The Waterberg Plateau is home to the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve and one of the world’s last unspoilt wilderness areas. It is the world's only savanna biosphere reserve.
The Waterberg Region includes the towns of Bela Bela (Warmbad), Modimolle (Nylstroom), Mookgopong (Naboomspruit), Vaalwater, Mokopane (Potgietersrus), Thabazimbi and Lephalale (Ellisras).
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The Waterberg Biosphere Reserve is a magical part of South Africa which is easily accessible from Africa’s industrial powerhouse, Gauteng. It is very old, and yet a very new place too. With its unique history of sparse human settlement, it has been perfectly placed to reinvent itself, following the dawn of democracy in South Africa, as a stunningly beautiful and highly significant conservation area.
The Waterberg answers every nature lover’s dreams: wide open spaces with a rare wilderness quality, the romance of true bushveld, close encounters with some of Africa’s most charismatic and unusual wildlife, and a riot of biodiversity. Add to this some of the most pristine river systems in southern Africa, rich cultural and archaeological diversity, and a myriad of opportunities to explore on foot, horseback or open topped vehicle, and you have one of the most amazing eco-destinations in the world. To top it all, the Waterberg has a mild climate and is malaria free.
For visitors either coming here for the first time or wishing to explore further, this review provides a synopsis of the history of the area from a cultural, geological and conservation perspective, and sets out its key environmental and tourism attributes.
A brief history of the Waterberg – and why it is still so empty
Although evidence of human activity in the Waterberg stretches back as far as the Middle Stone Age - and the close proximity of the hominid-rich site at Makapan Valley suggests that our earliest ancestors could have been frequent visitors to the Waterberg many thousands of years before that - the Waterberg was never heavily populated. And so it has remained. The first rock art in the area may be no more than one thousand years old, while the first farmers only appear to have settled on the high Waterberg plateau in the 11th Century. Iron Age pottery of the Eiland style, dating from the 11th to the 16th Century, is abundant in the Waterberg but only in open parts of the river systems that were most suitable for crop growing. During the Late Iron Age (c. 1700 AD) Nguni speakers settled in hilltop villages, such as that on Melora Hill near the Palala River, but evidence suggest that such settlements were sparsely distributed. While the area came to be dominated by the Pedi in the 18th Century, it appears to have been largely a sanctuary to which people fled periodically whilst under threat rather than an area for sustained and widespread settlement.
The Waterberg was also settled late by people of European origin, of which there were fewer than 200 resident even as late as the early 20th Century. This mountainous region was difficult to penetrate and cultivating a living from the nutrient-poor sourveld was always precarious. The northern parts of the Waterberg, with its fevers and tsetse flies, were indeed some of the last areas to be settled by whites in South Africa. Today the Waterberg still remains sparsely populated with a single town, Vaalwater, on the plateau. Despite rich deposits of coal, iron ore and platinum beyond its periphery the Waterberg plateau is devoid of any major mineral deposits. This, together with its unsuitability for forestry, has meant that the Waterberg has avoided any large scale development or habitation that could have otherwise detracted from its natural beauty or wilderness quality.
Ancient wilderness landscape, unsurpassed scenic beauty
The Waterberg can best be described as a large 'inverted saucer' stretching from Modimolle and Mokopane in the east as far as Thabazimbi and Lephalale in the west. Within the central core is a vast basin plateau dissected by numerous rivers, principally the Mokolo which rises in the southern hills and the Palala (Lephalala) which rises in the south-east. The plateau that makes up the Waterberg consists of a thick sequence of conglomerate and sandstone that has been reliably dated as approximately one thousand nine hundred million years old – about half as old as the Earth itself! Although the rivers that brought the sediments that became the rocks of the Waterberg have long since disappeared, they are known to have been fast running and shallow. They flowed from the north-east into a sea or large lake where southern Botswana is now. No fossils have been found in these rocks as they were formed before hard-bodied life forms had even evolved. The red colour of the Waterberg rocks is due to iron oxides and provides us with the earliest evidence on earth of the presence of free oxygen in the atmosphere – an essential requirement for the development of oxygen-dependent life.
This ancient landscape remains unspoilt to this day. In the form of the southern, eastern and northern escarpments, it provides some of the most scenic outlooks in South Africa. The southern escarpment consists of a continuous series of buttresses, rising from the valley floor in majestic order like sentinels on perpetual guard. The eastern and northern escarpments are more varied and in many ways more dramatic. Towards the east, the towering peak of “Hanglip” dominates the landscape, while further to the north a series of sheer cliff faces, amphitheatres and rocky outcrops, all in deeply-hued red sandstone, form one of our country’s most spectacular landscapes.
