Category Archives: Places

Ancient civilisations, myths & legends

AS FAR AS WE CAN GO: Akela looks over Zimbabwe. The white specks on the horizon below the mountains are the Zimbabwean town of Beit Bridge.

The N1 starts in Cape Town and ends at Musina near the SA border crossing to Zimbabwe at Beit Bridge — 1,919km later. Is that the longest road in South Africa? If it is, Akela, Kenya and I have driven it together!

Whatever the distance, this feels like another country — harsh, rarely friendly and so last century. I’m starting to understand what Schultz (Mr Tzaneen Country Lodge) — who was very friendly — was trying to explain when he told me about the difference between Limpopo’s tribes. Contrary to what one finds in southern Limpopo, the Venda in the north are outgoing, confident and arguably the most friendly in South Africa.

It takes a trip like this to discover that Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s Rainbow Nation doesn’t describe the whole of South Africa.  It does describe the Western Cape where the unique mix of people ensures that domination by one racial or political group is never a given. In northern Limpopo, “rainbow” refers more to the origins of tribes like the Venda, who migrated to the area from Zimbabwe.

Beit Bridge - the border crossing to Zimbabwe.  The border fence that runs the entire length of SA's northern and eastern borders is in the foreground.  It was built when there was a perceived threat from SA's neighbours - a wide swathe of no-man's land marked by razor wire fences on either side and an electrified fence down the middle.  The dirt road alongside the fence was tarred because mercenaries planted land mines in the dirt road.  The electric fence was switched off post-1994 at the insistence of human rights groups.  The razor wire fence is dotted with holes cut into it but Zimbabweans who swarm across on a daily basis.

Baobab tree

This particular trip covers just the northern part of Limpopo province — rich in history and home to the Venda. It’s where you find SA’s ancient Kingdoms of Gold: Mapungubwe (SA’s newest World Heritage Site) and Thula Mela (a 13th century global trading centre); Thohoyandou — Venda’s capital, the Limpopo River and the Soutpansberg mountain range.  And the famous Baobab trees.

Driving north along the N1 from Polokwane, the next major town is Louis Trichardt 140km away.  Getting out of Polokwane is the biggest challenge with poor road signs or road signs that lead you nowhere.

Long, crisp vistas and views towards the horizon are rare in Limpopo because of ever-present haze, but through that haze the appearance of the massive Soutpansberg mountain range breaks the monotony of the plains and rocky outcrops.  Turning east at Louis Trichardt towards Thohoyandou only 70km away starts one of the biggest surprises of this trip.  Climbing into the foothills of the Soutpansberg, the vegetation and scenery changes dramatically.

The road to Thohoyandou runs through intensively-cultivated, wealthy farmland.  During the apartheid-era Venda homeland, these farms lay outside the homeland borders and have always been white owned.  This seems to be a recurring situation — black farmers rarely practice and maintain intensive agriculture and land redistribution so often leads to the failure of agiculture, as one has seen in Zimbabwe.  Can land redistribution continue without equal, or even greater, attention to ensure that agicultural production continues and grows even further?

Simply stunning - hedges of alternating pink and purple flowers line the road.

Roadside sellers - dead sheep!

Notwithstanding the organised agriculture after leaving Louis Trichardt, I’ve never experienced the vibrancy and feeling of authentic Africa as much as while driving the road to Thohoyadou.

I came across a group of women with three piles of “green leaves” in front of them. I stopped to ask what it was. The one pile was “Dead Sheep — good for gout and high blood pressure.”  The second pile was leaves from a Cabbage Tree and they didn’t know the translation for the third.  I bought and brewed some “Dead Sheep”… it tasted vile and I don’t think it did me any good… or harm.

Fresh produce stalls in one of the villages en route to Thohoyandou

After driving hundreds of kilometres without a single roadside farmstall, the road to Thohoyandou was a pleasure dotted with fruit sellers providing perfect photo opportunities.

Tea plantations abut the town of Thohoyandou, with the Soutpansberg in the background.

[mappress]

ALFRED MUNYAI: When I got out the car at my destination, a passerby greeted me and asked where I was heading. I told him I had a meeting at the municipality and he offered to help me find the person I was to see. We chatted a while and he said he'd gladly show me around Thohoyandou after my meeting. And so I gained a very good insight into Thohoyandou later in the day. Thank you, Alfred! He seems quite an entrepreneur and is looking for developers who want to invest there.

Thohoyandou is a typical large town that demonstrates the usual bad land-use planning and African chaos — judged by Western standards. But it works better than most and has good formal shopping.

I also felt very safe there — taking long walks till way after sunset and again long before sunrise.  I enjoyed the vitality of street activities and the whimsy of some street traders.

Don't Care Spaza Shop

Suburban Thohoyandou - there is a huge difference between traditional Western and African cities and towns. As living expectations in African towns rise, one must wonder how sustainable the traditional low densities can be.

When ?? learnt I was interested in visiting Thohoyandou, he called me and it was his enthusiasm that ensured my visit did take place.

