The largely untamed landscape of Limpopo has a history dating back over 3 million years. The Makapan Caves in the Waterberg boast archaeological finds from the Stone Age and Early Iron Age that evidence the region’s early inhabitants. In the northern Kingdom of Mapungubwe, descendents of Nguni-speaking Bantu migrants grew highly skilled at metal and gold work. They flourished as a prosperous kingdom between 1000 and 1200 A.D. and engaged in trade with places as far away as India and China. Until recently, artifacts such as the famed golden rhinoceros were hidden from the public to conceal much of the region’s rich history of ancient African empires. Today, ongoing excavations verify that black Africans had prospered in the region long before the arrival of Europeans in the late 1400s.
The Pedi Kingdom, a branch of the Northern Sotho, rose in the 1700s to dominate most of the Transvaal territory from its seat of power in the Leolu Mountains. In the 1800s the Pedi vied for control of the northeastern Transvaal with the formidable neighboring Swazi Kingdom. Smaller chiefdoms maintained their independence, such as the Ndebele to the west, the Venda in the Limpopo Valley and the Lobedu in Molotosi Valley led by the powerful Modjadji Rain Queen.
In the 1830s Boer Voortrekkers, in an effort to distance themselves from the control of the British in the Cape Colony, invaded the Transvaal. The Boer commandos were able to subdue smaller chiefdoms in the south in bloody clashes such as the Battle of Makapan Caves, where as many as 3,000 Ndebele were besieged and starved to death in retribution for the killing of Voortreeker leader Piet Potgieter. In 1856, the Boers declared an independent republic, the Zuid-Afrikaansch Republiek (ZAR), thus laying claim to the whole of the Transvaal and land up to the Limpopo River. However their attempts to wrest control of the northern territory were met with formidable resistance by the Pedi and Venda and the violent frontier wars proved to be economically crippling. The Pedi-Boer War of 1876 nearly bankrupted the young Boer republic, and in 1877 the British annexed the ZAR. It was only with the help of the neighboring Swazi Kingdom that the British Imperial forces were finally able to overpower the Pedi, two years later in 1879.
After the Boer government reasserted their republic in 1881, the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand and the heavy taxes levied on the gold mining industry afforded the ZAR a powerful regular army. Punitive military expeditions were led against the African chiefdoms that still defied Boer authority. Polokwane, formerly Pietersburg, was established as a Boer stronghold in the mid 1880s and by the end of the century the Boers had conquered the northern Venda, making good on their territorial claims up to the Limpopo River.
The region’s bloody battles continued with the outbreak of the South African War between the Boer government and the British Empire from 1899-1902. After Pretoria fell to the British forces in 1900, Boer commandos engaged in guerilla warfare and violence in Transvaal intensified. British war tactics proved devastating as their scorched earth policies destroyed Boer homesteads and tens of thousands of Boer women and children as well as black Africans caught up in the war were imprisoned in unsanitary concentration camps throughout the countryside. The British forces eventually overpowered the Boer government and in 1902 the British laid colonial claim to the former Boer republics, uniting their territories in the Union of South Africa in 1910.
The northern Transvaal frontier remained largely rural throughout the 20th century and the expansive tracts of land became notorious for illegal game hunting. Though subjugated by the colonial government, African chieftains in the border region were allowed to maintain relative autonomy. The 1913 Land Act further solidified this autonomy as the countryside was carved up to ensure white dominance in urban areas and the majority of present-day Limpopo was established as native reserves. The rise of the apartheid government and the 1951 Bantu Authorities Act officially established three major “homelands” in the north, leaving the Venda nominally independent and the Lebowa and Gazankulu homelands with token self-governance. The 1970s and 1980s saw an increased presence of the South African Defense Force in the region as exiled freedom fighters infiltrated back in to the country through the northern border, prompting the government to build an electronic fence along the Limpopo River.
With the dismantling of apartheid and the democratic elections in 1994, the former Transvaal province was restructured and broken up to create the Northern Province. It was renamed Limpopo in 2003 after the famed river that forms its northern border. Today the provincial government continues to struggle to balance the region’s historical legacy by renaming cities and investing in the further exploration of its ancient African ancestors.
GPS: S 23 54.701 E 029 27.099 | pop. 150,000 | elevation 1,262 m/4,140 ft
Polokwane (meaning Place of Safety) is the capital of and largest city in Limpopo. The town was founded in 1886 by a group of Voortrekkers and named Pietersburg after the Voortrekker leader Petrus Jacobus Joubert. Today, Polokwane is a fast-growing bustling city with the country’s main north-south highway – the N1 – running right through the center of town.
GPS: S 24 11.169 E 029 00.718 | pop. 110,000 | elevation 1,124 m/3,688 ft
Mokopane’s original name was Potgietersrus, named after Piet Potgieter, a Voortrekker leader who was killed during the battle with the Ndebele people at the Makapan Caves. In 2002, the city was renamed Mokapane, after the Ndebele Chief Mughombane – who took part in the battle resulting in Potgieter’s death. While many of his followers died in the battle, legend has it that Mughombane himself escaped through an underground tunnel and survived. Today, race relations in Mokapane are some of the sorest in the country. While segregation isn’t “official”, there are still all or predominantly white schools, and bars in town where non-whites are not welcome.
