FOR close on 50 years it has been a personal joy that keeps reappearing on my bucket list, to visit the Kruger National Park: undoubtedly one of South Africa’s flagship tourist destinations. Arguably one of the top two!
Most recently, in January 2017 – at the peak of the summer season, it was the same for me again.
Or… was it? Well, mostly; but not all of it brought undiluted joy all of the time.
It had rained abundantly and all things natural were exceptionally picturesque, jubilant, revived, refreshed and vibrant. My companions and I reveled in the sheer enjoyment thereof. So did all of nature – and our privilege was to be not only silent and awe-inspired observers, but also partakers thereof.
Spotting animals in the wild, having the patience to pursue this activity and making the most of it have over many years and three generations been and become skills that my kinsfolk and I have honed in various manners and places. South Africa’s bouquet of nature reserves and game parks is impressive and they have always had a powerful pull. I’ve wondered: is it more about the bubble of isolation from the ‘real world’ you temporarily find yourself in, or about the close encounter with sights and sounds that are hopefully being preserved for posterity? Can it also be the experience of surrendering to a carefree yet mutually focused sub-culture whilst you find yourself within the boundaries of a particular sanctuary?
Whatever the case may be: once you have become an experienced ‘game reserver’ / ‘parks visitor’ you can safely assume that you have, over time, also acquired the ‘qualification’ and authority to comfortably, as well as probably accurately and fairly, assess and evaluate what is on offer. And frankly – not only what is on offer, but also whether the ethos, intrinsic nature and characteristics of an institution are at a level that they can reasonably be expected to be.
THROUGH THE WORLD’S EYES
I have for a while placed a hesitant and reluctant question mark over the Kruger National Park – and maybe even its mother organization, SANPARKS – in this regard. I do this within the context of, in this particular case the Kruger Park, enjoying the prime prominence and priority that it does as a destination within the ranks of the international tourist population. It is my contention that international tourism standards must comply with ‘universal’ norms in every sense of the word. And there should be no exceptions to the rule. A ‘five star experience’ must be exactly that in universally accepted terms. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, that a Kruger National Park experience is globally perceived as at least a five star destination (or whatever the ultimate number of stars is for a superior grading).
So, concerning a few of the aspects relating to my tentative ‘question mark’:
1. VISITOR / TOURIST FACILITIES:
Accommodation, ablution and other amenities: do they live up to expectations?
I am first in line when it comes to the thrill of returning to basics… like camping and the simple life of not fretting too much about menus, meals, wardrobes, routines, etc. I truly appreciate minimalism and… yes, simplicity. But there is always context.
In a world-renowned and undoubtedly lucrative game park like the Kruger, you are surely entitled to the very best in each quotable category: whether it be staff conduct, a reception area, a rustic camp site, an access or exit gate, a basic bungalow, a luxury chalet, an exclusive guest cottage, bed linen, kitchen utensils and facilities, picnic sites, restaurants, shops, swimming pools and last, but not least, toilet and ablution facilities.
Especially in the latter instance it is disturbing to encounter facilities that are lacking. Even at remote picnic sites there has to be a ‘zero tolerance’ approach regarding spotless cleanliness, adequate hand towel and soap availability, flush mechanisms and taps that work. When public or even private facilities of this nature in rest camps leave anything at all to be desired, it should give rise to serious concern and decisive action.
