Waiting to Exhale

Words & pictures by Pieter Oost huizen Words & pictures by Pieter Oost huizen

A big red tick in the webbing of my guide’s fingers was given a gentle treatment of Lip-Ice all over its body. Less than an hour later, it let go, because it could not breathe. For many of us, this is like living in the city – it suffocates us. The best way to let go is to head for the mountains, where the trees help us to breathe again. I love people who love mountains and trees, even when they use the dashboard of our borrowed Discovery 4 as a table for Viennas and cheese cubes. And yes, mountains may pee on your braai with their sudden showers, but you love them just the same.

This was the prologue of our tour of the Soutpansberg Mountains, which began (after hundreds of kilometres of boring highway) on a little plateau near the famous old Hangklip Rock above Louis Trichardt (Makhado). Waiting for us at the Eagles’ Nest Pub was a very special barmaid and a dog named Midnight. My 4x4 field guide had told me earlier, while popping another rooiworsie, that he believes he may have been conceived on the mountain. “Because I was born nine months after my mom and dad had spent their lekker honeymoon up here.”

In the small pub – with its back wall splattered with pictures of African travels – the barmaid, like my guide, convinced me that she, too, is a bit of a legend in her own right. Don’t let the “blonde barmaid” tag fool you; Lani Senekal has overcome much adversity to become a real African adventurer and much has been written about this mother of two. Born down below in Louis Trichardt, she is a mountain girl. “I feel terrible about not showing enough gratitude to this mountain,” she said, after a swig from the beer bottle. “The first thing I do every day is say ‘hello’ to the mountain.”

Next morning, the real Tour of Legends started, with my guide drumming it into my head that the Soutpansberg has folds, and that is why we use the plural form. “These mountains guard the gateway to the Great North.” We soon passed the entrance to Perskor’s game farm in Wylie’s Poort, where Pierneef was inspired by Teak and Syringa. It was also here, just off the N1, that Johan conceived the idea of a guided tour which connected all the legends of the area.

“Perskor’s farm was like a Camp David to the government. I used to work here as a hunting guide for the big guns. In the early nineties, the tourism board of the Republic of Venda published a booklet called the Land of the Legends, and that started me thinking. I went out to take a look, and I was issued with a Satour licence, which allowed me to drive around with a bus. But their whole initiative faded away, so I decided to use a 4x4 in the same way that we’d used the bus.

“My first tours were unique,” (in every sense, because he started out without a vehicle, catching a lift with his customers while guiding), “because no-one else knew anything about the what and the where. That was how it all started.”

When we left the N1, snaking its way to the north, he pointed ahead: “We’ll be doing four passes, starting with the one up there, called Baboons Pass. This is because sometimes a baboon may need a kierie to get up there.”

He explained that the top was named Dzata 1, where the Venda lived before they came down from the mountains to Dzata 2, where you can see some ruins. “This pass was their road, but it became unusable, until I incorporated it into this tour.” Seeing the name Tshikhikinini, I could not help pointing it out. “The Venda is a relatively young tribe. The interesting thing is that descendants of a tribe called the Lemba, popularly referred to as the Lost Tribe of Israel because of their Semitic features and typical Jewish business know-how, are said to be intertwined with the Venda.”

The pass is a slow, rocky climb, but not too steep. I would regularly point at specific items of flora, and Johan would name them. There was Wild Fig, Monkey Pod, Wild Plum, Wild Hibiscus, Stinging Nettle, Buffalo Thorn, Wild Gardenia… This became a daily routine, with my also cocking an ear, as in “What was that?” and his naming the bird. At the place where we heard the Narina Trogon, Johan said, “I think this is where trees come to confer about us and how much oxygen they will need to produce to keep the world going. Just look at these mountains - every square metre has at least one tree on it”.

While I was pondering the workload of the Soutpansberg’s 700 tree species, a Black Eagle circled above. Closer, a Pin-tailed Wyndah, with its long tail, enquired about us. We passed a village where laughing children waved, then turned onto a public gravel road which led us down this mountain along a wellmaintained path with patches of cemented rocks.

On this side there are Bohemias full of red flowers and the Sickle Bush with little pink and yellow seeds – that reminded Johan of all the rain that had occasioned so many seeds and flowers.

We descended Mamba’s Pass, in many places taking it very slowly, as we dropped 483 metres in 7 km to the valley floor. We talked about the Mountain Mahogany or “houtpiesang”, the spotted Purple Pod Terminalia, the Rusted Bush Willow – and, down below, the telltale signs of huge rock slides on the right.

A little further on, a split in a ridge pointed to the first campsite, named Mangwele. The setting sun lit up one wall of the gorge to become an orange beacon, sticking out beyond the tree-line above the campsite, next to a cheerful mountain stream.

“This camp has become synonymous with the Tour of Legends. Its development is directly linked to the tour, because we have helped people to help themselves,” said Johan, before quoting from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, about “genuinely striving for mutually beneficial solutions” to improve the life of the local community. “These people have really grabbed the opportunity to do something.”

Day two of the tour started brilliantly. An excited Johan began with a “Hear that? It’s the Bluespotted Dove. I have never heard it around here before. I take people to Zimbabwe to see and hear it.” Another very pleasant surprise awaits the visitor. In fact, for some, this will be the highlight of the entire trip, given the fact that people spend a lot of money at a grand spa to experience it – because it is just plain giggling good.

We crossed the shallow, boulderstrewn stream and walked up to the first of half-a-dozen potholes above big, beautiful green-leafed Ironprunes. Water splashes into a natural pool in which one can stand, even taking a soapless shower. The water’s temperature was surprisingly pleasant, and so were the actions of the Algae Eaters, small catfish that nibbled on the dead skin of our legs and feet while we sat there dreaming in the morning sunlight. There is no need to skrik, even though it feels, at first, like little crabs trying to grab hold.

Johan said that he wanted every camp to have its own main activity that would hold people’s attention. This place was reminding me of Kapishya Lodge in Zambia, where the campsite on the banks of the Mansi River, and the hot springs, make leaving it all but impossible. Although the first day of the trip is called The Day of the Mamba, it is only on the second day that you climb back up Mamba’s Pass. And now it becomes a test, because of tyre-grip issues.

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