Last Sunday, leaving the Kruger National Park after 4 lovely days, I decided to add a new name to my (short) list of South African heroes and that name is Paul Kruger. Even as I write the words I feel the ground tremble beneath me as all my colonial ancestors spin frantically in their respective graves. Especially my maternal grandmother, whose father was taken prisoner by the Boers in the war and who harboured, for the rest of her long life, less than friendly sentiments towards that particular group of our population.
Raised in a proudly English-speaking household, steeped in all things culturally British and attending an English girls’ school in the Eastern Cape, Paul Kruger was a name under a heavily-bearded face in my history books and afforded little sympathy or time. So it was quite a revelation to find myself thinking about him with an enormous sense of gratitude as we meandered through the pristine wilderness that is the Kruger Park today. Whatever else he might have been, Paul Kruger was a man of vision and his proclamation, in 1898, of the Kruger National Park as a protected area for wildlife must be one of the best and most meaningful legacies this country has ever had.
The Kruger National Park is the oldest and apparently largest game reserve in Africa. It is approximately the size of Israel, covering more or less 19 000 square kilometers of Africa. Most of us refer to it simply as ‘Kruger’ and nothing seems to bring on a wave of homesickness or nostalgia among South Africans abroad than the mention of a trip there. It gets under our skin and if the gap between visits grows too long we get withdrawal symptoms. What this vast tract of land might have become without President Kruger’s foresight hardly bears thinking about. South Africa without the Kruger would be a country diminished.
My South African ‘hero list’ is sadly limited: Nelson Mandela, FW De Klerk (because I do believe he made things possible that had previously been deemed unthinkable), Bishop Tutu who I’ve come to love and admire and more recently, Jonathan Jansen for his brutal honesty when it comes to education in this country. I wish I could come up with a longer list or even see some potential ‘new-comers’ hovering on our uncertain horizon but right now, I’ll have to settle for retrospection. I wonder how President Kruger would feel about his fellow-heroes on my list?
Johannesburg gets very bad press a lot of the time. Capetonians are very quick to sympathise with those of us who find ourselves living (very happily) here and very quick to ask, with great concern, when we think we’ll be “able to move to the Cape.” But while we don’t have The Mountain or the sea, you can’t drive out of your gate in the morning in Cape Town and five hours later find yourself face to face with a herd of elephant as you make your way to a simple, comfortable, quiet camp with the prospect of encountering any number of other animals and birds en route.
Each day brings another magical, mystery tour; you never know what might be waiting round the next bend.
Even if you have a ‘quiet’ game spotting day, the scenery is lovely enough to keep you contented.
A proliferation of private reserves around the boundaries of the Kruger and elsewhere in South Africa offer luxurious accommodation and game drives with almost guaranteed “Big 5” sightings, but for those of us with time on our side, the Kruger offers its own brand of luxury: There is little to beat being on one’s own ‘non-schedule’; getting up at dawn, packing a basket with coffee flask and rusks and taking to the road with absolutely no planned destination.
Thank you “Oom Paul”. For this I think I can forgive your foot-soldiers keeping my great-grandfather under lock and key all that time. I’m sure even he would appreciate the way the lives of his descendants and so many others have been enriched by your unique legacy.