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