Interview: Frans Rautenbach – No Reserve-Ations, Or More Bang For Your Kruger Rand

December 17, 2015



Your Kruger National Park Guide is essentially the opposite of the situation where you discover a place you love and purposefully avoid telling people about it in order to have it to yourself, not “ruined” by those who don’t understand your passion. Please explain the philosophy behind your perspective.

Frans Rautenbach: In the first chapter, dealing with spotting game, there is a principle (one of seven) under the heading “You are not alone”. It means in essence that one of the ways that you as tourist can make the most of your game viewing is to get help from other visitors. That includes campfire chats and also motorists who point out predators or other desirable sightings to you. It is hard to describe how glad one is if that happens, especially if you have not been too lucky that day. I also make the point that the [Kruger National] park brings out the best in people that way. At a sighting they will make room once they have seen what there is to see, and normally help you to see it too. I also make the point that you must return this favour whenever you can. The same applies to the treasure that the Kruger Park is. To me it is important to share this with others, so that South Africans and foreigners can enjoy it as much as I know is possible.

Do you think the game reserve will ever reach a point where folks like yourself are put off by everyone and their dog buying into your point of view?

I suppose the game reserve must be managed in the interest of all. Daily numbers are, and must be, managed with a view to striking the right balance to achieve a sustainable use of the resource. There are surprisingly quiet parts where one can still get away from it all. On the other hand, many people want to enjoy the park. There is a constant debate about getting this balance right. If managed right, there is no reason why this should not be possible for the foreseeable future.

You’ve been going to the Kruger for a very long time. What do you miss from years past? And what are you glad has changed or been upgraded?

There are things I remember with fond nostalgia: communal fireplaces, no electricity –  only paraffin lanterns – old-fashioned giant cast-iron hot-water urns and a certain style of doing things. But funnily enough, even though many of these things have been modernised, it does not feel as if the heart has been ripped out of the experience. The essential charm remains: the smell of thatch and tar inside the rondavels, the cool interior after a long, hot day on the road, the heat and the sounds, and the smell of wood fires burning at night.  I think that many newer services nowadays add to the experience: night drives, early morning game drives, hiking trails and overnight bird hides where you can spend the night effectively alone in the bush, to name a few. Also, I think the game is in rude health. Few people realise for example that when the park first opened in the earlier part of last century, game was very rare generally, that even 50 years ago there were hardly a quarter of the number of elephants that we have today. There were no rhinos at all, and many of the predators were probably scarcer. There are, of course, some threatened species – today – like sable and roan antelope. But overall, the ecology is in better nick than any time during the last century.

Many travellers like to explore somewhere new each time they go on holiday. The game reserve is on of the few places in South Africa where you can go back again and again without repeating an experience. What are some of your least-expected moments in all your time there?

Two incidents stand out. One year I entered the game reserve from Malelane, on my own for a quick breakaway weekend, and I had no accommodation for the night. I saw several motorists passing me, all looking very hot and very bored. I myself saw nothing of note for several kilometres, and was generally despondent, convinced that it was a mistake to have come. And then I came around a bend in the road, and drove straight in among a pack of wild dogs on both sides of the road, sprawled out among the granite rocks, while pups were clambering over the adults. I tried to count the dogs, but there were simply too many. And all this time I spent there – fully 15 minutes – there was no one else around. Another incident was when my daughter, who had her learner’s license, and I drove between Skukuza and Lower Sabie. To cut a long story short, she drove off the road and into a sturdy young umbrella thorn tree. We had to get a lift from a couple who drove us to Skukuza, where we could rent a car. Hours later, on our way back to Lower Sabie, as we reached the scene of the accident, I wanted to point out the spot to my daughter, who until then had been rather subdued. But at that very moment, at the same spot, a pride of lions emerged from the bush on the same side as the crash and ambled down the road with several litters of cubs of various ages among them. The adults lay down in the road and watched the cubs play. And all the time there was no one but us. Needless to say, the broken tree with the upturned earth underneath was still there. But I never got to point it out to Anneke. It somehow did not matter anymore…

Using discipline to enhance enjoyment sounds like a strange idea, but your chapter on how to sight game is all about such practices – driving more and further  to increase your odds of seeing interesting creatures, for instance. What are your feelings on the “lie around and relax” view of holidaying?

I suppose it is all about how to use your time to best effect. Very few people who visit the game reserve do not fervently want to see special game. And I have yet to meet anyone who has been rewarded with a good sighting saying that they wish they had rather stayed in the camp with a good book. Ideally, you want to spend long enough to do the one, and not neglect the other. I encourage readers to do other things besides driving after game. In fact there is a whole chapter devoted to doing other fun things, such as sitting on the stoep at a rest camp and having tea, walking along the fence with your binoculars, or sitting by the fire at night. I also sing the praises of the restful atmosphere of a camp during the day, when many people are on the road and one can sit under a tree and read or listen to the sounds of the camp: cleaners going about their business, a baboon tipping a dustbin  or the starlings under the trees. The book also has a special chapter on preparing and enjoying food, or having a brunch picnic in the bush. The Afrikaans expression says it best: You must leave time to “kuier” properly. But in the end it is the game in the game reserve that makes it special.

There are very obvious biases in this book (you’re prescriptive to the extent that you don’t even want readers to add milk to scrambled eggs!). Obviously readers will have a wide range of tastes and areas of interest. Do you intend the book to be a snapshot of your personal holiday culture or to be a box-ticking guidebook?

I would think the former is a closer description, but with the hope of inspiring. I have tried and tested things, and they work for me, and I hope to give the reader a taste of that. Of course no reader need feel obliged to follow my recipes! The point is rather to convey a real experience, which readers will know is palpably authentic, and to give them the choice of what to take and what to leave. In the introduction I make the point very clear that I put everything on the table, enabling the reader to decide. Indeed, one of the principles of game viewing is that you cannot plan. One of the wonders of the game reserve is that despite one’s best-laid plans things often go wrong, and often those are the most interesting times.

Do you think the travel industry does – or should – offer similar services (a package for Eighties nostalgia game reserve travel, for instance, offering only the services and facilities that were available then)?

I have toyed with the idea. But what counts against it is that whatever one says about the game reserve – either today or in years past – it has always retained a great deal of authenticity. To rig up a camp artificially to reproduce the atmosphere of yesteryear will in my view detract from that. The game reserve attracts tourists because it succeeds in keeping things real. Predators actually hunt and are not fed, nature carries on largely as ever, game viewing is not manipulated by means of calling or herding animals to where they can be seen. It is not a theme park. Having said that, the bushveld camps are a relative innovation, where small camps of no more than fifteen huts provide a quiet experience in the bush. The camps have electricity, luxurious kitchens and freezers, but the style remains simple and authentic.

Do you have a similar book in you about another location or set of memories?

No, I do not think anything else in my experience comes close to the game reserve. For years I promised my kids a summer’s holiday in a beach house, where one can walk to the beach, buy fish for dinner, swim all day and braai at night on a stoep overlooking the ocean. I regularly enjoyed such holidays as a child, but my own children did not have the experience until about three years ago. Now we regularly go to Keurboomstrand for a few weeks over December. Pleasant as that is, I am not sure there is a “guide book” in it.

Your Kruger National Park Guide by Frans Rautenbach, published by NB Books, is available now.