GPS: S 24 53.100 E 028 17.645 | pop. 43,000 | elevation 1,129 m/3,704 ft
Bela-Bela means “boiling boiling” in Tswana and is so named because of the natural hot water springs in the area that gush over 22,000 liters of 53°C/127°F mineral water to the surface each hour. The hot mineral pools were discovered in the area by the Tswana in the early 1800s and have since been used by people who believe that the water’s calcium carbonate, sodium chloride and other mineral salts have healing properties for those who bathe in them.
GPS: S 24 38.100 E 028 39.908 | elevation 1,115 m/3,658 ft
Nylsvley Nature Reserve is a sanctuary for bird lovers. The Nyl River flows through the 40 square kilometer nature reserve and empties out into South Africa’s largest flood plain, which stretches over 70 km. This enormous flood plain can accommodate up to 80,000 migratory birds in a wet season and more than 365 species have been identified within the reserve. There are five well-hidden observation hides throughout the park that provide a relaxing platform from which to watch the many birds.
GPS: S 25 05.366 E 030 27.228 | pop. 20,000 | elevation 1,403 m/4,603 ft
Vaalwater is a quaint slow-paced small town. It’s the perfect jumping-off point to explore the surrounding Waterberg Biosphere region or can be just a place to get away and enjoy some time in a rural town away from the city.
GPS: S 22 58.690 E 030 27.369 | pop. 45,000 | elevation 579 m/1,900 ft
Marakele National Park has most of the big game (all of the Big 5 except buffalo) with elephants, rhino, and kudu, as well as many bird species. The park is best known for one of the largest breeding colonies of the endangered Cape Vultures (with about 800 breeding pairs) that can be observed from viewing points within the park.
GPS: S 25 05.366 E 030 27.228 pop. 20,000 | elevation 1,403 m/4,603 ft
Thohoyandou, Sibasa and the surrounding communities are home to the friendly and hospitable Venda people. They have a rich culture supported with legends passed down from generations past that continue to influence the way of life for many. If you make it to this area, spend some time befriending locals and inquiring about some regional history – you could start with the story of Lake Funduzi and the Modjadji Rain Queens.
GPS: S 22 35.160 E 030 24.921 | elevation 508 m/1,667 ft
Nwanedi Nature Reserve is a 93 square kilometer reserve situated on the foothills of the Venda Mountains and features a variety of landscapes - primarily umbrella thorn savannah with a smattering of Mopani and Baobab trees. The highlights of the reserve are the impressive Tshihovhohovho Waterfall and the large Nwanedi Dam. The reserve has antelope, white rhino, giraffe, tons of baboons and a variety of birds.
GPS: S 22 21.011 E 030 02.161 | pop. 41,000 | elevation 546 m/1,791 ft
Musina is a hot sticky border town. While there isn’t much to do within the city itself, there is enough to do in the surrounding towns to make this area worth the stop - especially if you are heading up into Zimbabwe. There is a noticeable police force in the city both day and night, primarily to address undocumented individuals and contraband crossing the borders. While the central business district does have a border town hustle to it, you’ll see quite a few jobless people sitting and waiting.
GPS: S 22 14.600 E 029 24.027 | elevation 590 m/1,936 ft
Mapungubwe National Park is a 280 square kilometer national park that opened in 2004. The Mapungubwe area was home to a prosperous African civilization around 1200 A.D. that traded with places as far away as India and China. Among other significant artifacts, archaeologists excavated the famous golden rhino in 1933, and the park is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors can see the Big 4 (no buffalo) with sizeable populations of elephant, giraffe and white rhino and over 400 species of birds. The continually delayed opening of the visitor center, museum and restaurant is currently scheduled to occur in May 2010.
GPS: S 23 49.728 E 030 09.714 | pop. 50,000 | elevation 698 m/2,290 ft
Tzaneen is a sweaty city (even in the winter) with not a whole lot of sightseeing to do within the bustling city itself. But there is decent shopping (for Limpopo), a few places to catch a bite to eat and some good locations to stay overnight on your way through.
GPS: S 24 21.180 E 030 57.079 | pop. 10,000 | elevation 544 m/1,785 ft
Hoedspruit means “hat creek” in Afrikaans and is said to have received its name when an early pioneer arrived in the area after descending the mountains into the lowveld. He threw his hat into the Sandspruit River and declared his intention to settle here. Today, Hoedspruit gets a fair number of game-chasing visitors who come to explore Kruger National Park or one of the many nearby private game reserves.
GPS: S 23 56.682 E 031 08.334 | pop. 110,000 | elevation 432 m/1,417 ft
Phalaborwa is a few short kilometers from the Kruger Park Phalaborwa gate and much of the lodging and tourism industry in the city exists because of it. If you are in the Phalaborwa area you are a few minutes drive from what is arguably two of South Africa’s “biggest” and “best”: The Phalaborwa Open Pit Mine is South Africa’s biggest open pit mine and the Buffalo’s Pub & Restaurant’s Bacon & Cheese Burger is South Africa’s best bacon cheese burger. You’ll be happy you spent the time to take in both.