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limpopo

Eucalyptus tree at Kings Walden

Kings Walden: A Magical Hotel in the Mountains of Limpopo

It’s been weeks since my stay at Kings Walden — in Agatha, Limpopo, above the town of Tzaneen — and I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to write about it. Perhaps it’s because this magical place is difficult to describe in words. Kings Walden is a hotel, in the simplest of terms. But “hotel” or “lodge” or “guesthouse” are not sufficient descriptors. Kings Walden is three generations of a family’s history — a family’s joyous, acutely painful, sacred legend, which embodies the story of South Africa in so many ways — perched precariously at the top of a steep, misty mountain in Limpopo. Bridget Hilton-Barber, a writer friend of mine who grew up here and now runs the hotel, wrote a book about Kings Walden called Garden of My Ancestors. The book starts with the story of Ess Tooley, Bridget’s grandmother and the late grand-dame and garden architect of Kings Walden, snaking down the matriarchal family tree to Ess’ daughter Tana and eventually to Bridget herself, who returns to Kings Walden as an adult coping with multiple losses and traumas. Bridget gave me a copy of Garden of My Ancestors during my stay (there are a few […]

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Mishack Rapalalani in his studio

Madi a Thavha Mountain Lodge: An Art-Lover’s Paradise

I love Limpopo and I also love African craft art. So when I went to Madi a Thavha Mountain Lodge — a lodge outside Louis Trichardt in far northern Limpopo that promotes the work of Venda and Tsonga artists — I was in heaven. Madi a Thavha started 15 years ago when Dutch immigrants Marcelle Bosch and Aart van Soest decided they wanted to open a lodge in northern Limpopo. There was very little tourism development in this area and Marcelle and Aart had a particular interest in this region’s artists and artisans — sculptors, potters, beaders, textile-makers, etc. — as the Venda and Tsonga cultures have very strong and unique artistic traditions. (Read more about the art from this region in my 2016 post about the Ribola Art Route.) Marcelle and Aart bought an old farm, about 10 kilometers west of the town of Louis Trichardt, and set about turning it into a lodge. They named the lodge Madi a Thavha, which means “water from the mountain” in Venda, because the farm’s water comes from natural springs that flow down the mountain. Today, this lodge is basically paradise. I don’t think my photos properly convey the sense of tranquillity […]

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Ode to Limpopo

I spent seven days driving 1500 kilometres (about 1000 miles), mostly alone in my very tiny car, through Limpopo. I drove Limpopo — South Africa’s northernmost province — from top to bottom and around again. I visited towns with lyrical names: Mookgophong, Mokopane, Polokwane, Tzaneen, Giyani, Makhado. I stayed in luxury lodges and self-catering chalets. I gaped up at a full moon from beneath a towering white tree that’s been dead for more than 30 years. I got lost in an orange grove. I drank gin and tonics. I ate a hamburger on a bun so stale I could have used it as a hockey puck. I ate macadamia-crusted trout and rare beef fillet and vegan burgers and beetroot quinoa. I sat alone and cried in a birdwatching hide. I faced down a warthog. I watched monkeys copulate. I hung out with honking geese at sunrise. I photographed women embroidering elaborate masterpieces. I drove up a mountain on a dry, pockmarked dirt road and gazed down at a sacred lake. I communed with an ancient baobab. I saw the dusty grave of a Canadian First Nations soldier who died in a savage South African war. I visited a macadamia nut […]

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Bedroom in the deluxe suite at Mhondoro Safari Lodge

Mhondoro: Ultimate Luxury in the South African Bush

I have safaried in every possible fashion during my years in Africa. I’ve done low-budget camping trips, high-end tented camps, mid-range SANPark self-drives, river safaris, and walking safaris. You name it, I’ve probably done it. But when it comes to flat-out luxury I don’t think any of these past trips compare to my recent weekend at Mhondoro Safari Lodge and Villa. Mhondoro is in the Welgevonden Game Reserve in central Limpopo, less than three hours from Joburg. Welgevonden is a private, Big 5 game reserve (meaning all the “Big 5” animals — lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant — live there) and there is no self-driving allowed, so the only vehicles driving around are those belonging to the reserve’s small number of lodges. This sense of exclusiveness makes for excellent game-viewing as at any one time there are a very limited number of people — and a huge number of wild animals — hanging around in Welgevonden. Yes, it costs a lot. But the money helps preserve a huge, beautiful piece of wilderness and keep the animals (many of which are critically endangered) safe within it. There are 21 lodges in Welgevonden. They all look pretty nice online but I […]

