Nature & the Environment
Limpopo Province – named after the river that snakes sluggishly along its western and northern borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe – boasts rich biodiversity, based on its varied terrain and multiplicity of ecosystems. Limpopo – a name derived from the Northern Sotho diphororo tsa meetse, or ‘strong, gushing waterfalls’ – homes three of the eight UNESCO-registered Biosphere Reserves in South Africa: the Waterberg, Kruger to Canyons, and Vhembe Reserves. Across these reserves span five mountain ranges, namely the Soutpansberg, Waterberg, Blouberg, Wolkberg, and Magoebaskloof, and a vast range of landscapes including savannah, sandstone cliffs and caves, afromontane forest, riverine forest, marsh and rivers.
The Waterberg Biosphere
(Closest Camps: Blouberg, Nthubu)
The Waterberg Biosphere in western Limpopo is a 650,000-hectare sandstone massif, with some peaks reaching nearly 2,000 metres. It was formed over hundreds of millions of years by riverine erosion creating diverse butte and bluff landforms. The Waterberg’s prevailing ecosystem is defined as bushveld, or dry, deciduous forest. The first humans may have dwelled in the Waterberg as long as three million years ago; Stone Age rock art and archaeological finds throughout the region indicate the presence of early San/Bushmen. Bantu and Nguni peoples arrived and settled there later, during the Iron Age. Sub-habitats in the Waterberg include high-plateau savannah, specialised shaded cliff vegetation, and marshy riparian zone. With low human density, the Waterberg hosts a wide variety of game, including lion, leopard, hyena, white rhino, Nile crocodile, hippo, kudu, blue wildebeest and giraffe. Common birds include the black-headed oriole and white-backed vulture. In the early 1900s, South African writer and naturalist Eugene Marais famously studied ‘white ants’ (termites) and baboons there. Trees common in the area include mountain syringa, silver cluster-leaf, paperbark false-thorn, river bushwillow, and the fever tree, which San/Bushmen believed could be used to communicate with the dead.
The Kruger to Canyons Biosphere
(Closest Camps: Mafefe, Mtomeni, Modjadji)
This 4.8-million hectare biosphere reserve straddles Limpopo and Mpumalanga; it’s the largest biosphere reserve in South Africa and currently the world’s third largest. Stretching from the Letaba River in the north, south to the Sabie River, west to the Blyde River escarpment and east to Mozambique, the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere encompasses Kruger National Park, the Blyde River Canyon, the Wolkberg Wilderness Area (a floral hotspot) and the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve, among other top destinations. The reserve is comprised of three main biomes: dry savannah woodlands; afromontane forest; and afromontane grasslands. Elevations increase from east to west in the reserve, with some peaks in the Drakensberg escarpment exceeding 2,000 metres. The dry savannah woodlands host the richest distribution of large mammal species found in any sub-region in the world, due to the varied vegetation sustaining huge ungulate (hooved mammal) populations and their predators. Local species include elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, leopard, wild dog, and a variety of rare antelope such as tsessebe, sable, roan and hartebeest. The Kruger to Canyons reserve boasts up to 75 percent of all terrestrial bird species, 80 percent of all raptor species, and 72 percent of all mammals found in South Africa.
The Vhembe Biosphere
(Closest Camps: Baleni, Fundudzi, Mutale Falls, Blouberg)
The 3.07-million hectare Vhembe Biosphere Reserve contains some of South Africa’s, specifically Limpopo’s, ecological and cultural highlights. Spanning a large section of northern Limpopo, the reserve encompasses Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site; the northern part of Kruger National Park (north of the Shingwedzi River); several provincial nature reserves and parts of two transfrontier parks; the Soutpansberg and Blouberg mountains; the rock art-rich Makgabeng Plateau; and Lake Fundudzi, the country’s only natural inland lake and supremely significant to the VhaVenda people. Mainly savannah, with grassland and forest otherwise, the reserve ranges from flat plains to steep mountains, some exceeding 2,000 metres. It hosts a wide diversity of ecosystems and species, many endemic to the region, including 3,000 plant species and 600 tree species. To date there are 38 known animal species endemic to the area.
