After a wonderful few days at Blouberg Nature Reserve, I headed slightly east to my next destination.
Anyone who has ever travelled by road from South Africa to neighbouring Zimbabwe will have passed over this impressive mountain range. Driving northwards for hours across flat plains, the Soutpansberg reveals itself in the distance once you’ve passed Polokwane and crossed the Tropic of Capricorn. From a distance the mountain’s imposing countenance looks forbidding and impossible to traverse.
Approach closer however, and a lovely verdant landscape begins to show itself. Sitting in the shadows of the towering Hanglip peak lies the unexpectedly tropical-looking town of Makhado. From here, the main N1 winds steeply up into the Soutpansberg where myths and legends abound amongst the mist-shrouded peaks of this beautiful mountain.
The Soutpansberg range is approximately 130 kilometres long, beginning close to the Kruger National Park in the east ending abruptly and grandly at the tiny village of Vivo in the west. Together with Blouberg to the west and Mapungubwe to the north it forms part of the UNESCO Vhembe Biosphere Reserve. The mountain gets its name from the large salt pans in the area which have been mined for generations.
Lying at the southern slopes of the Soutpansberg not far from its western extremity, the tiny settlement of Buysdorp has interesting origins. The town is named after Coenraad de Buys and the first settlers were his descendants who were given 11000 hectares of land by Paul Kruger in 1888 in recognition of their contribution made to the Transvaal Republic. The Buys descendants still work and guard this land with the same fiery independence of their ancestor.
Coenraad de Buys warrants a few words. He was one of those larger-than-life characters of our history and his story provided the foundations for the fictional novel King of the Bastards by Sarah Millin. Born in 1761 near Montagu in the Cape, he led a wild and rebellious life until, at the age of 54, he fled from the Cape as a fugitive. During his wild life wherever he passed he’d produce a brood of offspring with local women. After leaving the Cape, he gathered his extended family and moved northwards where he is believed to be the first white man to venture beyond the Vaal river. The first “Tranvaaler”, he settled with his huge band of offspring east of present-day Palapye in Botswana where he traded ivory in exchange for gunpowder. In 1821 on a trip to Mozambique, asking his sons and their families to wait for him at the Limpopo river, he disappeared without a trace.
Hanglip Forest Reserve
Take a drive along Forestry Rd out of the town of Makhado. Pass the offices and houses of the forestry station and follow the track up into the mountain.
Eventually, very near the summit, the plantation gives way to indigenous forest and the road ends in a magnificent rain-forest of giant, bearded, vine entangled trees reminiscent of a scene from a Tolkein novel. This is a perfect place to park and have a picnic before heading back down the mountain. The hush of the surrounding forest is bewitching.
Enjoy the stunning views on the drive back down the mountain.
The history and legends of the Venda people are well-documented and a visit to the Soutpansberg will be incomplete without visiting the interesting sites of importance to these deeply spiritual people who call this region home.
The history of the Venda dates back to the 9th Century and the Mapungubwe Kingdom. According to historical studies King Shiriyadenga was the king of the Venda and Mapungubwe. To this day the Queen is still the leader supreme.
Water plays a significant role in the beliefs and legends of the Venda, not surprising in this landcape with it’s abundant water in the form of rivers, lakes and waterfalls.
The most well-known of these is Lake Fundutzi. Steeped in folklore and mystery, very few local people venture near this enchanted lake where a giant python and a white crocodile are said to live. Closer approach will need permission but visitors should be aware of the cultural significance of the place and, out of respect, newcomers are required to turn their backs and view the water from between their legs.
The best views of this scenic lake are from the main approaches high up on the surrounding hills.
There’s really not much point in venturing closer as the road becomes narrower and finally becomes impassable at a bog still some distance from the water’s edge.
For some insight into the folklore, I’d like to share the following from this News24.com article
The Python: One day a man mourning for his wife, walked into the lake to drown himself. Taking pity on him, the spirits of the lake turned him into a giant white python as a symbol of love and fertility. To appease him, young women from all over the kingdom gather on the banks of the lake to honour him by performing the Domba dance, in which they form a kind of conga line, and writhe their arms like a snake.
