Words and pictures by Grant Spolander.
Our Technical Editor, Grant Spolander, embarks on a back-road tour of the Waterberg Mountains; a forgotten region of tragic tales, multi-layered history and a stream of biodiversity.
Oh great, we’re lost, and you don’t have a clue where we are.” Gary ignores my remark like the veteran husband and father that he is; with two children, he’s used to backseat drivers. I press the Garmin back in its cradle and slump in my seat like a bored teenager. The GPS isn’t reading the road we are on and even Tracks4Africa has run out of suggestions. To keep myself busy, I keep hassling Gary. “Seriously, you own a farm out here, you’ve been to this part of the world a thousand times, but you don’t know where we are. What’s up with that?”
Gary shakes his head and I barely catch his muttered response: “I don’t know: I thought I knew the Waterberg’s back tracks but I’ve never seen these roads in my life.” Our problems began with a detour. But before that, things were complicated by a brochure: The Waterberg Meander. It’s a downloaded guide of 36 pages featuring 35 sites of interest within the Waterberg region. Site number 13 was causing the fuss.
We are told that the easiest way to picture the Waterberg is to think of an upside-down saucer. This mountainous blister wells up from the earth’s crust, covering an area of about 14 500 km² of gravel-driving heaven. Geologically, the region’s history dates back millions of years, but a more recent human past calls up equal parts of murder, torture, and even genocide.
This brings us back to site number 13, more commonly known as the Makapan Caves. In terms of location, these rocky fissures are an easterly diversion from the rest of the Waterberg’s central attractions, which generally are found around Vaalwater. Originally, the caves weren’t even on our to-do list – we’d already had a GPS chock-full of waypoints and only a few days to visit them all.
The trip had begun with an email to Gary Swemmer; in the last four years, the two of us have embarked on an annual 4×4 tour together. Gary had suggested a route through the Waterberg and its many gravel tracks; he owns a farm in the area and knows the region well… but not as well as he originally thought.
Unfortunately, I complicated the tour by bringing along the Waterberg Meander guide. Before we knew it, we were frantically working our way through the brochure’s attractions like two travel junkies obsessed with their to-do list. Gary’s preplanned route lay in the Amarok’s glove compartment like a forgotten speeding ticket.
It was our first day on the road and so far we’d trekked through plains of water-logged grass, dashed over bridges, and cut our way through farmlands of sunflower fields. Now a lazy afternoon sun was drifting dozily towards the horizon but we hadn’t reached the mountains yet.
As the dust tumbled off our Amarok’s tyres, each rotation brought us closer to a shadowy-blue escarpment: a layered contrast of arrow-head mountains fading like weathered ink. We used these jagged peaks as a compass.
Finally arriving at Makapan Caves, we then embarked on a journey through dimly-lit portals shrouded in cold damp air. Our first visit was to the lime-works cave; here we browsed excavated rocks brimming with bones and the fossils of our 2.8-million year old ancestors. According to archaeologists, some of the earliest hominids lived in the Waterberg Mountains.
We were told by our guide, Moloko Madibara, that the fossils are perfectly preserved by the lime-saturated water that drips on the bones and hardens them against time. We visited two more caves, both of which have a grim history dating back to 1854. It’s not exactly clear what caused the conflict between the Voortrekkers and the local Ndebele tribe, but reports say that the two groups were fighting over land and broken bartering agreements. These events came to flash-point when Hermanus Potgieter shot and killed chief Makapan’s son, after he had been mocked by the man during a trade exchange. (Bartering between the tribesmen and the Trekboers was illegal at the time).
This incident led to the murder of Hermanus Potgieter and the massacre of 23 men, women and children by Ndebele warriors. According to reports, the scene was brutal: Potgieter was pinned to the ground and skinned alive before he died.