Fans at next year’s World Cup will have the chance to witness not only the fierce struggle for soccer’s biggest prize but an even more intense tooth-and-claw contest for survival.
Revered Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said football was more important than a matter of life and death and fans visiting the Kruger National Park during the World Cup in South Africa are likely to see just that.
The park, South Africa’s biggest, is one of the country’s greatest tourist attractions and authorities want to ensure as many football fans as possible get to see it, part of efforts to hook visitors on the country for future visits.
Kruger, Africa’s third largest game park, is close to Nelspruit, one of the World Cup’s 10 venues and not far from another, Polokwane.
FIFA’s travel agent arm, MATCH Event Services, is using Kruger as one of its seven tourist hubs or MATCH villes, where fans can enjoy a package of accommodation, tickets to follow their team and transport by air and bus to the stadiums.
MATCH officials say that fans staying in Kruger can travel as far as Cape Town on the other side of the country to see matches, returning the same day to their bush camps.
Other hubs include Cape Town itself, the coastal Garden Route, and most controversially, Mauritius – a four-hour flight from South Africa.
Ray Whelan, project manager for MATCH, told Reuters that 15,800 rooms had been allocated for the five-day MATCH packages in the seven locations.
The experience in Kruger, especially for the first-time visitor, will be one of the most memorable.
The huge park, which draws 1.4 million tourists even in normal years, is one of the oldest in Africa. It was established in 1898, and covers nearly 19,000 square kms of mostly dense bush. It is home to the Big Five animals — lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo — as well as 142 other species of mammals and 507 of birds.
Because of the numbers of predators in Kruger, fans will have a good chance between matches of experiencing the daily struggle for survival up close, cruising the park’s 2,500 km of roads and dust tracks.
Members of a recent four-hour safari for soccer journalists ahead of the World Cup saw hyenas and vultures feeding on the entrails of a giraffe, two leopards — usually the most elusive of predators — and a male lion facing an uncertain future after being badly wounded in the leg, possibly by the horn of his buffalo or antelope prey.
“The World Cup is not going to be soccer on a 24-hour basis…it will be about soccer plus other things as well,” said Kruger CEO Abe Sibiya.
“This is a very important icon to put on the table, one of the best icons in Africa, the Kruger Park,” he told reporters.
The World Cup is being held during the South African winter, low season for much of the country’s tourist trade but the peak period for game viewing, when low foliage gives a much better chance of seeing cats and smaller animals.
“May, June and July, this is the best place to be. It will only be a pleasure for people to visit us,” Sibiya said.
Kruger has reserved three main camps, or 30 percent of its capacity, for MATCH packages, providing more than 1,000 beds per night. It will also bend its rules to allow escorted tourists to travel back to their camps in the dark and provide large screens in some places for World Cup viewing.
The rest of the overnight accommodation in the park has long been booked out for June and July, always the busiest time, but 500 day visitors will be allowed through each of the 11 gates.
Whelan said a third of the Kruger packages had been sold before the draw on December 4 and demand since then had been “excellent”.
South Africa has extended the winter school holidays to cover the World Cup period, allowing people who do not want to watch the matches live to go on holiday or rent out their homes, and increasing domestic demand for attractions such as Kruger.