Mountains of Water
Words & pics Justin Fox
Wild, rugged, with dramatic heights, clear streams and undulating bushveld – the Waterberg is a little-known corner of South Africa, with plenty of reasons to visit. Justin Fox went exploring.
The Waterberg is one of Southern Africa’s most beguiling mountain ranges. Stretching across Limpopo province – about two hours’ north of Pretoria – it straddles a vast area of 15 000 km2. Its southern escarpment presents a line of soaring crags dominated by the Seven Sisters, its central plateau comprises wide-open grasslands and the north-eastern ramparts rise out of the veld in a series of towering formations.
With plenty of groundwater, these mountains were home to early hominids as long as three million years and were later inhabited by hunter-gathering San. In the 19th century, the Waterberg region had a reputation for gunrunners and big-game hunters, its fringes loosely settled by hardy pioneer families and mining prospectors.
Leaving the city one bright winter’s morning, I drove north up the N1 bound for Marakele. This national park is made up of gorgeous mountain landscapes, its grass-clad slopes dotted with yellowwood and cedar trees. It also boasts the big five and a great variety of birds, including perhaps the world’s largest colony of Cape vultures.
I signed in at the gate and drove across the Kwaggasvlakte filled with wildebeest and zebras. My accommodation was at the self-catering Tlopi Tented Camp, a cluster of safari-style tents beside adam in the heart of the reserve. My accommodation sat on a raised wooden deck among wild olive trees. Weaver birds chattered in the branches, francolins scuffled under the deck, Egyptian geese lined the water’s edge kicking up a racket. It was a delightfully noisy spot.
Next morning, the first light of dawn was punctuated by the roar of lions. Their booming bounced off the crags above my tent and rolled west towards the Kalahari, announcing their ownership of the land.
It was time for a tour of the park with field guide Sidney Mikosi. I asked him about the scourge of rhino poaching. He confided that an adult had recently been shot; but said that, for the most part, his rangers had a handle on things, with regular armed patrols.
‘You want to see a rhino?’ he asked.
‘Absolutely,’ I said.
‘Okay, let’s go get you one on foot.’
He pulled off the track into a clearing and got out of the car. Rifle in hand, he set off at a brisk pace with me half jogging to keep up. In no time, he’d found spoor. Sidney’s tracking skills are remarkable. Following the faintest hoof prints through long grass, within half an hour we came upon the area’s dominant male resting under a thorn tree. He was pale from a dust bath and his horns were red from a duel with a termite mound. It appeared the mound had lost.
Sidney inched closer, unafraid. I hung back to take photos … and to give myself a head start if running was in order. The bull allowed Sidney to get within 10m before he stood up in a billow of dust, snorted gruffly and trotted off with the daintiness of a two-ton ballerina.
I spent most of the days at Marakele on my deck. The mountains hold the camp in a close embrace – sort of bushveld in the vertical. Not the soaring cragginess of the Drakensberg, but much older, worn and weathered mountains, already here 180 million years ago when the supercontinent Gondwana began to split up.
The sedimentary ramparts are fortress-like, the squared-off sandstone seemingly laid down by an ancient race. Some buttresses even look like outsize zimbabwes (the eponymous stone structures). Sidney told me the Waterberg range has such a high iron content it attracts lightning, producing spectacular electric storms. Many fires are ignited just before the rains each year, but the plants know this in their genetic sap and make provision for the annual furnace. In fact, many species require fire for their seeds to germinate.
On my last evening in the park, I took a drive through its eastern uplands. A lovely, winding road, embowered in places, led along the side of a mountain. Its slopes were covered with proteas, Euphorbias and rare five-metre-tall Waterberg cycads. The heathlands below were dotted with carnivorous Drosera plants, which catch insects in a similar manner to Venus flytraps. The perfect stillness of the kloofs was only enhanced by the distant clatter of guinea fowl and the melodic call of Cape turtle doves. An elephant bull stood four-square in the road, shaking his dusty head at me.
I waited for him to finish making his point, then moved slowly by. My time in Marakele was up. I now headed east to Makweti Safari Lodge, located within Welgevonden Game Reserve, for a spot of bushveld pampering. Tucked into a picturesque corner of the berg, the lodge is set around a gorge of red sandstone that looks as though it’s been landscaped, so perfect are its proportions. It is an intimate affair with only five chalets. The buildings’ interiors are elegantly done in dark woods with plenty of natural fabrics, African prints and hides. It’s understated and stylish, with a pleasing attention to detail. At the busy waterhole alongside reception, even the zebras queue up politely to drink.
As is customary at most safari lodges, game vehicles head out in the mornings and evenings. My field guide was Test Malunga, a first-rate bush fundi from Zimbabwe. He is vastly knowledgeable about everything from the difference between male and female leopard tracks to the traditional method of catching queleas using latex from wild rubber trees.
Our drives were lively affairs, with cheetahs and lions making regular appearances; so too the small fry and some very good birds. The white rhinos, also, were plentiful. Indeed, Welgevonden has one of the largest private populations of rhino in Africa. Long may the poachers be kept at arms (and rifle) length.
To bid the park farewell, we drove to the top of a koppie to watch the sunset. I looked out over the receding blue folds of the berg. From somewhere came the sound of a tumbling stream – for these truly are mountains of water. Their crags and heathlands, kloofs and valleys, soak up the summer rain, then leak from every nook and cranny for the rest of the year, creating a bushveld Eden.
GOOD TO KNOW
Where it is
The Waterberg Biosphere Reserve lies 130 km north of Pretoria on the N1. It stretches from Thabazimbi in the west to Mokopane in the east, and from Modimolle in the south to Marken in the north. It includes towns, farms, a national park and various private nature reserves, all cooperating to conserve the area’s biodiversity. Vaalwater is the central town and heart of the region.
Flora and fauna
The Waterberg can be roughly divided into bushveld, slopes and cliffs, and riverbeds and wetlands. The bushveld areas consist of grasslands and semi-deciduous forests, with trees such as mountain syringa and silver cluster-leaf, and indigenous grasses, which provide good grazing for various species of buck. Other mammals include giraffes, zebras, white and black rhinos; and plentiful predators, notably leopards, hyenas and lions.
Plenty of water means erosion. And erosion means steep slopes and bare rock faces are common. Even on cliffsides, some species, such as fever trees and paperbark trees, manage to cling on. A number of rivers flow through the area, mostly draining into the Limpopo and offering good habitats for other animals, especially crocodile and hippo.
Where to stay
Source: AA Traveller