Technology and social media have shaped the Kruger experience into something radically different from what it was ten years ago. From my perspective, there has been a radical change and yet, not all of it is necessarily disastrous. The north of the park has weathered this change far better than the south. So for all intents and purposes of this story, I’m referring to Kruger, south of Olifants.
Winding the clock back 20 or 30 years, there were far less people in the park and to most of us, she was a mysterious and vast wilderness that unlocked her secrets only to the deserving few. I remember in the 80s and 90s going to the park and not seeing lion or leopard. If a leopard was spotted, it hightailed away without allowing for decent view. We would drive all day and sometimes only come across a handful of cars. Stopping off during the day at rest camps to have a toasted sandwich was a very similar experience to many of the drives (long and dry).
Any yet there was an electricity in the air, an all-consuming anticipation of what may be lurking just around the corner. The open road in the morning was a covetable spot and getting to the gate first usually resulted in something wonderful moving on the road. Nowadays staff vehicle movement has changed this on most roads. Most of us didn’t have cameras and so my memories are just that, images and nostalgia seen and felt in our imaginations and hearts. We recognised each other and the ‘Kruger Salute’ was almost a rite of passage and showed you truly deserved to be driving the roads and seeing the animals.
The Kruger of yesteryear was a place where we all belonged, shared stories, greeted each other, chatted in the shops or waiting for a toasty and above all, respected this magnificent place we all loved. Patience was the order of the day and after a week in Kruger of only seeing impala, one felt fulfilled, recharged and ready for the great big and scary world outside. We had escaped from the frenzy of the modern world into this untouched wilderness.
Fast forward to present time and things have done a complete 360. The old Kruger still exists, but she remains hidden and it is more of an effort to find her. Most of us have some kind of smartphone. It photographs, records and is connected to the world. Within seconds of taking a photo of a leopard sleeping in a tree, it is now possible to share this with an audience both within Kruger’s boundaries and the rest of the world. Technology has also made digital cameras more affordable and accessible to the masses.
Gone are the days of film, where one had no idea what your photos looked like, had to find the time during your busy schedule to have them developed (weeping painful tears when the entire spool was compromised) and like me, perhaps some of you have undeveloped rolls of film lying in a drawer somewhere. We shared the photos with our families in an album that lived in a cupboard or on a shelf. The reality is that these pics hardly got seen again.
Now we are bombarded with fantastic imagery of the most wonderful sightings Kruger has to offer. Pangolin, leopard, lion, cheetah, wild dog… kills and more. This has opened Kruger to the world and the world has arrived. Unprecedented numbers of guests are arriving in Kruger and this too has shaped the overall experience. What this constant barrage of sharing does, is create unrealistic expectations of what you should see during your Kruger break.
Everyone simply expects to see EVERYTHING and with the tour operators pretty much guaranteeing everything, we now have the instant gratification brigade swarming into Kruger en masse, using the most advanced kinds of technology to guarantee sightings and breaking rules in the process.
WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages and radio contact means that no animal is sacred. Technology has now arrived and is making it easy for visitors to access all the information they need to tick off the Big 5 in a morning drive. There is massive conflict in Kruger right now. Those who remember days gone by and where there were perhaps only a handful of cars at a sighting. One could stay as long as you liked and so long as everyone had a glimpse of the animal, everyone was happy. Nowadays, every animal found is lined up by a barrage of lenses. Each lens determined to get the best shot to share on social media. The expectation of a 1000 likes on one of the groups or making a quick buck on YouTube.
If you have ‘tak your pic will be kak’ (branches will ruin photos) and this means that everyone wants that prime position. Hooting, swearing, shouting and a sense of entitlement has taken hold. Private cars and open safari vehicles are going into battle as to who is more or less badly behaved. Kruger has entered the world stage and people from all over are coming to Kruger to see the Big 5. Their friends will be so impressed by all the mega fauna, that they will in turn come to Kruger to rinse and repeat the spectacular. Many of the newer generation are simply not going to be satisfied by seeing an elephant or impala and as such the tour operator industry is backed into the corner of instant gratification, whilst making the most of the technology available to guarantee those sightings.
Kruger has turned into a shark feeding frenzy. It is motivated by whose photo will be most popular and shared. Kruger fame is desired. Everyone wants to be known as the “best” or “luckiest” or “skilled”. The competition is on!
Travelling to Kruger in years gone past, you were an unknown. These days we have Kruger celebrities! Let’s be honest, being recognised and being given compliments is extremely rewarding. Most humans thrive on recognition and so with the advent of social media and all supporting devices, this recognition is a mere click away. Yes, people have always behaved poorly and yes there were fewer people in years gone by. Unfortunately the world we live in today is far more motivating for bad behaviour.
The pressure of getting a better trip than your mates, the best photos, getting the viral post and all the bragging rights associated has seen an exponential increase in selfish and bad behaviour. There is more crowding at sightings (previously restricted to the main roads and now nothing there is sacred), more speeding, more people getting out of their cars to get a better photo… more, more, more, bigger, better, sharper and no damn takke (branches)!
Please don’t get me wrong. I love Kruger and love sharing my photos and experiences. When I leave camp in the morning I head away from the gates and take the lesser travelled dirt roads. This way I am able to connect with the Kruger I grew up in, at least for a few hours. I have come to accept the presence of open safari vehicles and the increased numbers of people visiting the park. I understand we are all different and if instant gratification is what works for some, then great. After all, everyone on Earth deserves to experience Kruger. I have learnt we all love Kruger in our own way and experience Kruger differently.
What I don’t accept is the bad behaviour, reporting of sightings in any way, shape or form – with the increased number of people on the roads I even think the sightings boards and word of mouth is a bad idea. Let us all allow the mystery of Kruger to reveal herself once again – speeding, overcrowding and putting pressure on the animals. All our wildlife is sacred and should be respected. We shouldn’t treat each and every sighting like we have seen a celebrity and then mob the animal like the paparazzi.
Sure, the Kruger of yesteryear did not remain unscathed from occasional bad behaviour or crowding at sightings, but these incidents have grown exponentially in the modern Kruger. I would love to find the harmony with this digital age we live in. Bumble around not knowing what we will see, use my modern gadgets to record what I see and then when I return home, share it with the world and get all the likes and affirmations we all so enjoy. The magic is still there to enjoy and the Kruger as some of us know it still exists. We simply have to work around this technological age and head further off the beaten track. Some people even use this technology to see which areas to avoid congestion.
It is important to note that Kruger belongs to us all. She has become a global sensation and as such needs to appeal to a much wider audience. Change is inevitable and progress waits for no man or beast.
*This is my perception and may differ vastly from yours. I recognise that each of our realities will be different.