Limpopo has the makings of a tourism star, says Yolisa Mkele
An entirely non-scientific survey among friends revealed a none-too-surprising perception of Limpopo. In essence, we high-falutin’ city folk seemed to think the province was simply the place where avocados, macadamia nuts and oranges came from.
Few people I asked could find much better to say about it than “At least it won’t be cold.” However, turning notions like these on their heads is what travel is all about. My week-long investigation into the country’s northernmost province revealed two things to me:
1) LIMPOPO IS FANTASTICALLY BEAUTIFUL
I was thoroughly unprepared for the postcard-worthy scenery lying just north of Gauteng.
Our explorations took us in search of the Royal Venda burial site at Lake Fundudzi, with the hope that we could use our honeyed tongues to gain access to it. We soon discovered that we couldn’t but we did manage to gaze upon it from afar.
The lake looked like a creation of JRR Tolkien’s imagination. From our vantage point a few kilometres away, it seemed as if the surrounding mountains were spilling an endless broth of British-racing-green flora onto the lake’s shore. It’s only fitting that royalty should have been laid to rest there.
Then again, the entire province, once you get away from the large human settlements, has that quality. Whether it’s dense verdant bush, the cycad forests in Modjadjiskloof or the dusty mountains that used to house the Mapungubwe dynasty, Limpopo seems to whisper “come hither”.
2) LIMPOPO IS A STAR ON THE RISE
With natural beauty to rival both the Eastern and Western Cape, Limpopo is a province with untapped potential. All that it would need to become one of the country’s premier tourist magnets is one or two touches in the right places.
It is certainly less explored than the other two and that lends a smattering of mystery to it — after all, few things are more fun than traipsing around lesser-known territory in search of new discoveries.
Couple that with its rich and fascinating history and it becomes easy to see how the two traditional tourism beauty queens, the Eastern and Western Cape, may soon have a new rival on their hands.
As an exercise in adventure, Limpopo is like the love child of the world’s of Lewis Carroll and Tolkien, filled with ridiculous curiosities but grandiose and beautiful.
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HERE BE DRAGONS
The Drakensberg offers history and adventure in a spectacular setting, writes Paul Ash
THE Zulu people call it uKhahlamba — the Barrier of Spears. The baSotho who live on the edge of the escarpment call it Dilomo tsa Natala — the cliffs of Natal. And to the Voortrekkers who came struggling over the rocky heights with their wagons the range looked like the lair of a draken — a dragon — and so named the mountains the Drakensberg.
Today, anyone who has ever spent time amid these lofty peaks, or who has done the drive up Sani Pass near Underberg, calls it simply “the ’Berg”. Stretching 250km from the Sentinal in the north to its southern end and some 3 200m high on average, this is Southern Africa’s highest, longest and most impressive mountain range.
Its highest point — the 3 482m-high Tabana Ntlenyana — is also close to the source of the Tugela, the country’s second-longest river and one of the dozens of streams and waterfalls that have made the Drakensberg a verdant paradise. The cool, clear streams are life for the wild animals that live on the slopes — and a source of much pleasure for the fly-fishers who come to try their luck at catching the wily trout who live there.
The deep, lush valleys were home to the San who hunted the abundant game and left the records of their lives in hundreds of spectacular rock- art sites scattered throughout the range. Now walking trails reach up into the heights, offering some of the best hiking in the world, where you can overnight in caves and wake to views over the edge of the Earth.
The reward for all that vigorous outdoor activity is to sit on a cool hotel terrace and look up at the ’Berg and know that in front of you stands one of Nature’s finest gifts and that you have been blessed to see it.
THE ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS
THABA MANZI WILDLIFE SERVICES
While it may only be open to the public in the loosest sense of the term, Thaba Manzi, just outside Bela-Bela, is a fascinating place to try to get into. Known for being home to the rhino Hope, who survived a savage attack by poachers in May 2015, the farm acts as an animal sanctuary and an auction house.
As such, it is home to a wide variety of animals including a herd of rhino, buffalo and even the odd llama. Thaba Manzi also helps facilitate game capture, rehabilitation and export. See www.thabamanzi.org
THE SUNLAND BIG BAOBAB, MODJADJISKLOOF
What is the best place to build a bar? How about inside a tree that has been alive since medieval knights were frolicking with steel in England. At least that seems to be this place’s sales pitch.
Sadly, old age seems to have claimed the bar in the bowels of the tree but the baobab itself still stands as a testament to the phrase “age ain’t nothing but a number”.
A new bar has been set up nearby should you feel thirsty and it is a great place to have a picnic. — Entrance is R25 per person and free for kids under 3. See www.bigbaobab.co.za
The Mokopane Caves are a great find for those with a taste for history. The world heritage site is a complex of intermeshed and neighbouring caves, whose story begins many thousands of years ago and carries on right into relatively recently struggles between the Ndebele, Xitsonga and Afrikaners.
Sadly, much of the site is rather dilapidated and its administration is a mess, but if you can look past that you will see that the caves are a lot of fun.
