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.
What was once known as South Africa’s Northern Province was renamed Limpopo in 2002, and the capital, Pietersburg, was subsequently renamed Polokwane. A number of other towns with “colonial” names have also undergone official name changes, though some of these changes have been taken to court for various political and procedural reasons.
East of Polokwane, the Letaba is a forested, lush, mountainous area, contrasting very sharply with the hot lowveld and bushveld abutting it east towards Kruger and west towards Polokwane. It marks the first dramatic rise of the Drakensberg Escarpment as it begins its sweep south through Mpumalanga. The forest begins around the mountain village of Haenertsburg and follows two very scenic parallel valleys to Limpopo’s second-largest but missable town, Tzaneen. The valleys are filled with lakes surrounded by dark pine forests, sparkling rivers, misty peaks and, towards Tzaneen, subtropical crops such as macadamia nuts and avocados. With some very comfortable and beautifully located guesthouses, farm-stalls and tea rooms, hiking trails and trout fishing, the Letaba is in many ways an attractive, less-well-known alternative to Mpumalanga’s crowded highlands, although it is gradually making solid inroads onto the tourist route.
A 10km circular historical hiking trail – the Changuion Trail – runs south of Haenertsburg through beautiful grassland and indigenous afromontane forest, offering stunning panoramic views of the Drakensberg Escarpment. It’s well worth setting time aside to do the trail, which takes roughly four hours at a leisurely pace. Look out especially for the blue swallow, Methuens Dwarf gecko and the delicate and rare Wolkberg Zulu butterfly. A map of the route is painted on the wall outside The Elm by the tourist office.
Rising out of the plains to the west of the Great North Road, the Waterberg was until recently one of the least known of South Africa’s significant massifs. During the past decade, however, it has been “discovered” by Johannesburgers, and is now a hugely popular weekend destination. Once an area of lakes and swamps – hence its name – the elevated plateau can often seem as dry as its surrounding northern bushveld, yet it harbours a diversity of vegetation and topography that for years supported extensive farming and cattle-ranching. In recent times, the majority of the old ranches have been converted into private reserves catering either for the hugely lucrative hunting market, or less profitable game viewing, with white rhino often the star attraction, along with giraffe, large antelope and leopard. Today the entire area, some 14,500 square kilometres of both private and publicly owned land, is encompassed by one of the country’s foremost conservation projects – the Waterberg Savanna Biosphere Reserve (waterbergbiosphere.org), designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2001. It was founded by a close-knit association of landowners who wished to combine wildlife conservation with the benefits of tourism. They have set up an extensive management plan for the area, developing various remarkable tourism initiatives, such as the useful GPS sign boarding that now helps navigation in the tricky area.
As a game-viewing destination, the Waterberg makes a decent alternative to the lowveld areas around Kruger National Park, with the important advantage that malaria isn’t present. It has impressive credentials as a vast area of true wilderness, and it is certainly still a lot less commercialized than Kruger. Vaalwater – the only settlement of any size – is located at the heart of the biosphere reserve. West of Vaalwater, and also included within the biosphere reserve, are two large game reserves that are home to the Big Five: Marakele National Park and the privately owned Welgevonden reserve. North of Vaalwater is the highly regarded Lapalala Wilderness Area, where the biosphere reserve was originally instigated.
The only reserve you can visit for a game-viewing day-trip under your own steam is Marakele National Park; Lapalala Wilderness Area can be visited with a guide from Waterberg Cottages. Otherwise, to gain access to the reserves, large or small, you’ll almost always be expected to book into accommodation on the reserve itself; as most accommodation in the Waterberg is on reserves, this is generally hard to avoid.
The northernmost part of Limpopo Province is a hot, green, undeveloped rural region with much in common with Zimbabwe. Its essential geographical features are the Limpopo River, the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe (and, further west, Botswana), and the alluring Soutpansberg mountain range, aligned east–west just to the north of the area’s main town, Makhado (Louis Trichardt), which is otherwise unremarkable and not worth a stopover.
Perhaps the most distinctive area is the Venda region, formerly an “independent” homeland under apartheid. Although economically impoverished, it remains rich in tradition, art and legend. East of the Venda lands is the northern tip of Kruger National Park, a less-visited but intriguing part of the park; there are two entry gates to the park here, at Punda Maria and Pafuri.
Both the Limpopo River and the Soutpansberg range lie in the path of the N1 highway, which crosses into Zimbabwe at Beitbridge. About 70km west of here, the Mapungubwe National Park encompasses a UNESCO World Heritage Iron-Age site which for archeology buffs is probably the area’s most enticing attraction.
To the east and north of Makhado lies the intriguing land of the VhaVenda people, a culturally and linguistically distinct African grouping known for their mystical legends, political independence and arts and crafts. Venda was demarcated as a homeland under the apartheid system in the 1950s, and became one of three notionally independent homelands in South Africa in the late 1970s. Of all the homelands, Venda was one of the least compromised, keeping both its geographic and cultural integrity, and largely being left to mind its own business during the dark years of apartheid. Nowadays, its boundaries have regained their former fuzziness, within Limpopo, but the region has retained its strong, independent identity.
Aside from a sprinkling of accommodation in Thohoyandou, you’ll find almost no tourist-oriented infrastructure whatsoever in Venda, but travelling here can be wonderfully rewarding.
