Modjadji Camp

The place: An ancient cycad reserve, ruled for centuries by the Rain Queen

The people: BaLobedu

Co-operative: Modjadji African Ivory Route Primary Co-operative limited

Beneficiary villages: Khethakong, Seopeng, Madumane, Morwatshehla, Mothomeng, Mahawa.

Best known for: Modjadji, the Rain Queen, and the prehistoric cycads

Since 1800, the BaLobedu people in the lush, forested mountains just north of Tzaneen have been ruled by Modjadji, the Rain Queen; the seventh Modjadji, Masalanabo, will be coronated in six years when she turns 18. South Africa’s only matrilineal dynasty – preceded by centuries of kings – is still largely shrouded in secrets. Each year in October the BaLobedu people gather for the rainmaking ceremonies held in the BaLobedu Royal Kraal, over which Modjadji presides. The Rain Queen’s aura prevails in Modjadji village as well as in the cycad forest, where one imagines dinosaurs emerging at any moment. Or at least strolling through something similar 50 million years ago.

Nestled in the cycad forest, five rondavels each offer two three-quarter beds and en suite toilet, hand basin and very roomy shower. Rondavels are painted in striking traditional BaLobedu geometric designs. Recent renovations have brought solar lighting/power to camp, including innovative charging units in rooms using solar energy stored in batteries – USB and 12 V (cigarette lighter) charging available.  A new borehole and water harvesting mechanisms have also been part of the upgrade. Communal kitchen and dining areas are well stocked with crockery, cutlery, pots, a gas hob, fridge and freezer, as well as a tank for fresh drinking water. There’s a fire pit mid-camp (bring wood) for sharing local legends and other stories, under the coral tree.

The Cycad Reserve and Nursery – Modjadji Camp is located within the 305-hectare Modjadji Cycad Reserve, established in 1983 to protect Encephalartos transvenosus, the species of cycad unique to the area and one of South Africa’s 29 cycad species. It’s the largest concentration of a cycad species in the world. “Cycads are like rhinos,” says Camp Manager Lazarus Mokoena. “We have to have rangers patrolling the reserve protecting them.” Before the reserve was established, tens of thousands of local cycads were being poached and sold; now you can legally buy one in the nursery off the main road in Modjadji, including a permit and registration. Even if you don’t want to take one home, a hike up sacred Mammatshira Hill – from camp to the heart of the reserve and visitors’ centre/picnic area – is worth the considerable effort.

Camp guides will fill you in on cycads, and there’s more information in the visitors’ centre, as well as info about Queen Modjadji. As these prehistoric-looking plants tower above you, you’re transported back millions of years – cycads were, in fact, around at the time of the dinosaurs. There are male and female cycads, hard to differentiate unless they have cones; the male’s are more slender. Monkeys, baboons, rodents and bats love the fleshy yellow pulp of the female seed; the orange kernel inside is toxic. The most primitive living seed-bearing plant known to man, cycads have changed little over the last 60 million years.

Local Entertainment – Molopini Entertainment Centre on Modjadji’s main road is a multi-purpose venue for all sorts of fun: live and recorded jazz; dancing; dining (limited menu); drinking; lounging; slot machines; pool/snooker; and chess, with giant pieces on a ‘board’ outside.  It’s a welcoming hangout for all sorts of local professionals, for a night out. Much more lively on the weekends than weekdays/nights.

The Royal Homestead – The BaLobedu Royal Homestead is a modest enclosure of rondavels and ceremonial common areas; one goes for the stories of Modjadji through the ages, conjuring up the beer drinking, drumming, chanting and other rituals to honour the Queen and summon rain.

The first Modjadji, Maselekwane, became Queen in 1800 AD after she and her brothers, royal offspring, were put to test: whoever opened a door to a special ceremonial hut was the ancestors’ choice to rule. Maselekwane opened the door. She ruled until 1854, the first in a line of queens who remain mystical and powerful among the BaLobedu, and further afield. Shaka, King of the Zulus, was apparently awed by her and paid her tribute. A daughter of former South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts was allegedly sheltered from a thunderstorm by Modjadji, and the Queen and the Smuts family later became friends. British writer H. Rider Haggard paid his own tribute to Modjadji in his novel, She.

Among the interesting aspects of the Queen’s life: she was not allowed to marry, but rather was seen as a ‘man’ who took ‘wives’ in the form of women who were basically ladies-in-waiting (bathanone); the first two Modjadjis were expected to commit ritual suicide by drinking poison after they had passed on their secrets to their successor, generally their eldest daughter; in the rainmaking ceremonies, a cow is a key player, led in to drink beer – and like the Queen, passes her ceremonial role down to her daughter.

Until the next Modjadji comes of age, her uncle Prince Mpapatla Modjadji heads the BaLobedu as Regent. In May 2016, the South African government officially recognised the Modjadji queenship, which the apartheid regime had nullified in 1972. Visits to the Royal Homestead need to be pre-booked and accompanied by a royal guide.