Nandoni Dam on the outskirts of Thohoyandou - A popular resort and base for the community fishing industry.

It must have benefited from its status as the capital of the Venda homeland during the apartheid era — which defied its Pretoria paymasters on occasion — through investment intended to make the homeland system work, but more importantly the skills and confidence as a regional centre.  As a homeland capital, it did get a university and a casino.

If the fame of the Zulu nation stems from its prowess as warriors, the Venda are less well known but have a far longer heritage which started with the Mapungubwe kingdom in the 9th century.  King Shiriyadenga was the first king of Venda and Mapungubwe.  The sacred city of Thula Mela (Place of Birth), not far from Thohoyandou near the confluence of the Limpopo and Levubu Rivers in Kruger National Park, dates back to the 13th century.

It was on one of major trade routes of that time — Islamic traders on the east coast of Africa were the conduit between the interior of Africa and Asia and the Middle East.

Thula Mela was never discovered and ransacked by colonists, and is the only known site in the region that was untouched until archeologists started work.

One can’t help wondering why South Africa, under Thabo Mbeki, invested so heavily in antiquities at Timbuktu when there are so many stories within South Africa awaiting to be uncovered and told.

The pride and confidence of the Venda people does stand out, making them much easier to engage in conversation.

Just to the west of Thohoyandou lies the Thathe Vondo Holy Forest, a beautiful indigenous forest that incorporates the sacred burial ground of the chiefs of the Thathe clan, while the scenic Guvhukuvhu Pool is believed to be the home of water spirits that foster good relations with the ancestral spirits.

No ordinary VhaVhenda people may walk in this sacred forest and, as a visitor, one may not leave the dirt track going through the forest. Two mythical creatures keep guard — the white lion (the spirit of Nethathe, an important chief) and the thunder & lighting bird called Ndadzi, which according to myth flies on the wings of thunder.

North of the Holy Forest lies Lake Fundudzi, one of the best-known sacred places. In the Mutale River, as legend has it, a giant python god of fertility dwells that demands the sacrifice of a maiden each year. Lake Fundudzi is surrounded by mountains and special permission has to be obtained to visit this sacred Lake. No-one washes or swims in this lake.

This annual sacrifice became an integral part of Venda life, together with the remarkable ceremony known as the Domba Dance which has become part of the initiation rites of young women. The dance, also known as Python dance, is performed by rows of girls imitating movements of a python. Both the lake and the Domba Dance may only be viewed by obtaining permission from local authorities.

I didn’t get to visit these areas because I was advised that the roads were in a very poor state.

I did get to visit the Phiphidi Falls, another sacred site closer to Thohoyandou.  A complex collection of laws and rituals, some of which are closely guarded by clan elders, govern clan practice and behavior at Phiphidi; the site has traditionally been off-limits to all but the Ramunangi. Traditional belief holds that the waterfall and pool are inhabited by ancestral water spirits who require offerings of grain and beer, which are made on LanwaDzongolo. These powerful spirits receive prayers from the people for rain, health, agricultural abundance and community peace. Traditionally, these offerings were made throughout the year, with one primary and complicated annual rite that lasted many days.

The sacred Phiphidi Falls

The vhaVenda clans are among the SA’s most traditional, observing rituals and practices passed down from their ancestors. Among these clans, the Ramunangi are acknowledged as the traditional custodians of Phiphidi Waterfall, a small cascade that is central to the clan’s relationship with ancestral spirits. This custodial responsibility, however, is not legally recognized, which has limited the Ramunangi’s ability to protect their sacred site from tourism development. A rock above the waterfall — one of the site’s most holy areas — was recently destroyed as part of a road-building project, and for years, the Ramunangi have been denied full access to the site to perform their rituals and custodial duties.

ALBERT DZEBU: Local economic development & tourism @ Musina Municipality.

The next stop was Musina, and for that one has to go over the Soutpansberg at Wyllie’s Poort. The highest peak in the mountain range is Lajuma — 1,747m.

Driving down the northern descent of the Soutpansberg.

The first white person to reach and name the mountain was Coenraad de Buys, a colonist who fled from Graaff Reinet after a failed rebellion in 1795. He settled near the mountain in 1820 and was the patriarch of a half-caste clan, the “Buysvolk” or Buys People, who are still to be found at Buysdorp.

Driving over the Soutpansberg one just has to wonder how it must have been crossed by ox wagon. The vegetation on the southern side is almost imprenetrable it’s so thick. The road curves (with no laybyes for photo opportunities) below steep cliffs. It is a stunningly beautiful drive!

It’s only 92km from Louis Trichardt to Musina, but when you cross the Soutpansberg you enter a different world: one dotted with those weird and outlandish Baobab trees.

Trucks and more trucks for kilometres and kilometres waiting to cross the border post at Beit Bridge.

Musina is a mining town — copper, iron ore, coal, magnetite, graphite, asbestos, diamonds and semi-precious stones — but its recent claim to fame is as one the busiest road in Africa and one of the busiest in the world — due to black market importers from Zimbabwe, a situation that will hopefully diminish.