On top of the plateau the scenery is less dramatic but provides a sense of vast open space. The area is also graced with some of South Africa’s most pristine rivers, particularly the Palala, whose wilderness quality is unparalleled. Where else can one hike for miles without encountering another human being, drink clean water from the river (while avoiding the crocodiles), chance upon a finfoot or explore rock art in a setting that has barely altered since they were first created? A corollary to the unspoilt nature of the visual landscape in the Waterberg is the low level of light pollution in the night sky. Astronomers familiar with the South African scene agree that the Waterberg is one of the most perfect sites in the country to view the wonders of the universe.
Conservation in the Waterberg – a remarkable success story
The San rock art in the Waterberg portrays a rich biological diversity of animals such as the red hartebeest, eland, elephant, rhinoceros, kudu and giraffe. Sadly from the 1850s the vast wildlife resources of the Waterberg were decimated by European hunters, to the point where very few species remained by the turn of the 20th Century. However, the manifest difficulties of sustaining a living from agriculture in the Waterberg set the scene for an unprecedented conversion of land to conservation and game farming over the last 25 years or more. Today practically all species that we know to have occurred here have been successfully reintroduced.
This transformation has been largely driven by the private wildlife and tourism sectors, but the state has also played a significant role through the creation and ongoing expansion of Marakele National Park. Vast areas of conservation land have been reassembled, including reserves such as Welgevonden, Lapalala Wilderness, Entabeni, Dinaka and the newly created Greater Mokolo Nature Reserve. The Motse and Molekwa communities, recent recipients of land in the Waterberg through the land restitution process, have also expressed their intention to create large unfenced areas dedicated to conservation and eco-tourism centred on the Moepel Farms and other areas north of the Palala River. Such foresight suggests that perhaps many of these significant conservation properties will one day become further consolidated into one of the largest private/public sector reserves in southern Africa. Indeed, the transformation of the Waterberg into a wildlife area built on a series of intact ecosystem blocks would fulfil the vision of General Jan Smuts who advocated the creation of a massive national park stretching from the Palala River in the south to the Mogalakwena River in the northeast and the Limpopo River in the west. It is no accident that renowned conservationists such as Eugene Marais, Clive Walker, Dale Parker, Paul von Vlissingen and Anna Mertz all made their homes in the Waterberg.
A treasure trove of biological, archaeological and cultural diversity
Although the Big Five are readily encountered on certain reserves, the Waterberg’s strength as a wildlife destination lies in the opportunities afforded to visitors of seeing a much wider range of species in a relatively short time. In particular you are likely to see white rhinoceros, sable, gemsbuck, reedbuck and eland more easily than elsewhere. The Waterberg is also home to several rare, endangered or threatened carnivore species, including wild dog, brown hyena, aardwolf, honey badger, leopard, African wild cat, serval, African striped weasel and African civet. Other rare mammals include roan, tsessebe, Sharpe’s grysbok, aardvark, black rhino, hippo, pangolin and a healthy population of thick-tailed bushbaby.
Over two thousand plant species grow in the Waterberg, with many beautiful flowering trees, shrubs and bulbs between the months of November and February. There is also a great array of bird species. Almost half of the 350 birds found in the Waterberg are resident all year round, including the largest colony of Cape vultures in the world. A rich diversity of butterflies, other insects and reptiles can also be seen easily. Visitors interested in the finer details of the natural world will be interested to know that three species of flat lizard are endemic to the Waterberg, and that certain areas of the central plateau have the highest recorded density of snakes anywhere in South Africa!
This amazing biodiversity is complimented by a platform of varied cultural and archaeological heritage. Dispersed throughout the Waterberg, but particularly along the Palala River, a rich array of rock paintings clearly reflects the advanced level of the San people’s religious beliefs. Images portrayed include a variety of abstract designs, circular dances and numerous animal species. Apart from San rock art, the Waterberg is also rich in farmer rock art of the later agro-pastoralists who predominantly used white pigments applied by hand, in contrast to the multi-coloured brushwork of the San. Pottery shards, grinding stones and other artefacts as well as the extensive remains of walled settlements attesting to human activity from the 11th Century onwards can be viewed by any willing traveller, as can some homesteads and churches built by the earliest European settlers.
