Tourism and Technical Services. The proclamation of the Kruger National Park and simultaneous safe passage through Parliament of the National Parks Act, allowed Stevenson-Hamilton and his men effectively to plan for the future. No longer were the uncertainty and threats of exploitation by land associations or private individuals a brake on efforts to progress.
Their budget was still severely restricted, but in 1927 the staff began road-building and providing accommodation for tourists, and by the end of the year visitors could travel to Pretoriuskop and view animals along a circular road near the camp. The camp itself was merely a log enclosure within which visitors had to make do as best they could. Often the rangers would give up their own homes so that tourists could have a few more comforts.
But the first roads were built more to link the various section- rangers with headquarters at Skukuza than to provide good game drives for visitors. Camps were established near the homes of these rangers so that the staff could provide some control and protection. Building methods for both roads and camps were of necessity crude and primitive. Huts were made of local stone, logs, thatch and mud; large gangs would chop down trees and vegetation to clear a rough track. There were eight rangers, each with a small number of black assistants to do the work: build roads, build huts, keep a vigilant eye on the never-ending bands of poachers, and patrol a wilderness area larger than the state of Israel. Isolation and poor communication added to their load.
Despite the difficulties and lack of funds, the men persevered: by 1928, 122 miles of road had been completed, in 1930, 450 miles and by
1936, 900 miles of road were available. During summer these roads would be transformed into muddy quagmires in which cars would get hopelessly stuck; after a good storm, dry stream-beds would become raging torrents, washing away roads and blocking all traffic until the water subsided. And yet the people came; they loved it.
For crossings of the main rivers, Stevenson-Hamilton used discarded mining equipment — donated by a Mr Selby of the Wildlife Preservation Society — to construct pontoons which ferried each car over the Sabie and Crocodile rivers. For the shallow Sand river, just north of the Sabie, poles were cut, wired together, and laid across the river. ‘It was an alarming method, until one got used to it, for the bridge swayed and sank to the shallow bottom of the stream, with pas sage of every car,’ Stevenson-Hamilton recorded.
By the end of 1929 a pontoon was ready to ferry visitors across the Olifants River, and another milestone had been reached. While a concrete bridge over the Letaba was being built, the rangers at Punda Maria and Shingwedzi worked feverishly to clear a road to the south. And so, before the middle of 1933, visitors could travel from Malelane in the extreme south, right up to the baobab-dotted hills of Pafuri in the distant north of the Park. It was a momentous day.
The stream of visitors kept increasing, forcing the already hard- pressed staff to increase their efforts. By 1930 six camps with about 100 concrete huts provided accommodation, but the demand for more never diminished. So fast had the popularity of the Park spread that from the meagre beginnings of three cars entering in 1927, yielding a total income of £3 for that year, the figure blossomed to 6 000 cars carrying 26 000 people in 1935. Stevenson-Hamilton’s vision had be come reality; his long years of efforts were being rewarded. The Park filled an unexpected need in the public, they crowded to get in.
As in any new venture of considerable size and scope, teething problems were inevitable. The Park remained open to visitors throughout the year, and though in the winter months all went well, when the summer rains fell the roads became muddy traps, cars were stranded, and malaria gripped people in its feverish hand.
In March 1929, two truckloads of American visitors entered at Crocodile Bridge on a drive to Lower Sabie. They drove into a thunder storm which reduced the road to a slippery mass of treacherous mud. Turning around to return to Crocodile Bridge, they found their path now blocked by a stream, but decided to try getting through. The first truck went in and promptly overturned. Its drenched occupants took to the trees as lions started roaring in the vicinity. It was thus that a ranger found them a few hours later.
The now thoroughly disillusioned Americans, several of them suffering from malaria, returned home where their story appeared in the newspapers and labelled South Africa as a ‘death trap’. Understand ably, the decision was taken that from 1930 the Park should remain open to visitors only during the dry winter months, though the Pretoriuskop area remained open because its relatively high position rendered it free of malaria. Not for many years — until better roads and bridges guaranteed safe passage and malaria control became more effective — did this ruling change.
Stevenson-Hamilton finally retired in April 1946 — after nearly 44 years of unmatched service to the nature reserve he dearly loved. His headquarters had already been given his Shangaan name — ‘Skukuza’, meaning ‘the man who sweeps clean’. Later a magnificent memorial library bearing his name was to be built in the same camp. He died on December 10th, 1957, aged 90. When his wife Hilda died in 1979 their ashes were scattered on a hill covered with massive granite boulders a few kilometres south-west of Skukuza. Stevenson- Hamilton had chosen this site himself among the timeless rocks thrust high above the surrounding country that had become his special home.
Colonel J.A.B. Sandenbergh became the second warden, and the volume of tourists continued to grow. In 1948 there were nearly 59 000; in 1955 the number of visitors exceeded 100 000; in 1964 it rose to above 200 000; then to more than 300 000 in 1968; and in 1982 it reached 463 000.
This increasing flood of visitors made it necessary to again revise some of the management policies. To ensure a standard and more appropriate service to tourists, in 1955 the National Parks Board took control of all trading and restaurant facilities from the private concerns which had previously operated in the various camps. Since then profits from these activities have been channelled back into the Park and used to benefit its wildlife.
Roads suffered from the heavy and increasing tourist traffic. Simple paths cleared of trees and stones were no longer acceptable, for under such heavy wear they became deeply rutted and eroded, choked in thick layers of powdery dust. However, an internal roads department, established in 1950, soon matured to provide better roads with longer lasting surfaces. No longer were the roads washed away after every heavy downpour; vehicles were not as likely to get bogged down; and bridges were being built to span rivers and streams which had previously blocked traffic. At the same time, the old combat against malaria-carrying mosquitoes was gaining momentum, using new pesticides discovered during World War II, and new drugs highly effective in preventing malaria also became readily available. All this combined to make the Park less of a threat to human life in summer. The Lowveld was being tamed.
It was now safe to again open the Park to visitors throughout the year — a process carried out in gradual stages: Skukuza remained open as of 1962; in 1963 visitors could travel at any time of the year up to the Tshokwane picnic-site; in 1964 this was extended to include the whole area south of the Letaba river; and, finally, in the 1970’s the en tire Park was opened to visitors all year round.
But again new problems arose. Better roads and less malaria attracted more visitors, again increasing the traffic load. After much heated debate and argument, in the early 1960’s it was decided to tar all arterial roads linking the larger camps. In 1965 the first, from Skukuza to Numbi entrance gate near Pretoriuskop, was completed. Other roads slowly appeared, radiating in all directions until finally even Pafuri far in the north boasted a tarred link snaking across the silent mopane-covered hills. By 1982, 742 kilometres of tarred road and 1 200 kilometers of gravel road were open for game-viewing.
On February 1st, 1969, yet another milestone was reached when Commercial Airways (Comair) flew in the first batch of tourists to land at the Skukuza Airport. In years to come this would prove a highly popular service catering to the needs of many.
The old Selati railway line, so filled with poignant history, finally fell to the needs of practical considerations. When Stevenson-Hamilton arrived in 1902, the line extended only as far as the present Skukuza, abruptly ending on the southern bank of the Sabie River. But when the line was completed in 1912 it reached Zoekmekaar, and in the ensuing decades the raucous whistles of thundering steam engines shattered the bushveld quiet; often animals were killed as the metal monsters roared their relentless way through the surrounding bush. Finally, in 1973, the trains came to a permanent halt and the lines were pulled up. The magnificently photogenic bridge across the Sabie River, in plain view from much of Skukuza camp, remains a silent memorial to those rowdy and opportunistic days of the early 20th century.