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The story of Pretoriuskop

The Kruger National Park is a favourite with local as well as international tourists. Kruger lovers Anton and Natasha Schutte discuss their favourite rest camps every month. In this edition, they look at the colourful history of the oldest rest camp in the park, Pretoriuskop.

We once met an old Dutchman on one of our adventures who claimed that South Africa’s history since 1488 must be one of the easiest to research and understand since most of it was recorded reasonably accurately. While this may be true, it certainly does not mean it is not clouded in controversy, as we all know. One such example is the history of Pretoriuskop in the Kruger National Park.

As legend would have it, the old Transvaal government of the 1800s was obsessed with discovering a trade route from Lydenburg to Delagoa Bay (known as Maputo today) since this would have secured total independence from the British. When rumours circulated that the Portuguese explorer Joâo Albasini had discovered a route, a fact-finding expedition led by J van Rensburg was launched. Among the explorers was a young man named Willem Pretorius. On the way to Delagoa Bay, near Skipberg, young Willem contracted malaria and became terribly ill.

The group decided that he should rather return to Ohrigstad, accompanied by two Shangaan men. They did not get far before the fever overwhelmed the young man, and he succumbed to the illness, dying under a Marula tree. The two Shangaans went to find help at Albasini’s homestead, located at today’s Phabeni gate. Upon their return, they buried Pretorius near the large granite head and baptised the area Pretoriuskop.

Many historians, however, claim that the area was named after President MW Pretorius, who visited the area in 1865. Then, a group of historians questioned which of the three granite formations is the correct one. New research has proved that the large granite head northwest of the camp, currently known as Shabeni, was the true landmark that pointed out the route of early explorers and trekkers.

Dr Gerrit Haarhoff’s research, published in his book Forgotten tracks and trails of the eastern escarpment of the Lowveld, caused further controversy. During a speech he delivered at the Congress of South African Cultural History, he provided evidence that Pretoriuskop was named incorrectly from the onset. According to his research, the area belongs to the Shabeni tribe, and he argues that Pretoriuskop should revert to the original name, “Mntsobe”. The historian pointed out that this renaming would not be politically motivated but purely for historical accuracy. We stumbled upon several other theories around the Pretoriuskop name during our research, but this magazine does not have enough space to discuss each in detail. So, best to leave it there.

The birth of a four-legged legend

Jock of the Bushveld is the story of probably one of the most famous dogs in the world, so much so that there are several monuments and even a camp in the Kruger National Park named after him. He was born near Pretoriuskop, and there’s an entertaining legend behind it. Most South Africans have a copy of the famous book by James Percy Fitzpatrick in their bookshelves, but it is in his book The Outspan where he best describes the fascinating tales that took place around Jock’s birthplace.

Percy Fitzpatrick was born in 1862 in King William’s Town. As the son of a judge of the Supreme Court of the Cape Colony, he grew up relatively protected before departing to England for his studies. After his father’s death, he returned to South Africa to support his mother and started working at Standard Bank. The bureaucratic life and his tedious job (which he called his cage) quickly motivated him to search for excitement. With his mom taken care of, he decided to pack his bags, a couple of firearms, photographic equipment, and a tennis racket (not very practical as he would soon realise) and set out to find adventure in the Lowveld.

At this stage, the discovery of gold in the Pilgrim’s Rest area had attracted people from far and wide looking for excitement and wealth. Although Percy was born in South Africa, the local community treated him rather harshly, and it took a long time before he got rid of the typical rooinek stigma. Percy quickly abandoned the dream of gold and started working as an assistant storekeeper. Life was not easy for young Percy until he met another adventurous young man named Hugh Lanion. He convinced Percy to join the transport trade and they bought an ox-cart, some oxen and his now-famous horse Snowball. Percy and Hugh worked hard and earned the respect of the industry. It was not long before they started to regularly transport goods between Lydenburg and Delagoa Bay. During one of the transport trips, Percy and Hugh were hunting for the pot in the area near Pretoriuskop when, through the twigs of a thorn tree, they noticed a young man sitting elegantly on a yellow suitcase, reading quietly as if he had no worry in the world. It was not uncommon to see fellow transporters and travellers on the route, but this sight brought the duo to a halt. The man was dressed in a classic three-piece suit, with a bowler hat and a thin silk umbrella protecting him from the sun’s rays… not an everyday sight on this somewhat forsaken road! When the young man noticed them, he got up and asked politely: “You have come with der wagons? You make der transport?”