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Cheetahs on the Hunt in Welgevonden Game Reserve

Over the recent long weekend I spent two days at Mhondoro Safari Lodge in the Welgevonden Game Reserve, which is in the Waterberg region of Limpopo. This trip amazed me in several ways, the first of which was how close Welgevonden is to Joburg (about two-and-a-half hours), and the second of which was how luxurious and fantastic Mhondoro is. It’s definitely one of the top three nicest (if not the nicest) safari lodges I’ve ever been to. The third most amazing thing about Welgevonden was, of course, the animals. I’ll have a lot more to say about Mhondoro in my next post. But I don’t want my cheetah hunt story to get lost in the shuffle of that post so I’m telling it here. I have been a travel writer in Africa for nearly a decade and during that time I have participated in dozens, if not hundreds, of game drives and bush walks and other wildlife viewing experiences. But the Holy Grail of wildlife viewing — watching big cats on a hunt — eluded me until my trip to Welgevonden. Cheetahs on the Hunt in Welgevonden Spoiler alert: I didn’t see anything kill anything else. (I’m not sure that’s […]

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The lane at Blueberry Heights in Magoebaskloof

The 2Summers Weekend Guide to Magoebaskloof

Last month I participated in a weekend-long Instagram trip to Magoebaskloof, a mountainous area in central Limpopo that includes the small town of Haenertsburg. We visited about a dozen amazing places in less than 48 hours; it was so exhausting that by Sunday afternoon I was slumped in the grass outside a popular outdoor market, unable to talk or move or speak. The good news is I didn’t drive back to Joburg that Sunday. I stayed in Magoebaskloof for several more days, relaxing in a cottage on an organic farm, catching up with a friend who lives in Haenertsburg, and leisurely checking out places I had missed during the 48-hour blitz. The end result is a million pretty flower photos and a good list of things to do, places to stay, and stuff to eat in Magoebaskloof. Five days wasn’t long enough to make me an expert and this list is by no means comprehensive. But it’s a start. The lovely, azalea-bordered lane at Blueberry Heights in Magoebaskloof.  What to do in Magoebaskloof I highly recommend visiting Magoebaskloof in late August or September, when there is an explosion of blooming azaleas, cherry trees, and apple trees. I felt like I was back on the American East Coast […]

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Outside Mukhondeni Village Pottery

Art Emerges From Dust on the Ribola Art Route

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 […]

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Sunrise over Albasini Dam

Chasing the Sunrise in Limpopo

Beautiful sunsets are easy to come by in South Africa. The light fades slowly through the afternoon, giving us plenty of time to prepare. The clouds are usually spectacular (except during the highveld winter, when clouds are scarce). Best of all, we tend to be awake already when the sun sets. Sunrises are much trickier. We must wake up well before the light to catch the sunrise, and if we’re a few minutes late, forget about it — within minutes the sun is hot and blinding. During summer, when the clouds are best, the sun rises at a ridiculously early hour. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve set my alarm to catch the sunrise, lingered in bed a little too long, then given up because I know I’ve missed it. Not to mention the number of times that I’ve gotten up on time, struggled my way outside (or worse, driven somewhere) and found that the fog is too thick, or that the sunrise is blocked by a mountain or building, and by the time the sun becomes visible it is way too bright. Last Friday morning, at the Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge, I hit the sunrise jackpot. A crisp sphere of orange flame rises […]

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Lucky and Vhutshilo at their house

