We can argue all day long about where the Bushveld begins and ends, but this we know: When you’re in the Limpopo districts of Marnitz, Swartwater and Tom Burke – an area collectively known as Koedoesrand – then you’re elbow deep in it.
Ever heard of Marnitz, Swartwater and Tom Burke? Go explore the Koedoesrand area on the banks of the Limpopo.
If all one-horse towns had a bubbly person like Anél Malan to welcome a weary traveller, then the platteland would be a pleasure to travel through. I’m in Marnitz, a half-day drive from Gauteng, on the N11 near the Botswana border at Grobler’s Bridge. You can hardly call Marnitz a town: There are no speed bumps, stop signs or anyone claiming to be the mayor. But there’s a church, a farm stall – and Anél. Anél and her husband Henk have a lodge in “town”, and more accommodation on their nearby farm, where I spent last night. Henk is a born and bred Bosvelder, but Anél is from Pretoria. “I used to work for Eskom and once came to Marnitz for work,” she recalls. “I saw this little place and I thought: ‘Who’s so stupid to want to live here?’ Little did I know!” Anél and Henk live on their farm Kildare with their children Tersmari (16) and Stefanus (14) and a lively cohort of animals. These include hounds Trixie, Tokkelos, Katryn and Karnuffel, pigs Peaches and Frieda, a few impala, a horse called Azar and Carolus the banded mongoose. In Marnitz, Anél shows me around the building site of their new, expanded farm stall. The old one, still in operation, sells everything from platteland essentials like tobacco, razor blades and tins of sardines to tourist treats like soft serve, koeksisters and biltong. Someone pulls off the tar road. It’s Giel Möller from Polokwane. He works for Montego Pet Nutrition and is doing his dealer rounds. My route for the next couple of days is similar to his, but instead of travelling with a boot full of dog food, my rented Corolla contains a bag of avos bought for next to nothing outside Modimolle, a two-day-old Rapport, bananas and Salticrax from the Bela Mall in Bela-Bela, and a packet of chicken pies bought at the Agri Deli in the same mall. This will be my padkos while I explore Koedoesrand.
Time for a back road
My trip started in Joburg a day ago. I picked up the Corolla at the airport and cruised north on the N1. At Modimolle I said cheers to all that and hooked a left onto the R33 towards Vaalwater. There, I turned right along a nameless tar road to Melkrivier and eventually made my way to Marken. At Marken, I made the mistake of taking the “tar road” to Baltimore. This road, the R561, is a top contender for Worst Road in South Africa. It looks as if it has been carpet-bombed by an ill-tempered despot. After the R561, it’s a pleasure to take the gravel road from Marnitz to Swartwater. Within minutes of leaving the N11, it feels like I’m in the middle of nowhere. The closest big towns to Koedoesrand are Mokopane (formerly Potgietersrus), Lephalale (Ellisras) and Louis Trichardt (once briefly called Makhado). Around the braai fire last night, Henk Malan told me a story about a little boy from Koedoesrand. The lighty was so shell-shocked when he saw all the other children on his first day at school in a big town that he immediately developed a stutter. It took him years to recover. Likewise, the city slicker who suddenly finds himself in Koedoesrand is also in for a shock to the system. You’ll slow down, hush, and begin to appreciate the veld and all its small miracles. Right now it’s early April and everything is green. Koedoesrand is a dry area, Henk told me, with an average annual rainfall of 300 – 350 mm. It’s been a lean season and the underground water is also running out, he said. Yet somehow the veld is alive. A squadron of mousebird shadows floats across the road and disappears into a thorn tree. A grey go-away bird weighs down another treetop. A turquoise flash – lilac-breasted roller. I pass a farm called Baltimore and stop at the turn-off to Tandala Safaris to eat a couple of chicken pies from Bela-Bela. The trees are