The drive along the border fence was illuminating. Apart from the holes in the border fences, we drove past a military camp. Groups of Zimbabwean refugees were being detained for repatriation, but what really caught my eye were the army tents — with air conditioning units sticking out of the sides of the tents. The SA Army is not what it used to be!

The crisis in Zimbabwe did bring some prosperity to Musina but that, like the mines, won’t last forever. Increased regional tourism could help to fill the gap and Albert Dzebu is hoping that Musina can get a deal out of Anglo American similar to the one Phalaborwa received from Rio Rinto. (See Mining can add value.)  I hope so because I am getting the feeling that most mining companies don’t contribute as much to communities as they claim.

It’s almost incomprehensible that two towns — Thohoyandou and Musina — only about 100km apart as the crow flies, can be so different.  Yes, micro-climates and vegetation play a role, but I’m starting to get the feeling that mining towns have the guts sucked out of them by the companies that “own” them.  Mining stifles community entrepreneurship and creativity — the mines are all that count.  But that’s for another blog post.

I didn’t get to Mapungubwe, only 80km to the west and SA’s newest World Heritage Site.  SANParks never answered my email asking for permission to visit with a wolf.

Why is Mapungubwe special?  It abuts the Limpopo River where the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet.  It is the site of an ancient civilisation that predates the great Zimbabwe Ruins.

Mapungubwe Hill, seat of the Mapungubwe Kingdom (1075-1220). Mapungubwe means "place where jackals eat", derived from phunguwe  (Venda for jackal), as the hill was littered with human bones which attracted these scavengers.[8]  It is a sandstone hill, with vertical cliffs about 30 metres high and a plateaued top approximately 300m in length. There was a natural amphitheatre  at the bottom of Mapungubwe Hill where the royal court was likely held. However, the king actually lived inside a stone enclosure on a hill above the court.

This is an area I’m sure I will visit again.

Muse of Magoebaskloof

It takes a rather unusual person who — to support the launch of a friend’s new book — will undertake an epic 31-day walk from Inhambe in Mozambique to Schoemansdal near Louis Trichardt in the foothills of the Soutpansberg mountains.

And that’s what Louis Changuion did in 2002. He retraced the 900km journey of 19th century Pastor Montagne, a Roman Catholic priest, on foot, wearing a cassock. (And Montagne certainly did not do it all on foot. He would have been carried in a hammock by porters for much of the way.)

Schoemansdal was the main centre of the Boers in the north and they had contacted the Portuguese seeking a seaport they could use. Pastor Montagne in Inhambane, then Mozambique’s capital, volunteered to to visit Schoemansdal to see what the Boers needed. Apparently, he’d had an affair which resulted in a child, and he welcomed the chance for an extended absence from Inhambane.

It wasn’t long after that Schoemansdal was evacuated on instructions from Pretoria. The war between Boer and Venda was not going well and, since the safety of Boers in Schoemansdal was risky, Pietersburg (Polokwane) was established as the main town for the north.

But Changuion, then professor of history at the University of the North (now University of Limpopo) and a very fit and keen hiker, had prepared a schedule and stuck to it. He arrived in Schoemansdal in August 2002 on the day the book was launched.

Louis Changuion's walk

Louis Changuion’s walk

Changuion moved to Haenertsburg in 1971 when he accepted a teaching post at the University of the North. He didn’t like Pietersburg and… well, who wouldn’t want to live in nearby Haenertsburg?

One of the attractions of Haenertsburg and Magoebaskloof was the opportunities for hiking and it was this that led to Changuion’s first book — on hikes — which, he says, is the first hiking book published in South Africa.  One of the hiking trails around Haenertsburg has been named the Louis Changuion Trail and starts at the village hall.

And so he started celebrating the area that had become his new home.  His literary output continued with works such as Silence of the Guns : the history of the Long Toms of the Anglo-Boer War; Uncle Sam, Oom Paul en John Bull : Amerika en die Anglo-Boereoorlog; and Pietersburg 1886 – 1986.

His imprint on Haenertsburg is the Long Tom Monument — the open-air museum in the village which commemorates all the wars which involved local inhabitants — the Makgoba War, the Anglo-Boer War, the World Wars and the Border Wars.

He also influenced the aesthetics and character of The Pennefather complex in the centre of the village — self-catering accommodation and a few shops — which celebrate Haenertsburg’s gold-prospecting past.

It’s largely because of Changuion that Haenertsburg is arguably the only town in the whole of Limpopo that really celebrates its heritage.

Land of the Silver Mist

Back to Route 71 that links Limpopo’s capital, Polokwane, to Phalaborwa, right on the border of the Kruger National Park — a distance of ±300km.  I explored Magoesbaskloof briefly when I stayed at Bramasole Guest House and met with a remarkable lady.

This time I would explore further, using Haenertsburg as a base.  On our first drive along the R71, I was told to stop in at the Iron Crown Pub & Grill, so I already knew that this tiny village of fewer than 200 houses has something going for it.

