Limpopo is the northern most province in South Africa, bordering onto Moçambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Limpopo offers a mosaic of superb scenic landscape, a fascinating cultural heritage, an abundance of wildlife species and many nature based tourism opportunities.
Limpopo is a land of legends and myths and of ancient civilizations ... Those in search of history will find many places of archaeological significance that yielded relics dating back millions of years.
Lying in the heart of the Limpopo Province, the Capricorn region is unrivalled for its diverse landscape that combines to form a heady mix of grassy plains, bushveld, mountains shrouded in mist, incredible geological formations, and an equally diverse plant and animal life.
But the Capricorn Region is probably best known for its bushveld. It stretches from the Ysterberg along the lower reaches of the Wolkberg Mountains to the tropic of Capricorn in the north, from whence it gets its name, identified by a geographical landmark along the N1 just north of Polokwane, the major city of the Capricorn region. The area also boasts an assortment of cultural villages, game reserves, forests, dams and San art. History and culture are richly represented with archaeological and historical sites, Voortrekker history, fossils, bones and artefacts; and visitors are drawn here for the hiking, game viewing and 4x4 adventure safaris.
The African Ivory Route, no longer associated with the legendary exploitation of elephants and their ivory, is today a series of semi-permanent tent camps throughout the Capricorn region, with local community participation, that extends further afield in the Limpopo. It spans a rough 1500 km route along Limpopo’s Golden Horseshoe with terrain characterised by vast plains of bushveld, mountains and wildlife.
There is no shortage of things to do in this region. Polokwane, the major commercial hub of the area, is a charming city - its wide jacaranda-lined streets dotted with fine examples of historical architecture and regular art exhibitions in the centre of the town. On the slopes of the Wolkberg and Drakensberg mountains lies the little hamlet of Haenertsburg, worth a stopover en route to the Kruger National Park, and the little town of Mokopane, (formerly known as Potgietersrus), is rich in Voortrekker history.
Lying in the northern part of the Limpopo, bordering on both Botswana and Zimbabwe, the Vhembe Region is nothing short of spectacular - the baobab, a familiar symbol that stands resolute among the magnificence of vast expanses of indigenous bush in a land characterised by the myth and legend of the vhaVenda people and awash with the vivid colour of blue skies, a prolific wildlife and seemingly endless opportunities for exploration.
In the west of the Vhembe Region lie the craggy peaks that form the jagged spine of the Soutpansberg or ‘salt pan mountain’, which attributes its name to the giant salt pan on the west side of this range that has been a source of salt for centuries. Cross the mountain range and one falls into the all-encompassing plains of the Limpopo Valley, which stretches across the north of the country, characterised by further glimpses of the giant baobab and recurrent mopane trees. Through this natural basin flows the Limpopo River, the country’s third most important river and a life source for the essentially hot, dry land through which it winds, giving life to more than 500 tree species, a series of farming villages and one of the world’s highest concentrations of leopard. Another important river to the region is the Nzhelele, which flows from its source on the eastern slopes of the Soutpansberg to slice its way into the Limpopo just east of Musina.
To the east lie the Lowveld and Kruger National Park, most of which falls into the Limpopo whilst to the south is the ‘land of legend’, a region that lays claim to a sacred lake, holy forest where ancient ways are still revered by traditional vhaVenda culture. The Mapungubwe and the Makapane Valley are both national heritage sites, and a feast of lion, leopard, white and black rhino, elephant, cheetah and spotted hyena - most of the continent’s big game - roam here. It is rich in cultural heritage and boasts an incredible diversity of plant and animal life, but what draws visitors time and time again are the incredible unspoilt wilderness areas that seamlessly contrast with sophisticated resorts to provide warm hospitality in a destination without equal.
Travelling east visitors will discover the rich natural heritage of the Lowveld with its claim to fame, the world-famous Kruger National Park. This region differs markedly from the rest of Limpopo and is loved for its scenic valleys, mountains and lush vegetation.
As its name suggests, this region falls in the valley of the great Olifants River that meanders through the Kruger National Park, forming the southern border of the Limpopo province. The valley forms part of the northernmost section of the Drakensberg, and the Lowveld does not end in Mpumalanga, but stretches further north and surrounds many towns in Limpopo.
The rest camps in the northern part of Kruger are part of the province and a series of exclusive private game reserves adjacent to the Park guarantee a luxurious wildlife experience. The Olifants Valley is teeming with a variety of wildlife, and is known for its spectacular scenery, mountains, rivers, dams, history and cultural attractions.
Lying in the heart of the Lowveld is a wildlife sanctuary like no other, its atmosphere so unique that it allows those who enter its vastness to immerse themselves in the unpredictability and endless wilderness that is the true quality of Africa.