The White Crocodile: The white crocodile is one of the local people’s ancestors. He is a Zwidutwane (Water Spirit). Long ago, he still required human wives, so he would take human form and go visit them. One day, one of his wives followed him and was so mortified by what she saw she gave out a loud shriek.
Because he could never return to the human world, there was a terrible drought. So the desperate wife offered herself in exchange for rain. Each year, a virgin was sent into the lake to pour some beer on the water to try and appease the spirits. If it sank and was accepted, it would be a good year’s harvest. If it floated, however, the virgin girl had to be pulled out fast or the crocodile would eat her and make her his new wife. In the old days, the girl would simply disappear.
Thato Vonde Forest: After visiting Lake Fundudzi many visitors make their way to the “Holy Forest”. Often blanketed in a thick mist, it lives up to its mystical reputation. Travellers are welcomed to the forest by a strict sign ordering them to stick to the path. As one proceeds you will see the age old yellowwoods and ferns that fills the luxuriant hill on which the path is built.
In the austere silence, only broken by the calm chatter of forest birds, a herd of cattle might reveal themselves from the shroud of the mist. These cattle bring an eerie noise with them. The rhythmic ringing of the bells around their neck, coupled by their ghostly moos make for all the mythic magic of ancient faith.
The forest was the burial grounds of the greatest kings. The first king was Dimbanyika. One day while exploring his new kingdom he got stuck in a cave the legend goes. His dog managed to escape and went to call his oldest son, Thohoyandou – after whom the largest village in the area is named today. Thohoyandou could not free his father, so Dimbanyika asked him instead to promise him that he would unite all the tribes in the area. Thohoyandou was successful and is remembered as the greatest of the Venda rulers.
Thohoyandou literally means ‘Head of the Elephant’, that is why in Venda they say ‘nda ndou’ when they say hello. It means hello Elephant! Today his spirit guards the forest in the form of a white lion.
The Modjadji Rain Queen: In Modjadji’s Royal Kraal in the fertile Magoebas kloof is where part of the big rain-making ceremony takes place during the first weekend of October every year. The ritual entails a lot of singing, dancing and drinking of home-brewed beer as well as giving homage to the ancestors by feeding their representative, a holy cow named Mokobo, and washing her with the frothy brew.
The cow is named after the founder of Modjadji’s tribes – a young girl who had to flee her home in Zimbabwe’s Monomotapa when she fell pregnant with her brother’s child, a big taboo in African cultures. Mokobo’s mother then stole Monomotapa’s rain charms and gave them to her daughter before she left to ensure that the girl would not go hungry in her new dwelling. She believed that if there was rain, there would always be food. This, then, is how the tradition of rain-making filtered down into South Africa from its origins in Zimbabwe.
Tate Vondo Dam
Not as taboo for visitors as Lake Fundutzi the man-made Tate Vondo Dam is well worth a visit. Turning off the main road and heading around the back towards the dam wall takes one through well-manicured tea plantations, splendid in their greenery.
The tranquil waters of the Tate Vondo Dam reflect the bright greens of the surrounding tea plantations.
Zvakanaka Farm and Campsite
During my visit to the Soutpansberg, I stayed at Zvakanaka Farm, about 10 kilometres north of Makhado. Surrounded by mountains, this well-kept campsite has only three sites and privacy is guaranteed.
Each site has a shelter equipped with a basin, gas stove, kettle and other kitchen basics.
A shared ablution block is decorated in local Venda style and is well-equipped and spotless. At the ablution block there is also a fridge/freezer and a washing machine for guests to use.
A number of paths on the farm cater for all fitness levels, from an easy stroll along the river to a stiff climb to the top of the overlooking mountain.
Birdlife is prolific and are enticed to the campsites by bird-baths under the trees. A small splash-pool near the river was being installed when I was there.
Zvakanaka is certainly one of my favourite campsites and the personal touches everywhere attest to the passion of the friendly hosts.
Situated only about a kilometre off the main road, it is also a perfect stop-over for travellers on their way north to Zimbabwe. As an alternative to camping, visitors can also opt to stay in one of two cottages.