The people who today call themselves VhaVenda are descended from a number of ancient groupings who migrated from the Great Lakes area in east-central Africa in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Their identity gelled when a group under Chief Dimbanyika arrived at Dzata in the northern Soutpansberg, where a walled fort was later built. From here, they consolidated their power in the region, fending off attack from a number of different African groupings (including the Voortrekkers, whom they drove from their settlement at Schoemansdal in 1867). Although the VhaVenda suffered a reverse at the hands of the Boers in 1898, the onset of the Anglo-Boer War prevented that victory being consolidated.
The culture of the VhaVenda is a fascinating one, steeped in mysticism and vivid legend. One pervading theme is water – always an important concern in hot, seasonal climates, but a resource in which Venda is unusually abundant. Lakes, rivers, waterfalls and lush forests all form sacred sites, while legends abound of zwidutwane, or water sprites, and snakes who live at the bottom of dark pools or lakes.
Many VhaVenda ceremonies and rituals still hold great importance, with the most famous being the python, or domba, dance performed by young female initiates. Naked but for jewellery and a small piece of cloth around their waists, the teenage girls form a long chain, swaying and shuffling as the "snake" winds around a fire to the sound of a beating drum – another sacred object in Venda – often for hours on end. Your chances of seeing it performed are limited. The genuine thing is most common during spring; Heritage Day around the end of August or the beginning of September is a good time for celebrations.
The Venda and Tsonga regions have established a strong reputation in arts and crafts. The best known of these are clay pots distinctively marked with angular designs in graphite silver and ochre. Also growing in status are wood carvings, ranging from abstract to practical, although, while the best of these can be imaginative and bold, many are unfinished and overpriced. You’ll also come across tapestries, fabrics, basketwork and painting. Finding your way to these craft villages can be quite an adventure, as they are widely scattered and the roads are poor, so the Ribolla Tourism Association, behind the Swiss mission hospital in Elim (Mon–Fri 8.30am–4.30pm; 015 556 4262 or 072 2354543, firstname.lastname@example.org), has set up a demarcated art route in the area, and hands out free maps of the route. It also has knowledgeable guides to take you around.
The Soutpansberg, an impressive range of hills, particularly when approached from the south, attracts sufficient rainfall to create a subtropical climate, and spectacularly lush farms along the southern slopes produce a range of exotic crops such as avocados and macadamia nuts. In other parts, the rocky kloofs and green hillsides offer unspoilt mountain retreats, shaded by up to 580 different species of tree, and the home of monkeys, small antelopes, warthogs and some raptors. The uniqueness of the area led to it being designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2009, with a similar protection and development status as the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve.
The N1 highway bisects the range, passing through missable Makhado, situated in the southern shadow of the mountains, then climbing over a low pass and descending through a pair of tunnels on the northern side. Once over the escarpment, the highway runs north across mostly empty baobab plains to Musina and the Limpopo River.
The Mapungubwe National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, primarily due to its famous Iron-Age site known as the Hill of Jackals, thought to be the site of the first kingdom in Africa. The park is situated at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashi rivers, where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet, and is well worth a detour if you have even the faintest interest in archeology. The park is divided into an eastern and a western side connected only by the main road, with a large plot of private land in between. The main entrance is on the eastern side nearest Musina, which is also where you’ll find the Hill of the Jackals and most of the accommodation.
The park offers excellent game viewing with a scenic backdrop of unusual sandstone formations, mopane woodland, riverine forest, and a landscape scattered with otherworldly baobab trees housing wildlife such as elephant, giraffe, white rhino, plus various different antelope, including eland and gemsbok. You can explore the park either in your own car or on three-hour guided morning and sunset drives. If you’re lucky, you may spot predators such as lion, leopard and hyenas, and there are over four hundred bird species including kori bustard, tropical boubou and the magnificent pel’s fishing owl.
The long-term goal is eventually to develop the park into a tri-border park incorporating Mashatu Reserve in Botswana and the Tuli Circle in Zimbabwe.
As one of the early melting pots of southern Africa, Limpopo has a number of important archeological sites where excavations have helped piece together a picture of the different people who inhabited the land for thousands of years. Some of the most interesting sites are at places where iron was smelted, as the development from what was essentially a Stone-Age culture to an Iron-Age culture, with its associated improvement in tools for cultivation and war, was a vital part of the migration of African tribes into South Africa around 1500 years ago. The presence of slag and other wastes provides the strongest clues – the iron itself seldom survives the processes of erosion. Some of the most revealing excavations have taken place at Thulamela, inside Kruger National Park not far from the Punda Maria Gate, Bakone Malapa cultural village outside Polokwane, Makapan’s Cave near Mokopane, Masorini, also in the Kruger park, not far from Phalaborwa, and the single most important site in Limpopo Province, Mapungubwe (Hill of the Jackals), west of Musina.
Lying almost dead centre in the province of which it is the capital, Polokwane is the largest city on the Great North Road between Pretoria and the border. It’s mostly an administrative and industrial centre, and much of its energy derives from the large volume of traffic moving through the city on the N1. But it does have an excellent museum, and if you’re heading towards the lowveld or central Kruger National Park, Polokwane is the point to connect with the R71 to Phalaborwa. The clutch of similar-looking one-way streets in the downtown area are all laid out in strict grid pattern, making navigation, especially by car, almost impossible.