Kruger 130613. Picture: Etienne Rothbart.
Kruger 130613. Picture: Etienne Rothbart.
RAND DAILY MAIL: June 18, 1947
RAND DAILY MAIL: June 18, 1947

Johannesburg - Hotels do not pose a threat to Kruger National Park. I’d like to add my perspective on the hotel debate.

The inflammatory quality within some printed and social media and the deliberate misinformation have astounded me.

Of late, reference has been made to the “Disneyfication” of the park.

I’m in the advantageous position of wearing two hats. First, as a passionate lover of Kruger because of my privileged relationship with the park, having visited it almost yearly since my first trip as a five-year-old in 1966. Second, as an employee since 1990.

I hold very dear my memories of the old Kruger. I remember the simpler layout of many of the camps; the cool interiors of the thatched bungalows before air-conditioning and refrigerators and before tar roads; the Total litter bags and the window stickers; the smell of coal smoke intermingling with the fragrance of the little white Lux soaps issued at the time; and, of course, the scent of creosote used in treatment of poles in the roofs of the bungalows.

I view myself as part of the broad grouping that wanted things to remain as they were.

Since joining SANParks in 1990, I’ve witnessed many changes and later, as I entered management ranks, even played a role in some of the changes.

 

Early in the 1990s, the transformation winds started to blow through SANParks. In about 2000, the board adopted a commercialisation strategy bringing significant private sector involvement, with restaurants and shops being outsourced and the park entering the luxury market, with the allocation of seven concession lodge sites with exclusive traversing areas.

Then, these were controversial, now they’re operating successfully and the standards in the exclusion zones are among the most stringent in environmental best practice. This commercialisation brings in an extra R15.1 million or about 3 percent of the park’s gross operating revenue, every year.

 

If one delves into the park’s history, one will note the debate about “luxuries” for visitors is as old as the park itself. Hotels have been on the table since tourism started in 1927. They were rejected on the grounds that the park was only open for certain periods of the year so it wouldn’t be profitable.

Through the years, development decisions have been made due to financial pressure. The National Parks Board has struggled since its establishment.

The current funding model SANParks is enhancing is as old as the national parks service itself. Essentially, the park ended up with the rest camp concept. Facilities were rather primitive in the early years when hot water and linen were luxuries. Then roads were upgraded – the first tar road was built in 1965 between Skukuza and Pretoriuskop. Camps were electrified, accommodation was upgraded to include showers and en suite toilets and refrigerators and air-conditioners were added to make the visits more comfortable, because the camps were now open the whole year and the sweltering heat of Kruger’s climate could be stifling.

Today, one would regard it as absurd to think swimming pools and tar roads were “unnecessary luxuries”, and that we needed to forego these to keep Kruger wild and primitive!

Within the context of the present South Africa, it’s important to acknowledge where we come from, what we have achieved and what has changed.

Before 1994, Kruger benefited white South Africans only (and foreigners).

Today, SANParks aims to connect to society through encouraging all South Africans to support, benefit from and preferably visit and enjoy Kruger.

 

If SANParks were to consult stakeholders on whether the two new hotels are desirable, the broad South African society would need to be canvassed.

I’m sure if the rationale were explained in an unbiased manner, this broader society would support the concept, especially of the latest two proposed additions to the park – a conference lodge in Skukuza and safari lodge near Malelane on the park’s border.

Both these facilities would be designed in a manner that blends in with the bush, conforming to the aesthetics and criteria that have been used and improved on over the years. And both these facilities would be constructed and managed according to best-practice environmental principles.

The park has changed from the day it was conceived, we won’t be able to prevent it from changing further.

What saddens me is to see the crocodiles die in the Rimbalule (Olifants River) or the park becoming an island of privilege surrounded by people living in poverty. The escalation in rhino poaching with the threat of spillover to other species is difficult to comprehend; the land claims on Kruger have offered little benefit to communities.

These are the real threats – not the provision of more tourist facilities. - Saturday Star