Percy confirmed that they were transport riders and introduced themselves, asking the young man where he was headed. The young man introduced himself as Adolf Soltke and explained that he was going to the goldfields at Pilgrim’s Rest. Apparently, his guide had forgotten something at the previous camp and had gone back to fetch it. They asked if the porter had taken his belongings and food with him, and when the German confirmed this, Percy had to break the news that the guide was likely not returning. They offered him a ride and took off, ready to continue on their journey. The young man stuck around with the group and soon became a well-liked travel companion. On one of their journeys, while camping with Pretoriuskop in their sight, a blue bird flew past them, causing great excitement. Soltke threw his diary, inkpot and ledger aside, grabbed his rifle and jumped up. The German fired a shot so loud and close that most of the riders huddled in confusion, wondering what he was aiming for. Turning around they saw Soltke sitting there motionless, murmuring a few words in his mother tongue. In all the excitement, the gun had fallen and a shot went through his leg!

The transport riders’ very basic first-aid kit was not suitable for gunshot wounds, and after they tried to stabilise Soltke as best they could, one of the tour group, Donald Mackay, took off on horseback to find a doctor. Everyone realised that even if he rode day and night, it would take no less than two days to find medical help. All they could do was make Soltke as comfortable as possible and keep the ever-present flies at bay. The young man put on a brave face, never complaining or moaning.

After a few days, the sound of horses broke the morning silence, and everyone was hopeful that Mackay had returned with medical help. However, as they came closer, the group saw that Mackay was basically carrying a seemingly intoxicated person. Upon closer inspection, they realised it was the infamous Doctor Monroe. Seeing the confusion, Donald explained that he had searched everywhere for a doctor but could only find Doc Monroe, who was known as a quack and an alcoholic. The so-called doctor was completely drunk when Mackay tracked him down, but he had hoped the 40-mile horse ride would sober him up. However, during the ride, the doctor took out a flask hidden in his jacket, and although Mackay tried to take it from him, it was a losing battle. Mackay did leave word asking the local surgeon to come as soon as he possibly could, but Doc Monroe was the best he could get in the short-term.

By now, poor Soltke was showing signs of severe infection, but the quack Monroe would only utter the word “W’isky” and showed no interest in the patient. The situation was dire, and realising he was in trouble, Soltke asked for his Bible. Believing these were his last hours on earth, he prayed for relief, and shared some tales from his home country and youth. At around 22:00 the group heard a horse approaching, and there was a sense of relief and hope when they realised it was the local surgeon. The poor doctor had ridden hard since sunrise to complete the 70-mile journey, and immediately started the surgery to amputate the leg, in low light and with questionable equipment. He did not hold out much hope, and sadly, Adolf Soltke passed away the next morning on 27 October 1884.

They buried him under a big thorn tree close to the road and created a headpiece from a few pieces of bark to mark his grave. It was the same tree where he was seen praying the night before. A few months later, on 4 April 1885, Percy camped at the same spot under the tree, and his friend’s dog Jess gave birth to six puppies – of which the famous Jock was one.

More than bushveld

Pretoriuskop is the oldest camp in the Kruger National Park, and is where the famous ranger Harry Wolhuter worked from. His original hut still has a prime spot there today. So, when you take another trip to Kruger, make a point of driving along Voortrekker Street and take a moment to remember the area’s rich history. So much has happened in the area. The Sotho community used Skipberg as a fort and protected themselves from Swazi poachers by climbing on top of the mountain and pelting the Swazis with stones to chase them away. Karel Trichardt laid out a trade route through the area in 1845, used for decades by colourful travellers from around the world. Various wars between the Boers and the English and indigenous tribes coming in from the north also took place here. While we all visit the Kruger National Park for the obvious reason of game viewing, it’s good to know that this was once much more than just a piece of bushveld – it’s a place where people lived and died; a place with many stories to tell.

CONTACT: +27 83 381 0964 | natasha@sunsetadventuretravel.co.za www.sunsetadventuretravel.co.za

*Natasha and Anton Schutte own and manage Sunset Adventure Travel, which specialises in tours within southern Africa, but also as far as Uganda. They offer guided Kruger tours from their base in Marloth Park.

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