The place: Venda, on a hill covered in afromontane forest
The people: VhaVenda
Co-operative: Fundudzi Tshivhase Tourism Primary Co-operative Limited
Beneficiary villages: Mukumbani Village, Makwarani and Tshidzivhe
Best known for: Lush vistas, sacred waters and forests, layer upon layer of legend and tradition
Fundudzi Camp sits in the heart of Venda, deep in the Soutpansberg mountains among towering jackalberry, wild fig, Transvaal plum and countless other trees, overlooking the emerald tea plantations of Mukumbani village below. The camp is laid out like a royal kraal, with the ‘chief’s’ rondavel at the top of the hill. Baboons shriek from the forest. Not far off lie sacred sites whose interconnected stories reveal a labyrinth of belief and ritual.
Five rondavels are laid out like a royal household on a steep, densely forested hillside; with a recent upgrade, each has twin beds with new linen and en suite toilet, hand basin and shower. There’s a communal kitchen and dining area, and a small communal braai area. Facilities include a fridge, freezer, gas hob and all necessary pots, cutlery and crockery. Solar jars provide light for the rooms. Beautiful natural stone paths and steps link the rondavels and common areas, lit magically at night by paraffin lanterns.
Lake Fundudzi – Formed by a landslide roughly 20,000 years ago blocking the Mutale River, Lake Fundudzi is the source and subject of multiple legends and beliefs. Home of the Python God and half-people, or tshidudwane, the lake is the site of regular rituals practised by the Netshiavha clan, and also the periodic Domba or Python Dance that initiates girls into womanhood. Guides like Fundudzi Camp’s Nelson Mphaha will talk about “real fish and ancestral fish” there, as well as the ceremonial ‘drums’ (stones) played on shore. Visits there start with greeting the ancestors properly: standing with your back to the lake and viewing it upside-down through your legs, reciting: “Fundudzi la ha nyankodolela u nyele phako. Ri vhaeni ni so ngo ri fhelela mbilu.” Meaning, roughly, “Fundudzi, where you bend over and shit into the cave…” Not offensive to the ancestors, apparently, if you say it with joy and respect.
Thathe Vondo Forest – Thathe Vondo, an afromontane forest full of shadows and silence, is the sacred burial ground for the Netshidzivhe clan. When a clan member dies, he/she is buried in the royal kraal. In time, the family consults a maine (traditional healer) who tells them when to exhume the bones and rebury them in the forest. The ancestors in the forest must be consulted as well. “If the monkeys scream, that person must not be reburied here,” says guide Nelson. “If leaves fall down, they are welcome to be reburied.” After reburial, the person becomes an ancestor. Legend has it that a white lion guards the ancestors’ graves – the former Chief Nthathe, a magician who transformed himself. Legend also has it that if you take anything from the forest, you are cursed – a stick, for instance, may turn into a snake.
Phiphidi Falls – Traditionally, Phiphidi Falls on the Mutshundudi River has been spiritually linked to Lake Fundudzi and Thathe Vondo, and some say that a Lightning God once lived at the top of the falls. Says Nelson: “People believed that the tshidudwane, the half-people, moved from the lake through the forest to Phiphidi Falls. They took water from the falls, and brought it back through the forest to the lake, where it evaporated and brought rain.” Though some people still make offerings at the falls, contemporary ablution blocks and accommodation nearby somewhat inhibit reverence. Still a fine place to picnic, relax.
Tshatshingo Potholes – A worthy hike from the camp, particularly if it’s hot and the water is flowing, is the site of the Tshatshingo Potholes on the Tshirovha River. We took the walk across the river to the edge of the deepest pothole, with roiling waters. “People have fallen in and disappeared,” Nelson explained, adding anecdotes about sightings of “half-women breastfeeding” in the area. Luckily, downstream is a relatively calm stretch where one can swim without fear.
Overnight in a Local Village – Should you want to probe deeper into local culture, spend a night in a village near camp, arranged by camp guides and the community. We overnighted in Tshitangani, a tiny village near Lake Fundudzi and one of its custodians. After a warm welcome of drumming and traditional dancing, we were told stories of the lake; fed a traditional supper of stew, pap, local greens, peanuts and mopani worms; and allowed to retire early on reed mats (and sleeping bags we brought) in our rondavel. The next morning we hiked around the lake with local guides, and guides from camp. But not before hearing stories from one of the village’s oldest residents, Tshinakaho Netshitangani, around 100 years old, her family told us. “On the corner of the lake I used to hear the sounds of the Tshikona dance, the drums and the flutes,” she said, seated on her kitchen floor. “But if you went to look, there would be no one there…”
Traditional Dancing – Every village has its dancers, men and women, but to see one of the most professional troupes in the area, ask camp guides to arrange a session with Takuwani – meaning ‘stand up’. These women inspire with their soulfulness and energy, and may pull you onto the dance ‘floor’, in our case a wide swath of grass outside Philamisevhe’s kraal in Makwarani village, high up in the mountains with 360-degree views. They danced the Domba, then the hyperkinetic Malende, and finally the Tshifasi, a courting dance, pulling me and another journalist into the dance circle and adorning us. Said Azwihangwisi Ravhura, the troupe’s leader, at the end: “Thank you for letting us dance our culture. Now that I have danced, I can be a person again.”
Craft and Clothing – There are a number of local crafters and seamstresses from whom you can buy fabulous traditional Venda items, as well as modern interpretations of the traditional look, often custom-made. Ask the camp staff about what’s available at the time of your visit