beautiful here: mopane, matopi (shepherd’s tree), marula, leadwood, knob-thorn… Back in the car, two duikers dance across the road. A little way further I reach a T-junction and turn left towards Swartwater. The high fences tell me these are game farms: Mooikloof and Doornrand. A magnificent sable bull appears barely 50 m away, horns arched back like fishing rods with giant tuna pulling at the other end. The game fence recedes and a field of sorghum appears. There’s a bakkie in the road; the farmer is retying straps on the back, holding down boxes to pack green peppers into. Another T-junction, left, and I’m in Swartwater, which is bigger than Marnitz, but only because everything has been built further apart. I see the café and the liquor store and the spires of two churches, NG and Hervormd. The hub of Swartwater is the NTB co-op. “It stands for ‘Noord-Transvaal Boere’,” owner Joep Maree tells me. “Even though neither the ‘NoordTransvaal’ nor the ‘Boere’ exist these days!” Joep owns the land on which the enormous Swartwater baobab stands. I’m here to ask permission to go take a look. First I check out the equally enormous co-op. You can buy anything here: olives, chutney, a tractor tyre, cheese grillers, bathroom taps, ski rope, spades, a lawnmower, a toilet seat, a mattress, bicycles, gum boots... When the zombie apocalypse comes to Koedoesrand, the NTB will make a solid last stand. Elsewhere on the premises there’s a liquor store, an ATM, fuel pumps, a fertiliser depot and a factory that makes boxes like the ones I saw on the vegetable farmer’s bakkie. Joep was born in Swartwater. His father moved here in 1924 from Riebeek-Kasteel in the Cape and worked as teacher. Back then you got a type of danger pay if you volunteered to teach in a malaria area. Joep’s father passed away in 1992 and after some years in Pretoria, Joep decided to return to Swartwater. The local branch of the NTK (Noord-Transvaalse Koöperasie) had come up for tender, and Joep was awarded it. The name has changed to NTB and it now operates independently, serving farmers in a radius of 30 km around Swartwater. Anita du Plessis, an employee at NTB, comes along to show me the way to the baobab. She and her husband moved from Zimbabwe 20 years ago. “Once you put down roots here you’ll never want to leave,” she tells me. This is something I often hear on the platteland – it’s almost a cliché. But at the same time, I’ve never experienced the sentiment to be fake. We reach the baobab and get out. You’d easily fit two bedrooms inside the trunk – with en suite bathrooms. Joep’s daughter Eumarie got married under the tree in 2017. Epic!
I take photos, but I can’t capture the sheer scale of the tree. It’s best to just stand and look. Like the Pyramids of Giza, the baobab is a relic from another time. And like Anita and her husband, the tree decided to put down roots in Koedoesrand. A sound decision, by all parties.
Hitting the fairway
I drop Anita off at NTB and drive to a golf course. That’s right: Sesambos Golf Course near Swartwater, on the banks of the Limpopo. The course is the brainchild of Hennie du Plessis and his three sons, one of whom, “Klein Hennie”, is now a pro on the Sunshine Tour. The Du Plessis boys used to drive to Lephalale whenever they wanted to play a round. “But then I thought, ‘Why not build my own course?’” Hennie says as we sit in the shade of a giant nyala tree next to the spacious clubhouse. “We have 70 members. Some are from Pretoria, but many are farmers who took up the game after we finished the course in 2010.” Next to us, the Limpopo is in its annual flood: a wide, brown street of water lined by an avenue of trees. “It only started flowing last week,” Hennie says. “It was getting desperate; we were about to run out of water.” Most farmers along the Limpopo have weirs in the river to store water for the dry season. Hennie began farming in 1987 after he left the army. Like many others he started out with aircured tobacco, but now he also grows onions, potatoes and pumpkins. We hop into a golf cart for a tour. At the other end of the course is Bosbok Camp where visitors can overnight in safari tents or chalets overlooking the river. Hennie shows me an eroded part of the riverbank where, maybe a hundred years ago, herds of wildebeest and other animals used to come and drink. We also stop at the statue-like skeleton of a leadwood, and I photograph Hennie next to one of the sesame bushes that give his golf course its name. The mighty trees of the Bushveld will always draw me back to this area. They’re giants, raised on a warm climate, good soil and justenough rain. It’s a privilege to be among them, especially on a riverbank, whether you’re sitting in their shade or admiring them from the tee.
