Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Travels in Limpopo

Barbara and I have just returned from an interesting 10 days in South Africa's far north, the Limpopo, formerly known as the Northern Province, bordering with Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique. Often regarded as South Africa's no-man's land, sandwiched between the dynamic heartland of Gauteng and the Limpopo River, it is a hot, thornbush-covered area, 'real Africa', a world away from our familiar Cape region.

The main purpose of our visit was to attend the SAIMM's Base Metals '11 conference in Phalaborwa, but rather than fly to Phalaborwa from Johannesburg, we opted to rent a car and take the opportunity of visiting places off the main tourist track, and to travel almost the whole length of Kruger National Park.

We arrived at Johannesburg International airport on Thursday July 14th, and after picking up our rental car, set off for Pretoria at 8.30am. At Pretoria, we took the N1, the Great North Road, which leads to the Zimbabwe border at Beitbridge. A little nostalgia here, as we had last travelled on this stretch of road almost 42 years ago en route to the Zambian Copperbelt. Many travellers pass through Limpopo on the N1, either en route north to Zimbabwe, or south to Johannesburg, but few make the effort to venture off this concrete umbilical cord.

On the N1, 1969...
Off the N1, 2011
We arrived at our first night stop in Limpopo just in time for lunch. This was the Edwardian Halkett Country House on Rietbokspruit Farm near Mookgophong (formerly Naboomspruit), where we were entertained by our host Mansel, one of four generations of Jacksons who have lived in the farmhouse since his great-grandfather built it in 1902.

After lunch we took a walk in the bush- there is an abundance of bird-life in this Waterberg region, as well as antelope, hyena and the occasional leopard, and we then enjoyed a sundowner on the stoep before an evening meal of bobotie, washed down with wine from the Robertson region.

We awoke to a very cold and frosty morning, and set off for a coffee stop at the small town of Mokopane, 50km north of Naboomspruit. Formerly known as Potgietersrus, Mokopane attracted worldwide notoriety in the late 90's when white locals attempted to prevent black children entering what had been white-only schools during the apartheid years. This earned the town the reputation of being the racist capital of South Africa.

Continuing northwards on the N1, we had a quick lunch at sprawling Louis Trichard before leaving the N1 and heading east towards Kruger, stopping overnight at the Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge, on the edge of Albasini Dam, with views across the water to the Soutpansberg Mountains.

Next morning we drove through remote areas close to the Zimbabwe border, before entering northern Kruger by the Punda Maria gate and driving leisurely down to the central section, staying overnight at the Shingwedzi restcamp in the north, before leaving Kruger via the Phalaborwa gate.

Northern Kruger
Although southern Kruger has the greatest concentration of game, and attracts the highest number of visitors, the north conveys a real sense of wilderness, and in our two hour drive to Shingwedzi we saw only a couple of lone bull elephants and a few impala. As we approached the central area, however, the concentration of game increased, and was positively teeming by the banks of the beautiful Letaba river and its perfectly positioned Letaba restcamp, where we stopped for lunch.

Letaba River

On the bank of the Letaba

Since the 1994 moritorium on elephant culling in the Park, the population of this most prolific of the 'big five' has swelled to over 13,000, which has had a huge effect on vegetation, particularly trees, notably the distinctive baobabs which once populated this area.

And so into Phalaborwa, just in time for the welcoming wine reception to Base Metals '11 at the Hans Merensky Hotel. Phalaborwa ("better than the south") is well known for its mineral deposits, contained in a volcanic pipe richly loaded with copper, mica, gold, iron, vermiculite, phosphate and zirconium. Copper is particularly important, being mined at the Palabora Mining Company, situated close by the hotel. These large copper deposits were found in the 60s when the borders of Kruger suddenly developed a kink, fortuitously leaving the deposits just outside the protected national park area!

We stayed five nights at the Hans Merensky complex, in a cottage bordering the highly-rated golf course, and woke each morning to glorious sunrises and grazing impala. Bordering Kruger the complex has prolific wildlife, and on my evening walks on the course I encountered giraffe, warthog, baboon and large herds of impala.

While I attended the conference, Barbara relaxed by the hotel pool, and on one evening we and the other delegates were taken on an evening game drive in Kruger, followed by a bush braai under a starlit sky. As the only UK representatives, this was a great opportunity to get to know minerals industry people from South Africa and neighbouring Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botwana and Mozambique.

What should have been the highlight for me was a morning visit to the huge Palabora Copper Mining operation. I last visited this in 1978, when mining was totally open cast, but it is now underground only, and the open pit remains as the largest man-made hole in South Africa, eclipsing the 'big hole' in the Kimberley diamond mining region. How times have changed though. Thirty three years ago I drove straight into the mine complex. This time we were beset by interminable security, and health and safety inductions, which left little time to visit the operations. Palabora must be one of the only large mines in the world where wild animals roam the complex, and today we saw elephants strolling in the confines of the mine, as well as numerous baboons.

Leaving Phalaborwa, it was back into Kruger again, where we headed for the Oliphants River and its eponymous rest camp, one of the most beautifully situated in Kruger. I last visited Oliphants in 1978 and had a very memorable overnight stay at its (much) cheaper satellite camp, Bulule, where the only electricity was that fed to the fence keeping out the lions.

Oliphants River

From Oliphants we headed south for the long drive to our overnight stop at Pretoriuskop restcamp in Mpumalanga. Between Oliphants and Satara we were held up in traffic, due to a large herd of water buffalo crossing the road.

As the herd passed, I noticed that they were being stalked by two young male lions. As they approached the road they made a half-hearted charge, then gave up when a large bull buffalo confronted them; they then decided that they deserved a well-earned rest in the middle of the road, before strolling through the traffic and back into the bush. A memorable encounter with two of the 'big five'.

After our overnight rest at Pretoriuskop we set off once more, leaving Kruger at the most southern gate, Malelane, 408 km from our northern entrance at Punda Maria. Then back to Johannesburg via the N4,and the end of a fascinating 1700 km round trip and an excellent conference.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, Barry, congratulations!


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