The largest game reserve in South Africa, the Kruger National Park is larger than Israel. Nearly 2 million hectares of land that stretch for 352 kilometres (20 000 square kilometres) from north to south along the Mozambique border, is given over to an almost indescribable wildlife experience. Certainly it ranks with the best in Africa and is the flagship of the country’s national parks , rated as the ultimate safari experience. The Kruger National Park lies across the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo in the north of South Africa, just south of Zimbabwe and west of Mozambique.
It now forms part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park - a peace park that links Kruger National Park with game parks in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and fences are already coming down to allow game to freely roam in much the way it would have in the time before man’s intervention. When complete, the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park will extend across 35 000 square kilometres, 58% of it South African, 24% Mozambican and 18% Zimbabwean territory.
This is the land of baobabs, fever trees, knob thorns, marula and mopane trees underneath which lurk the Big Five, the Little Five (buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, ant lion and rhino beetle), the birding Big Six (ground hornbill, kori bustard, lappet-faced vulture, martial eagle, pel’s fishing owl and saddle-bill stork) and more species of mammals than any other African Game Reserve.
The Kruger Park is a self-drive destination, although there are guided tour operators, with an excellent infrastructure that includes picnic sites, rest camps, waterholes and hides. The Kruger Park is a remarkable reserve offering an incredible experience of Africa at its most wild. (See Kruger Park Tours for overnight and package tours lasting from 1 night and 2 days to weeks long safaris or see Kruger Park Day Tours for single day guided trips into Kruger National Park.
Getting to know Kruger
Very broadly speaking, the Kruger National Park is flat with a few gentle hills, and people tend to classify the bushveld of the Kruger as unvaried and dry, which is rather like saying South Africa is sunny - it conceals an amazingly rich diversity. The Kruger National Park is divided into no fewer than six ecosystems - baobab sandveld, Lebombo knobthorn-marula bushveld, mixed acacia thicket, combretun-silver clusterleaf, woodland on granite, and riverine forest.
The central region
This is a rather fascinating part of the Kruger National Park, not least because the ecozones here are noticeably different from other habitats in the Kruger. Sightings of rare birdlife and major areas of sand formed by river flood plains, combined with sandstone formations of the Mozambique coastal plain, make it attractive to visitors. There are also a number of tropical aspects as part of the region lies in a rain shadow and along the banks of the Luvuvhu River is a series of riverine forest. A picnic site on the river bank provides hours of splendid bird viewing.
The northern region
North of the Orange River is a semi-arid region covering 7 000 square kilometres that sees very little rain. Vegetation here changes very little from the unvarying shrub mopane, which thrives in hot, low-lying valleys. However, across this great expanse of hot dryness, five rivers forge their way, providing narrow corridors along whose banks grow trees distinctly different from the mopane - the nyala, the sycamore fig, the tamboti and the tall apple leaf. The Letaba and Olifants rivers contain as much as 60% of the Kruger park’s hippo population, and bird life here abounds. There are plenty of bushpig in the undergrowth of the Luvuvhu River and on most of the river banks you can hope to see sizeable herds of elephant (the Kruger National park’s latest estimate is as many as 9000 of these beautiful beasts), buffalo, bushbuck, impala and kudu concentrated near a water supply.
The southern region
Bounded by the Crocodile River in the south and the Sabie River in the north, the southern region is also host to the jagged ridge of the Lebombo Mountains along the border with Mozambique, and the highest point in the park, Khandzalive, in the southwestern corner - almost in counterpoint to Pretoriuskop that lies in the west of the southern region of the Kruger National Park.
This is the region where you’re almost sure of seeing a white rhino as most of them occur here, particularly around Pretoriuskop, Mbyamiti River and south of lower Sabie. On the whole, there is more game purported to exist in the southern part of the park, so if you don’t make it to the northern reaches of the Kruger National Park , you won’t miss out. This part of the Kruger park is to some extent shrouded in history. Around Pretoriuskop, known for its profusion of trees, is Ship Mountain, its hull-shape the site of an old wagon trail that crosses a stream marking the birthplace of Jock of the Bushveld. The combretum woodlands, also part of this region, attract reasonable herds of kudu, impala, giraffe, buffalo, zebra, white rhino and elephant, and the scarcity of lion in this part of the park, makes way for the cheetah and wild dog.
A basin rich in magnificence and biodiversity, the Makapansgat Valley displays some of the most astounding beauty in Limpopo. Not only is it of interest to paleontologists - numerous caves in the Makapansgat valley hold fossils that date back to 3.3 million years before the present, linking directly to the history at the Cradle of Humankind, when the valley was a tropical paradise - but it also displays an incredible diversity of life.
This series of caves together form a national monument and intentions are that it should soon become a World Heritage Site. Primates in the shape of baboons and vervet monkeys make this their playground, whilst bush babies or galagos come out at night to forage for food. Like our forefathers, whose remains have been found in the Makapansgat catchment, these primates find a good supply of plant food in the form of seeds, tubers, fruits and berries. Nowhere is the biodiversity of early times in such rich display as in the caves of the Makapansgat Valley.