The 1,750-km Limpopo River (Vhembe in TshiVenda) is at the heart of the province’s identity, and a natural border crossed by nearly all the peoples settling there over the centuries. From the confluence of the Crocodile and Marico Rivers, the river flows upwards in an arc and then downwards again to empty into the Indian Ocean near the town of Xai-Xai in Mozambique. The Limpopo forms about 640 km of South Africa’s borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe. In dry years, the upper parts of the river flow a maximum of only 40 days a year; flooding is occasionally a problem during the rainy season on the lower reaches of the river, as it was in the 2000 flood in Mozambique. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was the first European to sight the Limpopo; he anchored off its mouth in 1498 and called it ‘Espiritu Santo’ – Holy Spirit – River. Today approximately 14 million people live in the Limpopo River Basin. A visit to Mapungubwe National Park will give you a fine riverview, if it’s flowing, typically silt-laden and sluggish – and a sign with British author Rudyard Kipling’s famous words from Just So Stories: “At last he came to the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees…”
Due largely to the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere’s huge biodiversity and concentration of large mammal species, game is abundant along the AIR, particularly on the eastern side of the route. Mtomeni Camp — in the Letaba Ranch Reserve bordering Kruger, with no fences in between – offers potentially one of the best game viewing experiences (one can never guarantee sightings but the odds are good). Both Mtomeni and Mutale Falls Camp, further north bordering Pafuri/northern Kruger, are in Big Five areas, but game is much harder to see at Mutale Falls, except down by the river. In my experience, game is not really a feature at the other camps, and certainly not that visible. Not to say that a wide range of mammals, reptiles, insects and amphibians aren’t on hand. Aside from the two AIR camp areas, the best places to see game if you’re traveling the route are Pafuri, Kruger’s northernmost section, particularly along the Luvuvhu River, and Mapungubwe National Park. Alas, due to drought the last time I was there about a year ago the usually plentiful elephants were scarce, as was other wildlife. But upon other visits, the elephant herds were everywhere, on both the arid eastern side and the forested western side of the park. Magical.
Limpopo is one of the world’s top birding destinations, due to its variety of vegetation and ecosystems. Figures vary, but some claim there are at least 540 bird species on offer. Birds are plentiful in habitats ranging from indigenous mountain forest, riparian forest, arid savannah, seasonal floodplains, acacia thornveld and plateau grassland. Certain species are much easier to spot than elsewhere in South Africa, including Shelley’s francolin; grey-headed parrot; crested guineafowl; African broadbill; and short-clawed lark. Other central and east African species migrate only as far south as Limpopo, so the province has the country’s claim on species such as the black-fronted bushshrike; tropical boubou; Senegal coucal; Arnott’s chat; blue-spotted wood dove; and racket-tailed roller. Other signature birds in the province include the Cape vulture (the breeding colonies at Blouberg); the mottled spinetail breeding colony at the Sagole Baobab; and Pel’s fishing owl, found at Mutale Falls Camp, Pafuri/northern Kruger, and other riverine forest areas. For a superb birding experience along the AIR, visit Mtomeni Camp, where guide Edwin Muneri can identify just about everything in a second and converses with birds. Blouberg Camp also has a staggering amount of birdlife (the wood owls there are particularly endearing), as do Baleni, Fundudzi & Modjadji Camp in years not as dry as recent ones.
It’s impossible to give an exact number of trees and plants in Limpopo/along the AIR – just in the Vhembe Biosphere alone there are more than 3,000 recorded plant species and at least 600 tree species. Among the most striking tree species are the baobab, found largely in the Limpopo River Basin in the north; the ubiquitous mopane; the giant nyalaberry, jackalberry and clustered fig found near the rivers; the common marula; the flat crown thorn tree/acacia; and the luminescent greeny-gold fever tree. Many trees and plants are used in traditional medicine/healing, and communities guard access to them in many cases. Traditional healers have a remedy for just about anything, made from roots, leaves, bulbs and/or bark of various flora.
