The First Tourists to Kruger National Park
Sadly after a tremendous amount of hard work and lobbying nothing came of these initial recommendations and the proposed framework. It was only 5 years later in 1923, when the South African Railways (SAR) established a tour by rail that followed a route through the Lowveld to Maputo (then Lourenco Marques) in Mozambique that its potential once again reached the table. It was this initial guest exposure to the area that the idea of a tourist destination to promote and enjoy this pristine wilderness was again discussed. From these discussions it was agreed that an overnight stop in the Sabie Reserve, at the Sabie Bridge (Skukuza) be included on the itinerary but more specifically for convenience rather than it being identified as a wildlife attraction. This addition to the itinerary gave Stevenson-Hamilton an opportunity to try and convince the Commissioner of the Railways that a day excursion through the Sabie Reserve with all its wildlife would enhance the “round-in-nine” tour and provide for a much more enjoyable railway excursion.
After much discussion and lobbying eventually Stevenson-Hamilton’s request became a reality and the itinerary was rearranged so as that trains would travel from Komatipoort to Sabie Bridge (Skukuza) during daylight hours so that guests could take in and appreciate the surrounding fauna and flora. To enhance the experience Major Stevenson-Hamilton arranged that one of his game rangers would accompany the tourists to shares stories and enlighten them to this wild savannah.
At Sabie Bridge there were no actual facilities for the overnight tourists and they would sleep on the train. The game rangers responsibilities where to create interest for the area by sharing personal accounts with the wildlife and telling anecdotal stories around the evening fire. The inclusion of this overnight stop proved to be very successful and it soon after became a very popular attraction and destination with the tourists.
From these early beginnings and the formal proclamation of the Kruger National Park in 1926, the concept of a tourist destination for commercial benefit had successfully be presented and tourism for the area was ripe for discussion. At the first board meeting that was held by the commission on the 16 September 1926, the commercial value of tourism for these Reserves was officially recognised.
In order to effectively attract tourists to generate income, it was decided that a network of roads was required both main roads and various secondary roads for the benefit of game viewing to promote the wildlife. The commission together with Stevenson-Hamilton established and idea that would see local guides accompanying the tourist at a further fee to show them the surrounding wilderness and also ensure safety. During these early stages of development it was also decided that a fee should be charged for guests wishing to take photographs of the wildlife and terrain. Lastly there was a third proposed source of revenue in that of the writing of articles about the reserve, its wildlife and personable stories that could be used to sell the Reserve as an attraction to foreign visitors.
With a tremendous amount of effort being put into marketing and revenue generation for the park what soon became apparent was the lack of accommodation facilities for tourists, which now presented a significant problem. In early 1927, the board of the South African Railways (SAR) decided to approach the commission with the request to erect simple accommodation which could be rented back to the SAR for their own purposes. After much discussion there was no material outcome of the idea. During the same year the commission, through the mediation of Stevenson-Hamilton, managed to reach an agreement with the SAR to work on a joint strategy that focussed on the development of tourism within the Reserve and effectively creating its own industry for revenue generation. The outcome of this was a unanimous decision by the commission to build roads, accommodation and other facilities that would promote paying tourism and exclusivity of the Reserve.
In exchange for the establishment of infrastructure the SAR undertook to provide all transport to and within the Reserve by way of either rail or road. Along with this mandate the SAR would also be responsible for driving an effective marketing campaign, provide catering services and pay the board of the Reserve a percentage of the income generated. To kick of this new initiative a network for roads had to be built. The first of these where a four two-track road from Crocodile Bridge to Lower Sabie which was built by CR de la Porte, a road from Acornhoek to the Mozambique border that went via Satara, from Gravellote to Makubas Kraal near Letaba and a final road from White River to Pretoriuskop. During August of 1927 the board decided to open access to the Pretoriuskop area for tourists. This would be the first concession to be utilised for tourism. In the early days this was an operational challenge and required guests to get a permit of access either from the secretary of the board in Pretoria, the warden at Skukuza, the game ranger at Pretoriuskop or from White River. This access was also only granted for daylight hours and tourists had to leave the Reserve on the same day as no overnight facilities were provided for at that stage. As you would imagine the process of acquiring a day permit was rather confusing and many visitors would often pass Matimba (Post of Ranger Wolhuter) without reporting themselves.
In 1929 the Board appointed Mr A Moodie as agent to issue permits. It was only 1931 that a full time gate official, Captain M Rowland-Jones was appointed and stationed at todays Numbi Gate. In light of the required accommodation facilities in the Reserve many additional proposals had been received since 1927 in order to promote and increase tourism. One of these proposals was to build a hotel at the Sabie Bridge but this was seen as impractical and ultimately rejected by the board. A further proposal was also motivated by the SAR for the construction of a low level bridge as a vehicle crossing over the Crocodile River on the southern boundary. In reviewing this proposal the Board asked the SAR to rather open their own railway bridges over the Crocodile, Sabie and Olifant’s Rivers for motor vehicles to have access as well as make the train service on the Selati Railway available for tourists as well as officials of the Board. Further to this the Board requested that the SAR also accept responsibility for the building of a road that went from Crocodile Bridge to Satara and the small town of Acornhoek in the central area of the Reserve.