Punda Maria Gate
Punda Maria Gate is the direct access point into far northern Kruger from Gauteng. Set in mixed sandveld woodlands below Thulamila Koppie (not to be confused with Thulamela Heritage Site near Pafuri), Punda Gate has been upgraded to cater for the increase in tourist traffic to the north.
The surrounding woodlands are a mixture of bushwillow and marula with a bit of mopane. There is a Day Visitors’ Centre a few hundred metres along the H13-1, a recommended stopping point to acclimatise to the Park and learn about the natural and human history of the far north. Elephant usually browse along this road. Although there are lion in the area, they are not often seen.
In 1981, three workers from Punda broke all the Park rules by arriving late at the gate from their weekend leave. They persuaded the guards to let them through and rode off into the dark on their bicycles on the nine-kilometre trip to Punda Camp. Only two of them arrived.
The shocked survivors described how a lion had leapt out of the dark at the lead cyclist but missed him. The lion then went for the second bicycle – on which two of the men were riding. The man on the back – Louis Mathye – fell off as his terrified friend accelerated away, pedalling for his life. Punda’s head ranger, Louis Olivier, and several assistants then raced back along the road and found a semi-mutilated black-maned lion tearing at Mathye’s dead body.
Olivier shot it at once. When they examined the animal, they found it had been starving to death – it was missing the lower part of its left hind leg, presumably caught in a snare – and had probably gone after human prey as a desperate option.
Its all in the Name
The name Punda Maria is a bastardisation of the Swahili word for zebra, which is punda miliya. The name of the camp was coined in 1919 by the first ranger in charge of the area, JJ “Ou Kat”Coetser, who named it after his wife, Maria.
She apparently hated the rigours of living in such an isolated part of the country and had a predilection for striped dresses. Coetser, himself, was fired as a ranger for shooting animals and was eventually killed by a bull elephant near the Limpopo River.
Stevenson-Hamilton never had much time for Coetser who he described as a “gasbag”. The Parks Board renamed the camp and the gate as Punda Milia under the impression that it had been a spelling mistake and that zebra were the first animals seen in the area.
After representations from Coetser’s family in 1979, the original name was restored.