Baobabs (Adansonia digitata)
Baobabs are the most iconic tree in Limpopo, populating the northern part of the province like warriors standing sentry. The country’s biggest baobab – the Sagole Baobab – can be found in Venda, east of Tshipise off the R525 on the way to Masisi. There’s a seemingly endless list of fascinating facts about these trees – the largest succulents in the world – and much lore and mystery surrounding them. For centuries baobabs have been used for food, water, shelter, and muti or traditional medicine. Among their incredible qualities:
* They have one of the longest lifespans of any tree, though it’s impossible to identify their age through tree rings due to their fibrous trunks. Some (such as those at Thulamela) have been estimated to be nearly 4,000 years old – but this may be inaccurate; certain carbon dating studies have estimated that a baobab with a seven-metre diameter is about 600 years old;
* The tree has pendulous white flowers and oval-shaped fruit, covered in golden brown ‘hairs’;
* Fruit bats are its main pollinators, assisted sometimes by bush babies;
* ‘Baobab’ derives from an Arabic word meaning ‘father of many seeds’;
* Nicknames include ‘the upside-down tree’ and the ‘dead-rat tree’ (the latter based on the fruit’s appearance);
* Baobabs can grow up to 22 metres or more in height, with a diametre of at least 10 metres;
* The greyish-brown bark is usually smooth, but in older trees, often folded and wrinkled like an elephant;
* The tree thrives in hot, dry woodland areas with well-drained soils;
* Baobabs have been used for a variety of purposes – homes, pubs, storage units, a bus stop, a toilet, a reservoir;
* Almost all parts of the baobab are used: the fruit (its seeds are cold-pressed to make an oil for skin ailments and cosmetics, and the pulp can be eaten as is or mixed into smoothies etc, as it’s high in vitamin C, calcium and magnesium); the leaves, similar to spinach; the bark, from young trees usually, used to make rope for weaving mats and baskets;
* Along the Limpopo River, some believe that if a boy bathes in water used to soak baobab seeds he will grow into a big man.
Mopani / Mopane
Mopani, or mopane, trees – Colophospermum mopane – are ubiquitous across the bushveld of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Beloved by elephants, they also host the mopane moth, or Gonimbrasia belina, whose caterpillar or ‘worm’ is a major, protein-rich food source for people throughout Limpopo and further afield.
Mopani can grow as high as 20 metres, but are more frequently seen at a shorter height and often as ‘scrub’, groves of mopani just several metres tall. The trees are distinguished by their butterfly-shaped leaves (suggestive of the mopane moth), bright green when young but turning autumnal shades later in the season. Trees tend to be multi-stemmed with a v-formation near the crown; their bark is vertically fissured. Mopani flower – a small cluster – between October and March and bear fruit from March to June.
A variety of game browses on the trees; they’re a favourite edible for wildlife, which eats the leaves as well as fruit and seed pods – not suitable for human consumption. One of the most interesting aspects of mopani trees is that they ‘warn’ each other of approaching browsers by emitting methane gas, which triggers other trees to release a bitter substance as a deterrent.
The wood of mopani trees is often used to make furniture and fencing, due to its strength, colour and resistance to termites. It also makes a great fire.
The rock art – mainly paintings, some engravings – that so far has been discovered across Limpopo is probably a fraction of what exists. More sites have been found in the western part of the province, but much remains to be explored. The Makgabeng Plateau, particularly has more than 600 rock art sites, with paintings by the San/Bushmen going back thousands of years, geometric paintings by Khoikhoi pastoralists, and Northern Sotho and Hananwa paintings dating from the last couple of centuries.
San/Bushmen rock art is the most well-known, both in Limpopo and in other South African rock art hotspots such as the Cederberg and the Drakensberg mountains. Delicate, dreamlike images of people, animals, and some geometric symbols, San/Bushmen rock art generally depicted trance images seen by the group’s shaman, and often painted by the shaman. The trance dance itself, transporting the shaman and others to the spirit world, was often represented on the rock walls and shelters. The paintings’ fine lines and shading were done with ‘brushes’ made from animal hair, feathers stuck into reeds or feathers used as quill pens. Colours were generally red ochre (from stones/the earth), yellow (from stone or eggs), sometimes white (from clay or bird droppings) and later when Bantu peoples came south, black (from charcoal). A distinctive image that often appears in the paintings is the half-human, half-animal therianthrope – the shaman, often shown harnessing the n/um, or power-essence, of the sacred eland. Once finished the San/Bushmen paintings were used in rituals including rainmaking and healing/cleansing.
Later Khoikhoi paintings, mainly geometric, and Northern Sotho paintings are stylistically different from those of the San/Bushmen – finger paintings, so much thicker and bolder, less delicate. The Hananwa Great Train painting on Thabananthlana mountain in the Makgabeng Plateau is an impressive giant tableaux depicting the capture and arrest of former Hananwa Chief Kgalushi Ratshatsha Lebogo by Boer commandos in 1894 – an early form of protest art.