Soutpansberg: Into the Land of Legend
By Bridget Hilton-Barber
You may be forced to answer some soul searching questions when traveling deep in the Soutpansberg mountains in Vhembe district, land of legend. Like should you take the road to Vutuwangadzebu or the road to Vhutuwangazebu? Both left and right led to the same place it seemed.
“Do you think all roads out here lead to Vhutuwangadzebu?” I asked Darling, my trusty travelling companion. “Or is it a circular drive? His attentions were focused on the enormous surreal baobab tree ahead of us. “When you see a fork in the road”, he replied wisely, “take it”.
So I turned right. The road to Vhutuwangadzebu led into the heart of the Soutpansberg mountains, a long, long way from the urban cellphone-e-mail-Internet merry-go-round. It took us on a slow sexy drive into the cool green heights of upper, upper Tshixwadza, past hillside villages that cling onto the mountainsides, where schoolchildren waved and cowbells tinkled in the air.
The Soutpansberg is remote and rural, South Africa’s northernmost range that takes its name from the salt pans here, which were an essential part of the region’s early history. Tha vhani ya mun, they call it, mountain of salt. They also call the Vhembe district the land of legend because of the ancient culture and traditions of the Xitsonga and Venda people. The many baobabs that line the roads and stud the mountainsides add a suitably surreal touch. And it seems the deeper you go, the better it gets.
We started our journey a few days before at the charming Madi a Thavha Mountain Farm, in the foothills of the mountains, about 10kms west of Louis Trichardt. Madi a Thavha does a fabulous line in food and bonhomie – and specializes in promoting the Xitsonga and Venda, artists and crafters of the area. The idea here is to head out after breakfast to explore the Artists Route, a self-guided drive which takes you to the studios and workshops of various potters, sculptors, weavers and fabric makers in the Soutpansberg area. Madi a Thavha also has a gallery and museum called the Singing Fish which showcases local ware - giant red-earth clay posts, embroidered walls hangings, sculpted sprites, cloths, baskets, carvings…
A headful of stories, images and textures, we left Madi a Thavha for another place that draws on the artistic traditions of the area. Leshiba Wilderness, a mountaintop game reserve whose flagship lodge is called the Venda Village. It takes about forty dizzying minutes to drive up from the road at the bottom of the mountain to the Venda Village which is right at the top with amazing views.
The Venda Village consist of a main lounge and dining area with an outside deck; and a series of sleeping rondavels set in a courtyard filled with benches, pots and sculptures of mythological creatures - lions, bare breasted maidens, giant feet, rabbits. It was designed by acclaimed artist Noria Mabasa, who worked with a team of people to create this magic realism getaway.
It can be very exciting at night.
“Halt! Who goes there?” I said to a man and his cow en route to our room after a bottle of wine and a fine dinner. They stared mutely at the moonlight. So I went for a shower and to my surprise – and delight – I found in the bathroom a gorgeous Venda prince. He was tall, bronzed, muscled. His hands were cupped together invitingly, and he wore nothing but a loin cloth. But he turned out to be a shower. It’s a playful place, Leshiba.
Most mornings begin under a cloud of mist that burns off as the day goes by, revealing amazing velvety peaks and distant hills. The reserve is a mix of indigenous forests and open mountain plains with game including giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and rhino. It’s hiking, strolling and botanising country. We did a game drive – saw rhino and babies, giraffe, klipspringer – and also the four-hourish clamber through a deep and fabulous gorge near Hamasha Camp. Think kloofs and krantzes and indigenous forests with stinkwoods, yellowwoods, cabbage trees, forest fevers.
According to King Thohoyandou, the man who forged the Venda nation, there was once a chief who had a mystical drum, ngoma lungundo, which he played when his enemies approached, killing them off one by one with each drumbeat. Then the drum was stolen from the royal kraal and is said to be living as a spirit in and around the rock pools at Mashovhela, “the place where the drums can be heard”.
Which is where we found ourselves some days later, bodies in the sun, ears pressed to the rocks. The pools are set in the gorgeous Mashovhela game conservancy and are still considered sacred, and still used every so often by local sangomas for rain-making ceremonies. I listened hard for the ancient drum beat but heard only the wicked chatter of zwidudwane, the watersprites, as they plotted against the forest creatures.
The place where the drums can be heard is also the place where the stars can be seen. That night we went on an astronomy safari with local astronomer Kos Coronaios who took us out in the bush, sat us around a fire and gave us a tour of the night skies. Oh my. We visited the Southern Cross, Africa’s most famous astro-icon, swirled around the Milky Way, stopped off at Jupiter’s moon and Saturn’s rings; dropped in at Orion.
We took turns gazing through a telescope, playing with a laser beam, philosophising and listening to the shrieks of bush babies and the tink-tink of nightjars. We stayed over at Mashovhela’s pleasant thatched lodge, but I’d recommend their new Hammock Camp, which is an under-the-stars experience, where you sleep in hammocks alongside a waterfall.
And now here we were, on the road to Vutuwangadzebu. We drove past brilliant green tea estates of Mukhumbani, and took a slow drive through the holy forest of Thathe Vondo, stopping for a moment at the Phiphidi Falls to give greetings to the ancestors. The forests are said to the ancient burial grounds of Venda royalty and area guarded by a pair of holy lions. Go slowly, tread softly, they whispered…
Madi a Thava
Tel: 015- 516 0220 or 083 424 162
Tel: 011- 483 1841
Tel 012-991 6930
Tel: 015-15 293 3600
Louis Trichardt tourism
Tel: 087 805 8633