Surviving the Kruger Park Floods 2013

Another story from a visitor to Kruger during the January 2013 floods, Rick Cameron.

“Ever wondered how you would cope if you were given 15 minutes to pack up your valuables and evacuate?  This happened to us in the Kruger National Park on the night of 20 January 2013.

PICTURE THIS:  Shingwedzi Camp, Sunday evening 10.15 pm.  It has been raining on and off for the past 36 hours and is now absolutely pouring down.  Drainage ditches around our campsite are overflowing and the awnings of our two Jurgens Safari ExCell caravans require dumping every few minutes – adding to the flood underfoot.  Bakkie lights appear – it’s Shingwedzi Camp Manager Mpho Mudau with the instruction to pack essentials only and assemble at the camp gates by 10.30 pm.  The Ranger has ordered evacuation of the camp!  This is not completely unexpected as we have been watching the rise of the Shingwedzi River with awe all afternoon.  Brown, rolling and more than 500 metres wide, the water level rising steadily towards the record February 2000 flood line marker in front of the restaurant.

Arriving at Shingwedzi reception office earlier from our previous stopover – a waterlogged Tsendze rustic camp – I overheard the Section Ranger, Marius Renke, discussing the possibility of a camp evacuation with a camp official.  They assured me, however, that Shingwedzi  camp had never before been evacuated – even in the record February 2000 floods!  Surely this weather system could not deliver more water than that?

Back home in KwaZulu we had heard forecasts of heavy rains  in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, but with the confidence of many years camping and equipped with 4-wheel drive vehicles and new Jurgens  Off-Road caravans, we were undeterred.  Taking the most direct route through Swaziland to Mpumalanga, we periodically found ourselves driving through heavy rain storms, culminating in a major road washaway between Kruger Mpumalanga International and White River.  Stopping over with family in the Sabie River valley where almost 200mm of rain fell in 48 hours, we headed off to the Kruger National Park.  Entering at Phalaborwa and heading for Tsendze Rustic Camp we witnessed amazing cloud and rainbow displays as successive storm cells marched across the strikingly green Mopani bush. Driving through Kruger

Tsendze, on arrival, was lush and green with signs of abundant rain –plentiful mud and suspicious dark, damp patches in many of the beautiful campsites.  The surrounding bush was likewise verdant – two elephant bulls browsed at the fence, observing calmly as we hurriedly erected caravan awnings in anticipation of more wet weather. The first rainstorm arrived at nightfall, with lightning, wind and a heavy downpour.  Next morning, sure enough, our camp’s ‘damp’ patch was now a pond – with our mesh groundsheet afloat.  A chorus of birdcalls, with the strident voice of the Woodland Kingfisher predominant, heralded a brief appearance of the sun as we prepared to move on.Tendze Flooded Campsite

On departure for our next stop – Punda Maria – a little gentle winching was required to extract one caravan from its mud bath and four-wheel drive was helpful in negotiating the now greasy clay Tsendze roads.  En route north, between Mopani and Shingwedzi rest camps, the normally dry watercourse running close to the main tar route was now a robust, debris-laden stream of brown water – impressive but not particularly ominous at this stage.  The “Road Closed/No Entry” sign on approaching the big Shingwedzi bridge however said it all – no Punda Maria for us!  We therefore turned sharp right to Shingwedzi  Rest Camp which fortunately was very quiet.  Rising river

Helicopters WaitingTwo SANParks helicopters parked on the road outside the camp gate were the only sign of potential drama and securing suitably dry-looking campsites in the all but empty camping area was not difficult but a serious rainstorm arrived whilst erecting caravan awnings with violent southerly winds and driving rain. Supper was prepared amid sheets of wind-borne rain.  Hectic!  We nevertheless remained positive, despite having observed the Shingwedzi River in full spate on approaching the camp.  In 2011 the last time we had seen this river, elephants had been digging in the dry the dry sand bed for water.

Shingwedzi River looking ominousAt 10pm Mpho Mudau arrived in her bakkie advising that any visitors who were not able to remain at Shingwedzi for a few days should consider leaving before conditions worsened and the roads became impassable. A convoy would be leaving the camp gates shortly.  Reassured that the 100 year flood-line was reached in 2000 and the camp hadn’t been flooded then, we elected to remain.  However, at 10.15pm Mpho returned to advise that Shingwedzi was to be evacuated.  It was a case of “everyone out!” We should  pack necessities only and assemble at the camp gate at 10.30pm.  With 15 minutes to get sorted we didn’t quite make the 10.30pm deadline but we did join the 31 car evacuation convoy with minutes to spare before departure. Windscreen wipers lashing, car lights reflecting and rain pouring – it was a rather surreal experience, with excitement rather than panic in the air. Only later did we hear that the Sirheni dam wall had breached and its floodwater was approaching!Being evacuated

