Although this article, Limpopo Tourism for the Off-road Traveler, deals mainly with 4×4 trails in Limpopo, it is one of a series of fifteen articles that will briefly describe the geography, climate, terrain, must-do activities, must-see places, and much else besides, of all nine South African provinces, as well as some of the countries bordering on South Africa.
Limpopo Tourism Contents:
Limpopo is South Africa’s northern-most province with a surface area of 125 755 sq/km, which takes up 10.3% of SA’s total surface area. Home to 5.4 million persons, or 10.4% of SA’s total population, the province has a comfortable population density of 44 persons per sq/km.
Limpopo falls mainly in the savannah biome, an area of mixed grassland and trees generally known as Bushveld, but with a diverse topography. The eastern reaches consists of flat to gently undulating Lowveld plains, which are bounded in the west by the Northern Drakensberg escarpment and Soutpansberg Mountain range, which is characterized by steep slopes and up to 2000m-high peaks. In contrast, the almost level Springbok Flats, which makes up much of the southern parts of the province, lie at an average altitude of 900 m. The northern reaches of the province is dominated by the Waterberg and Blouberg ranges, while the flat, to undulating plains of the north-western reaches slope down into the Zimbabwe Lowveld region.
A summer-rainfall region, Limpopo offers a pleasant climate for most of the year, with more than 300 days of sunshine. Summer (October to March) temperatures average 27º C; however, summer temperatures in the Kruger Park area are slightly higher, averaging 30 C, with maximums in excess of 40 C being common.
Winter (May to September) temperatures vary in a wide band from lows of around 5o C in the west, and 80 C in the east, to highs of 19-200 C during the day. Frost during winter is rare, but frequent heavy mist is common in the mountainous areas around Haernertsburg and Magoebaskloof.
Rainfall averages 600m per annum, with much of it falling during brief, but violent thunderstorms during the summer months. Heavy, sustained rainfall with localised flooding occurs only occasional-ly.
With no weather or temperature extremes, Limpopo can be visited during anytime of the year, except for the Kruger Park area, that is best visited in autumn and winter due to the uncomfortably high summer temperatures.
Limpopo is a region of vast and startling contrasts, from true Bushveld country to dramatic, mist-shrouded mountains, to mysterious primeval indigenous forests, to pristine wilderness areas, brittle-dry savannah punctuated by rocky outcrops, and colourful patches of pastoral farmland.
In the east is the land of large trees- almost lime-green fever trees, majestic marula trees, and dignified several-thousand-year-old baobab trees, one of which is older than the Pyramids of Egypt. The northern mountains are the misty Kingdom of Cycads- descendants of pre-historic plants that were already old when the dinosaurs appeared on earth. In the central regions, around Modimolle, are vast vineyards that remind one of the Cape wine lands while in the far western reaches, the dry grassland abruptly transitions into the Kalahari Desert. Limpopo gives a new meaning to the term “World in one province”, and it is no exaggeration to say that in terms of its scenic splendour, Limpopo rivals the Western Cape, and that is saying a lot.
With 128 National parks, Reserves and privately owned lodges, Limpopo has something to offer everyone, from wetlands, to indigenous forests, to savannah, to bushveld, to semi-desert. The stunning variety of ecosystems and habitats in Limpopo are all represented in its Parks, and Limpopo off-road tourism is particularly well catered for with many off-road and eco-trails in several of its greatest Parks and Reserves.
To quote a passage from another article in this series- “The atmosphere of the Park epitomises the unpredictability and raw wilderness of Africa in a way that is not duplicated in any other game reserve in the world. This is the quintessential African experience; it defies description, and the only way to form an idea of what this vast area represents, is to spend at least three months in it.”, does not do this Park justice- what must be added is the fact that the northern portion of the park differs significantly from the southern half in terms of vegetation and terrain. In the North, the great trees rule: giant baobabs, tall, luminescent-green fever trees, stately marulas, dapper acacias, hundreds of thousands of mopanis, and in the mountains, great wild figs that are micro-ecosystems in themselves.
In addition to the Big Five, this is also the land of the Little Five- buffalo weavers, elephant shrews, leopard tortoises, ant lions, and rhino beetles, as well as the home of the Big Six of the avian world- the ground hornbill, kori bustard, lappet-faced vulture, martial eagle, Pel’s fishing owl, and saddle-bill stork, and to top it all, more animal, bird, reptile, plant, and insect species than any other Park or Reserve on the entire African continent.
