Category Archives: Punda Maria

A history of Punda Maria and vicinity

  1. Introduction

The Shingwedzi Reserve was proclaimed in 1903 and comprised the area between the Luvuvhu and Letaba Rivers. Being a very remote part of South Africa, poaching and other illegal activities, such as prospecting, illegal logging and so called “black-birding” (the illegal recruitment of black workers from Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) and Mocambique (then Portuguese East Africa) for the gold and coal mines) was a serious concern to Major James C Stevenson-Hamilton, Warden of the Sabie and Shingwedzi Reserves. From 1904 until 1919, the only ranger in charge of the entire Shingwedzi Reserve was Major AA Frazer, based at Malunzane next to the Shongololo River (a tributary of the Tsende), west of the existing Mopani Camp. Stevenson-Hamilton expresses the need for a game ranger in the far north of the Shingwedzi Reserve.

Captain Johannes Jacobus (“Kat”) Coetser was appointed as game ranger on 01 May 1919 for the far northern part of the Shingwedzi Reserve and enjoys the distinction of being the first Afrikaans speaking ranger to have been appointed in the Sabie and Shingwedzi Reserves. Due to lack of roads, he had to have his belongings brought in by black carriers along the old trade route past Dzundwini, a large conspicuous hill on the plains southeast of Punda Maria next to the existing road to Shingwedzi. Dzundwini is a Tsonga word meaning “at the land belonging to the chief and cultivated by his people” (G Dzakani). At Dzundwini fountain he set up a temporary camp under a huge Sausage tree (Kigelia africana) which is still visible today. As winter progressed, the water from the fountain deteriorated and became brackish and could barely be used for drinking water. He had heard of a strong fountain in the region of Chief Shikokololo’s fertile place known to the Tsonga people as Dimbyeni ra Shikokololo (water or fountain of Shikokololo – G Dzakani), roughly 18 kilometres northwest of his camp. In the beautiful area on the foot of Dimbo Hill (a shortening of the original Venda name Dimboni, the name of a person from bygone days – the name was used by H Berthoud as early as 1903) and close to the fountain, he set up his permanent camp. He had his family come along and named his camp Punda Maria. With his appointment in 1919, the illegal harvesting of Rhodesian Mahogany (Afzelia quansensis) and Msimbit or Lebombo Ironwood (Androstachys johnsonii) in the Punda Maria area was brought under control. He was known as “Gungunyane” amongst the local Blacks and he built a hut over the fountain at Punda Maria to keep it clean and apparently there were a few tame barbel (catfish) to keep the fountain free of insects.

Coetzers old camp site below Dzundwini Hill

Coetzers old camp site below Dzundwini Hill

The name Punda Maria stems from one of two origins.

2.1 The first and most documented origin is that of the first animals which Ranger Coetser encountered upon his arrival in the Shingwedzi Reserve, namely a herd of zebra. The Swahili name for zebra is punda milia (striped donkey). His wife’s name was Maria and apparently she was fond of wearing striped black and white dresses. He therefore thought that Punda Maria would be a suitable name for the post. In 1959, the National Parks Board (on recommendation of RJ Labuschagne), changed the name to Punda Milia, based on the incorrect assumption that Coetser had spelt the Swahili name incorrectly. In 1981, the true facts were brought to the attention of the Board by Dr U de V Pienaar and the original name was restored.

Aerial image showing terraces and facilities - taken in 1948

Aerial image showing terraces and facilities – taken in 1948

2.2 The second possible origin comes from some of the older Venda people, who called the Punda Maria area, which includes the easternmost foothills of the Soutpansberg, Phande Mariha, “border of the winter(s)”, as they noticed the area to the west (inland) to be greener and with a more moderate climate than the plains to the east, with it’s frost, cold and brown winter grass (phande – stop, up to here, border of, and mariha (plural of vuriha) – winters). They therefore maintain Punda Maria to be a corruption of Phande Mariha.