Magoesbakloof is known as the Land of the Silver Mist.  This photograph gives some indication of why… mountains, ravines & valleys, forests, lakes and mists.

Stanford Lake in Magoesbaskloof

I was being hosted by Linda Miller who was looking after The Pennefather, which I had noticed during my drive up the main street on my first visit to the village.  It’s a complex of two trading posts and six self-catering cottages that celebrate Haenertsburg’s historical mining era.

The cottages draw their names on Haenertsburg’s history — Karl Mauch, Ferdinand Haenert, Doel Zeederberg, Rider Haggard, Long Tom and Prester John — and the trading posts from the long-gone mining companies.  The building style is as it was then — Victorian using corrugated iron for walls and roofing — but certainly far better appointed than any miner’s abode!

The cottages do look tiny from the outside (I was really puzzled by them on my first fleeting visit) but they are remarkably spacious and comfortable.  Linda also manages Magoebaskloof Tourism and is very knowledgeable about the area.

Spacious, comfortable and quaint self-catering cottages at The Pennefather

It may be a village, but Haenertsburg and Magoesbaskloof  surrounding it is one of Limpopo’s gems.  I’d rate it as one of South Africa’s finest destinations and as strong a destination as any I know in the Western Cape — its strength stems from a collective effort rather than single lodges, etc,  that are the norm in Limpopo.

You can easily spend a week here and find you haven’t done all you set out to do.  The area clearly caters for tourists, and many of the locals are tourists who decided to make it their home.  It’s these successful city businesspeople who have turned sleepy hollows into vibrant communities in so many small towns throughout South Africa.

Convivial host and SA's first streaker

Magoesbaskloof has no shortage of eating places.  I mentioned the Iron Crown Pub & Grill in the village in an earlier post.  It is a destination in its own right.  But the Pot & Plow out of town surprised me too.  A bustling pub & pizzeria that was full of young people the night I was there. I returned the following day to find it also has a popular outdoor area.

That’s when I met Gary Barnes — Pot & Plow’s convivial publican — and Gavin Stanford, who’s claim to fame is that he was South Africa’s first streaker during a boring cricket match at The Wanderers in the 1970s.

I was also invited to join Stuart & Linda Miller for supper at the Red Plate in Haenertsburg.  Just after we all ordered, there was a power failure!  Not unusual I was told.  And Red Plate came up with an alternative menu they could deliver on… and it was very good.

When you explore the area, don’t just follow the R71 because the R528 (which is an alternative route to Tzaneen) is just as scenic and you’ll need to take that to see the Ebenezer Dam and Woodbush Forest Reserve or to go on a canopy tour.

Roads to Cheerio Gardens and Wegraakbosch Organic Cheese Farm lead off the R71.

Two sights in the village shouldn’t be missed. There’s the Long Tom Monument — an the open-air museum in the village. The museum commemorates all the wars which involved local inhabitants and includes the Makgoba War, the Anglo Boer War, and the Border Wars.

The other is the ultimate resting place — the Haenertsburg Cemetery!

Resting place with a view: Haenertsburg cemetery

There is more on Haenertsburg & Magoebaskloof in our destination pages.

Qunu: Discovering Nelson Mandela’s roots

Qunu - Nelson Mandela's birthplace

Qunu – Nelson Mandela’s birthplace

It’s impossible to drive along the N2, see the road sign for Qunu, and not be inquisitive about the place where Nelson Mandela was born and grew up.

It is like most of the Eastern Cape — serenely beautiful.

Qunu still has the remains of the primary school where he started Grade One and at which the teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave him the name ‘Nelson’ on his first day of school; the remains of the old stone church where he was baptised;  the granite ‘sliding’ rock he used to slide down with friends;  the pastures where he roamed as a young shepherd;  his original home where his mother presided over three huts.

It was also an apt place to stop and think about how the Eastern Cape has gone so horribly wrong — a province where the future has gone horribly awry — where so many people have lost all sense of purpose and the ethic of work.

I had driven through kilometre after kilometre of fertile but fallow land, clearly showing how once-productive agriculture has been forsaken.  I’d learned how the system of social grants encourages people to stay at home — with a couple of old age grants, supplemented by taking in some AIDS orphans or child support grants, a family income exceeds what they can earn in the workplace.

It reminded me of Thabo Mbeki’s badly-misjudged presentation to the IOC in Lausanne in 1997 for Cape Town’s Olympic Bid, where he told the IOC that they “owed it to us; it’s Africa’s turn.”  When will Africa learn that patronage comes with a price and the only way to achieve anything is through collective hard work?

In Qunu, I visited the Nelson Mandela Youth & Heritage Centre – a component of the Department of Arts & Culture’s Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha – which hosts exhibitions, tours and offers accommodation and conference facilities.

Apart from the guide, Akela, Kenya & I were the only other souls there.  Photographs are not permitted in the exhibition on Mandela’s life, so no mementos!  The guide was a local and recalled a hard life growing up in a rural village.  But he confirmed that the social grant system has destroyed the soul of the people.

