Words and pictures by Jacques Marais.
There’s a rumour that men don’t ask for directions. Well, here in Mama Africa, the reason that we don’t ask is that doing so will often fast-forward you from the frying pan into the fire. On a recent trip to Limpopo, we took an unplanned scenic detour en route to our destination, and the ladies, including my lovely wife, Karyn, indicated from the back of the Izuzu that we should stop to ask for directions. Reluctantly, after a while, I did. Stopping at a rundown petrol station and using my best farm-boy Xhosa, I said, “Molo bhuti; kunjani?” I could just as well have tried Korean, judging by the blank expression on his face. With a language barrier as wide as all 11 official languages, this wasn’t going to be easy. “Modjadji?”
“Eish. Modjadji … jaaaa.” And we were pointed in half-a-dozen different directions. One of the men eventually said that he could tell us where to go, but that it would cost a minimum of a hundred bucks. “Because you’re rich,” he smiled, the way a crocodile would while considering your calorie count. As I said, from the frying pan into the fire. Rolling my eyes and spinning my wheels, I drove off, deciding to take my chances without their help. After resetting the GPS, we finally headed in the right direction – thanks to technology, and no thanks to asking for directions – and, at last, we snuck onto a dusty jeep-track dipping into a densely wooded valley somewhere beyond the hustle and bustle of Modjadjiskloof’s huts.
The African Ivory Route had been on my radar for quite some time, but I was eager to make this a trip with a difference. The route has a great selection of Big 5 safari camps, but, on those trips, you’re confined to your vehicle for most of the day − which is not ideal if you’re travelling with children or if you want a bit more freedom to roam around.
The solution? We decided to give the trip a birding slant, and selected several of the lesserknown ‘cultural’ camps − all situated within tribal grazing land or in nature reserves with nondangerous game. This meant we had total freedom of movement to mountain-bike, hike, trail-run and explore to our hearts’ content. So without further ado, here’s a breakdown of the five camps we chose.
MODJADJI – OF RAIN QUEENS AND GHOST-BIRDS
The region, near the present-day city of Tzaneen, is the Balobedu Kingdom, ruled by the matrilineal Rain Queen who is believed to have rain-making powers. The first Rain Queen was a girl named Modjadji, and her successor, Masalanabo Modjadji, is said to have inspired H. Rider Haggard’s famous novel, ‘She’ – one of the formative books of my childhood.
Nature Reserve featured as one of the African Ivory Route’s cultural camps, I quickly made up my mind to visit this part of the scenic Wolkberg region. The Modjadji Camp, a Limpopo provincial government initiative, was the first stop on our tour of the African Ivory Route. The camp has five rustic, self-catering units set amid indigenous trees, with a central braai area, dining-room and kitchen. Built in the traditional Lobedu style, the thatched rondavels each come with two three-quarter beds, and visitors must bring their own sleeping bag and towels.
There is no electricity, and the kitchen runs on gas; a combo of paraffin- and solar lighting will keep you from taking a tumble down the slope en route to the ablutions. Modjadji is pretty typical as far as the African Ivory Route camps go, but the bottom line is that it’s clean, affordable and unique.
This may not be The Ritz, but the real reason you’re here is to explore the Modjadji Nature Reserve itself. The reserve is not very big (the total area equates to a mere 305 ha), but what makes it special is the fact that it features the world’s largest concentration of single-species cycads.
The ‘Modjadji Palm’ is an IUCN Red List species, and they’ve been around for 50 to 60 million years. They are true dinosaurs, and are one of the most spectacular species out there, with stems up to 13 metres tall.