From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz
The moment Parliament rose, the new Board of Trustees held its first meeting, and we set to work with a will. There was much to do. In the Kruger National Park there were as yet no roads, no bridges, no pontoons across the rivers, and the sole means of access was on foot or by pack donkey.
The Low Country lies east by west from the Swaziland border along the Komati plains, thence over the Crocodile, the Sabie and the Olifants Rivers up towards Tzaneen and the Zoutpansbergen, a distance of about three hundred miles. South to north it is held between the great escarpment of the Drakensberg and the Lebombo range, a breadth of a hundred miles. This great area was still little known, and the larger portion of it lay inside what had now been proclaimed the Kruger National Park. Within its confines were elephant and lion, hippo and giraffe, roan and sable antelope, zebra, sassaby, kudu, wildebeest, waterbuck, and a great variety of other fauna such as probably no other portion of the world, of equal size, can show.
Our mandate as a Board was to create a refuge where henceforth the royal families of all the mammals could live in peace; our mandate was to put a stop to hunting and poaching, and to open up the Reserve so that the public could visit it and learn the beauty of the wild life of South Africa.
At the conclusion of the meeting it was decided that the Members of the Board – there were eight of us – should proceed in twos, each couple to take stock of a different portion of the Reserve, to prepare the ground for the laying down of roads, the building of rest camps and, above all, to provide crossings over the rivers.
Paul Selby and I were deputed to the Crocodile River area along the eastern borderline of the Park. He was an American by birth and a mining engineer by profession, and he had spent most of his vacations in the Low Country studying its animal life and taking photographs. For these reasons he had wisely been nominated to the Board. He was a man of resource. He had started ahead of me, for I was detained, and when, ten days later, I alighted at a railway siding nearest to my destination in the Reserve, I found that he had succeeded in towing his car through the Crocodile River, the first car that ever entered the Park, and that he was at a spot known as ‘Dead Man’s Bush’, so called after three poachers who had recently been shot there.
He had discovered a suitable spot at which to place a pontoon, and already he had made blueprints for its construction and had mapped out a road to the Sabie River on which a gang of workers were hewing down trees and blazing the trail. I enjoyed the life and saw much game. Giraffe, sable, wildebeest and buffalo fed in sight of our camp, though lion were not as plentiful as they have since become. We spent many hours taking pictures.
In those days game photography was in its infancy. Few people had realised how little attention wild animals pay to motor cars, and it was a novel experience for us to find that we could drive up to a troop of waterbuck or a herd of wildebeest while they grazed unperturbed. We thought at first that our success was due to the pains we took to cover the ancient Ford from stem to stern with boughs and foliage, under which we sat crouched behind an old-fashioned box-camera swivelled on a universal joint like a machine-gun. Since then we have learned that these precautions were unnecessary, for game seems to register no emotion on the appearance of a car; but at the time we went to great trouble to camouflage our vehicle, and as we rattled and jolted over antheaps and fallen logs, we thought we were very clever when we manoeuvred ourselves near enough to take a shot.
At present, every second tourist in the Park takes photographs of lion and other animals from his car with a pocket kodak, but Selby was the pioneer. His studies received wide notice, and I basked vicariously for having helped him.
There was a troop of buffalo in Dead Man’s Bush led by a bull whose horns we considered to be a world record. We spent much time trying to photograph him, but he always hugged the deeper shadows.
For many years, poachers from the adjacent Portuguese territory had been raiding over the frontier to shoot game. They were generally half-breeds in command of gangs of Shangaans. Their practice was to come with pack donkeys and, after shooting all they could, they loaded the meat and decamped across the border. A sort of sporadic guerrilla warfare had been carried on against them with frequent casualties on both sides.
Selby and I planned the development of this section of the Park and I like to think that our labours have borne fruit. At all events, visitors now run in and out by car, and they go to Lower Sabie and Skukuza in a few hours by the roads we laid down where it took us a month to hack our way through the jungle.
This was my first expedition as a Board Member, but I was to go on many another similar journey. In time I learned the lore of the wilds, I learned to track game, and I even became somewhat of a lion hunter.
Increasingly, I became a devotee of the Low Country.