I have concluded that rest-camps in the Kruger National Park, as well as reception areas, picnic sites and other facilities, do not necessarily uniformly conform and comply with set (hopefully international!) standards. An inevitable deduction is that the general appearance and performance of a rest camp or picnic site depend on the degree of commitment and ethos lived out by its management and staff. Whilst it is evident that some facilities are tended by staff that go the extra mile, others show traces of neglect in varying degrees. It would be unfair of me to neglect motivating my allegations:
- At least twice (once most recently, in January 2017 at the Tamboti tented camp) we arrived at our reserved overnight accommodation in the later afternoon to find that the previous occupants had not yet vacated. How does this happen in a system that should be faultless and top-notch – considering that discerning travellers from across the globe are hosted daily? Needless to say, this kind of experience causes much discomfort and concern…
- A flagship rest camp like Lower Sabie cannot have ANY excuse for lacking or sub-standard visitors’ facilities. However the safari tent we stayed in overnight and paid an adequate amount for, was literally in tatters. We could conveniently watch the full moon rising through a huge torn cavity in the front ‘gable wall’ of the structure. And the canvas was flapping profusely in a stiff and dusty wind. In the same tent – as well as the neighboring one – the mesh windows were either tattered and worn or untidily sewn together in an effort to convince the occupants that they were actually there and serving a purpose! Furthermore I had to guess what I was going to look like to the outside world, because where the bathroom mirror should have been, there was only a frame. (What happened to all the extensive renovations that the rest camp was undergoing for a prolonged period??)
- In Mopani, which is undoubtedly one of the model camps in the park when it comes to location and layout, and is seen to cater for individuals and families from mostly higher income groups, we found our comfortable 3 bedroom cottage to be in need of repairs or attention in more ways than one. The vanity shelf in the main bedroom was sagging; the interior of the fridge smelt unbearable; lighting shades were missing from more than one wall-mounted light; the kitchen was somewhat sparsely equipped with utensils and some of the exterior walkway lights were out of order…
- At Letaba – traditionally also a flagship rest camp – we had two basic huts on the perimeter and had looked forward to our unobstructed views of the river. On arrival, however, we found an unsightly pile of sand practically on our doorstep and between our two neighboring huts. It had obviously been indiscriminately dumped there by workers for reasons unknown to us. Our request at the reception office that it be removed, was followed by a site visit from a staff member who apologized and sent a team to comply. Unfortunately it was a halfhearted attempt that left much to be desired. Finding a kitchen facility (as these particular huts are not equipped in this regard) was also quite a challenge. In fact there was none within a convenient distance from our accommodation, because the designated one had been converted into a pop-up restaurant to counteract threatening staff strikes at the rest-camp’s franchise restaurant.
- Punda Maria is one of our most favourite rest camps – perhaps mostly due to its remoteness, and also for its magnificent trees, the waterhole and hide, the rustic atmosphere and the touch of tradition and old-fashioned charm. Our upmarket safari tent was perfectly comfortable and well equipped, with the added luxury of its own ablution facilities. I however cannot but mention that in some aspects maintenance appeared to be lacking: a section of the canvas roofing was sagging dangerously from a huge load of rainwater that had accumulated and it was in danger of collapsing or tearing. A rather bad leak in the roofing of the bathroom section appeared to be unattended and proved to be a real problem when we actually experienced a glorious rainstorm. Furthermore I frowned at the fact that of the four appliances in the rest camp’s little laundry facility, only two were in working order. The other two appeared to be quite dusty and had obviously not been attended to in a long time. The latter assumption was confirmed by a staff member. Besides the discomfort it caused the seasonal campers who had to queue for their turn at washing and drying, it is also an unacceptable slip in what should be world-class standards.
- In Satara, arguably one of the most popular of all the rest camps, we recently as campers encountered altogether unsatisfactory kitchen facilities: twin-plate stoves as well as boilers were missing – and when reported, the issue was met with shrugs of acknowledgement that they had been stolen. No further action was taken! A serious sewerage system problem at one of the ablution blocks (impossible to ignore!) was not effectively addressed and solved. Besides the stench, there was also the niggling concern about possible hygiene-related issues…)
2. SERVICE STANDARDS & STAFF CONDUCT
Are checks and balances in place? Is there a satisfactory uniformity throughout the park?
I am eager to testify that politeness and friendliness from staff are mostly the order of the day. They are predominantly tidy, punctual, helpful, discreet and seemingly well organized. Occasionally, personal conversations among themselves in the course of executing their tasks are somewhat more audible than is probably convenient or acceptable to the discerning visitor; this is a personal opinion. And their timing for cleaning accommodation facilities is not consistently discreet.
