Experience the camps, bars, back roads – and a rain queen
In the heart of Limpopo, just outside the bustling town of Tzaneen, there lies a valley called Magoebaskloof. When you look at a satellite image of the area, it’s as if Mother Nature spilled a bucket of green paint right there and didn’t have much left to brush the rest of the province with. Scientifically speaking, it is the geography that makes this region such a green anomaly in a province that is otherwise covered in browner hues of typical bushveld. The mountains here, the highest in the province, grab hold of the clouds and squeeze their precious cargo out onto the undulating landscape below. The result is the second largest indigenous forest in the country and a thriving forestry industry. A multitude of rivers, waterfalls and dams lay tucked away between the leafy mountain slopes. And of course, a network of dirt roads that never quite gets the chance to dry out properly link it all together. Taking all of this into account, I realised that I would sell myself short if I just passed through a place like this without stopping to take it all in. So I decided to give myself four days to do just that.
An adventurous day
Those four days came after spending a weekend with a group of other journalists and bloggers on the launch of the new Chevrolet Trailblazer. We spent half a day with the guys from The Hub, the local 4x4 club. First we took off on one of their routes through the forests and plantations and then later went slipping and sliding through a muddy obstacle course.They are situated in George’s Valley, a gorge cut out of the mountains by the Groot Letaba River about 7km east of Magoebaskloof. In the afternoon I explored that very river in a geckotube, jumping down cliffs and spilling down white water rapids as the guides from Magoebaskloof Adventures tried to keep me from drowning. If you are feeling adventurous it is a unique way to experience this stunning valley. Or if water isn’t your thing, try the zip-line tour or a more subdued hike down the gorge.
Ancient trees and royal dynasties
It took a whole day to do those two activities and we didn’t even get close to the host of other things in Magoebaskloof I wanted to see. As the group headed back to Johannesburg to regular life the next morning, I stay behind and start working on my to-do list.
It’s raining on the mountain, so I figure it is a good day to head down the pass to Modjadjiskloof north of Tzaneen. This area is home to three quite unique things: the world’s largest baobab tree, the world’s largest natural cycad forest and a tribal rain queen. I stop by the baobab first, on the Sunland mango farm. I am the only visitor and there is no-one around to serve me a beer at the bar inside the 1 100 year-old tree. To be fair, it’s probably too early in the morning for that anyway, so I head off to the cycad forest. In the Modjadji Cycad Reserve too I am the only visitor. I take a stroll among the massive cycads, some of which tower over 10 m above my head. And there are literally thousands of them scattered over the mountain. There’s a picnic spot here too, but it is quite run down and I wouldn’t recommend using the toilets. Near the reserve is the royal residence of Modjadji, the Rain Queen and ruler of the Lobedu people. Six generations of Rain Queens, believed to have special rain-making powers, have ruled this valley since the start of the 19th century. It is the only matrilineal dynasty in South Africa, meaning only the eldest daughter of the queen may ascend the throne. One can visit the royal residence, but you need to make an appointment with a tour guide, a man called Ballpen Molokwane. After numerous failed attempts to get hold of Mr. Ballpen, I decide to head back to Magoebaskloof. If you would like to visit the royal house you can contact Molokwane on 084 768 5003 (Good luck with that! – Jaco)
Waterfalls, dams and bogey birds
The next day I set out to explore the Woodbrush Forest Reserve. At the bottom of the Magoebaskloof Pass, near the dam, there is a turnoff that leads you into the forest. A sign warns that the road is only suitable for 4x4’s and I can tell that this would be especially true
on a wet day. After a quick visit to the picturesque Debengeni Falls I continue on through the forest to the Dap Naudé dam.The drive under the canopy is almost magical and at times I can’t believe I am in Limpopo. And then when I reach the grasslands and oak trees around the dam it further enhances the almost European-landscape feel of the place. From the dam you can continue to Houtbosdorp and on to Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge, a must for any serious birder visiting the area. Mainly because here you’ll not only find David Letsoalo and Paul Nkhumane, two of the best guides in the country, but also because this is one of the few places where you can see the rare Black-fronted Bushshrike. “They call it a bogey bird – that one that you struggle to see in your
lifetime,” Paul tells me as he shows me around Kurisa Moya. I don’t have to spend much time with him to see his passion for the forest and its feathery inhabitants. His keen eyes and ears spot birds that I didn’t even notice and he is quite good at imitating them too. I ask him what his bogey bird is. “The Pel’s fishing owl,” he says and I feel kind of guilty that I’ve seen that bird on the Chobe River in Botswana, yet I wouldn’t understand the significance of seeing the ultra rare bush shrike here. At least I could tell Paul exactly where I saw it, and he has now added Botswana to his bucket-list.
