As we reach the floor of the kloof in the Soutpansberg and emerge through the thick bush on to the edge of the deep dark pool, the wind, which has been riffling the leaves, seems suddenly to die. It is quiet, very quiet down here. Even though the rains have been patchy in this part of the world over the past few months, water still trickles into the pool.
“This place is never dry. The water always comes,” says our guide, Bethuel Tshiwela. But even he has lowered his voice slightly.
There is, undeniably, an aura about this place, the Mashovhela rock pool. It is, says Tshiwela, the second most sacred place in the culture of the vhaVenda people. Sometimes, he says, when it is a hot day and he brings white people here, they jump in and swim.
“Me? I won’t do that.”
He has grown up with the history and legends of his people and, he believes, “if you go in there, then you might go down and never come up again”.
Fortunately, it is a chilly day (the Soutpansberg outside Makhado – formerly Louis Trichardt – in Limpopo is often much cooler than the surrounding lowland), and we don’t feel like swimming. Somehow, though, after what Tshiwela has said, I wouldn’t be that keen on diving in, hot day or not. I’m not susceptible to legends, but this place does feel holy. It is also important to the people in this area, so I feel using it as a splash pool would be almost sacrilege.
The Mashovhela rock pool is on the property of the Mashovhela Lodge, itself part of the Morning Sun nature reserve in the heart of the Soutpansberg, about 20km outside Makhado.
But all over this region, you feel and experience the history and beliefs of the vhaVenda people.
Not far from here, towards the east, is Lake Fundudzi on the Mutale River where, according to the legends, a giant python (the god of fertility) lives in the depths. The story goes that, way back in the past, maidens were sacrificed to the python-god to ensure good rains and crops. Whether or not that happened is still a matter of debate among historians, but the python dance (the “domba” dance) is performed by girls who are initiated into the mysterious community of women.
Winny Mojela, our guide from Vuwa Safari and Tours – who takes us on a trip around the area of the former bantustan capital of Thohoyandou (the Place of the Elephant) – tells us the land of the Venda is one of the richest in SA in terms of history, legend, culture and art.
“There are so many things which you can see, and appreciate, that you need to plan your tours carefully so you have enough time.”
At the museum near Dzata – the home of the legendary king Thoho-ya-Ndou – there is a fascinating collection of artefacts and displays reflecting the history of the vhaVenda, who are believed by historians to have come from somewhere in Africa to the north of us and were one of the last groups to arrive in the lands south of the Limpopo River.
White settlers, under Louis Trichardt, first encountered the vhaVenda in about 1836 as they trekked northwards in search of a place to call theirs. The newcomers were never welcomed by the vhaVenda. Makhado, the chief after whom the town of Louis Trichardt is now named, was the first to resist the colonisers, attacking and raiding them frequently and forcing them to abandon their settlement at Schoemansdal in 1867.Resistance was continued by one of Makhado’s sons, Mphephu, who was later defeated by the settlers and fled to Zimbabwe. The Mphephu dynasty still exists and is part of the tour we take with Vuwa to the royal palace of the Mphephus outside Thohoyandou. One of the Mphephus ruled for a time as the head of the apartheid-established Bantustan of Venda, which came into being in 1979.
Modern-day Venda is a pulsating place, with Thohoyandou bustling with activity and solid testament to the fact that it did not, like some Bantustan capitals, wither with the advent of democracy in 1994.
But, as a tourist interested in culture and history, no visit would be complete without dropping by the Thohoyandou art centre, which offers striking art – paintings, sculptures, woodwork and pottery – from a number of local artists.
At the centre, we meet Dr Mashudu Dima, one of its staunch supporters, who is a sangoma, historian and part-time radio station host. He is clearly passionate about the talent around and about the unique nature of vhaVenda art.
“This culture and the history of the people in this area are highly significant – and it is sad that the authorities (the government’s Departments of Arts and Culture) do not recognise this and give us the support we need.”
We are also privileged to meet well-known artist Avhashoni Mainganye, who has travelled the globe to exhibit his etchings and paintings yet, sadly, is not as widely known or hailed by people in his own country – outside art experts, who salute his rare genius.
Mainganye, who is also a poet who has written widely, says the art centre at Thohoyandou is encouraging young artists and allowing them the freedom to explore their creativity which is redolent of the history and culture of the region. If you’re an art lover, then a visit to the art centre is a must. We are not in that category, but my wife spots an elegant set of three Venda painted pots – small, medium and large – which now lend a touch of that region to our lounge.
These small and medium enterprises were identified by TEP for their quality tourism experiences and craft offerings that provide visitors with an authentic taste of our country’s rich and varied history and culture.
TEP is funded by the government and large corporates. It offers hands-on, step-by-step support and guidance to more than 3 000 small, medium and micro tourism businesses.
Mashovhela Lodge was the base for our explorations of the Soutpansberg and the land of the vhaVenda. It is just about 20km north of Makhado (formerly Louis Trichardt) and about four hours from Joburg.
Located in the Morning Sun nature reserve, Mashovhela is styled along Venda lines and offers a full range of accommodation from bed only, to dinner, bed and breakfast accommodation at reasonable rates (DBB is from R760 per person per night sharing).
A guided drive into the reserve is offered with the full board and DBB rates, making it even better value.
The lodge also offers a safari tent experience, as well as a “hammock camp” where guests can sleep out under the stars near a typical African bush fire. A treat not to be missed is the lodge’s superb bush breakfast, served near a picturesque waterfall and cooked on an open wood fire. The bacon, sausage and cherry tomato sosaties were something which will remain in my memory for a long time.
Guided walks on the nature reserve, as well as drives to the top plateau – which offers a variety of wildlife and beautiful, restful views – are also offered.
There are special family unit chalets available and pensioners will get the low season rates all year round.
Mashovhela is in the process of building a nearby self-catering camp, which also promises a unique location.
Telephone: 012 991 6930
Fax: 086 624 2220
Mashovhela Lodge (above) offers a perfect base for exploring the Venda region; its bush breakfasts are memorable (below). Artist Avhashoni Mainganye (below, right) shows some of his works.