Qunu: Serenely beautiful, yes, but a place of fond memories and sadness.

Mining can add value

Driving into Phalaborwa at about 8am, the first thing that struck me was the haze in the air.  And this was not a heat haze, it was dust from the mines.  Phalaborwa is another one of Limpopo’s towns that today owes its existence to the copper and phosphate mines that surround the town.

The second thing that struck me while I explored the town before my first meeting was the sense of order that’s rare in Limpopo.  It’s clean, architectural eyesores are few (not that there’s any great architecture) and even the informal trading in the town centre was obviously managed.  Was this evidence of a mining company influencing a municipality?

Phalaborwa lays claim to being the tourism capital of Limpopo and its tourism info office, funded and staffed by the Palabora Foundation, is the most efficient — by far — that I’ve come across in Limpopo.  Mark Glanvill and Rosa-Leigh Kruger are real assets to the town.

Phalaborwa’s Marula Festival in February each year is one of the highlights of Limpopo’s events calendar.  Another attraction is the fact that one of Kruger National Park’s gates in only 800 metres from town.  And with the opening of the Giriyondo border post, you can now drive through to Mozambique.

Gate to Kruger National Park on the outskirts of the town

The region’s challenges are considerable.  Ba-Phalaborwa municipality has a population of 156,000 and 18% are unemployed.  Only 41% of the 15-65 age group are economically active.

In the Phalaborwa district (population 111,650), 33% are under the age of 15; 66% under the age of 34; 40% have no income and 20% earn less than R500 a month.  Some 23.5% are HIV-positive.

Malesala

Malesela Letsoalo

My visit starts with Malesela Letsoalo, director of the Palabora Foundation (founded in 1986).  Until 2001, Rio Tinto’s Palabora Mining Company (PMC) contributed 3% of its after tax profit to the Foundation.  But then, someone at Rio Tinto was very clever and had the foresight to plan ahead.  With lean years looming while the company moved from open pit to underground mining, the Foundation received a lump sum grant of R176 million so that it’s work could continue using the interest earned, supplemented by other donors (European Union, Oxfam, Foskor, Sasol Nitro and others).

Of course, given that PMC made a profit of R1.4 billion last year, it’s obvious to ask if they got off lightly.  Not really.  The Palabora Foundation would have gone unfunded for a few years if the 3% formula had been retained.  It meant they could plan ahead and attract a broader donor/participant base.  And that’s not the last donation PMC will make.  Discussions on the mine’s ultimate closure have already started and that will also carry a significant lump sum payment to the community.

Now that’s all good and well, but what’s the money doing?  So many foundations thrive on doing “good work” but the results are hardly lasting.  The Palabora Foundation focuses on education, combatting the impact of HIV/Aids and entrepreneurship.

Opportunity to excel

Opportunity to excel

Educational results can only be regarded as spectacular.  The grade 12 pass rate is over 90% with over 75% gaining university exemption — far higher than the Limpopo average.   The focus is on mathematics, science and technology.  A special programme selects students with high-achieving potential, offering extra tuition which leads to bursaries, usually to study engineering.

Programmes start with early learning and extend to school learners, teachers and governing bodies for about 50 schools in the region.

Cooking classes in a state-of-the-art kitchen at the Palabora Foundation

I was singularly impressed by everything the Palabora Foundation is doing — courses in construction, computer-literacy, sewing, arts and crafts.  And those attending are not just school-leavers or others needing to improve their skills.  Mine employees close to retirement are also encouraged to attend so they have skills to occupy them productively when they leave the mines.

Mark Glanvill & Matee Seduma

Mark Glanvill & Matee Seduma

Later that afternoon back at Bollanoto Tourism Centre, I met with tourism’s Mark Glanvill, Chris Kruger (Palabora Foundation and chair of the Trade & Tourism Council) and Matee Seduma  (head of the municipality’s local economic development).  If the Foundation has been the catalyst, Seduma is rising to the challenge, and that’s why this former schoolteacher left the profession.  There’s a vibrant and informed dialogue about driving tourism but, Seduma notes, when he asked Limpopo Tourism for their business plan, he was told there isn’t one (except in someone’s head).

Rio Tinto has changed my attitude to mining companies.  As a Capetonian, appreciating how God-given assets and nurtured agricultural environments have created one of the world’s great destinations and SA’s best city, mines are an anathema.  They rape and despoil the land and the benefits they offer are temporary.  Or are they?  What Rio Tinto is doing suggests not.  It has shifted the focus of the whole region.  The Ba-Phalaborwa municipality has set its sights firmly on a tourism and wildlife focus, and the importance of entrepenurship.

Something else unique to a mining company has permeated the town.  Mines are safety conscious and cleanliness is part of the safety ethic.  Phalaborwa reflects this (unlike some other Limpopo towns where mines play a lesser role in their communities).  Mines also practice strict financial controls – and that’s probably why the Palabora Foundation really does give more bang for the buck in a province renowned for corruption and lax financial management.

