I have a profound respect for the gate guards of the Kruger National Park. After all, they play a significant part in the everyday operation of the park. They are the first point of contact as you enter this paradise, the first people that welcome you, and they always have giant smiles upon their faces.
They work long hours; deal with some difficult visitors and lawbreakers, and through adverse weather conditions. Come rain or shine they are there. I have seen them checking cars, and handing out the entry forms in the pouring rain, and I have seen them in 45 degree heat, in the peak season of December, when the park is at its busiest, with those hot uniforms on which they wear so proudly.
These incredible human beings have become my friends, like family, and it's a highlight of my day when I go in to the park for my daily drives, and I get to catch up with them.
They always keep me up to date with all the news, and of course tips about where “my” boys (The 6 sub-adult male lions of Crocodile Bridge) have last been seen. Whenever I am at the gate, one of them will ask, “Are you going to see the boys?” and when I’m on my way out, they’ll ask, “Did you see the boys?”. I have shown them countless photos and videos, of “my” boys, and they always humour me, and make an effort to remark on how beautiful and big they are. When Gramps was sick, everyday when I would go in, at least one of them would ask, “How is Mkulu?” (Which means elder in Zulu)
They have many fascinating and incredible stories to tell, and I am honoured that they have shared quite a few with me. Of course they mainly tell me about lions, because they know how much I love them.
One night one of the guards was finishing his shift, it was about 10pm, and he was about to open the gate to drive his car out, when he saw a pride of lions trying to hunt the resident warthog family up against the fence. He stood there for a while wondering how he could open the gate, drive the car out, get back out, close the gate, and get back in his vehicle.
It was risky, the lions were right there, he tried to shout at them, and tossed a couple of stones in their direction, but the lions didn’t care. (Lions are very different at night, especially when hunting), so eventually after much thought, he decided his safest bet would be, to find one of his colleagues to open the gate. He quickly drove out, and then his colleague staying behind closed the gate.
On another occasion, the lions chased an impala right through the fence, and past the boom gate. The impala got out of the camp, but the lions now trapped made their way towards the camping site, and bungalows. The night drive had just got back, so the ranger along with the guards got in to the park bakkie, and eventually “herded” the lions out of the camp.
One morning, as the sun was just rising, and the cars were lined up outside Crocodile Bridge Gate, the gate guard came out of the little house, and opened the gate to let the cars in. Just as the cars had finished going through, a lioness came out of the sugar cane field opposite the guardhouse. She then slipped through the fence, and back in to the park right in front of the guard. It’s no surprise that he got quite the fright and quickly retreated to behind the wooden gate of his house. The lioness then crossed the bridge, and caused quite the traffic jam on the other side, where all the cars now saw her.
The elephants especially love the marula tree that is situated right next to the little guardhouse, and apparently often the guards hear “thump, thump, thump” right outside when the ellies stop by for a snack. Apparently, it can make one feel rather small and somewhat intimidated, by these giants.
During this lockdown, that’s been one of the things I have missed the most, seeing all of the gate guard’s friendly faces, as I enter through Croc Bridge Camp on my daily drives.
Fortunately, they are still doing shifts at Crocodile Bridge Gate, so every morning on my run, I jog past their little guardhouse, and occasionally get to catch up with them through our fence.
Our conversations go something as follows (I won’t be mentioning any names):
“ Are you also having problems with pythons?” “Pythons”, I replied, “really? No, I haven’t seen them around here. But my friends did as they drove out of our gate one night after a braai.” “Yes, there’s always pythons around here,” he says, “I often see them cross the road close to the bridge, and they come around the guard house, because of the mice that come from the sugarcane”
“I saw some buffalo at the river”, he said. “Yes, I saw them too”, I said. “That’s a good meal for your boys,” he says smiling. “If the buffalo are here, the lions will come”.
“You know that man that always runs over the bridge to train for the comrades? Well, he said he saw a lion walk past his fence by the staff village the other day, a very big lion. He said it was the biggest lion he’s ever seen in his life. Since that day he doesn’t run anymore,” we both laughed.
“The animals are taking over like the old days, there is elephant dung all over the roads. It’s crazy”, he says.
“’Your’ boys have been hanging out on the other side of the camp for the last few nights”, she told me. (These are my favourite updates :) )
“I’m very worried about the monkey family,” I said. “I haven’t seen them in a few days what if something happened to them?” “You mustn’t worry, they probably don’t visit so much anymore because there aren’t any people with food around,” he said.
A few days later… “Ah, I saw the monkeys today, I’m so happy,” I said. “Yes, I saw them too, they came running past me this morning,” he replied.
A lady from Protection Services (deals with traffic and security issues in the park) told me they are still patrolling the park, and she says the sightings have been off the charts. I asked her how the animals were acting when they see her, she replied with aggressive. This made me laugh.
The gate guards of Crocodile Bridge are incredibly kind and thoughtful, and ever so patient (you can’t believe what they have to put up with). But also, they are lovers and protectors of nature and our precious Kruger, and I feel privileged to have them as my neighbours.
So, next time you arrive at a gate to Kruger, give them a big smile back, and thank them for the great job they do! :)