We headed north into the Limpopo Province, having set a goal of not exceeding 400 Km per day, as our previous Northern Cape gamut saw us burning up over 3800 Km in 5 days. Approaching Thabazimbi, you are faced with mountains and tailings dumps all heavily vegetated. The area has a natural beauty to it. Thabazimbi means “mountain of iron” named after the large iron ore reef which led to the establishment of the mine which boasts one of the largest shafts in Africa. More than two million tons of ore are mined every year and hauled by train to Arcelor Mittal’s iron and steel works. The town is situated at the feet of the Ysterberg and is surrounded by the Witfonteinrand and Boshofberg, with the majestic Kransberg in the background.
Passing through you enter a vista of large open plains and hanging rock faces. The Waterberg was proclaimed a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in March 2001 making it one of just over 701 biosphere reserves worldwide.
Often described as South Africa’s best kept secret the Waterberg is within 3 hours of Johannesburg, making it an infinitely accessible option for a malaria-free bush experience. Covering a vast 15 000 square kilometres, it is known for its rugged, unspoilt beauty and amazingly varied fauna and flora. During the mid-20th century landowners realised that the land was overgrazed and restoration was a priority. Today it is estimated that the wild flora has returned on such a scale that the diversity can be compared to that of the Cape Floral Kingdom. There is a range of ecosystems, vast floodplains and grasslands all resulting in very prolific bird, insect, mammal and reptile species.
The name Waterberg has derived from the observation of early trekkers that the area had a bountiful supply of clean water. In fact, in the summer months it is not uncommon to see clean water just seeping from the rocks and running down drainage lines to join the main rivers. The author and ethologist Eugene Marais observed that the water actually impeded the path of the wagons. Marais is synonymous with the Waterberg and all of his works are inexorably bound to the region. Wildlife reserves such as Marakele, Welgevonden and Mabalingwe offer great game viewing and there are also numerous breeding farms where farmers have given land back from agriculture to nature.
We took time out to spend a day in the nearby Marakele National Park. Managed as a national park since 1988 it was however officially proclaimed in 1994, covering 50 000 hectares. New land was purchased and added to the park and much work has been done to remove encroaching wood and bush and establishing natural succession. As its Tswana name suggests, Marakele has become a ‘place of sanctuary’ for an impressive variety of wildlife due to its location in the zone between the drier western and moister eastern regions of South Africa.
The depth and scale of Marakele are evident when you drive up the narrow winding switchback that is Lenong Pass. We stopped to picnic at the top next to the imposing SENTECH towers. Here one can take in the views and admire the rich diversity of flora and birdlife. Marakele is home to more than 250 bird species. Lion was first introduced into the area at Welgevonden and then subsequently at Marakele. At the viewpoint, we were able to see the Cape Vultures drifting on warm updrafts. Elephant is also in evidence and we saw Zebra, Wildebeest and many species of buck. Sadly we did not see Rhino or Buffalo. Accommodation is available should you wish to stay and experience the park for a few days. For day visitors there is a restaurant but we took a packed lunch. There is a great contrast in the bush as you drive through the park due to the amazingly diverse flora, the mountains and ridges provide a contrasting backdrop to the plains and valleys with yellowwood, cedar and wild fig trees as well as cycads, tree ferns and aloes that dot the landscape.
There is a great deal to do in Marakele. Activities include;
- Game drives and game viewing
- Bird watching
- Mountain drives
- A 4×4 Eco-Trail
- Hiking trail
Many world-leading conservationists have contributed time and effort to the area. This dedication to conservation is evident in the absolute physical splendour experienced as you spend time in the Waterberg, and it’s a mere stone throw from the big smoke that is Jozi.
Our accommodation at Waterberg Getaways was comfortable and well kitted out. We had a few meals in Thabazimbi and also had the occasional braai in the boma area. Thabazimbi is about 10 minutes away and has all the major supermarkets as well as one largish mall so it is possible to get all your groceries there if you are going to self-cater.