Ex­pe­ri­ence the camps, bars, back roads – and a rain queen

Go! Camp & Drive - - Front Page - PHO­TOS: Evan Naudé

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.

Come closer

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.

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.

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.

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...

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