2.3 Punda Maria camp lies in a place previously (before 1919) called Shikokololo and it was situated next to old hunting and trade routes. One of these routes was known as the Ivory Trail, referring to the era around the early 1900s when the route running from Crooks Corner to Soekmekaar was used for recruiting of labour for the mines in the hinterland of South Africa and also for hunters, as the name suggests. Several interesting people lived in the area over the many years and some are described below:

Previous poacher, hunter and recruitment officer, Cecil Barnard, named Bvenkenya, by the local Tsonga people, meaning “the one who swaggers as he walks”, remembers meeting Shikokololo en route to Crooks Corner in about 1910, when he arrived in the area and describes him as a short, brownish- coloured old man. He had fine gardens at this fertile place, but gave him more trouble than contentment as he spent his life in endless bitter struggle with the wild animals over the never settled question of who was to reap his crops. All around his gardens, Shikokololo had erected with prodigious labour a vast protective fence of thorns. Around this African battlement the wild animals laid permanent siege. Within it, old Shikokololo marshaled his defences with cunning and patience. His womenfolk beat drums all night when the crops were ripening, and the place was littered with so many snares and traps that Shikokololo himself, when leaving his hut one moonless night, had come to grief in a pitfall and remained tangled in his own contrivances until morning. To Bvenkenya, Shikokololo was an ingenious and loquacious friend and he had been involved in elephant hunting as long as he could remember.

Makahane was a chief who used to live on a hill which has since been named after him and is situated close to where the Madzaringwe stream flows into the Luvuvhu River, 48 kilometres north east of Punda Maria. The tribe that used to live here and across the Limpopo River, were known as the VhaLembethu, who were the forerunners of the Venda people. All that remains today are the many stone ruins as well as a miniature cave. Although no gold artifacts have been found, gold was smelted here and poured into stone cavities. Although the ruins are quite dilapidated, it is clear that it once was a worthy place for a chief. It is one of the few ruins of it’s type of which the tribe and headman are known. The history of the ruin was conveyed to Kruger National Park officials (Pienaar) during a visit to the terrain in 1963 by headman Filemon Makahane, who was quite aged at that time and was living on the western bank of the Luvuvhu River. It is estimated that Headman Makahane had lived at Makahane during the second half of the eighteenth century. Makahane lived as one of two subordinate captains under his father, the great Captain Makahane who lived north of the Limpopo River (currently Zimbabwe). However, due to the distances, the captains reigned virtually independently and with great authority. On the northern side of the hill was a massive rock extending from the base to the top with a sheer drop of about 60 metres. For petty offences and for his pleasure Makahane had his subjects thrown over this cliff – a truly horrible death. Eventually Makahane was killed by his brother Nelome and on orders from his father who had heard of the inhumanity and cruelty against his people and there was great rejoicing amongst his people, who then, under the leadership of Makahane’s son, Mashande, chose to depart from this hill of evil and move across the river. Headman Makahane was buried on the hill.

Old trading store that was adjacent to the old bungalows

Old trading store that was adjacent to the old bungalows

Klopperfontein is a perennial fountain situated in the upper reaches of the Senkhuwa Spruit named after Hans (JPJ) Kloppers (1851 – 1928), a slightly built, fair faced and long bearded hunter, and was the site of one of his favourite camps. This site, previously know as Senkhuwa (from the Tsonga name, “nkhuwa”, meaning great wild fig trees), was also en route the old trade and hunting route running past Punda Maria between Crooks Corner and Soekmekaar. At the eye of the fountain there was large wild fig and this is where Kloppers made his camp site. He had a preference for hunting giraffe (Giraffe camelopardalis), which according to oorlewering were quite numerous at the time. He apparently had a great liking of the marrow of the long bones of the giraffe legs and it is said that for many years after the area became the Shingwedzi Reserve in 1903, a large pile of giraffe bones could be seen at his camp site. The fountain later dried up and in 1955 a concrete weir was built by Percy Stephansen to provide water for game. Two boreholes provide additional water at this point. During the high rainfall years between 1971 and 1978, the old fountain started flowing again and this was maintained until the long droughts of the eighties. The local black people mentioned that Kloppers moved into the area during the winter months with his wagons and hunted primarily giraffe and eland. He was known as Ribada by the local black people meaning “always on the move”. In the days before 1896, the tsetse flies were a serious problem and caused serious casualties amongst his horses. After the proclamation of the Shingwedzi Reserve in 1903, Kloppers was forced to move his hunting activities elsewhere and he moved his camp to Mocambique. Kloppers lived on his farm, Doornspruit, approximately 20 kilometres south east of Louis Trichardt (on the road to Elim).

