Pushing up against the Botswana, Limpopo and Gauteng borders, the central region of the North West province is a land of fertile farms, bushveld, small towns and multiple cultures, that have clashed dramatically and created some fascinating history.
The region, which is dry and flat in the west, turning to bushveld with its game-viewing opportunities as you move eastwards, is also known as the Dr Ngaka Modiri Molema District. Molema was the grandson of the Baralong founder of Mahikeng, the provincial capital of North West. He was also a Glasgow-trained medical doctor and author of historical publications.
Mahikeng (formerly Mafikeng and, before that, Mafeking) has long been a centre of administration. The name translates to “place of boulders or rocks”, after volcanic rocks that offered shelter to Stone Age hunters. Indeed, from an historical perspective, Mahikeng does rock, from its early settlement by the Barolong, to the 217-day siege of Baden Powell and his troops during the 1899-1902 South African War, to its association with the politician, journalist and campaigner for human rights, Sol Plaatje.
Neighbouring Mahikeng is Mmabatho, for a brief time the capital of a short-lived independent homeland, Bophuthatswana. The independence experiment went out the window with apartheid but has left this town with some of the most modern architecture in the province, an impressive multi-functional convention centre and a casino resort.
A little to the north-east, the Groot Marico holds much fascination for tourists, thanks to the humorous exploits of a mythical character, Oom Schalk Lourens, created by author Herman Charles Bosman. Through his writing, Bosman captured the essential character of the towns of the North West, founded by Voortrekkers and to this day inhabited by close-knit Afrikaner communities. Lourens’s love of the local moonshine, mampoer, is perpetuated on farms in the Groot Marico area, which welcome tourists with a demonstration of the brewing of this drink with its almost-paralysing percentage of alcohol.
Lichtenburg, more or less slap bang in the centre of the central region, is another interesting spot, the scene of a frantic diamond rush in 1926 that attracted 100 000 fortune-seekers in a short space of time. Five years later they had packed up, leaving this charming town to get on with its business of serving as a centre to a thriving farming community.
The central region has much more to offer in towns such as Coligny, Delareyville, Ottosdal, Sannieshof and Zeerust. Indigenous communities and their traditional ways are portrayed at cultural villages, churches and mission stations narrate the area’s missionary history, and small museums pack a ton of information into their exhibits to bring insight to the region. The South African War, or the second Anglo-Boer War, has left its mark in the central region in the form of ruined concentration camps, cemeteries, memorials and battlefield sites.
Close enough to Gauteng for weekend getaways, the central region has a bounty of natural attractions for big-city escapees. There are bird sanctuaries, game reserves and dams for birdwatching, game-viewing, fishing or simply enjoying a big blue sky.
When to go
Summers are hot and the occurrence of a late afternoon thunderstorm is often a welcome relief. The heat in the months of March and April is a little gentler. The winters are dry and sunny, although the hours between sunset and sunrise can be chilly. In general, the region can be visited all year round.
Barberspan Bird Sanctuary – as a Ramsar-accredited wetland, this sanctuary is considered to be of international importance for waterfowl and migratory birds. Located between Delareyville and Sannieshof, it is a 2 000-hectare pan of water where more than 365 bird species have been recorded. There are self-catering guesthouses, camping and caravan facilities. Fishing, canoeing and rowing are permitted. See www.parksnorthwest.co.za.
Botsalano Game Reserve – located on the Botswana border, this 5 800-hectare reserve has more than 2 000 animals. It is a prolific breeding ground for antelope and white rhino and also has an old volcanic crater. There are a number of camps for accommodation. See www.parksnorthwest.co.za
Dams – angling, boating and other water sports are possible on a number of dams in the central region, including Disaneng and Modimola outside Mahikeng and Krommellenboog near Groot Marico.
Cultural Villages and Museums – At Kortkloof Cultural Village outside Groot Marico, a series of Tswana homesteads from traditional mud houses to today’s tin shacks can be viewed. A museum at Lotlamoreng Dam Cultural Reserve outside Mahikeng explains the culture of seven different indigenous groups.
Lichtenburg Biodiversity Conservation Centre – The National Zoological Gardens manages a 6 000-hectare breeding farm outside the town of Lichtenburg, where exotic animals such as Pere David's deer, Cape mountain zebra, the scimitar-horned oryx and the Arabian oryx are bred. Rhino and a range of antelope can also be seen. Much water in the area attracts good birdlife too. See www.nzg.ac.za
Madikwe Game Reserve – It is 20 years since state, private enterprise and local communities collaborated in Operation Phoenix, a game translocation programme that saw more than 66 species of mammal relocated to occupy a 75 000-hectare site 90 kilometres north of Zeerust. The reserve offers big five viewing and 10 lodges or camps for a range of accommodation grades and types. See www.madikwe-game-reserve.co.za
Wondergat – A natural sinkhole of dolomite, Wondergat, about 60 kilometres from Lichtenburg and 30 kilometres from Mahikeng is used for advanced scuba training. Once a cave thousands of years old and filled with water, its roof collapsed, leaving this fresh-water facility more than 50 metres deep and filled with interesting fish species.
Groot Marico – The Herman Charles Bosman Literary Society have a busy calendar of events throughout the year. One of the highlights is the annual Bosman weekend getaway in October. There are also informal street markets throughout the year. To really get into the “spirit” of things, there are mampoer farms peppered throughout the region. On the other side of the spectrum is the Tara Rokpa Buddhist Centre, on the outskirts of the Marico.