The Kruger Park’s New Restaurants

The deck at Lower Sabie, upon which their restaurant is situated.

The deck at Lower Sabie, upon which their restaurant is situated.

This has been a fairly controversial week in the life of the Kruger National Park. On Wednesday the 30th of October, South African National Parks (SANParks) announced the successful bidders for the provision of restaurant and retail services at various national parks under its management. To be fair, something needed to be done about the restaurants in the Kruger National Park. I don’t think anyone will disagree with that. But plenty of people are in disagreement with SANParks about their new restaurant choices.

I prefer to braai (barbecue) and prepare most of my own meals in the Kruger, so I don’t generally make too much use of the restaurant facilities, apart from the odd toasted sandwich, and a meal at the Selati Station Grill House one night in 2011 when it was pouring with rain and I had no chance of getting a fire started! But even I had a few complaints. Not from the Selati Station Grill House, though – it was brilliant, but from the “Wooden Banana” take-away/simple meal-type restaurants. They are certainly overpriced, their service is fairly poor in my experience and cleanliness never seems to be too high on their list of priorities. I had a pretty good breakfast at Tshokwane in September this year, but I have to say that I chose to turn a blind eye to the dirty state that the kitchen was in.

The list goes on, I suppose. I’ll never forget the first time we arrived in the Kruger Park after the decision was first made to outsource restaurant operations. It happened somewhere around 2001, I think. I would’ve been about 13 or 14 years old, and I can just remember thinking “what kind of name is ‘Wooden Banana’ for a restaurant?”. Back then I got the distinct impression that nobody had bothered to put too much thought into it, and those initial cracks began to show within a few years. I’m sure the Compass Group, who operates the “Wooden Bananas” throughout the park, made big promises back then. I wouldn’t know – I probably wasn’t old enough to be aware of these things. But if such promises were made, it wouldn’t appear as though anyone followed through on them.

But for SANParks and the Kruger National Park, it made a great deal of financial sense. Fortunately, SANParks is run by a group of people who, for the most part, really seem to care for the Kruger Park, and who seem to be sensitive to the opinions of those of us who love it so much. So when it became clear that enough was enough, and that the outsourced restaurants just weren’t cutting it, SANParks stepped in.

They started off by asking 5464 of us about our opinions, needs and preferences, and also about the main issues driving the numerous complaints received regarding the restaurants. Based on the results of this, SANParks knew a change was in order, and they engaged on the new restaurant tenders in March 2013.

To cut out as much of the beating-around-the-bush as possible, here are the changes that SANParks will be making:

·         Lower Sabie, Olifants and Letaba camps will be getting Mugg and Bean restaurants, which will be fully operational from March 2014;

·         Pretoriuskop and Satara rest camps will have Wimpy restaurants – also expected to be operational by March 2014;

·         Skukuza’s Selati Station Grill House will be replaced by Ciao! and should start operations in December 2013; and

·         Skukuza’s main camp restaurant and take away will be run by Cattle Baron and Bistro. Operations here will only start in May 2014 due to extensive refurbishment – which is good news.

Rest assured, SANParks have done their homework on this. But the moment the announcement came, I knew it would be met with some fierce opposition from the public – and fierce opposition was there indeed. If you’re part of the SANParks and SANParks Kruger National Park groups on Facebook, you’ll know that people were not happy.

Initially, I have to say that I was unhappy too. I mean, long-gone are the days when you knew that the restaurant was ready to serve dinner when you heard the distant sound of African drums being beaten. I’ll never forget that – I actually get a bit excited just reminiscing on this. My dad used to carry me to the restaurant on his shoulders every evening so that I could see the drums being played. But as great as the memories are, the reality is a thing of the past.

I think that what all of us have to accept is that the good old days aren’t coming back. This does not, of course, mean that restaurant facilities will be bad in the Park – just that they’ll be different. To be different means that there needs to be change, and change can be very good. Embracing change is something we should all try to do.

The point I’m getting at is that although the drums that signalled dinner time are nothing more than a memory, as are the brilliant meals that were served back then, I’m not ready to drive into Satara and see one of those massive red and white signs that you see outside petrol stations along highways advertising the presence of a Wimpy. I’m not ready to see red and white umbrellas outside the restaurant, covered in Wimpy branding. Fortunately, this won’t be the case. Like I’ve said, most of the people who run the Kruger Park love it like we do, and it’s been agreed that Wimpy’s colours will be altered to look more like this (photo c/o SANParks):

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Seeing as the colour scheme looks like it will be more at home in the bush, I felt a bit better about things. I wasn’t the only person with concerns, though, and some people actually became properly nasty, aggressive and abusive on the social networks. The major concerns that seemed to surface, though, were the following:

1. What research was done to inform the decision to solicit Branded Restaurants?

2. There will be more road kill due to speeding delivery trucks.

3. There will be more litter produced by the takeaways.

Lesego Nko of SANParks has addressed these concerns really well, and I’d really encourage you to have a look at her official statement here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/kruger.sanparks/permalink/10151684980431456/

But to summarise, this is what SANParks says. First of all, and to my delight – SANParks is excited that their new restaurant partners are happy to tone down the signage and interior décor in order to be more aligned with the sense of place of each restaurant.

