Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Man Who Swept Clean

Old Railway Bridge at Skukuza
In 1902 two men came together and headed out into the African wilderness with horses and an ox wagon of provisions.  They had taken on an extraordinary job that no one thought likely to succeed, and one which was not high on the list of the priorities of the day.  They were unlikely companions.  The two men couldn’t have been more different.

The roads would have been much narrower - or non-existent!

James Stevenson-Hamilton
James Stevenson-Hamilton was born in Dublin in 1867, the eldest son of a landed family, and had been educated at Rugby and Sandhurst.  He chose a career in the military, and was attracted to South Africa, where, as an officer of the 6th Dragoon Guards, he saw service in Natal.  After that the spirit of African adventure seized him, and he explored parts of what is now Zambia on horseback and on foot and even joined an abortive expedition to go across land from Cape to Cairo.  In 1899 he fought in the Boer War and distinguished himself on the British side.

Harry Wolhuter, on the other hand, was born in Beaufort West in the arid Karoo region of the Cape in 1877.  He had a checkered career involving hunting, being a shepherd, hunting, fighting in a rag-tag British commando called Steinacker’s Horse in the Boer War, and hunting.

Harry Wolhuter
Before the Boer War, the South African Republic under President Paul Kruger had proclaimed the Sabie Nature Reserve on the eastern side of the country in an attempt to preserve some of the rapidly dwindling wildlife of southern Africa.  It was an area of about 1,000 square miles sandwiched between the Sabie and Crocodile rivers, flush with poachers, smugglers, and malaria.  The parliament approved the establishment by just one vote, with much grumbling about good farming land wasted on dangerous animals and disease.  The Boer War came, and no one did much about the new game reserve, but in 1902 Lord Milner in Cape Town re-proclaimed the area and made Stevenson Hamilton the first Warden.  He appointed game rangers, of whom Wolhuter was one, and they set off to see what they could do with an area which poachers and predators had been intent on devastating.  Stevenson-Hamilton made Sabie Bridge his headquarters.  His approach was simple.  No hunting.  And anyone who broke that rule felt the force of his law.  He was reputed to have grumbled that if he could live on tinned meat, so could all the surrounding inhabitants.

For the two men and the black rangers they trained, the job became a mission.  Nothing was higher priority.  Stevenson-Hamilton believed - as he said in his book African Eden - “that if there were no shooting, if animals were left to live in the veld as they had lived before man came on the scene, they would lose their fear of human beings and flock to an area that had once been described as ‘red with impala’”.  At one point he cut everyone’s salary (including his own) when he needed an extra game ranger and didn’t have the funds to pay him.  And Harry Wolhuter said in his book – Memories of a Game Ranger - “My long experience has taught me that, thrilling though the pleasures of shooting undoubtedly are, infinitely greater and far more lasting pleasure and interest can be obtained from the observation and study of wild animals, unafraid and uninterfered with, in their natural haunts; and I have never regretted my metamorphosis from hunter to guardian!"

In 1923, the first tourists came to the game reserve.  The Selati railway ran through the area and tours would stop at Sabie Bridge, have a camp fire evening, and take guided walks with a ranger in the bushveld before heading on to Mozambique.

Stevenson-Hamilton had good contacts.  He persuaded companies and individuals to donate “useless” land to extend the game reserve and he started agitating for the area to become a national park; in 1912 he had a personal discussion with no less a luminary that Jan Smuts.  The First World War put it out of everyone’s mind, but in 1926 it was proclaimed as South Africa’s first national park – the Kruger National Park.  Just where Kruger himself had stood on the issue of the game reserve is unclear, but it is his lasting memorial and now extends over 17,000 square miles.  The first tourist cars arrived in 1927 - three of them.  My mother couldn't have been far behind them; I recall her stories of her visits to the Kruger Park as a girl.

This isn't my mother...but it could have been!

And today...
Wolhuter and the Lion
The pioneer rangers had many adventures as they chased poachers, reduced predator populations to try to give the big herbivores a chance to recover from the hunting, and played politics to preserve the reserve and extend it.  On one occasion on an evening patrol, Wolhuter was attacked by two lions, who killed his horse.  One dragged him into the bush while the other dealt with the horse.  Although badly injured, Wolhuter managed to unsheathe his hunting knife and stab the lion fatally.  As the second came for him, he managed to pull himself up a tree where he clung for his life until he was rescued.  He believed that he was saved by his dog which distracted the lion while he made the nightmare climb.  Wolhuter’s knife and the lion skin are on display at the administrative center of the Kruger National Park – Skukuza- renamed from Sabie Bridge.

Stevenson-Hamilton and Harry Wolhuter retired in 1946, their work done.  When Stevenson-Hamilton died at the age of 90, the Tsonga people who live in the area mourned the loss of a great man.  They had named him Skukuza – ‘the man who swept clean’.

Leopard hazard at Skukuza Golf Course

Michael - Thursday


  1. Great story, Michael! Very nice to hear, once in a while, of the preservation successes. Too bad the successes can't balance the more numerous failures to human predation. We should all strive to live up to the examples set by these two men!

  2. I am amazed at how much I learn from you, Michael. And how angry I am at myself for missing the chance last April to be there. That shall change...but first Iceland.