From the day Kruger’s gates opened to the public, people have fallen in love with the park, but there can be few people who can boast that their association with Kruger dates all the way back to 1928. Lawrie Locke is one such person, and at the age of 95 his voice is filled with enthusiasm as he recollects his teenage visit to the Kruger National Park.
In July 1928, Lawrie was a matric-year schoolboy at Parktown Boys High when he set off for Kruger with three of his friends. Their visit to the fledgling park was inspired by an unlikely source – the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. The All Blacks had recently come on tour to South Africa, and had visited the park.
Learning of the visit through friends, the four teenagers decided to make the journey themselves, after the All Blacks “paved the way.” From data kept by the first warden of the Kruger National Park, James Stevenson-Hamilton, it is evident that Lawrie and his friends were among the first 200 visitors to the park and possibly in the first 100.
Stevenson-Hamilton writes that in 1927 a grand total of three cars rolled through the only gate to the park – Pretoriuskop – but by 1928 180 cars entered the Park, a far cry from the million visitors the park currently gets each year. The four friends travelled from Johannesburg in a Humber owned by George Stuart, father of Lawrie’s friend John.
Lawrie’s other two companions were Peter Grant and Clive Lawrence. The journey was not without its difficulties, as Lawrie relates. “On the way down, at Witbank, the car’s charger conked in and the battery went flat.” Luckily, a helpful mechanic in Witbank gave them a fully charged battery which he assured them would “see them there and back”, provided they didn’t use the selfstarter, the lights, the hooter or any other electrically operated equipment. Luckily, the car could still be crank-started, so they continued their journey. To get into the park, they had to be ferried across the river in a pont, as there was no suitable bridge.
Lawrie says the park staff “made quite a fuss of us”, and that none other than the legendary Harry Wolhuter, “took us out, night and day, all round” and that “the way we were welcomed, you would think that we were royalty.” The group stayed in Kruger’s first accommodation, round concrete huts with a thatched roof.
The huts had no windows but there was a hole in the door which visitors could use to look for unwanted visitors before going outside. Ventilation was provided by an opening under the roof. Lawrie and his friends also went out on their own, and he describes it as “marvellous”, as they could drive wherever they wanted to go.
One day they spotted a pride of lions and drove off the road into a sandy patch to get up close and personal with the predators. Having looked their fill, they decided to move on. Lawrie was at the steering wheel, and mindful of the car’s lack of a charger, had left the motor running while they watched the lions. However, when he put the car into reverse, the engine stalled in the thick sand.
This was now a dilemma – the car could only be started if someone got out and cranked the engine, but they were surrounded by lions. Deciding that a loud noise might drive the animals off, the four teenagers simultaneously banged on the side of the doors of the Humber. “The lions lifted up their heads, thought ‘what a bunch of idiots’ and put their heads back down again.”
Plan B was for them all to sing a rousing tune as loud as they could, and Lawrie remembers that they had a go at the Marseillaise, the French national anthem renowned for its vigour and stirring qualities. Lawrie says the lions were apparently unimpressed by the serenade, and seemingly did not change their opinion that the people in the car were “a bunch of idiots”.
Having failed to inspire the lions into any activity, Lawrie remembered his mouth organ. Pulling it out, he put his head out of the window and began to play. This appeared to be too much for the lions, who, “stood up and walked away.”
With some relief, “we dived out, cranked the engine and drove off.” With that adrenaline-stirring experience behind them, the four enjoyed the remainder of their stay in the park, and “in due course, we motored home.”
Throughout the following decades Lawrie remained a frequent visitor to the park, enjoying many visits there with his family. Although they sometimes stayed in park accommodation, Lawrie liked it best when they would string up the four corners of a canvas sail to nearby trees and camp under the simple protection it offered.
He also fondly recollects that the park staff used to roast a leg of lamb for the family, and after a day’s outing they would return to wonderful aromas. Lawrie visited the park until well into his 80s, and he says that his three sons all still go with their families.
Having recently suffered from a bad fall, “after 94 and a half wonderful years of health”, Lawrie now thinks he may be a bit too old to visit Kruger, but he says that if he expressed a desire, he is sure that his three “very attentive” sons would find a way to take him.