On the back road from Bela-Bela to Polokwane
Bridget Hilton-Barber drives through the heart of small-town Limpopo
THE R101 from Bela Bela to Polokwane is a gentler alternative to the usual hurtle along the N1. It’s an aged, single-lane highway that snakes along the Waterberg Mountains and goes through the heart of small-town Limpopo. Look out for old painted cars, nouveau Boere-Gothic kitsch, wire art, eclectic roadside stalls and a scenic combo of mountain and bushveld.
No sooner had we turned off the highway to begin our R101 journey than we were derailed by a wacky roadside attraction called Toeka se Dae. It’s a bar-lounge-restaurant-deli-bakery-gift-shop, with a biltong bar, a shooter bar and the Drinkamoesalot Saloon. The walls are made of corrugated iron and the tables are made of old road signs. “Ja, Toeka is a very popular place,” sighed the waitress, Bella from Bela Bela, as she gave us tequilas. She’d had yet another late night, she said, and recommended the fresh bread from the bakery. It was delicious.
We set forth for Bela Bela, first stop on the R101 . When I was a child, the R101 took us out of Pretoria and on to Warmbaths, Nylstroom, Naboomspruit, Potgietersrus and Pietersburg. Today, it goes through Bela Bela, Modimolle, Mookgophong and Mokopane to Polokwane, name changes that beat a rhythm of reclamation.
Back then, this was politically right-to-far-right country. The old flag flew alongside the lofty spires of Calvinist churches; the railway station was the spotless centre of town life; most white men wore some kind of uniform; and black people were not allowed on the streets after dark.
Mercifully, things have changed considerably. In Bela Bela, the Royal Hotel, once my gran’s favourite tea stop, is still there, though much less salubrious, and the surrounding downtown area is a mixture of spaza shops, mahala stores, fong kong shops, pavement traders, hawkers and taxis. It’s lively and noisy and chaotic. You can buy anything from ghetto blasters and cheap blankets to heads-and-feet and roasted mielies. Here, as in most small South African towns, the demographic has shifted completely. The old downtowns have become business areas and the rich have simply moved their town centre, usually to a new mall in the suburbs. Bela Bela’s version is the Waterfront, a North African Lite building overlooking a small fake dam.
The name Bela Bela is Tswana for “water that boils”, referring to the hot spring and mineral waters that have long made this town famous because of their healing qualities. Families, travellers, the old and arthritic, continue to head in their droves for the hot springs, which are part of Forever Resorts Bela Bela. In the bad old days, they were called something like Warmbad Minerale Bronne. My mother was once asked to leave there because she was wearing — gasp! — a bikini.
Across the road is the Wire Market, a street market where crafters, mainly from Zimbabwe, make and sell the wire objets that have become so popular all around SA. You can meet the crafters and see an amazing array of wire mobiles, signs, shoes, figures and frames. We left with a heart, a wheelbarrow and a sewing machine.
In fact, there’s good rural retail therapy to be had all along the R101 between Bela Bela and Modimolle and on to Mokopane. We came across an interesting assortment of roadside stalls, coffee shops, galleries and nurseries with a new Afrikaans spirit and aesthetic. Less doily and more Goth, if you like. Art is what you can get away with, said the sign outside a gallery in Modimolle, which has a nice collection of shops, also some beautifully preserved historic buildings, schools and churches; and an Anglo Boer War concentration camp memorial, which is very moving indeed.
Between Modimolle and Mookgophong, which alas is the armpit of the R101 , a sad, sweaty and desolate place, you can see Kranskop koppie. In the mid-19th century, a breakaway group of Voortrekkers came across this koppie and nearby the flooding waters of the Mogalakwena River on their way to the Holy Land. Thinking that these were the headwaters of the Nile River and the koppie one of the great pyramids, they named their settlement Nylstroom (Nile stream). Hah.
Beyond Kranskop is Nylsvley Wetlands, a premier birding spot. It’s part of South Africa’s largest floodplain and the wetlands attract more birds than anywhere else in the southern hemisphere. At any one time, there are estimated to be some 80000 birds in the area. If you’ve never been, go.
Mokopane is a much more happening place than poor Mookgophong. Previously known as Potgietersrus, or Potties or PP-rus, the town has got a certain skip in its step. It’s mainly an agri-centre for surrounding wheat, tobacco, cotton, beef, maize, peanut and citrus farms.
The most rewarding stop in Mokopane is the Arend Dieperink Museum, which has a big collection of historical Voortrekker and Sotho artefacts, farm implements, clothes, shoes and old machinery.
The museum also arranges guided tours to the nearby Makapans Valley Heritage Site, which takes you back some 3.5 million years to when our hairier hominid ancestors roamed these plains. In 1936, Professor Raymond Dart discovered an Australopithecus fossil here, which proved, in the words of US playwright Robert Ardrey, that “humanity evolved beneath the canopy of African skies on the immense card table of the African savannah”.
It set a philosophical tone for the last stretch. We drove gently along through valleys surrounded by low, grey-blue mountains until our reverie was broken by the sight of Meropa Casino and Entertainment World rising up like a faux Afro palace under blue Polokwane skies. — © Bridget Hilton-Barber