The Limpopo River springs up somewhere in your Gauteng backyard, where the furthest tendrils of the Crocodile River collect their water. Near Rooibokkraal, north of Thabazimbi, the Marico River joins forces with the Crocodile, and thus the Limpopo is born.
These are the facts, but the Limpopo is much more enigmatic than the familiar name in your map book suggests. It disappears and reappears as the seasons change. It floods and dries up again. If your first encounter with the Limpopo is from a bridge as you drive between South Africa and Botswana, you might be disappointed: a couple of sandbanks, a muddy pool. Is this really the “mighty” Limpopo?
There’s nothing flashy about it. – it doesn’t make the cover of coffee table books. It seems to be kept wilfully out of sight and reach, barred off by game fences, obscured by riverine thickets.
A direct approach to exploring the Limpopo is futile. There’s no single viewpoint where you can tick it off as an attraction. It’s an accumulation of experiences rather than a been there-done-that postcard. You need to come here looking for other things: trees, birds, buck; or simply peace and quiet offered by the odd campsite and lodge. Then, slowly, somewhere in your peripheral vision, the Limpopo will take its full, mysterious shape.
Follow the trees
Farmer Willem Frost loves trees. From the moment I meet him near his farm along the Matlabas River, a tributary of the Limpopo, he bemoans the fact that the day just won’t be long enough to get to all the special trees he wants to show me.
It is early in November 2020 and the rain has already begun to fall in this part of the Bushveld, in what will become a bumper rainy season.
Our first stop is Mooivlei, roughly 50km downstream from the confluence of the Crocodile and Marico rivers.
Reaching the Limpopo, we spot a fish-eagle high in an ana tree; and in the branches below, the bulky nests of buffalo weavers. I hear a Diderick cuckoo, a pied kingfisher and a wood hoopoe. Willem points out river bushwillow trees, sweet thorn, leadwood and fever-berry. The latter creates a thicket, hiding the river from our view as we follow a jeep track along the farm’s border fence.
Fences along the Limpopo are here for many reasons. The river is an international border, of course, but the fences also prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. I make peace with the barbed wire. I look through it, at an African darter sitting on a rock drying its wings. The trees have made peace with the fence, too. The big ones stretch their branches beyond it, into no-man’s land. Underneath the ground, their roots respect no boundaries either.
We drive from Mooivlei to Buffelsdrift and park on the road verge outside the locked gate. We don’t have permission to enter the farm, so Willem gets out his flask and tells me about Buffelsdrift while we enjoy a cup of coffee.
Buffelsdrift was once a border post on the “main road” to Bechuanaland. Some of the Dorsland Trekkers came through here, heading north. One of the forgotten graves here belongs to Walter Ayres, brother of Thomas Ayres, a 19th-century bird collector whose name lives on in the Ayres’s hawk-eagle. Walter was killed by a wounded bushbuck, apparently. It happens, because this is wild country.
We carry on with our journey, across the still-dry Matlabas River, and onward to a farm called Tweerivier where we meet farmer Jan Beukes down by the river. He has a big smile on his face when he gets out of his bakkie, because his weir is overflowing. It’s his luck that the Ngotwane River has brought water into the Limpopo from the Botswana side, just upstream from his property.
“It’s been years since the Limpopo came down in November already,” says Jan. “This weir of mine might not look like much, but when it’s full, and you go out onto the water in a motorboat you’ll see – there is plenty of water.”
The Limpopo River has no major dam, but it’s full of small weirs like Jan’s. The water is used to irrigate crops during the dry season when the river stops flowing. Of course, the presence of the many weirs is part of the reason why the river doesn’t flow year-round any longer. As summer rains start to fall, one weir after the next must fill up and overflow before the Limpopo can stutter forth towards the sea.
Farmers along the river have a WhatsApp group where they post news about the progress of the water. That way you know when your turn might come.
Willem shows me Tweerivier’s ana tree forest, and we also look at bushveld blue bush, firethorn crowberry and bushveld gardenia, which has creamy white flowers as extravagant as fireworks in the green-grey bush.
From Tweerivier, we drive to Steenbokpan to fill up. There are no big towns along the Limpopo River; the notable landmarks are border posts and small farming towns like Steenbokpan, Tom Burke and Swartwater.
The gravel road from Steenbokpan to Stockpoort is muddy today. I follow Willem’s Land Cruiser in my Mahindra Pik Up bakkie, carefully checking how deep all the pools are before I drive through.
It’s well after lunch when we reach Leef Voluit, the farming enterprise just upstream from Stockpoort. Here we visit an ana tree so enormous that, looking up, it seems as if the branches have no end as they thin into the sky above. I try to measure its girth, but forget how many steps I’ve taken. The trunk is hollow. I go in from one side like I’m slipping into an oldfashioned phone booth.
We visit another ana tree next – just downstream from the border post. This tree was used as a kind of primitive post box in the 1800s: Early travellers, explorers and hunters left messages in its hollow, gnarled trunk.
Our final stop is Limpopo Tented Camp, about 10km east of Stockpoort, where we meet owner Rudie Toit. His family has farmed in the area since 1965, but we’re here to see a leadwood tree that has been around for much longer than that.
We reach the tree on the riverbank and the sight of it silences us. It has the presence of a statue. But unlike a manmade statue, it doesn’t commemorate a past event or celebrate a personality. Instead, it’s a monument to time. Living trees go backwards into the past and forwards into the future, beyond our own lifetimes. Maybe that’s why they humble us so.
Quiet, class, meneer wants to shoot a wildebeest
I say goodbye to Willem and follow the R572 east. I spend the night at Moriti Bush Camps, just upstream from the Grobler’s Bridge border post. The sun is setting as I pitch my tent, but I pause when I hear swallows whirring. Hundreds are out, catching tiny insects. A water thick-knee calls, and a red-chested cuckoo. A grey heron flaps past floppily, like a flying towel. It’s as if everything is happening simultaneously in this moment before darkness falls. It feels like my first real glimpse of the spirit of the Limpopo River.
Farm owners Adéle and Alberto Engelbrecht are joining me for a braai at the campsite. Adéle’s parents, Tokkie and Piet van den Heever, come along too.
Alberto is from Musina. He met Adéle in Pretoria where he worked as a gunsmith. Adéle grew up here – her grandmother’s people moved to the Swartwater area in 1930. Although Tom Burke has a co-op, police station and a fuel pump (having any one of these three pretty much makes you a “town” in the Bushveld), Swartwater further east is the real hub of this farming community.
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