A road trip through the Waterberg

Lindokuhle Nkosi takes a lesser-known route into Limpopo’s Waterberg area. Photographs by Teagan Cunniffe and Thanda Kunene.

Also read: Where to go stargazing in South Africa

 

Sunflowers angle towards the light on the side of the R516 that takes travellers to Bela Bela. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

Sunflowers angle towards the light on the side of the R516 that takes travellers to Bela Bela. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

There are myriad quotes about the road less travelled. For centuries, gung-ho inspirationals have waxed lyrical about the seemingly unending road, flanked on either side by a canvas of their own imagination. What did they expect to find? What were they searching for that they thought the road could offer? The restless and the road: an inseparable union. It was with this sense that we followed the tarmac out of Johannesburg on a path I’d never been before: the back roads to the Waterberg district in Limpopo.

Hartbeespoort is just less than a 30-minute drive from Fourways. Built around an arch-type dam, this is where Johannesburg’s rich come to play. Lodges, resorts and holiday homes rise out of the mountain like an outcrop, embracing the dam. We spend up to an hour driving around, looking for a quiet brunch spot on the water’s edge.

‘On the water’s edge?’ asks a lady in a white 4×4, incredulously. She’s lived in ‘Harties’ for a number of years now, but her accent is still clipped, an undulating syncopation that hints at Eastern Europe. ‘No. No. Maybe before, but now that entire place is private. Just big homes and estates and boat companies. Maybe try that place over there.’ She points to a tiny, L-shaped structure that houses a quaint coffee shop and roastery called BisiBean Coffee Roasting Co. We pull in. The coffee is good, the food is palatable, and the prices reasonable.

We lay our map out on the table, planning our path between bites. ‘You guys must be Joburgers,’ smiles a friendly brunette, the owner. She calls a few friends over, the map passes between manicured hands, arguing animatedly over routes, potholes and Johannesburg arrogance. We leave and after a few minutes, we pull over outside Tan’ Malie se Winkel, just over the Harties bridge. Caught up in the light-hearted one-upmanship, we’d neglected to confirm our directions. I venture in, map in hand, and head to the counter. An old man in a plaid brown shirt looks past me before rudely asking what I’m looking for, all but ushering me out of the store. It’s at this point I realise that, like Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.’

Finally we join the R556, Thabazimbi-bound. As soon as we exit Harties, the road becomes a little more barren. Welcome to mining-town South Africa. A railway track forges its way over the dry earth. Festival goers know this as the road to the Oppikoppi music event in Northam. To others, it’s how you get to Sun City, or the Pilanesberg National Park. Drilling sites, towers and desaturated mine-dust mounds dominate the skyline, and hitchhikers approach the car at every stop. It’s only when we’re at the Sun City gates that we realise we’re lost. In a moment of city-slicker ingenuity, we follow the signs marking the route to the Pilanesberg National Park and trace our way to the R510.

 

A cow taking in the sunset off the R510. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

A cow taking in the sunset off the R510. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

Here, the world takes on a different tempo when viewed from behind the window of a moving car. It breaks itself into multitudinous moving strata, with a foreground of cars, men and women walking past, shielding themselves from the scorching heat under umbrellas. A second layer of street signs point to mines and to townships built on top of them. And behind that, even slower, nature seems to roll past in the opposite direction, beckoning you forward, the rotating ticker tape of the North West.

 

Simbarashe, lounging in his wheelbarrow, and his friend wait for customers at the entrance to Zebula in the Waterberg region. Photo by by Thanda Kunene.

Simbarashe, lounging in his wheelbarrow, and his friend wait for customers at the entrance to Zebula in the Waterberg region. Photo by by Thanda Kunene.

Tan-coloured sand soon gives way to dazzling white, then a spectrum of whites, reds, yellows and browns. The desert is where the colours of the earth dance: striations of barrenness, fertility, life and lack. Outside Thabazimbi, we turn onto a gravel road, cross over railway tracks and spend the night at Angasii Game Lodge. It’s set deep in dense bush, away from the buzzing road. And it’s quiet.

The next morning, after a leisurely walk through the farm, we head into town for breakfast. The mining industry is the backbone of Thabazimbi, and a panoply of affordable B&Bs and guest houses lines the streets. Food, however, is not a great attraction. Only one place, the Koolstoof Restaurant, is open offering run-of-the- mill pub and grill food and a smattering of home cooking. Other than mining professionals, Thabazimbi also attracts hunters. The lodges in this region punt it as a selling point and many game breeders, reserves and predator parks observe, very loosely, wildlife and hunting regulations. There’s one that offers walks with cheetahs and another with elephants, but my discomfort with these parks and their wildlife ethics soon has me back in the car on the R511, Bela Bela bound.

 

An eclectic mishmash inside Thabazimbis Koolstoof Restaurant. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

An eclectic mishmash inside Thabazimbi’s Koolstoof Restaurant. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

 

An old bus gathers dust on a road side near Bela Bela. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

An old bus gathers dust on a road side near Bela Bela. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

The route is lush, green. Farms, hay bales and padstals are cinematically sprinkled along the way. There’s life here: it’s fertile. And enough cars drive by to reassure you that you’re not driving to the end of the world. We’re tempted to stop, look around and even take the perfect selfie with the red-hued Waterberg mountains as a formidable backdrop.

Bela Bela presents a wider range of choices and a variety of accommodation – although, in all honesty, the small-town charm seems to have been sucked out of the place. Maybe not quite sucked out; rather bulldozed, razed and buried under malls, chain stores and fast-food franchise joints.

