Ghosts and Magic in the Kruger National Park

The Kruger National Park was bound to be haunted. It has always been a land of adventure, and teems with history and strange tales, as well as wildlife. As well as being a wilderness, it is a frontier, and borderlands always produce ghosts.

This wilderness has its own Sleepy Hollow, with accompanying legend.

The Lebombo Hills form the eastern border of the Kruger National Park. The wooded area right at the northern end is called Pafuri. It was also called Crook's Corner, because poachers, smugglers and blackbirders (men who smuggled illegal black labourers) took advantage of the spot where the borders of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet. Stephanus Cecil "Bvekenya" Barnard was distinguished at all of the above trades, and sometimes carried the border beacon around with him.

Some hunters in this area preferred to camp on the slopes of the Lebombo Hills, where the mosquitos were not so deadly. One of these was an Englishman who had joined a party of Boers. In the valleys of the northern Lebombo are forests of ironwood trees. One day, the Englishman rode down into a densely wooded area, and shot seven elephants. In those days, this was an unusually valuable prize for a single day's shooting.

About a third of an elephant's tusk is lodged in its skull. Hunters preferred not to hack out the tusks immediately, as it was hard work, and the tusks might be damaged. If the hunter waited a day or so, the tusks would be loosened, and could be pulled right out of the sockets. Of course, ownership of the valuable carcasses was sometimes disputed. The custom was to cut off the tail of the elephant, as a sort of receipt. If the tail fitted the elephant, the ivory belonged to the hunter. In this wild country, however, proof of ownership was not always enough, if men wished to hold on to their property.

The next day, the hunter went back to collect some of his ivory. His horse returned to camp, riderless. It had not been immunised against the local diseases, and died not long afterwards.

Thereafter, Boer hunters feared to enter that forest, for fear of the phantom rider on a white horse. No doubt, he is still trying to protect his ivory, or to avenge himself on his murderers.

Incidentally, another white horse with a ghostly English rider haunts Oorlogskloof ("War Gorge"), in the Waterberg area of the Northern Province. In this case, the spectre is of a brave officer, who was killed during the South African War.

On a hilltop overlooking the Luvuvhu River, thirty miles north of Punda Maria rest camp, are stone ruins left by the Lembethu tribe. At one time, this was a village occupied by a chief of the Makahane dynasty. Although a relatively minor chief, he was driven mad by power, and behaved brutally. His father, the paramount chief, eventually sent another son to assassinate him. Makahane is buried in the ruins, in front of his throne. According to T.V. Bulpin, the ruins "seem filled with ghosts".

In the north of the Kruger National Park, especially on rocky hills, you are sure to see the enormously girthed baobab trees. Near the Luvuvhu River, west of the main road to the north, is a dirt road leading through a baobab forest. Actually, it is the young trees which fascinate me, as they often have weird shapes.

Devils dwell in baobabs, awaiting their victims. It is said that if you put your ear to the trunk, you can hear them laughing. Some African people sing when they pass baobab trees at night, so as not to be influenced by the spirits' voices. The flowers, too, contain spirits, and anyone who picks them will be eaten by a lion.

Baobabs are deciduous, and when they lose their leaves, the branches look like roots. The bitterness of the baobab spirits is explained by the fact that God turned the trees upside down, to punish them for their arrogance in lording it over other trees.

The northernmost rest camp is Punda Maria, which is the camp's original name. For many years, it had been renamed Punda Milia. It was assumed that this is what the local ranger, Captain Coetser, had meant to call it. Coetser had served in East Africa, and had learned Swahili. Punda Milia, meaning "striped donkey", is the Swahili name for the zebra. Maria was ranger Coetser's wife. According to T.V Bulpin, Punda Maria means "striped Maria". Maria, speculated Bulpin, liked to wear black and white striped dresses. He is wrong. Punda Maria means "Maria the donkey". Maria did not spend much time with her husband. Perhaps she did not like the wilderness. Or, perhaps, he found the joke more amusing than she did.