With regards to concerns about more road kill due to more delivery trucks, let’s first think about this quickly. There are already restaurants in the park that require deliveries. Regardless of the quality of their food, it’s always been in high demand, because of the “monopoly” that these restaurants essentially enjoy – as there is no alternative to buying a cooked meal in the Kruger. But, as I’ve said, they are a company called the Compass Group. If you heard that name outside of this context, would you even know who I was talking about? Probably not.

I must add that the Compass Group is a massive company, but they don’t have the sort of presence in South Africa that is required to lead to accountability on their part, and practically no corporate identity or public image that needs to be looked after. With no disrespect intended, if you read a headline in the newspaper that said something about the Compass Group, would you know who that is? I don’t really think so. In fact, I spent about 5 minutes on their website trying to work out who they are, and although they’re very quick to tell you how wonderful they are and how many people they employ, in 5 minutes, I couldn’t spot one name of a restaurant they operate or anything like that.

Now, Famous Brands, on the other hand are the franchisor for the majority of restaurants through the Mugg & Bean and Wimpy brands. Famous Brands is Africa’s leading quick service and casual dining restaurant franchisor. As of 2012, the company’s global footprint stood at 2,043 franchised stores spread across South Africa, 17 other African countries and the United Kingdom. The company also consists of manufacturing, logistics and food services divisions. What does this mean? Well quite simply, they are obviously good at what they do, and they have a massive reputation at stake, and I doubt that they are going to allow that to be compromised by a careless driver that runs over a couple of Impala or something. To add to that, SANParks had this to say: “Famous Brands will be re-designing the kitchen in order to provide a quality product. The re-design will in some cases lead to an increase in fridge, freezer and storage space and ultimately result in fewer deliveries happening”. This is logical, and I’m all-for this.

Then, moving onto the litter problem. Here’s how SANParks are tackling the issue: All of the new operators have to subscribe to multiple environmentally-friendly initiatives which could be far-reaching in terms of looking after the environment. Apart from adhering to rules relating to preferred pest control chemicals, prohibited chemical substances, subscribing to the pest management plan, recycling, optimal water use and limiting litter, all of their packaging has to be biodegradable. Currently, very little of the packaging on offer from the “Wooden Banana” is biodegradable as far as I know, and I think that this initiative alone will lead to a huge improvement in the pollution/litter issue.

So here’s how it stands. The choice has been made, and I have no doubt that contracts have been signed. This means that when you go to the Kruger Park, there are going to be Mugg and Bean, Wimpy, Ciao! and Cattle Baron restaurants. No amount of rude comments on SANParks’ Facebook page is going to change that. But, these operators are all going to tone-down their signage and branding so that it still feels like you’re enjoying a meal in the Kruger National Park, and not in Sandton City (which is one of the largest shopping malls in Africa).

As I said to someone who was pretty mad about all of this the other day, is it really such a bad thing that next time you sit down for some bacon & eggs in the Kruger Park, you’ll know that only the highest quality ingredients were used, the service was good, the facilities were clean, and all of this comes at the personal expense of nothing more than a possible “Wimpy” logo on your plate? I think I can live with that.

A few more things to consider are that if prices don’t come down as a result, at least you’ll be getting much better value for your money. Also, this time around, the environment really has been taken into consideration. Jobs will be created and under the reigns of Famous Brands, proper job training will happen too. You’ll certainly have a better overall meal experience, and at the same time, all of this will be creating revenue for the Game Reserve that we all love so much.

So here’s what I propose. Because the decision has been made, and is final, let’s rather stand behind SANParks and the Kruger National Park, and support them through these changes. Instead of flinging abuse at them on their Facebook & Twitter accounts, let’s rather try to constructively criticise them. After all, National Parks are OUR parks, as South Africans – and if you’re from countries elsewhere in the world, we love that you can enjoy our beautiful country too. So we do need to keep SANParks accountable, but from what I can tell, when suggestions that actually have value and substance to them are made on the Kruger Park’s Facebook page, Stephens and Lesego who admin the page really do act on these suggestions.