And there’s a lesson for the ANC Youth League’s Julius Malema — the private sector always gets more bang for the buck than the government ever can.  And yes, there is sometimes an attractive face to capitalism.

Read more about Phalaborwa here.

My First Game Drive!

I went for my first game drive in a golf cart… on Phalaborwa’s Hans Merensky Estate… and saw giraffe for the first time as well as hippopotamus, crocodile, warthogs and impala in a matter of about 10 minutes on a golf course.  Surely that says it all… where else in the world can you do that?

I’ve been longing to see a real giraffe since I arrived in Limpopo — more than lions or anything else — and I wasn’t disappointed.  I was taken around by Mark Glanvill and no sooner had we come across a group of buck right in front of one of the houses on this spectacular golf estate…

Impala on Hans Merensky Estate

My First Giraffe... they are impressive and one can forget that they are wild animals.

… than we came across the first group of giraffe. It really was a matter of just turning my head to the right!

Hans Merensky Estate is to Phalaborwa what the V&A Waterfront is to Cape Town, but in some respects it is even more impressive because of its uniqueness. It started as facility for Palabora Mining’s staff but was sold because was not a core function of the company. The buyer turned it into a golf estate with a hotel and ±80 houses. A new investor is currently upgrading the whole facility. Their slogan is the apt “Golf in the Wild”.

So if you’re easily distracted while putting, this is not for you.

There was game everywhere.  It was a spectacular drive around a golf course.

The Estate borders the Kruger Pational Park and there is a gate which is opened at night.  Tracks in the morning show that lions do come through.

Giraffe amused by the flag on the green that springs back, warthog, and thanks goodness for a telephoto lens with this big croc!

The only sour taste was being chased off the Estate by an officious manager who demanded the film from my Sony digital camera after trying to drag me into his argument with Mark! He claimed to have worked at Ferryman’s Tavern at the V&A Waterfront, but obviously learnt nothing about the importance of tourism.

A haven in Pietermaritzburg

We decided to stay in Pietermaritzburg for Indaba rather than stay in the bustle of Durban.  A wolf likes quiet.  We didn’t regret it for a moment.

We stayed at The Jays in the leafy suburb of Clarendon — an establishment favoured by business travellers — that offers bed & breakfast or self-catering.

John & Jane Kassner were perfect hosts, knowledgeable about the area with advice on where to go.  The room was very comfortable and the last time I slept in a bed this comfortable was at the Cape Grace Hotel in Cape Town!

Akela loved the walks (and smells) of the very pretty streets in Clarendon.  Streets are immaculate and sidewalks manicured.  The one morning we encountered a whole group of monkeys who gathered in the tree above us, chattering away.  Did they realise Akela is a wolf?  I don’t know but Cape Town’s baboons certainly do and treat her very differently to dogs.

caption goes here

A very comfortable bedroom with one of the most comfortable beds I've slept in for a long time.

The City Hall, constructed in 1893, destroyed by fire in 1895, rebuilt in 1901. This magnificent example of Victorian architecture is the largest red-brick building in the Southern Hemisphere.

Pietermaritzburg is a fascinating city, especially for anyone with an interest in architecture. Founded in 1838, it’s the capital of KwaZulu-Natal and is a major producer of aluminium as well as timber and dairy products. Sadly, while the suburbs are still delightful places, the CBD needs to take lessons from the Cape Town Partnership on city management and rejuvenation.

Pietermaritzburg’s tourist office needs a kick in the bum and seems to be a total waste of rate- and taxpayers’ money, if funded by local government.  We emailed asking for information but have yet to receive any reply.

An old-fashioned (free) National Road

MOST PEOPLE from the Western Cape probably find toll roads an anathema.  We only have two throughout the whole province — the Huguenot Tunnel and Chapman’s Peak Drive, and one can understand why both are toll roads (although one wonders how long Chapman’s Peak will remain one, given that it’s been such a disaster).  For the rest, travellers (and tourists) don’t pay tolls to get from A to B.

So I decided to take an old-fashioned (and free) National Road from Mokopane to Pietermaritzburg — the N11.  (The thought of all the traffic around Pretoria for Jacob Zuma’s coronation also discouraged passing through Pretoria.)

The trip started early, in the dark, and it was long after crossing the N1 near Marble Hall (in Mpumalanga Province) that I was already cursing the SA National Roads Agency.  At the first of many stop-go sections, traffic was allowed from both directions onto the single lane — rather frightening, not to mention dangerous, on a road under construction in the dark!

One must wonder why such long sections of road have to be single lane (with little construction work in sight) because it just increases the waiting time at either end.  This alone, with the slow single lane sections, probably added two hours to our total trip time.

Driving past Groblersdal reminded me that the late Hendrik Schoeman, a minister of transport in the 1980’s, had been one of SA’s most successful farmers and farmed around there.  Harold Gorvy, a prominent businessman, and I first met him (and tourism minister, John Wiley) in 1985 after the Pierhead Festival which had demonstrated the public attraction of Cape Town’s derelict docklands.  Both agreed to form an inter-departmental commitee to report on redevelopment of the area.  That committee was headed by Arie Burggraaf and led to the V&A Waterfront!

