When the Kruger National Park opened to the public in 1927, that year a grand total of three cars entered the Pretoriuskop Gate to enjoy the majesty of the South African wilderness. Today thousands more visitors enter the park through its many gates, but now a new portal has opened up, allowing sightings of the big five from the comfort of your home. If you can't climb in a car to get to Kruger, Kruger will come to you. A digital video camera was installed late last year at a waterhole just outside Orpen camp, and from its footage a picture is extracted every thirty seconds. These pictures are fed to a world-wide audience through the South African National Parks website, www.sanparks.org.
In December last year, the webcam page received almost 13,500 hits – the number has been steadily growing as an international audience has become addicted to the ultimate in ‘Big Brother' style entertainment. In March this year, the camera page got 51,751 hits, and the figure looks set to rise even higher. The system is designed to run 24/7, but sometimes nature takes a hand. In order to provide a picture at night, a spotlight floods the waterhole with light.
This runs off a day/night switch, which some hyaenas found to be a tasty snack, depriving all the eager viewers of their night-time footage when the spotlight failed to turn on. With the popularity of the webcam, Sanparks is now looking at upgrading the means of transmitting the images of the waterhole from an ordinary telephone line to a satellite link. The telephone system uses microwave towers between Orpen and Skukuza, and most of the problems with the entire webcam operation have occurred with this.
Upgrading to satellite transmission will eliminate these problems. Watchers on the website have seen all of the big five, plus hyaena, jackal, wildebeest, wild dog, kudu, vultures, owls and marabou stork. Even insects are not neglected, as spiders often cross the camera lens. Web watchers can save images seen on the Sanparks webcam page. They can then email these for posting on the "Recent activity at the waterhole" page.
And just as if you were sitting together with friends in a car, an exciting sighting can be discussed on the Sanparks forum page with other watchers. With the webcam, the Kruger National Park has shown that it can become an icon in the computer age with the same ease that it became a South African cultural icon from the time it was proclaimed.
So go on, log on to http://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/webcams/ - you never know when a lion is going to decide to take its next meal at the Orpen waterhole.