Oom (uncle) Paul scowls over the Sabie River, having survived the politics of the new South Africa and attempts to have the bust removed in the interests of political correctness. The former president of the Transvaal Republic was a fervent Afrikaner nationalist and racist to boot – but he was also an anti-colonialist who had environmental foresight and a love for the bush.
Whatever one’s view may be, his name has become synonymous with the South African wildlife experience, and tourism authorities are understandably loath to tamper with the destination branding.
The gate is on the Sabie River which is the dominant watercourse in southern Kruger. The Sabie is known for its hippos and crocodiles which lie log-like on the sandy river banks, or cruise the mid-stream with just their eyes poking above the water. The Kruger Gate bridge is a good birding spot with the rare Pel’s fishing-owl recorded along this stretch of the Sabie at sunset.
Imagine the severity of the floods of 2000, when Paul Kruger Bridge was actually under water! The floods had their lighter moments. Bruce Bryden recalls the incredulous sight of a shrieking baboon clinging surfer-style to a log that was swept down the river – the log hit the bridge and the baboon escaped onto dry land.
Paul Kruger Gate to Skukuza (H11)
If one is going to get caught speeding in the Kruger Park, it is likely to occur between Skukuza Rest Camp and Paul Kruger Gate. Travel slowly along this road, which often has interesting sightings as the big predators hunt in the thorn thickets along the Sabie River watercourse. There are two noteworthy birding spots just off the H11, Lake Panic and Skukuza Nursery.
Further on this road is the unfenced Skukuza Village, which is off-bounds to tourists. Wild animals freely roam through the staff village but generally give humans a wide berth. However, as lowveld author Hennie van Deventer recounts, two fatal leopard attacks have rocked the close-knit Skukuza community. In March 2001, a young schoolboy, Binkie Nobela, noticed a leopard prowling around the staff village.
He alerted rangers who searched for the animal without success. An hour later popular Skukuza resident Kotie de Beer was jogging near Skukuza Nursery when she was killed by the leopard which then disappeared into the bush. In a strange but tragic twist of fate, two years later Binkie Nobela was killed by an old leopard in broad daylight close to his home. Rangers tracked the culprit and shot it dead. It is not known whether it was the same leopard responsible for de Beer’s death.
Crocodile Drama on the Sabie
One of Kruger’s most fearsome battles between man and beast took place between Paul Kruger Gate and Skukuza one hot summer’s day in November 1976. Two Skukuza rangers – Tom Yssel and Louis Olivier – went fishing at a water hole on the Sabie River near the staff village.
The two were wading thigh-deep in the river when the water suddenly erupted around them as a five-metre crocodile shot out of the reeds and grabbed Yssel by the leg. Olivier desperately tried to save his friend and lunged at the reptile as it headed for deeper water. He managed to get astride it and, thrashing about in the shallows, desperately tried to prise the crocodile’s jaws open.
The struggle lasted for what seemed like ages, before Kruger helicopter pilot Hans Kolver, who had been enjoying a cold beer on a sandbank nearby, rushed over to help. Kolver dug his fingernails into the crocodile’s eyes, but it maintained its deadly grip, shaking Yssel from time to time to improve its grip.
Yssel was in agony and losing blood fast as the men tried in vain to pull him free. Neither side would give in.
The croc then surprised everyone by letting go of Yssel and grabbing Kolver by the wrist, pulling him under water. By this time, Olivier had managed to get a knife and rushed back over, stabbing the crocodile in its eye sockets.
Only then did the crocodile release Kolver, and sink back under water. Olivier and Kolver, terrified that other crocodiles would be attracted by the blood, hauled Yssel out of the river and rushed him to hospital. Miraculously, he survived. The crocodile was shot the next day by another ranger, as it was badly wounded.
Olivier and Kolver were awarded the Wolraad Woltemade Decoration for Conspicuous Bravery in 1978.