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The Tale of Wolhuter and the Lions

The Kruger National Park is filled with stories. Stories of bravery, stories or stupidity and stories of sheer terror. Some of these stories end with the loss of life, others become legendary and are still told to this day during Kruger Park safaris. We are about to retell one of the most enduring stories from the history of the Kruger.


If you are visiting South Africa and embarking on a proper Kruger Park safari, you will be able to see a plaque commemorating the story of Harry Wolhuter and his fight for survival just east of the Tshokwane picnic site. And if you ask your guides what happened to Harry Wolhuter on that fateful day in 1904, they are sure to be able to recite it for you as this story so well known.

Harry Wolhuter and the Lions

Back in 1904, the Kruger Park was known as the Sabi Game Reserve. A young man known as Harry Wolhuter had just served in the Anglo-Boer War, today called the South African War, fighting for Britain.When the war ended he was offered a position in the park as a ranger by Major James Stevenson-Hamilton.

On the 26th of August of that same year, Wolhuter was travelling south near to the Olifants River, on a routine patrol. Riding his horse, he was accompanied by 4 policemen, a couple of donkeys and his faithful dogs. His plan was to ride to a nearby watering hole and camp the night with his companions, but upon arriving, he found the waterhole dry. They needed water. The next known watering hole was 19km away, and dusk was already settling. Instead of waiting out the night, Wolhuter told his companions to follow behind him while he rode ahead to the next hole. His large dog Bull ran alongside him as he set off.

Lions. He had never come across them in this area. So he did not think twice about the possible danger these fierce predators could present. Little did he realise that lions would change is plans.

He followed along the banks of a dry river. Twilight was fast fading, something common in this part of the world, but he felt no need to be afraid. When he came across a patch of long grass along his path, Bull began barking. Wolhuter saw forms in the growing shadows but dismissed them as reedbuck. He didn’t realise that they were in fact lions.

He had no time to lift his rifle. He whistled for Bull, and by the time he realised a lion was close enough to spring an attack, it was too late. He buried his spurs deep into his horse, missing the lions pounce by mere inches, but his attempt to get away was not enough. The lion buried his claws into the horse’s quarters. The panicked horse caused Wolhuter to lose his grip and fall to the ground at the moment the second lion attacked.

The lion grabbed him. These were no man-eaters, they simply saw easy prey. The lion dragged him by the right arm and shoulder, and with each step, the lion’s claws from its fore paws cut into his thighs. He had lost his rifle, and the sound of a satisfied, purring big cat ready for a meal was filing his ears.

In his agony, he remembered he had a small knife. He always carried it in his belt but was worried he had lost it in the attack. The blade was only 3-inches long, but he was relieved to fell he still had it, and once he could hold it, he gripped it tightly. His life depended on it. The lion had dragged him for what seemed like kilometres before dropping him beneath a tree.

Wolhuter stabbed the lion. He continued stabbing until the lion dropped him. He stood up and faced the lion, remembering that shouting might cause the animal to run off, he screamed and screamed until the lion turned and left.

But he forgot about the other lion. Having chased after the horse, and losing his prey, the second lion followed the blood-scented trail left by Wolhuter and soon came rushing from the bush, the dog Bull, right behind him. Wolhuter scrambled as best he could up the tree. Bull taunted the lion, staying out of range of attack but never letting up. With the lion being unable to get to Wolhuter, he sulked off in the direction of his companion, who Wolhuter had managed to mortally wound.

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After what seemed an age, Wolhuters companions caught up with him and helped him out of the tree. Together, the group eventually managed to walk to huts, while his companions went to get water for him.

When the sun had risen, they came across the lion. He was old, with grey in his mane, and it appeared he had not eaten in days. Wolhuter and his horse were indeed the easiest prey he could find.

It took 6 days to get Wolhuter to the nearest hospital, which at that time was in Barberton, Mpumalanga. His arm and shoulder were infected but he managed to make a full recovery. The knife and the skin of the lion have been kept at Skukuza in the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial Library.

When embarking on a Kruger Park safari, you are entering the territory of wild animals, respect and caution are a must.

This story remains one of the most famous to come out of the park, and a reminder to those who visit that the park is not a place of tamed animals.

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