The hills surrounding the Makapansgat valley are dotted with caves. Many of these are silting up or filled up long ago and are re-opened by local quarries in search of limestone. During one such search during mining operations in the 1920s, a large number of fossil bones were blown out of a particularly large cave in the area. It was not fully investigated until 1947, when it was confirmed that there were remains of Australopithecus africanus or early man.
The giant Baobab trees grow mainly in the hot, semi-arid areas north of the Soutpansberg mountain. Legend has it that in a frivolous mood, the gods planted Baobabs upside down with their roots exposed to the sky.
The baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) is one of the trees in Africa with the longest life span. The average age of the Baobabs found in the northern parts of Limpopo are between 300 and 500 years old. Near Sagole, a rural village in the north east of the province, a baobab specimen can be visited that is 3,000 years old and measures 43 metres in circumference at base. Baobabs are among the most useful plants to both animals and humans. With its own distinct ecosystem, Baobabs swarm with life as it provides shelter and sustenance for various creatures. Elephants browse the leaves and strip the bark for food and moisture. Baboons feast on the fruits of the tree while birds (and bees) nest in the holes in the trunk, as most of the old trees are hollow inside. Fruit bats and bush babies pollinate the flowers that only last for 24 hours before falling to the ground to become food for various antelope species.
Polokwane Game Reserve, Limpopo
One of the most important aspects of the Polokwane Game Reserve is that it conserves the Pietersburg Plateau false grassland, one of the only remaining examples of an extremely localised vegetation type that is home to important indigenous birds like the short-clawed lark, the ashy tit and the Kalahari scrub-robin.
This habitat is characterised by open savannah and almost entirely dominated by themeda grass with the odd smattering of acacia trees. Because most of the Pietersburg Plateau false grassland has been transformed by agriculture, the only enduring examples are found in and around the Polokwane Nature Reserve.
Modjadji Cycad Nature Reserve , High in the Lobedu Mountains near Duiwelskloof and situated next to the home of the fabled rain queen, lies the Modjadji Cycad Reserve, boasting some of the oldest and largest Cycad specimens on earth.
The 530 hectare Modjadji Nature Reserve, situated in the Bolobedu district of Lebowa, north-east of Duiwelskloof, contains one of the most fascinating population of plants seen in South Africa. Once the main diet of the prehistoric mammal-like reptiles that lived here, the Modjadji cycad (Encephalartos transvenosus) forms a unique natural forest which can be viewed in its prehistoric state thanks to its strict protection by succeeding generations of Modjadji ('rain queens'), the hereditary rulers in the area.
Did you know? The lands of the Modjadji tribe, a matriarchal society that has produced five rain queens (only women are allowed to enter the village), surround the reserve, with traditional vernacular, architecture and culture.
It is here that visitors can view the largest concentration of a single cycad species in the world. These protected plant species not only grow in profusion in the area, but are giants in the genus of 29 species, with specimens up 1,013 metres high, and bearing cones that may weigh up to 34 kg.
December to February sees many of these strange plants in seed. The setting is superb. When mist does not obscure the view, the visitor gazes over the cycad forest to the Lowveld and the Kruger National Park. Approximately 12 km of well constructed walks drop from the cycad forest to the acacia and grassveld below where large game such as blue wildebeest, waterbuck, nyala, impala and bushbuck, and over 170 species of birds live.
Known simply as Water Mountain, the blue-hued Waterberg imposingly stretches its full length from Thabazimbi in the south west, to Lapalala River in the north east of the Limpopo Province, supporting a biome of over 15 000 square kilometres. This rugged clime, where you find very few tarred roads or human interference to mar your visit, is possibly one of the closest to an authentic African savannah experience one can find, if many-faceted Africa can have any one landscape or experience.
The Waterberg is the first region in the north of South Africa identified as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and the incredible rock formations in evidence were shaped over hundreds of millions of years by riverine erosion. This recognition goes some way to impart the beauty of this lesser known part of the country – its incredible scenery, often accentuated by late afternoon thunder storms, plummeting mountain gorges, clear streams, and rolling bushveld. That a group of Dutch travellers set on finding Jerusalem from Cape Town mistook the Waterberg for Egypt is understandable.
A large portion of the Waterberg’s bushveld country has been given over to the conservation of elephants, white rhino, leopard and buffalo. Land owners have restored land overgrazed by cattle, to attract and protect antelope, giraffe, hippo and other species, with an accompanying rise in the trend of eco-tourism, and the marketing of the Waterberg as prime game country – the Marakele National Park, near Thabazimbi, is well worth a visit, as are other game farms in the area.
The Waterberg has an extensive history with evidence of the first human ancestors as early as three million years ago. Closer to our history, the San, who produced beautiful rock paintings at Lapalala, entered the Waterberg about two thousand years ago.
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