A few kilometres out of town, however, the region shines. The wilderness of the Waterberg biosphere is vast. It’s home to more than 100 types of mammals, the largest number of waterbirds in the country, reptiles and fish and prolific plant species.

Luxury lodges, old-fashioned family resorts, farm stays, tented camps and golf resorts offer a gateway to nature – all of them vying for the perfect spot from which to gaze at its rugged physique.

 

A family walk home in the harsh heat of the Waterberg region after collecting sticks to make innovative one-string guitars. Photo by by Thanda Kunene.

A family walk home in the harsh heat of the Waterberg region after collecting sticks to make innovative one-string guitars. Photo by by Thanda Kunene.

We find a cosy stone cottage at Bateleur Nature Reserve. It’s run by a warm and eccentric couple who, upon discovering that we’d brought only beer and no food, offer to cook us both breakfast and supper at no cost. The other guests, though, are hostile. The truth is, in this part of the country especially, travelling as a black person still has its difficulties. The small-town samplings present a specific set of stumbling blocks. It’s akin to time travelling 50 years back, when there was no shield against prejudice – to a world that even when it appears to welcome, will make certain that you know your place. It takes more than wanderlust and a willing wallet: it also requires a gut of steel. Nonetheless, with tar and gravel behind us, for now at least, we settle into the eco-friendly units in the heart of the reserve. It’s a haven for hikers, who come from the world over to walk the trails.

For others, like me, who aren’t so big on walking, it’s a perfect spot to game watch with a little less effort. And so we end a long day on the road the best way we can, and relax lazily on the veranda looking out at the wild canvas.

 

The sun sets in Bela Bela. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

The sun sets in Bela Bela. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

 

Waterberg activities

1. Visit Marakele National Park

Just outside Thabazimbi, Marakele National Park is a SANParks reserve that’s not only home to pachyderms and big cats, but also to a large colony of Cape vultures, estimated at around 800 breeding pairs. Entrance is R36 per adult and R18 per child (under 12) for the day.

 

2. Mountain bike at Thaba ‘Nkwe

This sport is the new golf, and the trails at the ‘Mountain of the Leopard’ are well marked and cater for everyone from beginners to seasoned rock hoppers. Zebra, wildebeest and other plains game can be spotted on a bike ride.
Tel: 0147722710

 

3. Zip between the trees

Visitors can experience the Waterberg like a soaring eagle (well almost) on a canopy tour with Waterberg Zipline Adventures. R385 per person.
Tel: 0735912280

 

4. Check in on the get-well-soons

The Sondela Wildlife Centre outside Bela Bela cares for sick, injured and orphaned wild animals until they’re ready to be released back into the wild. Temporary residents include rhino, leopard and caracal found in distress in the area. Game drives are R70 per adult and R35 for children.
Tel: 0147368900

 

5. Hike in Bateleur Nature Reserve

With detailed maps and advice on conditions for hikers, Bateleur Nature Reserve offers first-time hikers an easy introduction to wilderness perambulation. Day hikes are R100 per adult and R50 per child (under 16).
Tel: 0140130099

 

Places to stay in the Waterberg

 

1. Angasii Game Lodge

Angasii Game Lodge is quiet, thatched, split-level lofts are fully equipped with all the amenities. A restaurant provides meals and, for the lazier traveller, packaged meals can be arranged and delivered to the chalet. From R500 per person sharing, excluding meals.
Tel: 0147840497

 

Night falls at the Angasii Game Lodge. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

Night falls at the Angasii Game Lodge. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

 

2. Bateleur Nature Reserve

Apart from being a haven for hikers, the Bateleur Nature Reserve offers accommodation managed by a lovely couple. We stayed in Stone Cottage, which runs on solar power and gas. R1000 (sleeps two).
Tel: 0140130099

 

3. De Kunst Huisje

De Kunst Huisje is a quirky, yet tastefully decorated B&B, smack dab in the centre of Bela Bela, and a good base from which to explore the town. From R440 per person.
Tel 0140017238

 

Places to eat

1. BisiBean Coffee Roasting Co.

BisiBean Coffee Roasting Co’s coffee is good: nuanced blends of Ethiopian and Kenyan beans, complemented with freshly baked goods, wraps and sandwiches.
Tel: 0791438511

 

2. Silver Orange Bistro

If you have more time (and money) to spend, head to the Altyd Mooi farm (off the R512 next to Damdoryn Spar) for a fully catered picnic from Silver Orange Bistro (bookings must be made 48 hours in advance).
Tel: 0823782948

 

3. Leopard Lodge

Food with a view is the order of the day at Leopard Lodge, where meals are served on a veranda overlooking the Hartbeespoort valley. Book in advance.
Tel: 0122071130

 

4. L’abri Fountain Brewery

Just 30 minutes from Bela Bela, on a dirt road marked as the D908 to Diepdrift you’ll find L’abri Fountain Brewery, a welcome watering hole for craft-beer lovers. There are always at least six types of beer on tap and cocktails can be made to order. Call to sconfirm the opening times.
Tel: 0826051492

 

The Labri Fountain Brewery is an ale oasis in the middle of dense bush. Step in for beer, jokes and Waterberg anecdotes. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

The L’abri Fountain Brewery is an ale oasis in the middle of dense bush. Step in for beer, jokes and Waterberg anecdotes. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

Waterberg map - Getaway magazine

 

This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.

Get this issue →

All prices were correct at time of publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before travelling.

 

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