Close to Mashikiri windpump on one of the hills a Venda man named Matjigwili used to live. The ruins are still visible today and Ranger Gus Adendorff found the highly prized blue beads (Valunga ha Madi) which are regarded as sacred by the Venda people. These were supposedly brought from the north by earlier generations of the Venda when the migrated south. It is said that a family was very proud to possess such beads and would never willingly part with them and they were passed from generation to generation.

Gumbandebvu hill is situated north east of Punda Maria en route to Pafuri and was regarded by the black people as the rain hill. Many years ago a woman named Nwakama, a relative of Modjadji, the famous rain queen, lived there. Nwakama was supposed to have been invested with the power to call up the rain gods. When rain was needed she ordered a black beast to be slaughtered and the meat taken to a certain spot on the hill and offered as a sacrifice to the rain gods. Only a few chosen men would venture on the hill with her as it was believed to mean certain death for anyone attempting to climb the hill without her knowledge. The name Gumbandebvu originates from Venda, Gumba ndebvu, meaning “to shave one’s beard”, a custom whereby only those who shaved their beards, were allowed to climb this sacred hill.

Gumbandebvu Hill north east of Punda Maria

Gumbandebvu Hill north east of Punda Maria

Crooks Corner, the area between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo Rivers, with the borders of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mocambique meeting there, was an area inhabited by a variety of fortune seekers, poachers, smugglers, thieves, renegade and those fleeing the law. The main attraction was the unlimited hunting opportunities (especially elephant) in the adjoining Mocambique and Zimbabwe regions as well as recruitment of blacks for the gold mines of the Witwatersrand. The primary connecting route between Crooks Corner and Soekmekaar, from where the recruits were transported by rail, came past Punda Maria. Originally the recruits were transported by donkey cart, but after World War I, the official recruitment agency, Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA) improved the road and after 1929 Thornycroft busses were used.

Captain Kat Coetser was born in Lydenburg on 03 May 1872 and was married to Maria Johanna de Beer and the couple had 14 children, of which four died at a young age. He worked as a sheriff in Standerton for a while and then joined the Department of Native Affairs as he could speak quite a few black languages. Later he becomes member of the State Artillery and is promoted to rank of Captain with the outbreak of the Second War of Independance. He was in command of the Johannesburg fort until he was succeeded by Judge Krause and he could then take up active duty. He was taken prisoner of war and held in camp at Green Point. After the war he joined the army and became an intelligence officer. With the start of World War 1, he joined General van Deventer’s Reconnaissance and he experienced the whole East African campaign. It is during this period that he learned the Swahili language. In 1919 he was appointed as game ranger at Punda Maria and was transferred to Satara in July 1924 and left the National Parks Board on 15 December 1928 to join the Department for Veterinary Field Services. On 21 November 1935 Coetser was manning a foot and mouth disease cordon next to the Limpopo River east of Musina, when he was attacked by an angry elephant. His rifle bearer had apparently fled the attack and Coetser was crushed to death by the elephant. His remains are buried in Pretoria.

Lt Col Petrus Lafras de Jager succeeded Captain Coetser in July 1924 and a new brick house was built at Punda Maria in 1926. However, the Highveld design proved impractical without the verandah around the house and this was added later on. He retired in January 1929.

Thomas Llewellyn James succeeded de Jager in February 1929 until April 1930.