It’s a fascinating area and, like Tzaneen which I visited a few weeks ago, is one of the few areas in Limpopo I’ve visited that is extensively cultivated.  Most of the towns impressed for their cleanliness and more sense of order than I’d seen in Limpopo — Grobersdal and Middelburg stand out in this respect.

What has really become evident in these travels is the importance of municipalities in making or breaking tourism.  Unfortunately, few have a clue… if they are not one of the 95-or-so local authorities that are technically bankrupt!

Here at the entrance to Mpumalanga, the contrast between cultivated areas and typical bushveld is more apparent. The next surprise was coming across the Loskop Dam.

Loskop Dam is located in a really stunning area, and there are a number of resorts that capitalise on this.

If I think of tourism/leisure developments along the Western Cape’s Garden Route and West Coast, I’m sure it won’t be long before the Loskop Dam area sees a mini-boom.  One hopes that effective environmental and aesthetic controls will be in place before it begins.

Middelburg

Driving south-east from Middelburg, the topography is characterised by more rolling hills and valleys; one has entered the Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal grasslands.

This is part of the South African Grassland Biome, now unique among the grasslands that once used to cover nearly 50% of Africa’s surface. A change in climate around three million years ago allowed trees to encroach into these grasslands and create the savannas we know today.

I couldn’t help wondering what economic benefit the area held — it’s sparsely populated apart from occasional sheep.  Well, montane grasslands and fynbos are effective “collectors” of rain water. The southern montane grasslands of Mpumalanga provide year-round water supply essential for the cooling of power stations.

One out-of-date statistic I came across says that the eight Eskom power stations in Mpumalanga supply 70% of SA’s energy needs.  Over 2,000 km² of the Mpumalanga Highveld is taken up by South Africa’s major gold and coal deposits, much of which are mined in opencast pits.

I must find out about environmental legislation governing the mining companies (and maybe someone can answer it in the comments).  The waste heaps are a blot on the landscape.  The heavy-vehicle traffic on the road also made me think back to the 1980’s, when it was very difficult to get road-haulage licences to favour SA Railways.  Maligned as it was then, it reduced the number of trucks on the roads and the damage they do to road surfaces.  Companies should be forced to use rail transport more often!

Grasslands... and very few people!

Outside Volksrust, the last town in Mpumalanga before entering KwaZulu-Natal, a signpost points to Majuba, immortalised on 27 February 1881 as the main battle of the First Boer War where the Boers crushed the British. Over 280 Britons were killed, captured or wounded against Boer casualties of one dead and five wounded.

The battle is historically significant because it led to the signing of a peace treaty and the Pretoria Convention, between the British and the newly created South African Republic, ending the First Boer War.

The Boers’ fire and move tactic employed by the Boers in the final assault on Majuba Hill was years ahead of its time.

Following defeats at Laing’s Nek and Schuinshoogte, Majuba ratified the strength of the Boers in the minds of the British. “Remember Majuba” became a rallying cry in the second Anglo-Boer War.

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The N11 ends just past Ladysmith where it joins the N3 which links Gauteng to Durban.  Here we joined a toll road for the first time and, yes, it was a pleasant experience!  Wide roads, a dual carriageway with a wide median and spectacular scenery through the Natal Midlands.  But when the upgrading of the N11 is finished, there is little doubt that it will become the route of choice from the north.  It will be a splendid drive through memorable scenery.

Wow! Durban’s ICC impresses

We’re planning a detour in our Limpopo travels to visit Durban’s ICC for Indaba — Africa’s biggest travel show.  So I wrote to the ICC asking for help with shade parking for a wolf in a bakkie.

I have never had such a fast, positive and helpful reply.  Nicolette Elia’s answer suggested alternatives, mentioned concerns — for Akela — and was thoroughly thought out.  Obviously there must be a very strong team at the ICC.

Minutes after my email reply, I had a call from her to firm up on what she suggested, which she followed up moments later by email — with clear directions and cellphone numbers of anyone I might need.

In our conversation, she even mentioned that security staff had offered to water and walk Akela if necessary.

I told her how impressed I was by her first email and she replied, “It’s sad that one should be impressed by something like that…”  Indeed it is.  Limpopo Tourism’s first response to Travels with Akela was that a wolf wouldn’t be welcome at Limpopo establishments.  They have been proved wrong.

Thank you ICC.  I have started a list of Hospitality Superstars and you’re on that list.

Route 71 to Tzaneen – a different world

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If you’re coming from Johannesburg, the road to Tzaneen takes you past the outskirts of Polokwane, Limpopo’s capital, and then east. Surprisingly, it’s a proper dual carriageway with a wide median down the middle — not something I’ve seen very often around here – probably because I avoid toll roads because I they show how government shifts its responsibility of providing arterial infrastructure onto taxpayers and tourists!

(You can also fly to Polokwane International Airport on scheduled flights, but I’m not sure where the “International” bit comes from. First Car Rental has a branch there so rent a car from them.  They offer great cars, great value, great service and they’re really very friendly.)

