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The hot mineral springs at Bela-Bela (formerly Warmbaths) have long appealed to South Africans who wish to “take the waters” and benefit from their therapeutic effects. They are said to produce 22 000 litres of hot water an hour, at a temperature of 53 degrees Celsius.
The springs were developed into a spa and holiday resort many years ago and are currently operated by Forever Resorts. The spring waters are fed into indoor pools at a hydro, where you can sample the limestone-rich waters, or couple a dip with a massage and other treatments.
Outdoors, there are pools, water rides and slides, cable water-ski facilities and a 1 400-hectare private game reserve, where game drives are conducted.
Day visitors are welcome, but for those taking a few days’ break, there is a wide choice of accommodation, including hotel rooms, self-catering chalets and log cabins, as well as a camping and caravan site.
Food-wise, there are restaurants, cafes, food kiosks and a shop. The resort also has well-supported conference facilities.
Gautengers tend to favour Bela-Bela, which is roughly an hour’s drive from the big cities, in the winter for its mild temperatures and the promise of a hot and healing “bath”.
The new name adopted by this town, Bela-Bela, means “boiling, boiling” in Northern Sotho and, as such, positions the springs as its iconic attraction.
Rugged mountains, rolling bush and abundant wildlife characterise this area. The Waterberg is one of Limpopo’s most popular eco-tourism regions. Over the past decade it has come to rival Mpumalanga’s legendary Lowveld, with the added plus of being malaria-free.
The Waterberg offers a range of wildlife and safari experiences. These vary from Big 5 private reserves and game lodges to remote wilderness hideaways and self-catering bush camps. There are also national and provincial reserves.
The region is named after the Waterberg mountain range - ‘water mountains’ in Afrikaans - that stretches west to east for about 150km from Thabazimbi to the Mokopane. The mountains form the shoulder of the Palala Plateau – the bushveld of which rolls westwards all the way to Botswana.
True to their name, the Waterberg mountains include many rivers, streams, swamps and wetlands. The Limpopo River forms the western boundary of the region and the Mogalakwena River the eastern. The Waterberg has vast tracts of bushveld savannah punctuated with clusters of trees and tall savannah shrubs. The Springbok Flats are to the south.
The Waterberg is more than three million years old – and there are numerous archaeological finds and San paintings that give us glimpses of its past.
Mining has long been essential to the Waterberg’s economy. An Iron Age mineshaft found in the Waterberg was carbon dated to 1 500 AD. Five hundred years later, mining is still taking place. The Waterberg is one of the richest mineral deposits in the world. It’s part of the Bushveld Igneous Complex - a unique geological complex of volcanic rocks formed some 600 million years ago. The complex extends over 50 000km² and is rich in platinum, iron ore, vanadium, tin, tungsten, chromium and coal.
The Waterberg region includes the towns of Bela-Bela, Modimolle, Mabatlane, Lephalale, Mookgophong and Thabazimbi. The largest town is Bela-Bela, a lively centre for surrounding farms and game reserves, and famed for its hot springs. The name Bela-Bela means ‘water that boils’ in Tswana.
The towns of Modimolle and Mookgophong are steeped in interesting Iron Age, Nguni and Voortrekker history. The quaint village of Matlabane is a meet-and-greet spot for many travellers to the area, and Lephalale is the centre for the region’s thriving hunting industry.
The heart of the Waterberg is the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, a 400 000ha protected wilderness area offering a mix of nature, culture and heritage. It was declared by UNESCO in 2001 on the basis of its mountainous habitat, magnificent red sandstone cliffs and evidence of human occupation dating back thousands of years. It was first inhabited by the San people, who left their legacy in the form of rock art and cave paintings.
The only savannah reserve of its kind in southern Africa, the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve includes private and provincial game reserves. It also has areas of cultural and archaeological significance. The region has a strong conservation ethos, and eco-tourism and sustainable practices underpin many lodges and reserves here.
The Waterberg offers an exciting mix of wildlife and wilderness experiences – from traditional game lodges to tailor-made adventures. You can go hiking, camping, 4x4 off-roading, horseback riding and birding. The Waterberg is famed for two significant birding sites. The Nylsvley Wetlands is home to over 400 species of waterbirds. The Marakele National Park is home to the largest Cape vulture colony in the world. The area also has conservation training programmes, wildlife rehabilitation centres and educational school camps.
Look out for
Marakele National Park - The name Marakele is Tswana for ‘place of sanctuary’ and this wild and remote reserve is just that. Marakele has craggy hills and deep wooded kloofs, with rare cycads, tree ferns and yellowwood trees. This is an unspoilt part of the Waterberg, home to all the large game species from rhino to elephant and the big cats. It is also home to the world’s biggest Cape vulture population – over 800 breeding pairs.
Nylsvley - The Nylsvley Conservancy is a favourite destination among South Africa’s birding community. It is part of the country’s largest flood plain. Stretching over 70km from Modimolle to Mokopane, Nylsvley is a world-renowned RAMSAR site. In the rainy summer months the grasslands of Nylsvley are transformed into lake that stretches for kilometres. It virtually becomes an international bird airport. The Waterberg Nylsvley Birding Route covers Nylsvley, the Waterberg mountains and Marakele National Park.
The Waterberg Meander - The Waterberg Meander is a self-drive route through the heart of the region that takes you to a series of interesting sites, community projects and tourist attractions. Visit local arts & crafts projects, explore the ancient hill of Melora, meet the Waterberg Red Beds, an unusual geological formation, check out the glorious mountain peaks known as the Seven Sister of the Waterberg, or visit a monument dedicated to explorer David Livingstone.
Bela-Bela’s hot springs - Long known for their healing properties, the hot mineral springs at Bela-Bela bubble out of the ground at about 2 200 litres per hour, at a temperature of around 53ºC. The water is rich in sodium chloride, calcium carbonate and other salts with natural healing properties. The Bela-Bela Aventura Resort is a popular spot for its water world activities. There are many health and pampering opportunities in and around Bela-Bela.
The annual Big Five Marathon - The 42km-long Big Five Marathon is known as the wildest of them all – they say it’s tougher than South Africa’s famous 88km-long Comrades Marathon. Held at Entabeni Game Reserve in the Waterberg mountains, this annual marathon attracts thousands of runners from around the world. Out here there are ravines and gorges, rivers and lakes, and stretches of unspoiled bushveld. There are no fences; just wide open spaces and a tough challenge for marathon runners.