- Entry gates: this is where first and last impressions are formed. Your Kruger Park experience starts and ends here. Are you welcomed and received, as well as bade farewell and sent off, professionally, eloquently, politely and enthusiastically? Regrettably I recently noticed that, on exiting the park at Crocodile Bridge after a ten day visit, the appearance of the gate and its attendants, as well as the latter’s conduct, reminded me a little bit of some countries’ border posts… grim, drab, indifferent.
- Reception areas:can staff at a reception desk ever be too helpful, too efficient or too accommodating? Let me hasten to say that I do not mean they need to indulge the whims and opportunistic demands of ill-mannered patrons, but rather to take charge and control of the needs of guests in a manner that reassures, emanates warmth and extends a hearty welcome. Kruger generally has a good performance record in this regard. But again – NO compromise on quality and finesse should need to be tolerated by the discerning visitor!
- Gratifying past experiences of rest camp management staff must be mentioned in all fairness. At Shingwedzi, on a camping trip, we once had a personal report-back from the camp manager after she herself had been involved in chasing a troop of meddling monkeys out of our tent. This particular individual was during our sojourn regularly seen moving about the area and obviously familiarizing herself with the condition of amenities, the satisfaction levels of guests, etc. She had a face – and a phone number that worked! At a world-class destination like Kruger, this is what you’d expect. It is however regrettably not what you invariably get.
3. IS CONSERVATION STILL THE ALPHA AND OMEGA?
Are Conservation and its intrinsic Management Values still an ultimate and urgent bottom line objective to the KNP?
This may appear to be a rhetorical question. However it has serious undertones and has, in my opinion, the very real possibility of being valid… for example:
- Is it purely my imagination, or have Kruger’s herds of herbivores shrunk somewhat over time, throughout the years? Granted, there are factors that play annual and seasonal roles, like the distribution and abundance or shortage of natural water sources – depending on rainfall figures or drought occurrences. Therefore, when you drive for long stretches without seeing animals, it need not necessarily concern you: searching for them is after all the name of the game! But could and should the effect of the mentioned factors be as drastic and consistently increasing as it appears to be? Is there a possibility that antelope and other herbivores, for example, are being hunted somewhat indiscriminately by more than their natural predators?
- Why, for example, is it according to news reports that reach public eyes and ears, predominantly only possible to apprehend (rhino) poachers after a perpetration? Through the media it is evident that the counter-initiatives, their quality and extent are extremely focused and sophisticated. This is acknowledged and appreciated by nature lovers far and wide. So this is the issue: whilst the rhino population figures are plummeting at a heartrending rate – why do these magnificent animals appear to be as unsafe in the most reputable reserves as they are anywhere else? Are there more threatening and underhand factors involved than insatiable greed?
- How effective is the screening and selection of staff who are appointed in key conservation-related positions in view of the fact that they are in all reasonability being entrusted with the crucial and delicate task of playing a passionate role in the preservation of our wildlife heritage for posterity?
The Kruger National Park has a rich and intriguing history. With it came and went traditions like communal camp fires, ethnic drum sounds that announced the evening meal, the daily sharing of game sightings among like-minded enthusiasts, scrumptious bush brunches under gigantic trees at picnic sites like Tshokwane, Babalala, Muzandzeni, Mooiplaas, Timbavati and the likes. Although it would be unfair, impractical and unrealistic to expect all customs and traditions to live on, I believe the indescribable and undeniable charm of the KNP lies in, among other things, not departing altogether from the dual purpose of protecting whilst delighting.
Protecting without withholding; not only the defenseless and threatened, but also that which has rung dear to stakeholders and visitors alike through the decades.
Delighting without sacrificing on the full richness of an experience in nature by detracting from it; and without compromising on world-class and internationally acceptable standards in order to keep pleasing even the most refined and discerning of new and loyal patrons.
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