BUSHVELD

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.

go! - - Contents - WORDS & PIC­TURES TOAST COETZER

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.

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