special to be degraded to this. It is one of Africa’s original wildlife and conservation destinations and that it is worth fighting for. The memories I have of years gone by, and I am sure I am not the only one, is worth fighting for.
I am in the fortunate position to be able to visit and work in private reserves and yes, the game viewing and experience is spectacular but even after seeing and experiencing the dark side of the Kruger I will go back, I want to go back, even if just to prove to myself that the Kruger I remember still exists.
Our memories are independent of our will and my memories of the Kruger is strong enough, vivid enough, to make me want to go and make some new ones.
I still believe in the Kruger.
Until next time.
Gerry van der Walt
* * *