Soekie Schoeman, a staff member in the Kruger National Park (KNP) technical department for the last 40 years, knows the Park like few others. He was part of the team, with Map Studio, who in the 70s developed and printed the first workable map of the Park. According to him, Johan Kloppers, a ranger at the time, added his invaluable knowledge of the hills’, dams’, rivers’ and tributaries’ names to the 1:250 000 publication.
He was also the first person to survey and map Olifants, Letaba, Shingwedzi and Satara Camps. Appointed as engineering technician in 1964 Soekie was responsible for surveying, mapping and planning under the guidance of Mr Kuschke and Wynand Uys. From 1964 to 1967 he was involved in the development of Lower Sabie Camp, expansions at Shingwedzi and the second phase of Olifants Camp.
The next three years he spent at Golden Gate in the Free State where he assisted with the development of Brandwag Camp. Apart from his usual duties he assisted with developing the terraces, and other infrastructure such as roads, parking areas water reticulation, sporting facilities and sewage works. He was promoted to senior technician in 1968; the same year Eskom electrification of the Park began. The Phalaborwa-Letaba and Olifants-Satara powerline systems were introduced first, followed by the Komatipoort, Crocodile Bridge and Lower Sabie systems.
In the same year, Soekie began work, design and construction on the first tar roads in the Park – from Pretoriuskop to Skukuza. Soekie says in the early years, the technical department did a lot of the actual project developments and construction, including 90% of the bridge designs in the Park. In 1968, Mr Mitchell designed the Engelhardt dam, which was built shortly after Soekie was involved with the setting out and survey control of the construction. The following year he opened up the 37km water pipe line between Satara and the Olifants river and supervised the trenching and laying of the pipe line.
He spent the next two years surveying and mapping sections of the Augrabies, Kalahari Gemsbok Park as well as Tsitsikama and Bergkwagga, and Addo National Parks for planning infrastructure development at the rest camps. On his return to Kruger, a drought relief programme, initiated after the severe 1962-4 droughts, was implemented. The “Water for Game” project mainly comprised the building of earth dams and concrete weirs. Soekie recalls the building of 48 big dams, such as Kanniedood and Sirheni of which most was surveyed and designed by himself as one of his most memorable times in Kruger. He also supervised the construction of the dams.
In 1974 his team had to debush and clear the cut line where the Eastern border fence was erected. “We had to stay within 6m of the border and finding the actual border was not always that easy. At times it was a huge challenge to find the best way for the bulldozers and teams to clear the line for the fencing team and find new alignments for access roads in the rugged Lebombo Mountains. It was enjoyable but hard work; as we had to plant an iron peg every 80m. We completed the 355km in 18 months – that is the clearing of the line as well as erection of the fence and building the new roads.”
That fence is now coming down in sections to facilitate the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Soekie’s team had a similar task clearing the area along the Limpopo River and a section of the western border. He recalls how “some grootkop” in the Defence Force returned from Angola in the middle 70s with the idea to plant a “sisalbuffer” on the entire eastern border of the Park, having undertaken some similar project in the old Southwest- Africa. “I personally harvested about five million plants in the former Gazankulu to plant 13 rows 0,75m apart with the same distance between each plant – for 320km.”
Soekie says the “Sisal line” never got off the ground, compliments of the buffalo, zebra and other animals that enjoyed the change in their usual menu. In 1977 the ‘Water for Game”’ programme resumed with the building of the Mitchelldesigned Pioneer Dam at Mopani. It was finished in time to be almost completely destroyed by the cyclone Demoina, after which it had to be rebuilt. In 1983 Berg-en-Dal Camp was developed and Soekie remembers how every building’s location was discussed at length before agreed upon and marked on site, prior to a single shovel of soil being turned.
Work included laying the 14km water pipeline from the Crocodile river complete with water purification works at Malelane and a new 11,5km tar road to the new camp. He was also involved with the creation of the Game Rangers Posts at Stoltsnek, Houtboschrand, Klipkoppies, Mooiplaas, Vlakteplaas and Pafuri. In the mid-80s Soekie was involved in the Karoo National Park for three years for the development of the camp comprising 24 three-bed units and 14 family units as well as the accompanying infrastructure.
During the development of Mopani Camp in 1989, Soekie spent most of his time as site engineer on the site to supervise the construction and infrastructure of the new camp In 1991, the Park management decided to downsize the 36 maintenance and construction teams in the technical department, retrenching approximately 650 staff. The Park adopted a policy of outsourcing projects on tender. Soekie became manager in charge of roads in the Park.
The road network covers 900km of tar road and 1800km of gravel road. He also assumed responsibility for erosion control, earth dams, game waterholes and the maintenance of the eastern border fence. “The firebreaks and 6000km private road network are another of my responsibilities. Most of these roads will now become redundant with the adoption of the “Recreation Opportunity Zoning”. After the 2000 floods, Soekie’s section had to repair damaged roads, bridges and culverts amounting to a R40m project, including 8km of tar road to the Phabeni Gate and the new gate infrastructure His recent undertakings include the completion of four GLTP related projects, financed by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.
- the upgrade to tar of the 10,5km road to the Pafuri border post at R14m
- upgrading the 16km road between Punda Maria Camp and the main road at R2m
- Building and upgrading the road to the Giriyondo border post at R3,1m
- Removal of 20km fence on the eastern border at R550 000
Soekie was born in 1940. On his father’s return from service in World War II, the family moved to Argentina for a short while before settling on a farm in the Waterberg area on their return to South Africa. Soekie completed the National Technical Diploma (Civil) at the Pretoria Technical College in 1961 after matriculating at the Afrikaans Boys High School in 1958. He worked at the Pretoria City Council and private architects before he moved to Kruger. He has three children, Nicola, Catherine-Anne and Hendrik. He has two grandchildren, Alexis and Cameron. “I enjoyed the opportunity to spend so much of my working time in the bush, and, many of my days out there were without a rifle. During the day I felt quite safe, but at night during a few mechanical break downs it was quite a different matter,” he says.