A couple from Germany decide to spend their annual leave in South Africa. They have ten days and have Cape Town, the wine route and the Kruger National Park (KNP) as ‘must sees' on their itinerary. If possible, they would like to include a visit to Soweto and Swaziland, as well. Their holiday agent contacts the tour operator in South Africa and a custom-made tour is put together.
Kruger is allowed two days. How do you package the essence of the Kruger experience into two days? Could it be spending five hours at the Nsemani dam near Satara before over-nighting at Talamati followed by a leisurely drive to Letaba and the elephant hall the next day and then leaving from Phalaborwa airport?
Or does it comprise a visit to the Thulamela archaeological site, staying at Shingwedzi and then sleeping at the Shipandane bird hide near Mopane Camp the following night? Maybe the more adventurous would prefer a whirlwind drive from Punda Maria to Orpen with a mountain bike trail and astronomy drive at Olifants Rest Camp in between?
Lucy Nhlapo-Sekete, head of tourism and marketing in Kruger, hosted a group of about 30 tour operators (including two emerging tour operators) and other Sanparks tourism stakeholders who were on a four-day tourism fact-finding tour in Kruger to answer these and similar questions.
The tour focused on new and existing products. Starting on October 17 from Phalaborwa gate the group, travelling in three McFarlane Safaris mini-buses each with experienced Kruger guides, set out to explore Kruger, mostly in the northern section of the Park. Lucy had her guests rise before the sun to get the most out of each day.
There was much to show, and not much time. "I came on the tour because Sarie (van Rensburg, Sanparks, coastal sales) is a good friend of mine and persisted that I do. Now I think it is a pity that not more tour operators are here," says Jochen Beckert, of Absolut Tours and Safaris.
He believes the Park succeeded in showcasing a variety of the Kruger experience and that the Park has become much more flexible in meeting tourism needs than it was in the past. "The enthusiasm and professionalism of people like Ezrom Mthumbu when he welcomed the group is much needed in the Park," he says.
A highlight is in the eyes of the beholder, but one that stood out for most, is the new rustic camp, Tsendze. Lucy and Raymond Travers, media liaison for the Park, proudly toasted with Johann Oelofse, Mooiplaas section ranger and initiator of the idea, on the near completion of Kruger's first rustic camp.
The camping facility, situated near the Mooiplaas picnic site will have 30 camping sites. Tsendze will be open to the public from November 1, 2006. Doug Wagner, renowned bird guide, was delighted with the stopover to the Pafuri area, well known birders' haven. Kruger is home to more than 500 bird species.
"The Crook's Corner loop (S63), takes visitors through some of the most potentially productive birding territory in South Africa." The group also visited the Shipandane bird hide near Mopani Rest camp, one of two sleep-over bird hides in Kruger. Sable dam bird hide, near Phalaborwa also caters for overnight bird enthusiasts.
At the two archaeological sites – Masorini and Thulamela – each with their rich history and striking architecture, Andrew Desmet, activities manager, and his guides showcased some of Kruger's cultural diversity. En route to the Giriyondo tourism access point on the Mozambican border, Jochen asked Johann, who had accompanied the group on this leg of the tour, what he would describe as Kruger's game viewing strengths in the north. "Buffalo and elephant," said the ranger. "Here you will find the huge buffalo herds – the Mooiplaas herd is over 1000 in number. It is also here where you will see many elephant bulls."
A brief stop at the Letaba elephant hall was enough to reinforce many of the guests' respect for these giants. "Are these tusks the real thing?" asked one wideeyed tour operator, referring to Mafunyane's trademark straight tusks. As we left for Olifants Rest Camp the group kept a close eye on the overcast sky. It did not bode well for the scheduled astronomy drive at the Nwamanzi look-out point near Olifants camp.
Juanita Grobler's inspirational presentation had most guests glued to their seats until the skies cleared for some great viewing. Jupiter three of its moons were the (first) ‘stars' of the evening. "A great product," says Mia Soule, sales and marketing manager of Ilanga Travel. It was at Olifants Camp that each one of the group members could experience one of Kruger's guided activities first hand on Friday morning.
The less adventurous opted for the morning drive, while on the other end of the scale, some ventured on the mountain bike trail. "We heard a lion nearby but were just too late to see it," says Mia, who, with Jochen, took Andrew's advice to heart to try something that you had never done before – so they cycled. "The route was not so hard and we stopped frequently," she said.
On the morning walk, the group encountered rhino, giraffe, zebra, baboons and many birds. "I would like to see more affordable activities where one can discover your body by using your senses," says Jochen. "Like the mountain bike trail and when we were at Shiloa and Andrew attempted to have the whole group sit still for five minutes."
Undoubtedly another highlight was the visit to Shilowa, which is situated in the Lebombo mountains south of Shingwedzi, on the border with Mozambique. On the itinerary were also visits to Tambotie tent camp, Bateleur bush camp, the upgraded accommodation at Orpen, Satara's Frankel Guest House and Letaba's day visitor's area.
According to Lucy, the tour operators indicated that they were positive about the upgrades to the accommodation facilities and the new developments in the Park. "We were not aware of many of these new developments and will be doing our marketing from another angle." "It is not easy to sell Kruger, taking into account the restrictions like the summer temperatures and gate closing times, yet the tour helped create awareness, understanding and appreciation of the Kruger experience," says Lucy.