Every year, thousands of people enter the Kruger National Park using their Wild Card, delighted that a once-yearly payment offers them unrestricted access to their favourite protected area.
But Johannesburg resident Stella Millar has no need to worry about a Wild Card – many years ago, she and her husband made a once-in-a-lifetime payment, which allowed the couple free entry “for one motor vehicle with maximum of nine passengers of whom three may be adults and one may be a servant” to the Kruger Park for the rest of their lives.
The Millars purchased their equivalent of a lifelong Wild Card from the National Parks Board of Trustees in the mid 1940s, and Stella recalls that they paid £50 for their ‘life membership’. In 1979 they received an updated identity card that photographically identified them to the park’s gate guards, but despite this ‘new’ card, there are few people working at Kruger’s entrances and camps who have ever seen a ‘Certificate of Identity’, and there are likely to be some who are younger than the card itself.
Stella says that when she presents her card at the gate there is generally some confusion, but she is always allowed in for free. Stella first started visiting Kruger in 1946, when she and her husband moved to White River as the owners and managers of the White River Hotel.
She says she has been to Kruger “hundreds and hundreds of times” and “it never cost anything.” She recalls that they would go to the park as often as four times a week, sometimes using their life membership privileges to take hotel guests in. Their son, Michael, was born in White River and Stella says he went to the park with them from the time he was born.
In the early 1950s the Millars returned to Johannesburg to educate their children. Stella says that Uplands “was just a tiny school” then. The family continued to visit Kruger from Johannesburg, usually once or twice a year. Their favourite place to stay was at Nwanetsi, where “there was not even a fence” around the house and they used to walk down to the river with no concerns.
Stella says that they became well known to the camp attendant, Joel, whom she taught to make leg of lamb and roast potatoes to perfection on the camp stove. She also remembers once bringing him down a bicycle from the big city. Stella’s husband also used to distribute the Custos magazine in Johannesburg out of his great love for the park.
Now in her 80s, Stella is still a regular visitor to Kruger, and she says she much prefers going to Kruger than to Europe, but “I think I miss the old days when things were not so sophisticated” and says it never bothered her when there were no lights in the camps. One of her most striking memories of Kruger comes from Melville cottage.
The cottage was newly built when Stella came down with friends, and she was intending to have a lie-in on the morning after their arrival. However, she was awakened by “screeching” about “a lion” and she rushed out of her room with her shoes on the wrong feet to discover a leopard right by the camp.
The leopard tried to go for Stella, but she says that it obviously didn’t see the fence and hit it and ricocheted back. A researcher in the camp then shot the leopard, as the ranger had had to take his wife to Phalaborwa at the time. Stella says, “If it had not been so early in the morning, I would have had a whiskey to steady my nerves.”
More than sixty years later, Stella’s love of Kruger is unabated, and she says she will be back “as soon as the heat is over”, once more producing her life membership card to the wonderment of those at the gate.