Limpopo, which occupies South Africa’s northern reaches, is a huge and diverse province characterized by traditional cultures, an interesting historical story, vast open spaces, and terrific wildlife watching. In Mapungubwe National Park visitors can walk through the country’s most significant Iron Age site, gaze from a rocky bluff over the riverine landscape where South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe meet and observe birds, big cats, and rhinos. Culture and traditional art shine in the enigmatic region of Venda, an area dotted with landforms of great spiritual significance. Nature takes center stage in the Waterberg, where the eponymous Unesco biosphere reserve has endless skies, a landscape of distinctly South African beauty, and great safari opportunities, particularly in Marakele National Park. Best of all, few travelers make it up here to the north, making it one of the country’s most rewarding destinations.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Limpopo’s largest city and the provincial capital, Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg) is urban South Africa in all its complications, from the gritty downtown area to a range of worthwhile attractions. It was once called ‘the bastion of the north’ by Paul Kruger and has long been a center of Afrikaans culture, but it’s now a little rough around the edges, and although not unpleasant, it’s a mishmash of lively, semi-organized African chaos and security fences sheltering vast gardens and clipped lawns (in the prim and proper eastern suburbs). Spend any time in the north and you’re likely to pass through here.
Southwest of Polokwane lies the Waterberg, a UNESCO biosphere reserve the size of the Okavango Delta. The source of four of Limpopo’s perennial rivers, its biodiversity is reflected in the San rock paintings of large mammals on the area’s sandstone cliffs. For something more recent, Marakele National Park is one of South Africa’s most underrated protected areas. Elsewhere, the Bushveld region is a typical African savannah. If you want to break up your journey along the N1, there is a string of roadside towns with some pit-stop potential.
Mokopane is a sizeable Bushveld town that makes a good place to break up a trip along the N1. The main attraction for visitors is Makapan’s Caves. Inside the town itself, there’s little to detain you.
BelaBela is a hot, chaotic, and seemingly perpetually busy place. And as so often in South Africa, there’s an arresting juxtaposition between the township and town. But BelaBela works as a spot to break a journey, especially if you like to indulge in ‘warm baths’. BelaBela (aka Warmbaths) takes its name from the town’s hot springs, which bubble out of the earth at a rate of 5,800 gallons per hour and were discovered by the Tswana in the early 19th century. Bathing in the soporific pools is a popular treatment for rheumatic ailments. There are also a couple of interesting attractions just north of town.
Paul Kruger used to damn troublesome politicos with the phrase ‘Give him a farm in the Waterberg’. These days, that fate may not strike you as such a hardship. The range, which stretches northeast from Thabazimbi past Vaalwater, is protected by the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, one of Africa’s two savannah biospheres. The area has a mild climate and some wild terrain for spotting the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino), with rivers and distinctive mountains scything through bushveld and sourveld (a type of grassland). Marakele National Park is the undoubted highlight. The Waterberg Meander, a signposted tourist route around the Waterberg, links 13 community projects, and sites of interest such as those significant in the Anglo-Boer War, along with viewpoints of some stunning landscapes, and arts-and-crafts outlets.
The Soutpansberg region incorporates the northernmost part of South Africa, scraping southern Zimbabwe and bordered by eastern Botswana. The forested slopes of the Soutpansberg mountains are strikingly lush compared with the lowveld to the north, where baobab trees rise from the dry plains. The highlights here are the mountains, the Venda region, and Mapungubwe National Park, which is well worth the 160-mile drive from Polokwane. Relatively few visitors make it this far north, but the rewards are significant for those who do.
Leafy Louis Trichardt (also sometimes known as Makhado) makes a great base when visiting northern Limpopo – its outlying streets reveal verdant parkland, wide roads and shady jacarandas, giving the place a very pleasant feel. The centre is very busy, with streets of booming retail-chain outlets and hordes of shoppers. Nearby, the spectacular Soutpansberg mountains boast an extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna, with one of the continent’s highest concentrations of African leopard and more tree species than there are in the whole of Canada.
Some 11 miles south of the Beitbridge border crossing into Zimbabwe, Musina (aka Messina) hums with typical border-town tension. It’s busy, there are traffic snarls, and you should keep your wits about you when walking the streets. You will probably pass through the town en route to the spectacular Mapungubwe National Park; the drive passes through a starkly beautiful landscape on empty, baobab-lined roads.