The old stories
As far as commercial farming goes, the pioneering years in this part of the country are relatively recent. I’m sitting around the kitchen table with Dian Geerkens and his mother Alma, talking about those years. Alma’s late husband Kadie appears in many of the black-and-white photographs that we’re passing back and forth. I’m lucky to meet Alma. She lives in Mokopane these days, but happened to be visiting her son. Dian and his wife Minda run Kokomori Birder’s Lodge, where I stayed last night. The family is of Dutch origin and came to South Africa around 1927. They first settled in an area that some old farmers still call “The White Finger” – a band of farms between Steilloop and what was then Potgietersrus, where white farmers had farms, surrounded by what would later become homelands. Alma and Kadie Geerkens got married in 1964 and moved to this farm, Klipbokspruit, which is near Tom Burke. They grew tobacco, cotton, peanuts and sometimes mealies. Limpopo River farms only started developing their commercial potential in those years, when technology allowed the farmers to pump water from the river and dramatically increase the scale of their crops. Dian recalls one of those pioneers, Org Snyman, who walked all the way from Modimolle (Nylstroom) to Swartwater to buy a farm called Mowbray back in the 1920s. To finance the place, he borrowed money from the tobacco co-op’s widow fund and he became a very successful farmer. “Look at this,” Dian says, passing me a photo. “This is Theuns, Oom Org’s adopted son. He used to cycle everywhere. Here he is returning from a hunting expedition.” The photo shows an impala ram tied to the bicycle, as if it’s a bakkie. Biltong for the winter, I guess. Huge herds of wildebeest used to roam here. The hunting cyclist Theuns Snyman, when he was still alive, used to tell how he’d sometimes walk in the veld and suddenly hear the thunder of hundreds of hoofs approaching. He’d seek shelter behind the trunk of a big tree to get out of harm’s way as the wildebeest stampeded past. Koedoesrand has always been wild. “Ou maat,” Alma recalls, “the hippos would come into the wheat fields at night and eat a highway for themselves. If you shone a spotlight over the fields, the eyes of the impala and bushbuck would glitter like the lights of a town.” The school in Swartwater turned 100 in 2017. Now known as Unitas Primary School, it has 100 pupils. Decades ago, however, they had more than 400. Some kids walked to school from surrounding farms, or they rode in on horses or donkeys. Once, one of the children walked 13 km from Mowbray to school. The wide-eyed (and out of breath) boy arrived with the alarming news that a lion had caught the donkey he was riding on!
The wide-eyed (and out of breath) boy arrived with the alarming news that a lion had caught the donkey he was riding on…
Kwas and the croc pool
After saying my goodbyes to the Geerkens family, I drive to Tom Burke, which has a co-op, a fuel pump and a police station. At Tom Burke I turn onto the N11 and drive towards Grobler’s Bridge. There, I dodge the scrum of trucks and turn right onto a gravel road that aims back towards Swartwater. There’s a crocodile farm here somewhere, but when I phone the owners I hear they’re in Gauteng on business. Instead, I start looking out for Tulbach, the farm of Kwas van Vuuren. I met Kwas in NTB yesterday and, as is common on the platteland, I was invited to visit should I pass by. I turn in and eventually find Kwas and his Jack Russell, Snoepie. Since I also have a funny nickname, I ask Kwas how he got his. (In Afrikaans, “Kwas” means “paintbrush”) “We were in primary school here in Swartwater,” Kwas says, already beginning to chuckle. “We put on a play and I got the role of the paintbrush. I had to ‘paint’ all the ‘leaves’ on stage!” The name Kwas stuck and I must say, it seems like a good nickname for a farmer who has spent his entire life nurturing plants. Kwas is still “painting leaves” in a way, raising mega mealie crops and the like. I hop onto the back of his bakkie. Snoepie lies comfortably in the crook of Kwas’s arm, observing the passing landscape of crop circles and veld. I duck for a branch. We reach the Limpopo where the water flows over the lip of a weir. On the near side, a rough pool has been built that fills up with river water – the perfect splash pool on a hot summer’s day. When they were younger, Kwas tells me, they used to just swim in the river. “But first, someone had to fire a few rounds with a .303 to scare off the crocs…”
My time in Koedoesrand has been too short. I haven’t even got to Tolwe yet. Next time I’ll go there, and to the croc farm, and maybe I’ll take a dip in Kwas’s swimming pool (after someone has fired that .303). I need to drive back to Joburg to catch a plane. I remember what Alma Geerkens told me earlier: “Once you get bitten by the Bushveld bug – that’s it, you’re hooked.” She also said something else that only makes sense to me now: “I miss the silence and the people. I remember at church fetes how the old people would come over and pick up a new baby, and just look.” Yes, you can miss peace and quiet and the hubbub of human voices. After all, it’s these voices that create a community of supportive friendships and family ties. Maybe it’s because the silence of the Bushveld is always punctuated with birdsong, and because the people here are rooted to the earth, just like their baobabs.
FRIENDS (above)! Anél Malan with Frieda the pig on the farm Kildare, which she owns with her husband Henk.BIG AND BEAUTIFUL (opposite page, top). The Swartwater baobab is something to behold. This magnificent tree dwarfs anything in its vicinity.OPEN SESAME (opposite page, bottom). Hennie du Plessis, owner of Sesambos Golf Course, poses next to a sesame bush after which the golf course was named.