I drove on a wide gravel road, my little car rattling as its tires pushed over the corrugated surface. Dust billowed behind me. I was headed toward a tiny Limpopo town called Mukondeni, where I would explore the Ribola Art Route, and I was making good time. I glanced at my iPhone’s GPS: The blue line was solid, assuring me I was headed in the right direction.

“Turn right,” the voice commanded. The new road was narrower and softer, dirt tire ruts bordered by brown grass. I followed the GPS for a couple of kilometers, passing farms bordered by barbed-wire fences and two bemused pedestrians. The tire ruts grew fainter. The rocks in the road grew larger; thorn bushes closed in on both sides. Soon, despite that persistent blue line on my iPhone, there was no road at all. My GPS had sent me down a cattle track.

I took a deep breath and turned the car around, point by point, wincing as thorns scraped metal.

Rule #1 when traveling in rural South Africa: Save your smartphone battery and your sanity, and leave the GPS switched off. Follow directions from an actual human.

I nearly panicked and lost it there. But after careful backtracking, a few phone calls, and a thorn puncture in each of my front tires (I had the leaks patched later), I made it to Mukondeni where Gift, my Ribola Art Route guide, waited patiently beside the road.

Gift from the Ribola Art RouteGift Mkhari, an Open Africa guide on the Ribola Art Route, poses with an Instax photo at Twananani Textiles.

The Ribola Art Route

I learned about the Ribola Art Route while I was in Magoesbaskloof, through a friend of a friend who is a consultant for the initiative. The route was developed by Open Africa, a social enterprise that encourages tourism in rural areas of southern Africa. The Ribola Art Route, named for a mountain in northern Limpopo called Ribola, consists of a network of Tsonga and Venda artists in the area. Visitors to the route get to meet these artists, watch them work, and learn how to create their own art if they want to.

Making Cloth at Twananani Textiles

Gift hopped into my car and we drove to our first destination, Twananani Textiles in Mbokota Village. The women at Twananani have been working together since the 1980s, creating batik-style cloth with Tsonga designs and symbols.

Amu and Gift at Twananani TextilesAmukelani (right), one of the artists at Twananani, and Gift show off one of the cloths. Amu calls this pattern “the Big 5”, although I noticed later that there are seven animals represented.

I spent the morning at Twananani creating my own cloth — an interactive experience that costs R350 (about $25) — with help from Amu and Gift. First I chose my pattern, an array of flying pigs, and traced it with colored pencil onto a piece of white cloth.

Amu traces pigsAmu traces one of my pigs.

After tracing the pattern, we took the cloth outside and painted over the pencil lines with wax.

Gift showing cloth painted with waxIt’s hard to paint with boiling-hot wax and take photos at the same time. But this is what the cloth looked like post-waxing.

Then I chose paint colors and we painted around the wax lines.

Painting the clothPainting. We made a huge mess but it was fun.

Painting completePainting complete.

Gift and I arranged to return to Twananani later to pick up the cloth after it was rinsed and dried. We set off for our next destination — Patrick Manyike’s woodcarving studio.

A Mystical Approach to Woodworking

Summer hasn’t set in yet in northern Limpopo. But it’s already sweltering and the ongoing drought has turned the landscape into a dust bowl. As Gift directed me down a bumpy dirt road, the midday sunlight shimmered through my dirty windshield. I felt delirious. “We’re here,” Gift said, pointing down a small hill. I squinted and barely made out a mud hut, a large tree, and a man sitting in the shade.

Patrick's house and studioPatrick at the gate to his home and studio, which appears to rise from the dust.

Our visit with Patrick Manyike was like a waking dream. The tree was hung with heavy wooden ornaments, shifting slowly in the hot breeze. Patrick showed us inside his studio, which doubles as a one-room house, and my jaw fell open when I saw the sculptures.

Patricks sculptures in the studioPatrick’s art display.

Patrick Manyike in his housePatrick inside his house.

Patrick explained how he forages in the forest, sometimes miles from home, searching for pieces of wood that call to him. He chips away at the wood, using handmade tools, until the image in his mind emerges.

Patrick once left Limpopo and moved to Joburg, where he found a job cleaning floors at a massive casino/entertainment complex called Carnival City. No matter how thoroughly he cleaned those floors, they were dirty the next day.

“I cleaned the same floor, every day, over and over,” Patrick said. “It didn’t feel good. I decided to come home again. Now I clean wood instead of floors.”

Patrick carving wood with handmade toolsPatrick demonstrates his carving techniques with a metal tool fashioned from a discarded butter knife.

Patrick’s eccentricity enchanted me. I bought one of his sculptures — a small wooden head with a jutting chin — for R300 ($20). Patrick was so pleased that he gave me a small bird crafted from a leadwood branch.

The Pottery Women of Mukondeni

After a lunch of grilled chicken and pap, and a brief delay during which my car refused to start but then magically righted itself, Gift and I traveled a few kilometers down another dirt road to Mukondeni Village Pottery.

Mukondeni Village PotteryMukondeni Village Pottery.

Gift introdced me to Flora Randela and Esther Nesengani, who have each been making pottery for more than 35 years. The women led us inside, where Esther lowered herself to the floor and made a pot in less than 10 minutes.

Esther making a potCrafting the clay by hand. Once Esther forms a basic shape, she spins the plate with her free hand until the pot is smooth.

Carving a pattern into the potCarving a pattern into the pot. Esther will let the outer part of the pot dry in the sun before adding the base later.

After this demonstration, which blew my mind, we went outside and I bought a few small pots. Flora and Esther sell their smallest pots for about R20 (less than $2) each, which is insane. I wish I could have bought some larger ones but my car was too full.

Flora and Esther with their potsFlora and Esther with their pots. Their two styles are quite distinct.

We finished the visit with an Instax photo session.

Flora and Esther with their Instax photosI felt a real connection with these women. I wish we could have spent more time together.

Music in the Late Afternoon Sun

Our final stop was a visit to woodcarver and musician Lucky Ntimani. Lucky hosts an after-school program for about 60 children, in which he teaches the kids about art, music, and dance.

Lucky Ntimani in his studioLucky Ntimani in his light-flooded studio. What is it with men named Lucky? They all seem to have smiles like this.

Kids playing music with Lucky NtimaniThe children were trickling in as Gift and I arrived. They put on an impromptu concert for me.

Tsonga percussion instrumentGift plays a traditional Tsonga percussion instrument — I’ve forgotten the name. In the background, a boy plays a drum created from a wooden table with a tin plate tied to it.

Girls dancing at Lucky Ntimani's schoolThe girls dance as the boys play music. I asked if girls ever play music or boys ever dance, but couldn’t get a straight answer to that question. It seems that the different types of art divide themselves firmly along gender lines.

Again, I didn’t have enough time with Lucky and his students. But the sun was sinking fast and I still had to pick up my finished cloth at Twananani.

The Twananani ladies were waiting for me.

The Twananani ladies and meFrom left to right: Florence, Grace, Eveline, Amukelani, and me. They’re showing off a guinea fowl cloth they made that day. My flying pig cloth turned out well, right? (Photo: Gift Mkhari)

The Ribola Art Route was one of the most engaging and meaningful travel experiences I’ve had in a long time (only to be topped by my visit to Venda the following day). I can’t wait to explore more Open Africa routes like this.

For more information about the Ribola Art Route, email Lisa at ribolaroute@gmail.com. Don’t forget to follow her directions and not the GPS.

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