Growing up, one of Natasha Schutte’s most treasured memories and privileges was camping with her grandparents every weekend. As such, she and her family have visited virtually all the camps in the Kruger National Park. One small camp, located in the central part of the park, holds a special place in their hearts.
Maroela Rest Camp is often overlooked by visitors who are unfamiliar with the Kruger National Park. However, seasoned campers know that you must book months in advance if you want to pitch your tent in this piece of heaven on earth, which is particularly popular in winter.
A dry riverbed winds past the well-kept campsites, and if there is good summer rain, a natural wonder will unfold before you as the river brings new life. Large jackalberry trees provide ample shade during the hot summer months, and birders will love the active birdlife in the camp. We have spotted African Green Pigeons, Long-crested Eagles, Verreaux’s Eagle Owls, African Scops Owls and various nightjar species in and around camp. There is even a White-backed Vulture nest in one of the large jackalberries.
The camp does not have a shop or swimming pool, but you can cool down in the beautiful pool at the Orpen Rest Camp (only 3km away). There is also a small shop but expect a smaller selection of goods than in the larger camps such as Skukuza.
Maroela is one of only three Kruger camps that offer accommodation exclusively for campers (the others are Balule and Tsendze). Children are welcome, but there is less space for playing and running around than at the larger camps. Having said that, our daughter pretty much grew up here, and she often says that the passion that led her to a career as a field guide came from the time spent in this camp. As a family, we have enjoyed countless evenings hovered over bird books, discussing and debating our sightings around the campfire at Maroela.
You will find 14 types of ecozones in the Kruger, and Maroela is surrounded by thornveld on gabbro soil, with scattered thorn trees and open savannahs. Gabbro is a phaneritic, mafic intrusive igneous rock formed from the slow cooling of magnesium- andiron-rich magma into a holocrystalline mass, deep beneath the earth’s surface. The sweet grass attracts large groups of herbivores to the area – and where there are herbivores, you will find predators! Jackals, caracals, lions and cheetahs are often spotted here, and you are treated to roaring lions close by as you drift off to sleep. The ellies also swing by often, and because you can pitch your camp right against the fence, it can be both exhilarating and unnerving when they get a little too close. We rummaged through the history books and discovered that it is not only thanks to Paul Kruger and Stevenson Hamilton that the Kruger National Park is the spectacular conservation it is today. Maroela was one of seven farms belonging to Eileen Orpen, who donated it to conservation in the 1930’s and 1940’s. At the time, the Kruger was divided, and with the donation, the two parks – known as the Sabie and Singwedzi Nature Reserves – could be linked together to form the remarkable two-million-hectare park. We salute you, Eileen!
The Rabelais Hut on the S106 was the original entrance to the area, and it’s certainly worth a visit. It is one of the few places in the Kruger where you can get out and experience a bit of nostalgia about how that humble entrance differs from today’s large Kruger gates. In 1954, the entrance was moved about 10km west and is now known as the Orpen Gate, in honour of Eileen and her family. If it weren’t for her and her husband’s intense love for the Lowveld and nature, the Kruger would certainly not be one of the most successful and well-known parks in the world today.
After checking in at Orpen’s reception, you follow the H7 for about 1km before turning left onto a dirt road, which is clearly marked with a sign that reads ‘Private – Maroela Camp’. This is probably one of the most enjoyable roads we have driven in the Kruger, having encountered some great sightings – including caracals, lions, hyenas, elephants, servals, jackals, buffalo and leopards – on this stretch of road. A cherished memory was the incredible sighting of 36 wild dogs chasing blue wildebeest and zebras at the intersection of the gravel road and the H7.
It is also in the Orpen region where the world-famous white lions of the Timbavati are sometimes spotted. After an absence of many years, there was concern that this genetic disorder had died out. However, on our recent visit, we were pleasantly surprised to hear that two lion prides – with white lions amongst them – had returned to the area. We went looking for them, and after a few hours of driving around, we were lucky enough to spot the ‘ghost of the Kruger’, Casper, and his four brothers close to Orpen on the H7.
Since it is not too busy, Maroela is a camp where you can relax and recharge. If you opt to sleep in and chill at the camp rather than drive around, you will not regret it. One of the best times in the camp is when all the visitors have left in search of wildlife, and you can walk around alone, looking for birds and all the ‘smaller wonders’ of the Kruger. Many baboons frequent the camp, often rummaging through the inexperienced campers’ food cupboards – so make sure everything is properly closed before you begin exploring.
Zonde and his wife are the caretakers of this camp, and their passion for people and nature is tangible. Braai grills are kept spotless, and the well-maintained ablution block is as neat as that at your own home. Zonde swings by daily to make sure everything is in order and to hear more about the day’s sightings. Natal Spurfowls announce the end of the day at dusk, while hyenas patrol the fence. After dinner, it’s a treat to add another log or three to the campfire and enjoy the sounds of the African bush. Who knows – you might see an African civet lurking around camp!
Nighttime is when the fun really begins. Then, the true kings of the Lowveld, the honey badgers, make their appearance and brave any obstacle in their quest to find food. Best you make sure you pack everything away before hitting the hay, otherwise these clever animals will help themselves to whatever is left out. We had to learn this the hard way when one took off with our cooler one night!
One downside to Maroela is that there aren’t many roads around camp to explore. And while the
sightings are always top-notch, you drive the same route over and over again. The H7 to Satara is quite enjoyable, and we always enjoy a nice breakfast or lunch in the newly renovated restaurant at this camp. The Nsemani dam, just before Satara on the same road, is an excellent place to take out the binoculars and watch the hippos frolicking in the water. From there, the S100 is a must, especially if you haven’t spotted any big cats yet. Just keep an eye on the time and ensure you’re back at the camp on time, as it is quite a drive back!
If you fancy some gravel driving, the S140 is a good option. It is around 20km long and runs through beautiful open plains, offering spectacular views. Make sure to swing by Muzandzeni, one of the most beautiful viewpoints in the park.
It is always with heavy hearts that we leave Maroela behind… Once you’ve experienced the Maroela magic, you’ll be back. That’s a promise.
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