Albasini’s caravans were the main users of this road. Over the years, his porters ferried thousands of kilograms of goods from the coast and carried back huge loads of ivory. The trader Fernandes das Neves accompanied one of Albasini’s caravans in 1860 and reported that it took 24 days to complete the 250-mile (402km) journey between the coast and Pretoriuskop. One hundred and fifty Shangaans each carried 40lbs (18kg) of trade goods, 68 porters carried food and camping equipment and 17 elephant-hunters kept guard.
The Voortrekker Road (H2-2)
This road,south-east from Pretoriuskop, follows the 1849 track blazed by Carolus Trichardt, son of the Voortrekker Louis Trichardt. He was commissioned by the then Transvaal Government to open up a regular route between the northern interior and Delagoa Bay and, against the odds, managed to do this.
The Voortrekker road was improved in 1896 by the trader Alois Nelmapius to facilitate the transport of supplies to Lydenburg and Mac Mac, where gold had just been discovered. The road was then used extensively by transport riders on their way to what was then Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).
Ship Mountain and the Saddlebags of Gold
It is rumoured that a stash of 19th-century gold coins is buried somewhere at the foot of Ship Mountain. Chief Matafini – a former Swazi military commander who fell out with his king Mbandeni – took refuge in the
Crocodile River valley in the 1880s.
He apparently buried his substantial wealth – a couple of saddlebags of gold coins – in the vicinity of Ship Mountain to avoid paying tax to the Transvaal Government. While on the run from tax collectors, he was murdered by bandits and apparently took the secret of his treasure’s whereabouts to his grave.
The road descends from the mountainous Pretoriuskop sourveld into the rolling hills of mixed bushwillow woodland past a number of distinctive geological features, and is a good drive for accessing the game-rich plains south of Skukuza. It was on this road that the little terrier Jock – of Jock of the Bushveld fame – was born. Jock’s story is told by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, a former transport rider who went on to become an influential politician and businessman in the early 20th century.
On the Voortrekker road close to Pretoriuskop is where the first white rhino were reintroduced to Kruger. One can see the remains of the structure where two bulls and two cows were let loose in October 1961 (having been shot out of the area by 1896). During the 1960s, a total of 320 white rhino were reintroduced into the southern Park from the Umfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, and a further 12 were released in the north. The Pretoriuskop area is one of the best places to view these animals.
The Voortrekker road is one of the better roads in the south-west for game viewing because it follows a belt of sweetveld that intrudes into the western sourveld. The sweetveld begins close to the foot of the distinctive Ship Mountain (662m) – apparently named because it resembles the hull of an upturned ship – which was used as a navigational aid by these early pioneers.
Ship Mountain, with its weird lichen-covered boulders, was literally dumped onto the landscape by ancient volcanoes. It is the remnants of a geological upheaval some 200 million years ago during which the gabbro and basalts of eastern Kruger were spewed onto the lowveld floor.
It is geologically distinctive from the surrounding granite-supported countryside in that it consists of gabbro, a hardier the natural armoury of rocks to beat off attempts by the Swazi to get to the summit.
About halfway between Ship Mountain and Afsaal is Josekhulu Drift where there are often birding parties among the tall trees near the water. Josekhulu was named after Albasini’s induna, or headman, a large Zulu man known as “Big Josef” who was in charge of the area. Close to Josekhulu is the site of a trading store set up by Thomas Hart during the 1870s to sell supplies to the porters who used to carry supplies from the coast to Pretoriuskop.
Hart staved off the loneliness of his isolated existence by having a host of unusual pets including a cheetah, honey badger, jackals, parrots, monkeys and a couple of snakes. He was murdered by bandits in 1876 and buried next to the road by sympathetic Swazi warriors.
Being drunk in the bush is an invitation to danger. However, to every rule there is an exception. In Wild Life in South Africa, James Stevenson-Hamilton recounted the experience of a ranger called Sakubona in the early days of Kruger’s history. Late one night an inebriated Sakubona returned home from a party at a nearby kraal when he literally walked into a lion along a narrow bush path.