Let’s embrace this change. Next time you’re in the Kruger Park, come back to camp after your morning game drive and go and have a “lekker’ South African brunch at Wimpy with the family. Talk about what you spotted on your game drive. Discuss, as we all do, the things that you love so much about the Kruger Park. Enjoy a cup of coffee that I can guarantee will be a lot better than the stuff they’re currently serving. Embrace being able to share a good meal with the people you love the most, while sitting at a restaurant inside the greatest game reserve on the planet. And trust me, when you’re done, I think you’ll find that it really wasn’t so bad. Who knows, you may even find that you quite liked it.

If Wimpy and Mugg & Bean stick to the agreements they seem to have made with SANParks, and if they fulfil their promises (which I think they will), then our Kruger Park isn’t going to become a commercialised mall, as some people are saying. It’s going to be just the same as it always was. Except, you’ll probably get a better meal when you go to the restaurant.

Don’t forget that you can connect with me in the following ways:

Twitter: @ExploreKNP

Facebook: www.facebook.com/exploreknp

E-mail: exploreknp@gmail.com

Also, please feel free to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear how you feel about all of this.

Take care,

ExploreKNP.

 

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The Credit Crunch and the Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park Sunset

The global financial crisis of 2007-2008 which lead to a downturn in economic activity that ultimately resulted in the 2008–2012 global recession is considered by many economists to be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. I’m sure you didn’t come to this blog looking for a lesson in economics, but bear with me for a moment.

All of us were affected by the recession in some way or another. Times were tough – at least in some respects, for everybody. All of us had to make changes, and be more frugal in our spending. Luxuries were forgotten. We focused on necessities, and did everything we could just to get by.

Globally, there was an 8% decline in tourism. That was just in general – luxury holidays decreased by as much as 14%. This is absolutely massive, and I’m sure all of us know of hotels and guesthouses that had to close their doors permanently as a result.

So here’s what I’m getting at. At this time, when most families put holidays on the backburner, which lead to an 8% decrease in tourism internationally, how is it, then, that the Kruger National Park sustained a 1.6% increase in accommodation unit occupancy? In other words, there were 1.6% MORE people staying in the Kruger Park during the recession than before – a growth in occupancy that was consistent with years prior to the recession.

I stumbled upon this interesting study while looking for something else online. If you’d like to look at the entire article, you can access is here: (http://www.actacommercii.co.za/index.php/acta/article/view/168/168).

I’ll summarise what they found, though. As soon as I read the title of the article, “Understanding the reasons why tourists visit the Kruger National Park during a recession”, I knew the answer. Sure, we could look at it from an economic perspective. But if you’ve ever been to the Kruger Park, then I’m sure you already know the answer too.

Quite simply, the Kruger National Park is not a luxury. For those of us who know it and love it, it is absolutely a necessity. You agree, don’t you? The authors of the above article agree with me. They did a study which proved it. But I think it goes without saying – once you’ve allowed the Kruger Park to enter your heart, there’s no letting go of it. I love it, and I’m willing to make sacrifices in other areas of my life if need be, just to make sure I’m able to spend time in the place that I love so much.

This is basically what the authors of the Independent Research Journal in the Management Sciences found, and all credit for this information goes to them. I’m merely making a quick summary – cutting a long story short, if you will.

People’s primary reasons for travelling to the Kruger were to escape from the everyday environment, to experience wildlife and nature as well as for family benefits. The results of this research also indicate that aside from economic constraints, visitors regard travelling to the Kruger National Park as a primary need instead of a luxury, and it forms a vital and necessary part of their travel lifestyle.

We can all relate to this, can’t we? I mean, a trip to the Kruger is not negotiable for me. Honestly, for the standard of accommodation provided by the Kruger Park, you can’t do better anywhere else, really.

That, of course, is one of the Primary Focuses of the National Parks Act. Our National Parks must be accessible to all of us. In fact, did you know that the vision of South African National Parks (SANParks) is that National Parks will be the pride & joy of all South Africans and the world?

So if you think about it, the Kruger National Park really is quite affordable. There’s accommodation ranging from camping for those of us who like to “rough it”, all the way through to extremely luxurious private camps and just about everything in between. There’s something for everyone.

Sure, some supplies can be a bit pricey in the shops, but there’s nothing stopping you from doing your regular grocery shopping outside of the park, packing it into your car and bringing it in with you.