Izak Johannes Botha was transferred to Punda Maria in April 1930 and during the winter of 1931, tourists were accommodated for the first time in a tent camp at Punda Maria. Soon afterwards, Botha and a team of black labourers, commenced with the construction of the traditional pole and mud thatch roof huts. The design and outer shell of these huts is still in use today, more than seventy years later. These huts were completed in July 1931 and an ablution block was added in 1933. During this time, Botha also constructed the roads from Punda Maria to Dongadziva, Shidzavane, Magovane and Klopperfontein. In the rangers garden at Punda Maria, Botha planted a seedling Baobab (Adansonia digitata) on 04 February 1931 and in the more than seventy years it has grown into a beautiful young tree and has a circumference of 6,7metres (01 April 2002). Amongst his black colleagues he was known as “Mawawa” meaning the dominant one. In 1935 he obtained permission to build the gravel dam, just south of the camp and for many years this has drawn game to the area. In 1937 he constructed a number of side roads on the Punda Maria Shingwedzi road, including the picturesque routes along the Shisha and Mphongolo Rivers. Botha resigned on 31 May 1938.

Lt Col Maurice Rowland-Jones succeeded Botha on 01 June 1938 and was called up to do military duty in Madagascar and the Middle East on 21 May 1940. He was relieved by Walter Henry (Harry) Kirkman stationed at Shangoni and Herbert Ernest (Bert) Tomlinson of Shingwedzi and resumed duties on 01 January 1946 and was promoted to senior ranger at Skukuza on 26 June 1954. 

Ivory Trail

Ivory Trail

Today, Punda Maria Camp has 31 units – 22 in the old units that Botha built in 1931/2. The interior construction was altered in 1978 to convert the rooms into units with shower and toilet en-suite. The outer walls and roof construction remains original and the resistance of the Msimbit or Lebombo Ironwood (Androstachys johnsonii) to insect boring is clearly evident. Two four-bed cottages were built in 1978 to the west of the camp reception complex. They were originally intended to house staff, but upon completion, were made available to the public, and have been upgraded significantly since 2001. In 2001 7 fully equipped tents were added to the camp.

Old Punda Maria with filling station near current reception/ restaurant and shop complex

Old Punda Maria with filling station near current reception/ restaurant and shop complex

The Shikokololo fountain remains in use to supply Punda Maria with fresh clean water and is situated 50 metres to the east of the camp gate. It had a large and fairly distinctive Jakkalsbessie tree (Diospyros mespiliformis) close by.

Old Jackal Berry outside Punda Maria Camp with Dzundwini Hill in background

Old Jackal Berry outside Punda Maria Camp with Dzundwini Hill in background

The police station at Punda Maria was a landmark for many years. Sergeant Oosthuizen was succeeded by Sergeant van Deventer. The last commander stationed at Punda Maria before it was closed down was Awie de Clerq. The old house still stands to the east of the camp and the many stone terraces are still visible too.

Old Police House which has been rebuilt as guest accommodation (known as Russel House)

Old Police House which has been rebuilt as guest accommodation (known as Russel House)

Many terraced walls built by the "Mafourteens"

Many terraced walls built by the “Mafourteens”

These were built by prisoners who were mostly illegal immigrants passing through the Park from Mocambique.

Old stables behind the Police House east of the camp

Old stables behind the Police House east of the camp


ADENDORFF, GM (1984) – Wild Company – Books of Africa Ltd, Cape Town

BULPIN, TV (1954) – The Ivory Trail – Books of Africa (Pty) Ltd, Cape Town

BULPIN, TV (1974) – Kruger National Park (No. 1 & 2) – Mobil Travel series 18 and 19.

COX, GRAHAM – Personal discussion.

DAVIES, PETER – Personal discussion.

HOPE, DOUGLAS – Custos – Letters from our Readers – December 1973

KLOPPERS, JJ AND HANS BORNMAN – A Dictionary of Kruger National Park Names – First Published 2005.

NATIONAL PARKS BOARD – Northern Parts of Kruger Park now easily accessible (Custos September 1972)

NATIONAL PARKS BOARD – Seclusion of Punda Milia (Custos May 1977)

NATIONAL PARKS BOARD – Punda Milia and Shingwedzi (Custos August 1974)

PIENAAR, U de V (1990) – Neem uit die verlede – National Parks Board, Pretoria

PRETORIUS, BEN – Personal discussion