Consisting of a vast savannah biome, and once the site of one of the oldest tribal kingdoms in Africa, this park is located at the junction of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, and is today a king-dom of spectacular sandstone formations, dense mopane woodlands, huge, dignified baobabs, geologically old floodplains, and lush riverine forests that all combine to form a unique series of habitats for the rich diversity of wild life that live in this historic area- elephant, giraffe, buffalo, white rhino, gemsbok and other antelope, elusive mammals like the hyena, lion and leopard, and hundreds of bird species.
Mapungubwe is simply spectacular, and its 28 000 ha area form part of the Limpopo/Shashe Transfrontier Park, in conjunction with the Tuli Block in Botswana and the Tuli Safari area in Zim-babwe.
One of the last few remaining true wilderness areas in Southern Africa, Lapalala Wilderness consists of spectacularly wild and beautiful hills, rivers with deep, brooding pools, and breathtaking canyons: a vast landscape that is illuminated only by the moon and stars at night. It is also one of the most extensive private game reserves in SA, and its unique habitats are ideal for breeding threatened species such as the roan antelope and white rhino, and with more than 70 kms of the Palala River flowing through the reserve, there is plenty of water for the more than 20 species of antelope in the reserve, among which are sable, roan, tsessebe, impala, eland and kudu, in addition to tall, dignified giraffes, herds of zebra and wildebeest, buffalo, and large numbers of warthogs trotting self-importantly through the veld.
Located in the upper reaches of the Nyl River near the town of Mookgophong, formerly Na-boomspruit, this reserve includes part of the most extensive flood plain wetland in South Africa, and as such, is a nationally important breeding ground for more than a hundred species of waterfowl, with up to 80 000 individuals gathering here during good wet seasons. The total number of recorded bird species in this reserve is 412, which number represents close to 50% of all the bird species in South Africa.
Apart from being an internationally famous bird watching spot, the reserve also focuses on the breeding and conservation of rare and endangered species such as the roan antelope and the even more endangered tsessebe, which is a compelling reason in itself to visit this spectacular reserve.
If the Creator has His favourite lookout spot at God’s Window in Mpumalanga, His favourite hiking spot must then surely be this stunningly beautiful wilderness area, which has the magnificent Wolkberg, which is part of both the Drakensberg and Strydpoort mountain ranges as its heart.
Apart from the magnificent scenery, the main attraction of this wilderness area lays in the fact that it offers some of the best, albeit strenuous, hiking in the world through 22 000ha of thickly forested gorges, steep kloofs, challenging streams and rivers, and over imposing rock piles with names like Tandberg, Steilkoop, Serala, and Kruger se Neus. This wilderness area is a hiking destination of note; however, despite the fact that thousands of hikers from all over the world visit this area every year solo hiking is strongly discouraged since the trails here are not marked out, which could make it impossible for rescue teams to find and evacuate injured hikers and rock climbers.
Venda – Land of Legends Route
This route is an experience, rather than a scenic drive in the traditional sense: this former homeland offers an incredibly diverse range of vistas, panoramic landscapes, and cultural experiences. The lush, mountainous central region is also known as “The Land of a Hundred Streams”, and here it is easy to imagine oneself to be in a lost, forgotten world and time.
Valley of the Olifants Route
Unhurried, contented and timeless, is probably the best way to describe this route through one of the least spoilt parts of Africa. Several, but equally spectacular scenic routes offer the visitor unparalleled opportunities to experience the splendour of Limpopo; from the timeless, and slightly mysterious gorges of the Magoebaskloof area, to the cycad forest of the Rain Queen, to vast, emerald-green tea plantations, to the Blyde River Canyon, which is one of the largest canyons in the world, to the large elephant and buffalo herds in Letaba Ranch at Phalaborwa, to cultural museums and elephant-back safaris, this route has it all, offering the visitor an embarrassment of riches in the form of sights, smells, experiences, and cultural history.
Do not prepare an itinerary for this route; go where both paved and gravel roads lead you, you will not regret the experience.
