Vhembe is Limpopo province’s northernmost region and borders both Zimbabwe and Botswana. Vhembe includes the towns of Louis Trichardt, Musina and Thohoyandou. One of its major tourist attractions is the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site. This was South Africa’s first city of gold, set on the banks of the Limpopo River and dating back to the 12th century.
Vhembe’s habitat ranges from the subtropical Soutpansberg mountains to wild and arid stretches of bushveld along the Limpopo River. This is the heart of the ancient Limpopo River Valley. The region is famed for its thousands of baobab trees, source of much folklore and tourism icons of Limpopo province.
Vhembe is a gateway to the northern parts of the Kruger National Park (KNP), including the popular camps of Pafuri and Punda Maria. This is part of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Fences between South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique have been dropped to create the world’s biggest transfrontier park. In the north of the KNP lies Thulamela National Heritage Site, which was once a royal palace and dates back to the 15th century.
The Soutpansberg or Tha vhani ya muno (mountain of salt) is South Africa’s northernmost mountain range. It gets its name from the many salt pans here. The Soutpansberg mountain area has thick forests, dramatic cliffs and majestic look-out spots. The area is a day tripper’s paradise – offering scenic day drives, artist routes, wilderness experiences and excellent hiking and birding. There are also a lot of archaeological ruins and rock art, as well as museums, historic buildings and battlefield sites.
Louis Trichardt, in the foothills of the Soutpansberg mountains, is the region’s biggest town and main agricultural centre. It’s one of the main conduits for travellers en route to Zimbabwe, Botswana and the KNP. It also serves as a centre for surrounding farms, which produce litchis, bananas, mangos, nuts, tea and coffee. North of Louis Trichardt is Musina, a sweltering border town. Thohoyandou is north-east of Louis Trichardt, a colourful urban centre for surrounding farms and villages.
Vhembe is sometimes dubbed ‘the land of legend’ because of the rich culture of its Venda people and its many ancient heritage and cultural sites. You can visit ancient ruins and sacred lakes, and find out about the traditions and mythology of the Venda people.
Behind the Soutpansberg is the Limpopo Valley, a natural basin through which flows the Limpopo River, immortalised by Rudyard Kipling as the ‘great greasy grey-green Limpopo’. It cuts its way through South Africa and Mozambique before spilling out into the Indian Ocean. At the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, three countries unite: South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
The Limpopo River forms the heart of the Limpopo River Valley, supporting a massive and fascinating eco-system. This includes large elephant herds, plenty of hippos and crocs, and over 350 recorded bird species. There is a host of reserves and game ranches.
When to go
Mapungubwe World Heritage Site - A flourishing empire in the 12th century, on the banks of the Limpopo River in baobab bushveld. The people of Mapungubwe traded with Arab traders from present-day Mozambique, and other African kingdoms to the north and west. At Mapungubwe you can take a guided tour of ancient San cave paintings, explore fascinating ruins of South Africa's first city of gold, and enjoy game drives and walks. Set in a national park, there are guided drives & trails, and overnight accommodation.
Land of Legend route - Take a guided or self-drive tour to some of the cultural spots around the historic village of Elim. You can visit the studios of artists, potters and weavers, and meet sculptors and crafters. The land of legend route also includes visits to Thathe Vondo Holy Forest, the sacred Lake Fundudzi and the Dzata Ruins. The latter were once the capital of the Venda people, ruled by the great Thohoyandou, whose name means ‘head of the elephant’.
Hangklip Forest Reserve - Walk, climb, meander, stroll, picnic and hug trees. This 35ha nature reserve is set within the Soutpansberg mountains and is a wonderful escape for nature lovers, hikers and climbers. There are walking trails, waterfalls, look-out points, picnic sites and magnificent trees.
Thulamela National Heritage Site - A guided tour to Thulamela in the northern Kruger National Park gives you a fascinating insight into the lives of an ancient culture. A hillside of stone walls and ruins tells the story of people who settled here in the 15th century.
The Skirmish Route - Local historian and personality, Charles Leach, takes you on a fascinating adventure back in time to the days of the Anglo-Boer War The last bloody days of the war played out here. Visit graves, battle sites, look-out points and historic buildings. You can also visit the Schoemansdal Open Air Museum, 14km from Louis Trichardt. This quirky museum has memorabilia and exhibits from the days when the Voortrekkers trekked to these parts with their ox-wagons and Bibles. There are also exhibits from the early San and Khoi inhabitants of this area.
The Soutpansberg Limpopo Birding Route - The Soutpansberg mountains and the Limpopo River Valley host over 540 bird species, making this is a rewarding route indeed. It includes northern parts of the Kruger, Mapungubwe National Park and the Soutpansberg mountain range. The Blouberg also has a large population of vultures.
The Musina Baobab Reserve - Take a slow drive through the bushveld and see thousands of baobab trees. South of the town of Musina, the Musina Baobab Reserve is a wonderful day-drive and picnic spot, set against the backdrop of the surreal baobab trees. Adansonia digitata, as the baobab is scientifically named, is one of the trees in Africa with the longest lifespan. Some baobabs in Limpopo province are already over 3 000 years old. On average baobab trees found in Vhembe are between 300 and 500 years old.