Limpopo Province is considered by many to be South Africa’s no-man’s-land: a hot, thornbush-covered area caught between the dynamic heartland of Gauteng to the south and, to the north, the Limpopo River, which acts as South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe and Botswana. The real highlights of Limpopo are often overshadowed by the busy N1 highway, South Africa’s umbilical cord to the rest of the continent, which dissects the province. But this is where you’ll find vast open spaces with wildlife galore and breathtaking mountainous landscapes covered in mist, all accessible at lower prices than elsewhere in the country. Culturally, Limpopo also stands out: seven of South Africa’s eleven official languages are spoken here, and you stand a good chance of meeting people from the majority of the country’s ethnic groupings while travelling around the province. The region is also well endowed with a remarkable and ever-increasing number of wildlife and nature reserves, housing the country’s highest population of rhinos and a multitude of elegant species of antelope, and ensuring that there is brilliant game viewing to be had.
The eastern side of the province is lowveld, dominated by the 70km-wide strip of Kruger National Park abutting the Mozambique border. This part of Limpopo is covered, along with Kruger itself, in the preceding chapter. The principal attractions of the rest of the province lie in its three wild and distinctive mountain escarpments. The best known of these is the Drakensberg Escarpment, making the descent from highveld to lowveld through lush forests in the Letaba to the west of Kruger.
Polokwane, the provincial capital, lies west of the Drakensberg along the N1, while further to the west lies the sedate Waterberg massif, a region dedicated to wildlife conservation and offering malaria-free Big Five game viewing. In the north, parallel to the Limpopo River and bisected by the N1, are the subtropical Soutpansberg Mountains, and the intriguing and still very independently minded Venda region, a homeland during the apartheid era, to the east. North of the Soutpansberg are wide plains dominated by surreal baobab trees, much in evidence along the N1 as it leads to the only border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe, at Beitbridge. Hugging the border to the west, stifling hot Mapungubwe National Park provides a fascinating insight into what is now recognized as Africa’s earliest kingdom.
The N1 is, by South African standards, fast and easy, if often busy. It’s a toll road, with five toll stops along the way from Johannesburg to the border with Zimbabwe costing roughly R20 each time. As regards public transport, SA Roadlink, City to City and Translux buses ply the N1 between Johannesburg and the Musina border post, stopping at Polokwane and Makhado. Translux also runs buses between Tzaneen and Johannesburg via Polokwane. In addition, these and other routes are covered by minibus taxis from any moderately sized town; the best way to find out where they’re going and when they depart is to enquire at the taxi rank.
The first black Africans arrived in South Africa across the Limpopo River some time before 300 AD. The various movements and migrations, and of course trading, ensured a fluidity in the people who established themselves here, and the historical and cultural ties to the north are, as you might expect, stronger in this region than in other parts of South Africa. Traditional arts and crafts such as pottery and woodcarving are still an important part of life; and witchcraft is still encountered in many places.
The arrival of the Voortrekkers in the early nineteenth century brought profound changes to the region. Their route roughly followed that of the N1 today, and brought about the founding of the towns now called Bela-Bela, Modimolle and Polokwane, among others. The Voortrekkers who ventured this far north were determined people, and their conflicts with the local peoples were notoriously bitter. In 1850, at Makapan’s Cave off the N1 near Mokopane, several thousand Ndebele were starved to death by an avenging Boer commando, while further to the north, in 1867, Venda troops forced the Voortrekkers to abandon the settlement they had established at Schoemansdal in the Soutpansberg.
In the twentieth century, the apartheid years saw several large chunks of the province hived off as homeland areas, with Venda becoming notionally independent and Lebowa and Gazankulu self-governing. Today the contrasts between the old homelands and the white farming areas are manifest throughout the province, although in 2009 the province voted overwhelmingly in favour of the ANC.