Contact the Arend Dieperink Museum at 015-491-9735 for more information
MODJADJI CYCAD RESERVE
For a walk through some unspoilt terrain believed to have existed since prehistoric times, stop by the Modjadji Cycad Reserve in Modjadji, Tzaneen.
It is home to the largest concentration of a single cycad species in the world, which only adds more allure to the area so wrapped up in the mystery of the Rain Queen, Modjadji, after whom the forest and surrounding villages are named.
Take a short hike up the hill where you will experience the full glory of the cycads, which can grow to 13m. Their seed cones can reportedly reach up to 35kg.
Unfortunately the reserve is not particularly well maintained but trekking among the lush green trees is highly recommended.
Debengeni Waterfall in Magoebaskloof is definitely one of Tzaneen’s top attractions. Situated along the R71 route between Haenertsburg and Tzaneen, what the mini falls lack in stature they make up for in character.
For just R10 per entry, you can spend a day swimming in the pools or picnicking while taking in the splendour of the Ramadipa River’s 80m fall into “the big pot” (the direct translation of “Debengeni” from Pedi).
Braai facilities are also available with plenty of seating across from the falls. Be careful on the slippery rocks and take care when swimming, as there are no lifeguards on site.
BAKONE MALAPA OPEN-AIR MUSEUM
If you have ever been curious about how the antecedents of Limpopo's Basotho population went about their daily lives, then Bakone Malapa is for you. Just outside Polokwane, the museum is built in the style of a traditional Basotho village circa 250 years ago.
Tour guides take you through the minutiae of how the Bakone, a northern subset of the Basotho, made beer, fire and lived. It features homes made of cow dung, mud and thatch. The tour also sheds light on the relations the Bakone had with the Ndebele and Tsonga as well as colonialists.
For more information contact 073-216-9912
A national park and Unesco world heritage site, Mapungubwe was home to the first indigenous kingdom between 1075AD and 1300AD. For centuries, artefacts left behind by this early civilisation — which suffered its demise due to climate change — lay hidden atop Mapungubwe Hill.
They were discovered in 1932. The museum has several on display, including the famous golden rhino. The 30,000ha site is also at the point where SA meets Zimbabwe and Botswana at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashi rivers. Enjoy the view (with sundowners) from a special deck. See www.sanparks.org/parks
WHERE WE STAYED
WARMBATHS, A FOREVER RESORT
Whether you want a fun couple’s weekend or to distract your kids for a couple of days, Forever Resorts Warmbaths has you covered. Nestled in the somnolent town of Bela-Bela, the resort offers a warm-water themed respite for anyone too lazy to drive far out of Johannesburg or Pretoria.
Accommodation options are myriad and include everything from standard hotel rooms to chalets and family-sized lake-side cabins. You will also have more than enough to entertain you with a range of activities that include cable skiing, water slides, a spa, a wave pool and more.
DETAILS: 1 Chris Hani Drive, Bela-Bela. See www.foreverwarmbaths.co.za.
PROTEA HOTEL RANCH RESORT
Just off the R101, 25km outside of Polokwane, the Protea Hotel Ranch Resort is a luxurious but homely establishment offering both hotel, self-catering and bush-camp accommodation. Its Among its several amenities include , the property boasts a golf course, game reserve, gym and play area for children.
Popular for weddings, New Year parties and s well as conferencing, the sprawling property is also home to the popular fantastic lion walk. After a long day, visitors can wind down at Old Joe’s Bar, a quirky drinking hole with decked out in comfortable couches and decorated with old musical instruments, which gives it an old-school yet classy feel. After sundowners, tuck into some fine dining at Basil’s Fine dining restaurant.
DETAILS: South of Polokwane on the N1, R101, Farm Hollands Drift, Polokwane, phone 015-290-5000 or visit http://theranch.co.za.
RATES: From R1,295 per room.
TSHIPISE, A FOREVER RESORT
At the foot of the Tshipise koppie, this super family-friendly resort has 95 thatch-roofed bungalows, plus a caravan and camping park with power points and ample shared ablution facilities.
There are so many fun activities on site — including horse-riding, walking trails, a kiddies’ play park, trampoline and mineral pools, plus a regular swimming pool and a baby pool — you may never want to leave. The food at the restaurant is hearty and filling.
DETAILS: R525, Tshipise. See forevertshipise.co.za.
TZANEEN COUNTRY LODGE
Tzaneen Country Lodge is well deserving of every one of its four stars. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable and the rooms are clean and of a good size. Those with deeper pockets can enjoy the luxury rooms, one of which is kitted out with a private jacuzzi.
For families, there is entertainment in the form of an animal farm with donkeys, peacocks and cows. Enjoy sundowners on a barge down the river on the property or sip on cocktails on the verandah by the bar. The lodge also has a spa with an extensive range of services and there is a small gym. Across the road from the main property is a venue large enough for conferences and weddings.
DETAILS: R71, Tzaneen, phone 015-304-3290 or see tznlodge.co.za.
RATES: From R595 per person sharing.
This article was prepared in partnership with the Tourism Business Council of South Africa for the Sunday Times’s Finders Keepers competition.