The history and development of Kruger National Park (located in the northeast provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga in South Africa, bordering with Mozambique) did not come along in a vacuum. Kruger Park was named after Paul Kruger, the President of Transvaal Republic in the late 1800s into 1902 (that country would later become part of present-day South Africa).
The first known safari in southern Africa occurred in 1836, when the English military engineer & hunter William Cornwallis Harris led an expedition across that region, which lasted a year. Beginning in Cape Town, Harris and his team of explorers journeyed to Grahamstown and the Kalahari, where he encountered his first Sable Antelope.
The very word “safari” (which means “long journey” in Swahili) worked its way into the English language in the 19th century, when European colonization of various African countries was stepped up. That term “safari” is accurate, as some game drives can go on for hours, ensuring that travelers experience these rare animals at all times of day.
African countries known for prime habitats and exotic animals ranged from Kenya and Tanzania (East Africa) to the then-Belgian Congo (Central Africa) to Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa (southern Africa), among others. Aside from William Harris’ South African safari in 1836, Europeans and others started conducting their own independently-organized safaris from that time on (fueled by press stories promoting such expeditions at the time).
In 1909-1910, former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt went on his own (11-month) safari in Central & East Africa (Congo, Kenya, and Sudan) – finance by the Smithsonian and Scottish-American millionaire Andrew Carnegie. Both Roosevelt and his son (who accompanied him on that safari) killed 512 exotic animals (ranging from lions to zebras, gazelles, moneys, hippos, ostriches, crocodiles and other species). Roosevelt, in turn, donated his kills to scientists or was used as taxidermy specimens for the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
Even with Roosevelt’s African safari, which was well-covered by the international media at the time, much was still unknown about Africa to the western world, especially its wildlife. Such undying curiosity fueled the demand for game reserves in these countries. In South Africa, the history of Kruger National Park as is known today began when the first tourists (visiting in private vehicles) were allowed into that reserve during the mid-1920s. Pretoriuskop Rest Camp was opened to the public at this time to provide overnight accommodation for these first visitors.
The African safari, including those conducted at Kruger Park, has been in constant transformation through the 1900’s – eventually taking on a dramatic new look in the 1970’s and 1980’s when the concept of the luxury safari was born in South Africa. Private reserves on the boundaries of the Kruger National Park undertook to providing luxury accommodations with the big game experience.
Still, Kruger National Park hasn’t been totally immune from outside man-made events in the late 20th century. Even though the Park was largely unaffected from South Africa’s internal political turmoil in the 1980s & 1990s, the fact that it borders with Mozambique meant that it was at times affected by events in that neighboring country, in particular when that country’s civil war (between the ruling pro-Marxist FRELIMO Party and the RENAMO rebels) raged on, especially in the 1980s. At that time, the South African military was training RENAMO rebels and providing them with war supplies – which were occasionally transported through Kruger Park! During the mid-late 1980s, war refugees fleeing Mozambique entered South African territory through Kruger Park, risking life and limb in the process.
Things are comparatively calm at Kruger Park these days. The basic meaning of a safari changed over time, from capturing or killing wildlife (as in Teddy Roosevelt’s day), to more recently, where concerns about various species being endangered largely curbed such activities, in favor of photo safaris (where participants enter game reserves to simply photograph whatever wildlife they come across). Such curbs against killing wildlife in recent decades are fueled by bans against poaching (especially those targeting elephants for their ivory tusks, and rhinos for their horns – which are in demand in the international black market, especially in the Far East).
This expensive form of safari slowly but surely became the norm and today most people recognize luxury lodge safaris as the epitome of the African Safari. Throughout Africa the luxury safari is now the benchmark of the African safari. Even past critics now slavishly justify the move to the luxury.
Nowadays, Kruger National Park is the largest game reserve in South Africa (an area of 19,485 square kilometers) – with over 500 bird species, 100 reptiles, nearly 150 mammals, multiple archaeological sites, and a wide diversity of trees and flowers. Kruger Park is about the size of the country of Israel, a little smaller than Belgium and about a third of the size of Ireland. The nearest major South African city to Kruger Park is Johannesburg (located over 4 hours or 437 km southwest of the Park).