“According to his own account, he felt indignant, and after inquiring of the lion what it meant by blocking his road in this manner, poked it on the nose with his stick, on which it growled, bit him in the leg, and then ran away”. The next morning a ranger examined the footprints and tracks and confirmed there had been some sort of incident involving man and lion.
“Of course no-one, not even Sakubona himself,” wrote Stevenson-Hamilton “knows what exactly did happen but he assuredly did have a single-handed and unarmed encounter with a lion in the dark, and came off best. Personally, I think had he been sober the result might have been unfortunate for him, but he was just in that condition when it is impossible to know fear.
He had arrived at just that stage of spiritual elevation when a man feels there is nothing in the world of which he is not capable. Also of course, there are lions and lions!”
When the Park opened to tourism, Sakubona supplemented his income as a gate guard by rolling up his trousers and showing his scars to tourists for a small fee.
Photo: Albert Froneman
Further down, the road crosses the Mitomeni Spruit – the place of the jackal-berry trees – which was a favoured outspan point used by transport riders. One can still see the bullet holes in the leadwood tree that they used for target practice. The small, fleshy berries of the jackal-berry are used in many parts of Africa to make beer, while traditional healers say that inhaling smoke from the bark of the jackal-berry is an effective cure for a cough.
Even though there are not a lot of animals in this part of the Park, there are considerably larger numbers than there were a century ago. By the 1900s, almost all the game had been shot out of this area by early hunters – so much so that, when Stevenson-Hamilton first surveyed this area in 1902, the only wild animal he saw between Ship Mountain and Skukuza was a single reedbuck.
At the time, the entire animal population of the Park was believed to be fewer than 100 000 animals. Today, there are more than 100 000 impala in Kruger, not counting any of the other animals.
The Shy Oribi
The area between Pretoriuskop and Phabeni is one of the few places in the Park where one may glimpse the oribi, the largest of the pygmy antelope family, and one of Kruger’s rarest antelope. A curious fact about the oribi is that they rarely drink fresh water, getting almost all their moisture requirements from browsing. There is some uncertainty as to the status of oribi in Kruger. There have been two attempts to reintroduce these high-altitude browsers into Kruger.
In 1962, 29 oribi from Badplaas were released near the Fayi Loop near Pretoriuskop, and 10 years later another 98 were brought in. However, these attempts do not appear to have resulted in any sustainable population and oribi sightings are rare. Stevenson-Hamilton recorded his surprise at coming across an oribi at the foot of the Lebombo in the vicinity of Muntshe, almost 100km from its more familiar habitat in the lightly wooded Pretoriuskop foothills.
Pretoriuskop is a large camp set in the mixed terminalia and kiaat woodlands in Kruger’s south-western foothills. It’s the oldest camp in Kruger and was opened in 1928 shortly after tourists were first allowed in the Park. In 1947, the British royal family stayed at Pretoriuskop during their South African visit.
Pretoriuskop’s attraction to the early travellers making their way to Delagoa Bay was its altitude. Situated high above the malaria- and tsetse fly-ridden lowveld, it was deemed a safe resting spot from which to prepare for the hellishly hot journey across the plains to Komatipoort and then on to the sea.
The same principle still operates – the relative coolness of Pretoriuskop makes it a good place to stay during the hot summer months, from October to March. It is a child-friendly camp with a large swimming pool set among granite boulders. The Sable Trail that winds through the camp is educational from a natural and human history point
Pretoriuskop is the only camp in Kruger where non-indigenous trees have been allowed to grow. The colourful bougainvillaea and red flamboyants were planted by Harry Wolhuter, the first ranger in the Park, who used the camp as his base in the late 1920s. He used to hold staff meetings under an old Natal mahogany tree – the indaba tree – which still stands today and is popular with birds. These exotics provide a colourful counterpoint to the indigenous knob-thorns, figs and marulas in the camp.
The best birding spot in Pretoriuskop Camp is the mini forest around the swimming pool which is set in among flat granite boulders. This is a particularly busy area and usually a good variety of birds can be seen within a half-hour amble.