MAPUNGUBWE NATIONAL PARK
Stunningly stark, arid, rocky landscapes reverberate with cultural intrigue and wandering wildlife at Mapungubwe National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Mapungubwe contains South Africa’s most significant Iron Age site, plus animals ranging from black and white rhinos to the rare Pel’s fishing owl and meerkats. The wildlife here is excellent, with lions, leopards, and elephants, as is the birdwatching. But the park is as much about history as wildlife – archaeological finds from the 1930s are on display at the excellent Interpretation Centre, and the site itself can be visited on a tour.
With perhaps the most enigmatic ambiance of the Soutpansberg region, this is the traditional homeland of the Venda people, who moved to the area in the early 18th century. Even a short diversion from the freeway takes you through an Africa of mist-clad hilltops, dusty streets and mud huts. A land where myth and legend continue to play a major role in everyday life, Venda is peppered with lakes and forests that are of great spiritual significance, and its distinctive artwork is famous nationwide. It’s a somewhat forgotten corner of the country and utterly unlike anywhere else in the region. More than that, if your South African journey is lacking a slice of traditional Africa with an emphasis on culture rather than wildlife, this could be your place.
Created as the capital of the apartheid-era Venda homeland, Thohoyandou (Elephant Head) is a scrappy and chaotic town set amid beautiful Venda scenery – like so many modern African urban creations, it lacks both beauty and any sense of historical resonance. That said, it’s useful as a base for exploring the Venda region or to overnight on the way to/from Kruger’s Punda Maria Gate, a 37-mile drive. The adjacent town of Sibasa is 3 miles north of Thohoyandou.
Lake Fundudzi is a sacred site that emerges spectacularly from forested hills, a turquoise gem on a bed of green velvet. The python god, who holds an important place in the rites of the Venda’s matriarchal culture, is believed to live in the lake and stop it from evaporating in the heat. The water is thought to have healing qualities and ancestor worship takes place on its shores. On the drive to healing qualities and ancestor worship takes place on its shores.
On the drive to the lake, there are panoramic viewpoints and the Thathe-Vondo Forest. A sacred section of the forest is home to primeval tangles of creepers and strangler fig trees. You should approach the lake with proper respect; the traditional salute is to turn your back to it, bend over, and view it from between your legs. To visit the lake, you must have permission from its custodians, the Netshiavha tribe. The easiest way to achieve this is to hire a guide in Thohoyandou, Elim, or Louis Trichardt. You need 4WD transport to reach the lake, but a car can manage the dirt tracks in the surrounding hills.
The Letaba Valley, east of Polokwane, is subtropical and lush, with tea plantations and fruit farms overlooked by forested hills. At Haenertsburg, known locally as ‘The Mountain’, Rte 71 climbs northeast over the steep Magoebaskloof Pass. There are plenty of places where you can stop for short hikes that are signposted from the road.
Magoebaskloof is the escarpment on the edge of the highveld, and the road from here careers down to Tzaneen and the lowveld, winding through plantations and tracts of thick indigenous forest.
An affluent town with a chaotic street layout, Tzaneen makes a pleasant place to base yourself for a few days on your way to Kruger, the Blyde River Canyon, or deeper into Limpopo’s arts-and-crafts territory further north. The Letaba Valley’s largest town has personality, although the town center is looking worse for wear of late, with especially terrible litter. That said, there are a few attractions and the cool mountainous retreat of Haenertsburg is well worth a visit or even an overnight stop. It’s often hot around here, but sudden downpours cool things off.
Phalaborwa eases between suburban tidiness and the bush, with a green belt in the center and the occasional warthog grazing on a lawn. The town makes a necessary waystation if you’re intending to explore central and northern Kruger, and there’s the Amarula Lapa distillery to visit, as well as a recommended township tour. Unless you arrive after the park gates have closed for the night, there’s little advantage to staying overnight rather than pushing on into Kruger – Letaba Rest Camp is only an hour from the gate. The town is also a gateway to Mozambique – it’s possible to drive across Kruger and into Mozambique via the Giriyondo Gate in a vehicle with good clearance.