The Escarpment’s elevated, grassy summit is often mist shrouded; streams tumble down rocky stairways that give way to waterfalls, and dense forests spread across the valleys like shadows. From the cool summit, the view to the east is across a seemingly endless landscape of mauve-grey bush, punctuated occasionally by low hills and rocky outcrops.
In some places, the great sweep of this vast plain is interrupted by rivers carving verdant corridors across the dry land. Fed by rain falling on the Escarpment, these perennial rivers transform this immense, semi-arid wilderness of dry woodland and savanna, and sustain a great abundance of birds, plants, insects, reptiles and mammals.
Across these unbounded, bush-covered expanses everything is constantly changing: centuries-old trees are struck by lightning and are reduced to a small pile of ash; vegetation communities are altered as plants are influenced by drought, fire and animals; and fluctuations in wildlife populations closely track climatic change. And yet the cycle of life – birth, childhood, maturity, old age and death – ensures that things remain essentially the same.
Viewed against the complexity and enormity of the entire system, minor changes and events are easily blurred. Individual lives and events are obscured by summer’s new growth, washed away by thunderstorms and covered over by the ceaseless procession of time.
In the heart of the Lowveld, stretching for 352 kilometres from north to south along the Mozambique border, one of the world’s foremost national parks can be found. This is the Kruger National Park, a wildlife sanctuary larger in area than Israel. Covering 19 624 square kilometres and averaging 60 kilometres in width, Kruger provides a refuge for 147 mammal species, 500 species of birds, 116 reptiles, 34 amphibians, 49 fishes, 457 types of trees and shrubs, 1 500 smaller plants, and countless insects.
Each year approximately 950 000 people visit Kruger National Park in South Africa. Half of them stay overnight in the 26 rest camps that range from the intimate 19-bed Malelane, bordering the Crocodile River in the extreme south, to historic Punda Maria in the far north. South Africans account for 80 per cent of all visitors, and for many a visit to Kruger has become a kind of spiritual pilgrimage.
An entire subculture of devotees has developed over the past 70 years around the unpredictability of wildlife viewing, the apparent endlessness of the wilderness and the Park’s unique atmosphere. And it is these ardent supporters who are the Park’s greatest defenders. Kruger epitomises for many the rejuvenating and healing qualities of Nature, allowing its visitors to escape the increasing pressures of modern urban life and the Information Age.
The Rest Camps in Kruger National Park are connected by a 2 600-kilometre network of all-weather roads, which allow visitors to explore its diverse habitats on their own and without the need to hire a guide. Income from tourism and trading activities generates more than R200-million per year, and the Kruger Park plays a major role in the Lowveld’s economy.
Even the most popular national parks in the United States cannot equal the number of rest camps and the extent of the road network. This fact alludes to an apparent contradiction: South Africa’s largest wildlife reserve and one of its most unspoilt wildernesses is at the same time one of the most developed and accessible ecotourism destinations in the country.