Polokwane to Tzaneen takes about an hour and, if one continues another hour along Route 71, you come to Phalaborwa and the Kruger National Park.  (Yes, most of the Park actually lies in Limpopo.)

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Leaving Polokwane, you come across “village” after “village”, all within the greater Polokwane metropolitan area.  It’s scary… Polokwane’s urban sprawl goes on for kilometre after kilometre.  If Polokwane municipality aims to provide uniform service delivery and services throughout its area, it will bankrupt itself or its citizens with this kind of land usage.

It’s an interesting drive though and could be a fascinating tourist route.  On the way back, I want to photograph some of the eye-catching shops along the road.  Maybe I’ll meet some interesting people too.

The road takes you past Zion City at Moria which makes the news every year — over five million people travel there at Easter, in early September and over Christmas for religious celebrations.

The Zion City Church was formed by Engenas Lekganyane after a revelation he is said to have received from God in 1910. Followers believe that the church’s leader (today it’s Lekganyane’s grandsons) stand between the congregation and God; and that, like Christ, can perform miracles.  Hmmm… yes.

The dual carriageway ends at Moria.  Could it have been built just for those three annual events?  Limpopo Tourism say the province’s tourism benefits greatly but I’m not so sure.  Pilgrims arrive by any means of transport available and the visit is singularly focused.  Apart from fuel and food, and the requirements for staging massive events, few tourism rands get spread around.  If anything, all other tourists are discouraged from visiting the province at those times.  Limpopo Traffic advised CapeInfo not to travel at these times.

But that’s also where the road starts taking you into the mountains.  The scenery changes so dramatically you could be in a different world.

Moving from Polokwane to Mopani municipal districts also had another very noticeable contrast – spotless roads with tidy road verges and strategically placed roadside picnic spots in shade.  For the first time in Limpopo, I had the feeling that this municipality really cares.  (I was so impressed that I was compelled to pop into the municipal manager and mayor’s offices in Tzaneen to tell them.  Well done guys!)

The vegetation is typical bushveld as you climb the winding pass and then — all of a sudden — you’re in forests with vistas of dramatic mountain after dramatic mountain.  This is where the Drakensberg escarpment ends!

Descending the first pass you come to the small village of Haenertsburg … in the Land of the Silver Mist””.  I’d never heard of it before but watch it become a “must-visit” route destination.  Old-timers may resent a new-found tourism status, but they should watch their property values climb!

I drove past it the first time thinking, “pretty, but not worth a detour.”  My host in Tzaneen, Adri Kruger of Tzaneen Country Lodge, told me I must visit Martin & Jen at the Iron Crown Pub & Grill.  She was right — this is one of those places that defines a town.  What friendly owners, what a buzz and I will be back… and so will many others I guess.  It also made me venture further into the village.

Iron Crown Pub & Grill in Haenertsburg - an essential stop on Route 71

The road dips into another valley and overlooks the spectacular Ebenezer dam, shimmering blue surrounded by green forests. Then another ascent brings one to Magoebaskloof, named after King Makgoba, leader of the Tlou people who defied the Boer government from 1888–1895.  He was eventually killed by Swazi impis employed by the Boers when they failed to take his mountaintop domain.

Magoebaskloof

Tzaneen produce

Approaching Tzaneen, one enters one of the most intensely farmed areas in SA’s northern provinces.  Some facts about the greater Tzaneen area are telling:

  • It’s known as the fruit basket of South Africa, growing mango, avocado, tomato, banana, tea and the whole basket of citrus.
  • The area has been rated one of the wealthiest in South Africa.
  • It’s won South Africa’s Cleanest Town of the Year award.

Tzaneen, on the banks of the huge Tzaneen dam, must be the greenest town I’ve ever seen.  Only the commercial centre seems to stand above the canopy of trees that covers the town.  It’s the second largest town in Limpopo (population 80,000), and serves the greater Tzaneen area which has a population of about 700,000 people.  This shows in the CBD which has excellent shopping.


Notes on photographs

I will replace and add to the pics on these pages when I get better ones.  If anyone can help with stunning photographs of the area, they are really appreciated and will be credited when used. Getting great pics means being at the right place at the right time which is rather difficult when you’re just passing through.  Good lighting is everything in the harsh sunshine.

I did go into the Tzaneen info office to see if they have a photo CD and ask for further information on the area. All I got was generic info on Limpopo! Not helpful at all, nor any warm welcome.

A polarising filter is essential for photography in Limpopo.  I haven’t managed to find a 62mm one yet for the Sony A200 DSLR which takes magnificent photographs.

I finally realised why Cape Town is a global centre for film and advertising film shoots — it has unique lighting (and named one of the top five blue sky cities of the world). An architect friend had just completed a building in Cape Town with a dusky pink Marmoran finish. It really looked good so they decided to use it again for a building they were doing in Johannesburg. They put a test panel up on the Joburg building but… what was dusky pink in Cape Town appeared a dirty grey in Johannesburg!