Near Punda Maria is a hill, called Gumbandevu after a local chief. A goat would be sacrificed at the bottom of this hill, so that its agonised bleats would attract powerful spirits. The rainmaking priestess, Khama, took bones from the goat, as well as other medicines and paraphernalia, and performed her rituals on the hill.

Now, ghostly singing and drumming is heard during the night, and Gumbandevu is taboo to the local people. This is probably because, in exceptionally dry years, it was not just goats that were sacrificed.

In his book Memories of a Game Ranger, Harry Wolhuter (who once, Tarzan-like, had to kill a lion with a knife), recorded having dealings with a rainmaker called Mpunzane Mhowelela. When droughts drove rainmakers to perform human sacrifices, the victims had to be members of their own extended families. Wolhuter heard that some of Mpunzane's family had died in this fashion. This is not as far fetched as it may seem, as these ritual muti ("medicine") killings go on to this day. (You may have read about the suspected muti murder in London, in 2001. I do have personal doubts about that case, though.)

Wolhuter admired Mpunzane for his intelligence and showmanship. Mpunzane was such a powerful rainmaker that although he was a Sotho, representatives of Sobhuza, King of Swaziland for most of the twentieth century, arrived every year to hire him to perform his rituals.

According to Wolhuter, an African is supposed to know when he is approaching a rainmaker's hidden medicine hut, as he will become so inexplicably frightened that his hair stands on end. The hair of African people is usually tightly curled, so a lot of fear must be involved.

Eight miles south of Pretoriuskop, the rest camp where Wolhuter was based, is a small hill called Kivenene. Here is a shrine where rainmakers of the Mhowelela clan prayed to their ancestors. Perhaps they still do.

In his book, Wolhuter discussed the legend of a serpent locally called muhlambela. (The letters "hl" are pronounced like the Welsh "ll", but most people find "shl" an adequate approximation.) Variously described as being twelve feet or hundreds of feet long, its head resembles a chameleon's. Unlike a chameleon, however, the muhlambela has feathers on its head. It inhabits well-wooded areas, and moves through the tops of trees. It attracts its victim by bleating like a goat, and kills him by biting a hole in the back of his skull. In the forests of the escarpment west of the Kruger Park, it is called "noga a thaba", meaning "mountain snake".

The Voortrekker ("Pioneer") road runs southeast of Pretoriuskop. It was once the main route for the transport of goods between Delagoa Bay and the Lydenburg gold fields. Before a road sufficiently free of the tsetse fly had been made, hundreds of porters carried their goods, in the single file so familiar in safari movies, into the interior. It had been called the Jock of the Bushveld road, after Sir Percy Fitzpatrick's classic book about his and his dog's adventures while transport riding. During the era of apartheid, apparently, the Kruger National Park's administrators preferred to emphasize Afrikaner pioneers, even though most of the transport riders were not Boers, and the road's name was changed. (The first white person to live in what is now the Kruger National Park was Albasini, a Portuguese trader. When his second trading post was discovered, in the pre-apartheid period, it was preserved as a monument. When his first trading post was found, during the apartheid era, it was bulldozed.)

The Voortrekker road is haunted.

William Scully, author of Reminiscences of a South African Pioneer, recorded an event which occurred one night when he and his companions were outspanned along the road. Close to the encampment, the calls of a lost man were heard. Scully and his companions shouted, and built up the fire. They fired shots, and waved burning torches. In spite of his nearness, the lost man was no longer sensible to earthly stimuli, and his voice grew fainter and more distant.

Although there may be wilder places in Africa, there are few other places which combine wilderness with a sense of being at home. I deplore suicide, but I can sympathise with the fair number of visitors who have taken their own lives in the Park, not because they were unhappy there, but because they could not bear to return to their everyday problems. It is a place that I would not at all mind haunting myself.

The Kruger National Park is about 200 miles long, and about 40 miles wide, so you probably won't want to stay in just one place. Accommodation is available at rest camps throughout the park. Be sure to obtain more information at the Kruger National Park's official site. (You can even book accommodation online.)

COPYRIGHT © April 2002 : No material on this site may be copied by any means, without the author's permission.


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