I’m convinced! Is there a holiday option better than the Kruger Park? Certainly not, in my opinion. It’s extremely reasonably priced, there is a greater variety of accommodation than anywhere else, and it’s in close proximity to Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal and borders on Mpumalanga and the Limpopo province. If you travel straight up the N4 highway to Malelane Gate or Crocodile Bridge, you won’t pass a single pothole. SANParks has got a fantastic online booking system with many different payment options, and you’ll be staying in the most glorious, most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. What’s stopping you? Visit www.sanparks.org and make your booking today.

“Where nearly 2 million hectares of unrivalled diversity of life forms fuses with historical and archaeological sites – this is real Africa. The Kruger National Park.”

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My Next Trip To The Kruger: September 2013

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My next trip to my favourite place in the world – the Kruger National Park, is happening from the 20th to the 22nd of September. 1month and 1 day to go! I’m really keen – as always! We’ll unfortunately only be there for 2 nights this time around, but our first night will be in Satara, which I’m really excited about. I think Satara may well be my favourite camp, but I haven’t been up there for a long time.

We’ve got a marriage in the family coming up on the 19th of September, and having a lot of family in the same place at one time seems like the perfect excuse to go up to the Kruger together. So this won’t be one of my solo trips to the Kruger, but expect plenty of updates on @ExploreKNP anyway. There will also be a blog post coming up on “Camping at Satara” which will be cool, because I’ve never actually camped there before – although I have made use of some of their other types of accommodation in the past.

The only thing is that the weekend of the 20th to the 22nd of September also coincides with the first weekend of school holidays, so the Kruger Park is literally full to capacity, which is great – but it did complicate the booking process a little. So how things have turned out is that we’ll be in Satara for one night, and then Berg-en-Dal the next. That’s quite a long drive between camps (165km), but I think with such a short time in the park, it’ll be great to spend all of that time on the road, searching for our favourite animals.

What has also turned out in my favour is that the only possible way to accommodate all of us that are going will be if I camp. The rest of the family will be in huts, but I’ll be out enjoying the experience in a tent – the way I like it. Win-win, if you ask me!

So here’s how it’s happening: We’ll leave early on the morning of the 20th. Although we would probably have been up late the night before at the wedding, the adrenaline of heading to the Kruger will be more than enough to keep me awake behind the wheel, and I honestly don’t mind if everyone else just sleeps through the journey.

We’ll be driving up to Orpen Gate, which I’m very keen on because I’ve never entered the park through this gate. Not to my knowledge anyway. As a youngster, we used to visit the park sometimes as often as 4 times per year, so it is very possible that I have been through Orpen Gate – only it hasn’t been while I’ve been conscious of it. My plan for my next solo Kruger Adventure, though, is to enter through Orpen Gate, and then Camp at Maroela, Satara and perhaps Balule too if I have the time. But for now, I’ll be making do with one night at Satara.

So our aim is to be at Satara in time for lunch. It sounds like the family will then be taking an afternoon snooze, but I’ll take a drive down the S100 to see what I can see. I’m afraid that with such little time in the Park, I don’t see much value in spending too much time asleep. Just the bare minimum at night for me, thanks!

We’ll have an early braai (BBQ) that evening, as we’re already booked onto the Satara night drive. Satara is a fantastic game viewing area, and I thought it’d be best to try and capitalise on that by being out in the Park at night.

We’ll be up early the next morning. I’m only taking a very basic camping setup, as I don’t plan to spend too much time at the campsite this time around because of the time constraints. Once my tent is packed up, we’ll hit the road, and the plan is to then have breakfast at Tshokwane Picnic Spot. From there, we’ll drive to Nkumbe Lookout Point, because, as those of you who’ve followed my blog will know, it’s a spot that we, as a family, hold very close to our hearts.

From this point, I can’t decide whether to drive to Lower Sabie, and then down to Berg-en-Dal via the S25 that follows the Crocodile River, or to turn back, and then head down the H1-2 to Skukuza and then on to Berg-en-Dal along the H1/H3. The drive from Lower Sabie to Berg-en-Dal is beautiful, but it is quite a slow drive, as you spend a lot of time on sand roads. On the other hand, I did do this drive in June, so I think it might be better to go the Skukuza route. I’ll probably only make my mind up completely when it comes to leaving Nkumbe. Here are the 2 options – via Lower Sabie in green, and via Skukuza in blue:

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  One thing to consider is that most of the veld (grass) between Nkumbe and Lower Sabie was burnt to a crisp when I was there in June, which meant pretty poor game viewing – but by the 21st of September, our South African spring season will be in full-swing, so the grass will probably have recovered quite well by then. We’ll probably get to Berg-en-Dal a little after lunchtime, so the H1 might also be a good option because Afsaal Picnic Site is quite well positioned for a lunch break.