Some of the descendants of early inhabitants and pioneers can still be encountered in the Waterberg, many of whom continue to practice traditional skills in pottery, art work, agriculture or conservation. Waterbergers are renowned for their hospitality and sense of community, all vital traits for people living in isolated and perilous circumstances, and it is these attributes which are so effectively used in the tourism industry today. Visitors to the Waterberg often comment on the relaxed atmosphere and how they are openly welcomed into the daily goings on of the community at large. Whilst the descendants of European pioneers typically embraced the new tourist-orientated economic landscape, a range of opportunities to visit and stay with African rural communities in their own authentic settings have also now been developed along the Waterberg Meander route in an attempt to augment a visitors cultural experience further.
Wide range of places to stay and things to do
From exclusive safari lodges to intimate home stays and inexpensive self drive explorations, the Waterberg has it all. There are five star boutique lodges catering for those national and international visitors who seek fully guided close encounters with the “big five”. For those preferring a self-drive wildlife setting away from dangerous game, well furnished and inexpensive self-catering lodges are available. These destinations offer hiking and cycling as well as game viewing in a safe environment. One speciality of the Waterberg is the “bush home” stay where visitors are welcomed into a local home as exclusive guests and their holiday safari is tailor-made to their specific needs. Throughout, hospitality, attention to detail and quality service prevails.
As mentioned earlier, hunting has occurred in the Waterberg for hundreds of years, and this pastime continues today on a wide range of hunting properties. Recreational hunters seeking trophies of the “big five” or one of the impressive antelope species are well accommodated, whilst the Waterberg is also a favourite amongst local “biltong hunters”. The difference is that today hunting occurs within a sustainable framework, and is indeed one of the main drivers of the wildlife industry in the Waterberg.
There are many ways to explore the bush, but definitely exploring on horseback is both unique and exhilarating. The Waterberg is home to the oldest and largest cluster of internationally renowned horseback safari destinations in South Africa. With the emphasis on horses and horsemanship, excellent riding country and close encounters with wildlife make for a wonderful experience. One of the benefits of the Waterberg Meander is that visitors are not limited to the confines of a particular reserve or lodge when visiting the area, but are able to experience the wilderness, scenic beauty and rich diversity of the area when driving along back roads that are all but deserted. Much wildlife is also encountered. These endless miles of empty roads are also the perfect setting for mountain bike or geo-caching adventures. Finally, a new and growing tourism product in the Waterberg is cultural tourism, where opportunities are offered for visitors to engage with, learn from and in some cases work with local communities in authentic rural settings. A new generation of bird and site guide is being trained to guide visitors through the landscape and provide detailed information on particular bird, cultural or archaeological sites.
Recharge your senses
The essence of a visit to the Waterberg is the chance to slow down and absorb the natural beauty of a landscape uncluttered by noise, buildings or pollution. Breathe clean air and gaze across vast open spaces, take in the delicate play of light on the rolling hills and hear the natural sounds of the bush penetrate the silence. Experience the drama of a thunderstorm or the brilliance of the crystal clear night sky. There is a primordial need for mankind to reconnect with nature, to feel the ancient rhythms of a timeless landscape and to recharge the senses. The Waterberg welcomes you.
Future directions: challenges and opportunities
The granting of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status to large swathes of the Waterberg plateau is recognition of the area’s environmental importance and conservation potential. The future of the conservation revolution in the Waterberg lies in the outcome of a number of potentially conflicting processes. On the one hand, the demand for unfettered wilderness spaces will continue to grow as humans experience the ever increasing pressures of industrialization and wealthy individuals find opportunities to invest in conservation. On the other hand, many people are looking for an inexpensive form of access to this beautiful place, and while the possibility of owning a second home in a dense residential estate might satisfy this demand, the potential damage of this type of development to the Waterberg’s wilderness “sense of place”, unless done with extreme sensitivity, is quite alarming. Similarly the possibility of Eskom routing its high voltage electricity distribution network from the new power complex near Lephalale across the Waterberg plateau would have a devastatingly negative effect. The government has the responsibility to create and enforce the necessary strategic environmental management plans that will protect the core environmental and tourism assets of the area while also setting out development nodes, but time is running out.
At the same time, the Waterberg is in danger of being seen by many ordinary citizens as an island of wealthy privilege where the value placed on wildlife and biodiversity is greater than that placed on confronting unemployment and poverty. The challenge is to ensure that local people benefit from the growing tourism industry. Similarly, the Waterberg cannot afford for the large areas of conservation land claimed under the Land Restitution process to retreat from eco-tourism or tourism imperatives. These new custodians must be embraced within the Biosphere project and empowered to ensure the successful stewardship of this precious land. By visiting the Waterberg and supporting responsible local tourism, you will be assisting in this process.