Some of the cycad specimens in this reserve high in the Lobedu Mountains are the largest, and the oldest of their kind in the world, and it is easy to imagine that giant dinosaurs might still be lurking in the denser parts of the forest, just waiting for the humans to leave before emerging to munch on the descendants of the plants their ancestors used to graze on. Although only 530ha in extent, this reserve is probably the closest approximation (botanically speaking, of course) of the conditions that prevailed when dinosaurs bestrode the Earth.
Once the home of a very early version of pre-historic man named Australopithecus africanus, the magnificently scenic Makapansgat Valley contains a vast network of caves that were once inhabited by early hominids, around 3.3 million years ago. This World Heritage Site is today however, home to several hundred bird species, among which are several endemics, dozens of troops of monkeys, baboons, and other primates, as well as small antelope species such as oribi, duiker, klipspringer, and bushbuck, and is well worth a visit.
This is the only place in the world where you can eat lunch while enjoying a live musical perfor-mance- inside a living baobab tree that was already two thousand years old when the Egyptian Pyramids were being built. At 6000 years old, this tree is one of the largest and oldest living or-ganisms in the world, and is worth a visit for this reason alone.
The Thino Museum is the only museum in the world that is dedicated to the evolutionary history and current conservation efforts pertaining to rhinos, and considering the fact that of the four rhino populations left in the world, South Africa’s is the largest, a visit to this establishment is almost compulsory, before the only places where stuffed rhinos can be seen anywhere will be in places like this.
The Blyde River may be one of the most scenic in the world, but rafting down its length is not recommended for inexperienced white-water rafters; the rapids in this river range from chal-lenging to hair-raising, and lots of endurance, raw courage, and protective gear are minimum requirements on this full day adventure that starts within the Mariepskop Forestry Reserve, and concludes where the Blyde River flows into Blydepoort Dam.
This 2.5 hour-long zip line tour through the spectacularly beautiful Waterberg Mountains offers 250 bird species, millions of indigenous trees, abundant wildlife, and an adventure you will likely never forget. Tours are conducted by experienced guides, and include impromptu lectures on the breeding habits of birds, the reasons why some of the trees that grow here, grow nowhere else in the world, which wild fruits are edible, and anything else you could think of asking your guides about.
Kloofing has been compared to free-running, only in the George’s Valley, you get to do it in a wilderness area- float or swim down some of the calmer sections of the Letaba River, slide or clamber down and over huge boulders, scamper down several waterfalls, or just laze about in the quiet rock pools. However, if all of this is too sedentary for your tastes, you can abseil down tall, vertical cliffs- after which you can laze about in the quiet rock pools.
This is vastly more than the usual, “Touch and Feed” elephant experience: after an hour-long introductory lecture, you can set off on an elephant-back safari through the raw African bush under the guidance of experienced guides and handlers, or for the more adventurous, there is the option of going swimming with several 5-ton elephants. Another option is to go game viewing atop an elephant at night, which is an experience that gives the term “night game drive”, a completely new meaning. Although it might be on the pricey side, this experience is highly recommended for young and old.
Limpopo Province has only nine mountain passes, but what it lacks in numbers, it amply makes up for with the spectacular scenic beauty of its passes, the most notable being the Magoebaskloof Pass, which is rightly referred to among mountain pass aficionados as one most of the iconic passes in the entire Southern Africa region. However, from an off-road perspective, Limpopo has only two noteworthy passes, and they are worth taking note of, being rugged, demanding, and unforgiving of mistakes.
Orrie Baragwanath Pass
Linking the towns of Tzaneen in the north, and Orighstad in the south, this 30 km-long gravel pass demands a high level of technical driving, and is only suitable for proper 4×4’s with low range, and exceptional ground clearance. This pass gains 512 vertical metres over an average gradient of 1:17, with some sections at 1:10, but do not be fooled by this: the track gets very slippery in wet conditions and the endless series of tight corners, switchbacks, and steep drop-offs demand your full attention at all times. Even in the best conditions, this is a slow drive, so allow at least three hours for the full traverse.
Linking the towns of Tzaneen and Haernertsburg, this pass should never be taken lightly, espe-cially during the frequent mists near the summit, which is at a lofty 1400 ASL. Although this pass is one of the most scenic in the country, it lies on a main tourist route and picture taking is best left to your passengers. Heavy traffic, including trucks and busses, can make this a difficult drive, so make use of the frequent stops offered by a string of guest cottages along the route. This pass could be dangerous, and its panoramic views are best enjoyed from the safety of a lookout spot.
