Two kudus nibble on a tree, impalas graze on blades of grass next to a row of houses. Dry elephant dung lies scattered in the road, not far from a swimming pool where a group of children are splashing.
Word by René de Klerk. Originally published in SANParks Times.
For many, a few nights spent in the Kruger National Park are bliss, and returning to the city is always difficult. But for the park’s employees, living in the park is a reality that comes with advantages and sacrifices.
For Nick Zambatis, a retired former employee, the Skukuza staff village, has been home for nearly 30 years. His wife Guin, curator at the Skukuza Biological Reference, will retire in three years. For him, the life of a park employee is an amazing lifestyle, one which he would not swap for anywhere else. “Kruger is the most wonderful place. I would not want to live anywhere else, but although in my opinion it is close to it, it is not paradise,” says Zambatis.
For city dwellers, it is easy to pick up bread and milk on the way home. But for those living in the park, a monthly trip to a big town is the order of the day. For the Zambatis family, online shopping have become helpful for small amounts of groceries, but still require a monthly trip to either Nelspruit or Hazyview. Medical emergencies and specialised medical attention is only available in Nelspruit.
Apart from these quirks of daily living, as well as the heat and malaria mosquitoes, Zambatis doesn’t complain about much. While South Africa’s cities are crime hotspots, the park’s biggest criminals are baboons and poachers. “Baboons even open doors,” Zambatis says. One always needs to be alert as any wildlife can enter the unfenced village.
To prevent incidents, properties are fenced. Gates must be closed at all times. Once, a lion accidently stumbled over the fence into the Zambatis’ yard after being darted on the neighbour’s property. “When we visit our next-door neighbours at night, we walk with a torch. For anyone further, we take the car,” says Zambatis. Unfortunately, there have been fatal incidents involving leopards and buffaloes in the past.
Living in the park also has many other advantages. Zambatis says that he loves the feeling of being in the wilderness and being able to go for a drive any time he wants to. “If you stop, the silence, the birds and the atmosphere of the place are wonderful.”
Facilities in the village include a crèche, primary school and a hostel for children from elsewhere in the park. Residents can play cricket, rugby, tennis and go to the gym. The village also boasts a community hall for meetings and functions, a pool, and church.
Zambatis says that he dreads the day he and his wife have to leave the park. “A retirement village at Phabeni gate would have been ideal for all staff who would wish to retire in this environment.” But of course there isn’t one. Zambatis and his wife have got one daughter who has recently finished her university studies.