Once we’re at Berg-en-Dal, I’ll set up my simple camp again. I doubt that I’ll find too great a spot as Berg-en-Dal is fully booked. But then again, I’m taking a tiny tent, and I won’t need electricity because I’ll charge my phone in the car and won’t be cooking or using a fridge at my campsite because the rest of my family will have these facilities in their huts, so there is a chance I’ll be able to squeeze in next to the fence.

We’ll spend that evening in camp together as a family around the braai, which will be good – no better place in the world to sit around the fire with your loved ones, if you ask me!

I reckon we’ll probably leave as late as possible the next morning. I’d be quite keen to maybe make a late breakfast at Berg-en-Dal’s picnic/day visitors area on the morning that we leave. Last time I was there, I was very impressed by Berg-en-Dal’s picnic spot, so I’m keen to try it out, and I’ll be in no rush to leave the Kruger in any case. From there we’ll probably take a short game drive, and then head on home.

So unfortunately, it’ll be a very short visit to the Park, but it’s a privilege to spend any time there at all in any case. I’m really looking forward to this trip, and it’s coming at a great time – just when I’ll need a push to get through to the end of the year!

After that, I’m not sure when I’ll be visiting the Kruger again. I haven’t made any formal plans yet, but I can tell you, while it won’t be too long until my next visit, it’s never soon enough! There’s nothing better than being in the Kruger National park, and I know that if you’ve made it to the end of this post, then you’re the kind of person that agrees with me!

Keep an eye-out for plenty of Kruger updates a month from now. I’ll be documenting all of it as I go. Thanks for taking the time to read this – the aim of all of my posts is to make you miss the Kruger Park, and in-turn, head over to www.sanparks.co.za to make your next booking! So I hope this post has had that effect on you!

Take care,

ExploreKNP

Twitter: @ExploreKNP

E-mail: exploreknp@gmail.com

Welcome to ExploreKNP!

The Kruger National Park is the place I call home.

From a young age, I visited the Kruger with my family, and those experiences as a child turned into a passion as an adult.

So much so, in fact, that I now take a once-a-year retreat to the Kruger Park on my own. My chosen accommodation is camping, and there is no better experience for me than spending a week by myself in the bush. In my special place – The Kruger National Park.

I’m a normal guy with a wonderful, loving family. I have a career that I absolutely love (incidentally not related to the bush or the Kruger in any way), which allows me to have a break, once a year, by myself, in the Kruger National Park.

My great passion for wildlife – the bush, the animals, camping out, the African sunsets, sitting by the fire and specifically the Kruger National Park, is growing within me. I know that there is a huge sense of community and camaraderie among fellow nature-lovers, and I hope that my passion, which has overflowed into somewhat of an online presence in the form of Twitter and WordPress, might inspire a passion within other nature lovers.

Because of the fact that I’ve been visiting the Kruger Park since I was a child, there came a time in my life that I took the Park for granted. I feel that many South Africans do. It’s a constant – it’s always been there, and why would that change? But after having read about the struggles of Paul Kruger and James Stevenson-Hamilton, along with others, to turn the the Park into what it is today, I have a renewed appreciation for what a gift and blessing the Kruger Park is.

I believe that God really has His hand upon our beautiful country, South Africa, and one of the many, many ways that He’s blessed us is through the Kruger National Park.

This June I will be taking my third solitary trip to the Kruger, and will be staying at Berg-en-dal and Lower Sabie. I have also camped at Skukuza and Pretoriuskop in the past. In preparation for my trip, I researched these camps that would be new to me as a camper (although I’ve stayed at both camps in bungalows & guest houses before), and realised that there are very few first-hand accounts of what camp life is really like. What are the campsites like, and where are the best spots to camp? Which roads are the best to drive on? What items should I not forget to pack? What does the camp actually look like? The list of questions is endless.

Although you can probably find answers to most of those in many different places, my aim is to give a consolidated view. The SANparks forums are fantastic – but, there are thousands of posts, with thousands of replies. There are many websites, but a lot of them are purely for marketing purposes. There is a lot of information, but none of it is in one place.

I’m hoping to be able to change that through this blog. Keep an eye on it for my first-hand account. I’m going to try to be as disciplined as possible in posting topics. I’ll chat about camping in Skukuza and Pretoriuskop. I’ll update my Berg-en-dal and Lower Sabie experiences as they happen. I’ll chat about Satara (which I’m fortunate enough to be visiting in September), as well as posting pictures, stories (like the time I broke my nose in Berg-en-dal), and great game drives.

Stay tuned, and share in my passion. Follow me on Twitter (@ExploreKNP) or drop me an email: exploreknp@gmail.com

Kind Regards,

ExploreKNP.