This challenging gravel pass between the town of Thabazimbi and Rankin’s Pass, which is not a pass at all, but a small SAP outpost, gains 314 vertical metres at an average 1:14 gradient with some sections at 1:8, which sounds easy enough; however, in wet, or even damp conditions, the powdered clay of which the track consists turns to the most slippery mud you are ever likely to encounter. In addition, there are descents that end in corners that range from 110 to 150 degrees, which are sure to put a nervous grin on your face if you attempted them in wet conditions. Maximum speed in dry conditions rarely exceeds 30 kms/h, so allow at least 2 hours for the traverse.
Limpopo has more geographical place names than any other province in South Africa, a circum-stance that translates into this province being the quintessential, albeit sleepy, small-town capital of South Africa. Although not many towns in the province have legitimate claims to historical or economical significance, they all have something in common, which is their prettiness, so to speak. Off-road tourism in Limpopo offers arguably the best small-town tour in the country, especially to the intrepid tourist who is attracted to seeking out places that are off the beaten track, i.e. gravel roads, of which the province has a network that spans more than 15 000 kms.
This pretty little village that is home to only 350 families, and about 2000 more souls that live in the surrounding Wolkberg Mountains, is often swallowed up by the frequent mists of the Ma-goebaskloof area, and one of the most rewarding sights in Limpopo is the slow emergence of the town after a thick mist, just like the mythical town of Brigadoon.
The history of this town is written in blood- the blood of several wars, revolutions, rebellions, but most importantly, the blood that was spilt during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). The An-glo-Boer War Museum located less than 30 kms from the town is the focal point of the Zout-pansberg Skirmishes Route, a route that tells tales of war crimes, executions (legal and illegal), treachery and bravery, and confusion and misconduct on all sides engaged in the War. This route is of international interest, and history buffs will find fascinating, and often unknown facts and tales of the War on this route.
The miniscule village of Elim (“Place of God”) in Limpopo- there is another Elim in the Western Cape-, may have lost its obscurity, which was its main attraction apart from its world-famous mission hospital, after the establishment of the Venda Art Route, but it is still just a loose collection of a few guest houses, the odd shop, and some outlying game lodges- which makes it the perfect destination for the tourist looking for peace and solitude.
Home to only about 1000 souls, this town is seen as the “capital” of the Waterberg region, and boasts the probably the only thatched building- a church- ever designed by Sir Herbert Baker, the famous architect who designed the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The area surrounding the town is also famous for the several culinary and medicinal herb farms that are open to the pub-lic.
Tourism is the 3rd most important industry after mining and agriculture. The area is known for its wildlife and Bushveld scenery, making it an ideal destination for the 4×4 traveler and host for the Limpopo 4×4 trails. With about 50 nature reserves and national parks, ranging from smaller wildlife resorts to the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, it provides escape to every off-road vehicle owner and explorer.
Limpopo Parks, Game Reserves, National Parks and Nature Reserves:
- Kruger National Park
- Marakele National Park
- Mapungubwe National Park
- Manyeleti Game ReserveFriends of Blouberg
- Hans Merensky Resort
- Langjan Nature Reserve
- Ndzalama Wilderness Reserve
- Umbabat Nature Reserve
- Wolkberg Wilderness Area
- Mabula Private Game Reserve
- Tilodi Wilderness
- Mokolo Dam
- Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve
- Welgevonden Private Game Reserve
- Mabalingwe Game Reserve
- Makalali Private Game Reserve
- Selati Game Reserve
- Ben Alberts Nature Reserve
- Lekgalameetse Resort
- Timbavati Nature Reserve
- D’Nyala Nature Reserve
- Doorndraai Dam Resort
- Masebe Nature Reserve
- Nylsvley Conservancy
- Blouberg Nature Reserve
- Percy Fyfe Conservancy
- Makuya Nature Reserve
- Manavhela Ben Lavin Nature Reserve
- Musina Nature Reserve
- Hans Merensky
- Modjadji Nature Reserve
- Schuinsdraai Nature Reserve
- Balule Nature Reserve
- Atherstone Nature Reserve
- Rust de Winter Dam Resort
- Mokolo Dam
- Lekgalameetse Provincial Park
- Nwanedi Provincial Park
- Letaba Ranch Provincial Park
- Man’Ombe Wildlife Resort
- Tzaneen Dam
- Andover Nature Reserve