How a Criminal Hideout Became a Blissful Tourist Attraction

Fran Labuschagne / © Culture Trip
Fran Labuschagne / © Culture Trip
A visit to Crooks Corner, known as ‘the haven of scoundrels’, takes visitors back to a time in history when ivory poachers, gun-runners and other suspicious characters who had chosen the free life of adventurers and fugitives called the area home.

In the far northeastern corner of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, where the Luvhuvhu and Limpopo rivers meet, lies Crooks Corner. This triangle of land is the meeting place of three countries – South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – and used to be a favourite hideout for criminals on the run. Today, however, it’s one of the top tourist destinations in the Kruger National Park, filled with history, abundant in wildlife and well worth the trip.

Follow the dirt road

A dirt road surrounded by towering baobabs and fever-tree forests leads visitors to this remote piece of land, just north of Punda Maria rest camp. Decades ago, the lawless travelled here in unbearably hot weather conditions while dodging wild animals, from gigantic hippos and crocs to lions and the ever-illusive leopard. A plaque marking the spot reads, ‘Crooks Corner is the natural refuge for all kinds of people who had no great wish to look into the eyes of the law and who, at any moment, might suddenly need to flee across an international border.’

Fran Labuschagne / © Culture Trip

Loopholes and boundaries

Outlaws on the run, such as poachers and smugglers, escaped to this remote area nestled in between three countries, mainly due to the fact that skipping borders and outrunning the law was a breeze here. A beacon marking the corner where the countries meet was the perfect escape route if officers of the law did show up. Simply hop over the beacon into another country, where they can’t touch you for fear of breaching an international boundary.

Hilariously, in the rare case that officers from all three countries arrived at the same time, all one had to do was to climb to the top of this beacon. Here, the escapees were untouchable, as there were no rules defining whose jurisdiction the beacon fell under. This simple loophole was one reason that this area was so loved by criminals.

‘One who swaggers when he walks’

One of the most notorious men to have operated in the area was Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard, known by locals as Bvekenya (meaning ‘one who swaggers when he walks’). As an ivory poacher he spent much of his time escaping the long arm of the law by hiding out at Crooks Corner.

Fran Labuschagne / © Culture Trip

His main aim was to hunt and kill the legendary elephant Dhlulamithi (meaning ‘taller than the trees’), but the story goes that, after tracking it down and facing the mammoth animal head-on, Bvekenya had a change of heart. This momentous moment changed his ways forever, as he put his poaching life behind him in exchange for a calmer life spent farming. He left Crooks Corner in 1929.