Visiting Venda

I recently participated in a weekend trip to Magoebaskloof with a bunch of Instagrammers. It was a typical trip for me, in many ways: fun, social-media-oriented, filled with non-stop action, and planned by someone else. I loved it, and I’ll have lots more to say about that weekend in a future post. But instead of going home at the end of the weekend, as I normally would, I stayed behind for another week and practiced a different kind of travel. I drove all over Limpopo, exploring corners of the province that are far from conventional tourism routes, following my own agenda rather than someone else’s. Venda was my final destination. Phadzima village in Venda. My friend Lucky is from Venda. It’s a former Bantustan in the northeastern tip of South Africa. (Bantustans were separate “countries” the South African apartheid government set up in the mid-20th century as a way of keeping black people in poverty, essentially enslaved, and separating them from the ruling minority whites.) Venda borders Zimbabwe, and the Venda language is more similar to Shona (one of Zimbabwe’s dominant languages) than it is to any of South Africa’s other ten official languages. I’ve been wanting to visit Lucky’s family in Venda for years, and last weekend […]

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Man flyfishing in Stanford Lake

Magoebaskloof: 13 Pictures of a Beautiful, Misty Morning

Magoebaskloof, a mountainous region in South Africa’s Limpopo Province between Polokwane and Tzaneen, is referred to on its tourism website as “the Land of the Silver Mist”. It didn’t take me long to figure out why. Fly-fishing at sunrise on Magoebaskloof’s misty Stanford Lake. I arrived in Magoebaskloof on Friday afternoon with a bunch of Instagrammers, on a mission to visit as many interesting places as possible in less than 48 hours. On our first morning we rose at the crack of dawn (actually before the crack) and walked down to Stanford Lake, where a magical, misty dreamworld unfolded before us. Reflections and lily pads on the glassy lake, just before sunrise. I’ve got hundreds of Magoebaskloof photos, and I’m actually still here (I decided 48 hours wasn’t enough) and accumulating more and more. But for now I’m just posting my favorite pictures from that first morning. Morning Mist in Magoebaskloof Fly-fishing is the most beautiful thing in the world to photograph on a misty morning. Who knew? A teenage boy fly-fishing.  I don’t think he caught any fish. But really, who cares? Mist, reflections, and a hint of sun. More fly-fishing. I’m glad I wasn’t the one in that freezing water. But it […]

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Makuleke community drama song

Pafuri: A Beautiful Place With an Ugly History, Turned Beautiful Again

Once upon a time, the Makuleke people lived on a triangle-shaped piece of land, bordered by two rivers, at the intersection of three countries. The land was beautiful and fertile, with a huge diversity of animals and the mightiest trees in the world. This triangle was called Pafuri. In 1969, at the height of South Africa’s apartheid, the Makuleke were “removed” from the Pafuri Triangle so the area could be incorporated into the Kruger National Park. Men with guns drove trucks into the Makuleke villages, rounded up the people, and drove them to a barren piece of land a couple of hours away. The people — mostly women, children, and elderly men, as the younger men were away working — were dumped and given tents to sleep in. The men with guns left, and the Makuleke had to start over. This is a grossly oversimplified description of what happened. I’m a blogger, not a historian. A typical scene in the Pafuri Triangle, on a bridge overlooking the Luvuvhu River. It probably looked much the same in 1969. A traditional home in the area where the Makuleke were forcibly removed, 90 minutes’ drive from the Pafuri Triangle. When democracy came to South Africa in the 1990s, […]

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Elephants in the fever tree forest

The Land of Elephants and Baobabs

The Pafuri Triangle — a piece of wilderness in the very northern corner of South Africa’s Kruger National Park — is a land of giants. The trees are huge. The animals are huge. The beauty of the landscape is beyond comprehension. This elephant looks small in the photo (which, incidentally, was shot from the doorway of my tent at Return Africa’s Pafuri Camp). Trust me though — he’s huge. I spent three days at the Pafuri Camp, run by Return Africa, in the Makuleke Contractual Park. This section of the Kruger has a fascinating history, which I’ll describe in a future post. Elephants and Baobabs: Kruger’s Photogenic Giants I saw so many elephants during this trip and it’s been a struggle for me to narrow down the number of elephant photos I want to share. Same goes for the baobabs: I love these huge, ancient, topsy-turvy trees — which can only be found in the northern part of the Kruger — and I photographed them profusely. So before I go into the whole story of my trip, here are my favorite photos of the giants. This is my favorite baobab photo because you can also see the shadow of our […]

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