Escorted by Section Ranger Renke and Camp Manager Mudau, it was a slow, tense and memorable trip.  The road resembled a river for most of the 60 odd kilometres to Mopani.  Flashing hazard lights warned of severely flooded sections of road ahead, deeply submerged by cross-flowing water.  At the most severely inundated stretch Ranger Renke left the head of the convoy and positioned his Land Cruiser with winch at the ready to rescue any vehicle that didn’t make it.  Fortunately all did!  Arriving at Mopani Rest Camp gate shortly after midnight was a relief. The adrenalin rush was over. The rain however was not!  Mopani camp personnel were awake and busy organising accommodation whilst Ranger Renke and Mpho Mudau toured the evacuee vehicles dressed in weatherproof gear,  assuring us that chalets were being allocated.  Good news as no one was looking forward to a night in the car in wet clothes!  Installed in the cottages by 1.00am we went straight to bed.  All in all a pretty seamless bit of organisation.

Monday morning showed signs  of clearing weather and the following 24 hours saw the arrival at Mopani of about 130 Shingwedzi personnel and their families – many rescued from rooftops in the staff village. Some of those stranded in the camp had escaped from flooded bungalows by burrowing  through holes in the thatched roofs! Mopani’s  catering operation also rose to the occasion, maintaining good quality restaurant services and providing meals for the additional 200 odd Shingwedzi refugees. Hats off to the new catering manageress and her staff!

Cameron007Returning to Shingwedzi two days later was a sobering experience.  Aerial photographs had shown that the breached Sirheni dam wall had sent a surge of floodwater downstream  to the Shingwedzi, reaching about 2 metres depth in the main camp – not reassuring.  Our journey north from Mopani was through  sodden bush with lakes of water standing next to the road – or what was left of it. Flood Debris

Shingwedzi BridgeThe Shingwedzi  bridge itself was chaos – bush and riverine debris and twisted steel covering the roadway with a large section at the northern end missing.  Entering Shingwedzi camp, a further scene of devastation unfolded.  Deserted and silent,  the entry gate collapsed and washed away;  fuel pumps uprooted;  vehicles standing where the floodwater had moved them.  Venturing further into the camp a wasteland awaited us – scoured earth, wrecked buildings filled with chocolate coloured silt, scattered chalet furniture and numerous refrigerators washed from bungalow verandas.  Tide marks on buildings showed that the water had indeed risen to about 2 metres!  The river had rushed through the lovely old camp in a destructive, silt-laden torrent – exiting through the southern boundary fence where an amazing array of goods and possessions were deposited, at first glance resembling a junkyard! Cameron010

Camp damageThe same aerial images had shown what could be one of our caravans – still standing the flooded camping area. Duly heading in that direction we found both caravans, awnings collapsed, standing forlornly surrounded by scattered debris and muddy campsite equipment.

We returned to Mopani Rest Camp with the salvaged caravans in a thoughtful mood.  What had we lost?  How badly damaged were the caravans?  The caravan interiors showed that floodwater had risen then receded during  the preceding two days leaving a coating of thick brown clay silt everywhere.  Observing the terrain more closely on the return journey south we were  astonished by the aftermath of the flood. Tar stripped from the road in sheets, hectares of Mopani standing in muddy water;  watercourses and rivers with their banks scoured of vegetation.

Relocating to Satara Rest Camp for the rest of our stay, we were again accommodated promptly and without fuss in bungalows in one of the old hut circles of this charming camp.  The tranquility was disturbed only by the comings and goings of SAAF helicopters –  presumably on Rhino defence duties – arriving nightly at unearthly hours to change crews.  Hats off to them too!  Flood water and damage diminished as we headed south, ultimately leaving the park via the Kruger Gate and crossing the high-level bridge over the swollen Sabie River.  Truly memorable!

Back home we reflected on the helpfulness and efficiency of all the SANParks people concerned.  Our special thanks go to:

Section Ranger Marius Renke and Shingwedzi Camp Manager Mpho Mudau who managed and coordinated the orderly, timeous evacuation of tourists from Shingwedzi.  Thanks guys for making the right call!

Mopani Camp Manager Garth Holt and his staff for providing emergency accommodation and good food to so many unexpected visitors.

Jurgens CI for building caravans that can be submerged, flooded and shifted from their moorings by an African river and remain in one piece!

For anyone who is wondering what my wife managed to pack in our evacuation bag in the rush to leave  – she was very pleased to have filled it with her  collection of Bookclub books(!), a few clothes and our sponge bags.”

So glad you were evacuated safely and no one was injured! It really is a testament to the efficiency of SANParks staff!

More stories on the 2013 floods in Kruger:

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