The hub of the valley
The village of Haenertsburg at the top of the Magoebaskloof Pass is a quaint place with only a handful of streets, but it seems to me that this is the hub of the area. It has its roots in the gold mining industry and was named after the man who discovered the precious metal here, Carl Ferdinand Haenert.The next day I learn about the town and the area’s history at the museum at the Pennefather complex where six cottages and three trading posts recreate a street scene from the late 1880’s. I spend the better part of my morning in the company of professor Louis Changuion, a retired history professor at the University of Limpopo, author of 25 books, avid hiker (the town’s walking trail is named after him), world traveller and owner of an impressive personal library at his home. If you are interested in history and have the
chance to have a chat with this man, I highly recommend it. I left with a much deeper understanding of the rich history of this little green pocket in Limpopo.
My last day arrives surprisingly fast and even though I’d managed to squeeze in a few more sight-seeing trips, like driving up to the Iron Crown (the highest point in Limpopo), visiting the tallest planted trees in Africa (S23.84645 E29.98583) and checking out the Ebenezer Dam, it feels like I missed out on a lot.The person who summed it up best for me was Luca Tooley, whom I met as he was changing a keg of Zwakala craft beer in the Iron Crown Pub. Later I spend the night at Luca’s place, Zwakala River Retreat, because well, who wouldn’t love a camp site with a river on one end and a brewery on the other? “This is an amazing place, with so much to do,” he says. “Here you make your own adventure!” Even the name Zwakala means “come closer”, an apt description of the attitude needed to truly get to grips with all that Magoebaskloof has to offer. As I bid farewell to the mountain I’m satisfied with my adventure, yet I vow to return for more. Perhaps next time I’ll try my hand at fly fishing, do an overnight hike or explore the forest on a mountain bike. Come to think of it, I might have to make more than one trip to get around to it all.
SEA OF GREEN. Magoebaskloof has the second largest indigenous forest in the country, best seen in the Woodbrush Forest Reserve.
OLD MAN. This baobab on the Sunland mango farm near Modjadji has been dated at more than 1 100 years old and the biggest in the world.
THE CYCAD KINGDOM. The Modjadji Cycad Reserve is home to the biggest concentration of single species cycads in the world.
BETWEEN THE LEAVES. The tree house cottages of Kurisa Moya (above left and right) are tucked away in the forest.
TUMBLING TORRENTS. Waterfalls are plentiful in the valleys of Magoebaskloof and Debengeni Falls (insert) is the most famous of them all.
PITCH A TENT (above). Magoebaskloof has a number of excellent campsites and a couple of them, like this one at Zwakala River Retreat, are exclusive for the duration of your stay.
EXPLORE THE FOREST (main photo). Magoebaskloof is home to some of the tallest planted pine and eucalyptus trees in the world.
MEET THE PEOPLE. In most local restaurants you’ll find the local craft beer Zwakala, and when you visit the brewery (right) you can meet the brewer Luca Tooley. At the museum in Haenertsburg (far right) the best man to learn about the region’s history from is Prof. Louis Changuion. If you’re a birder, a visit to Kurisa Moya and a tour with guide Paul Nkhumane (insert) is a must.