This story was updated on 11 February 2019.
Almost everyone flocks to Bela Bela for its famed hot springs, and there’s a lot to be said for lazing around in its healing mineral waters. But that’s not all the town has to offer as Fiona Zerbst finds out.
1. Go birding – and get involved in Southern Ground-Hornbill conservation
The area offers really fabulous birding – the R516 (towards Thabazimbi) links up with the R510 and R511 and you can expect to see a lot of bird life. Red-chested, Striped, Jacobin and Diederick’s Cuckoos, European Bee-eaters and Woodland Kingfishers, as well as the Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, African Quail Finch and Amur Falcon, are often spotted. Just off the R516 is Mabula Private Game Reserve, which is home to the Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project (MGHP). Studies have shown that the Southern Ground-Hornbill, or ‘thunderbird’, as it is known in rural communities (Bucorvus leadbeateri), will be driven to extinction unless conservationists intervene.
The bird is classified as Endangered in South Africa, largely because of threats like inadvertent poisoning, electrocution and illegal capture for the trade. They also breed slowly – perhaps only every few years and only ever one chick per breeding season – and only the alpha male and female breed (the rest of the group are simply there to help defend their territory and feed the female and chick on the nest).
I was fortunate to visit a nesting site at Mabula with project manager Lucy Kemp and it’s wonderful to see these iconic black-and-scarlet birds settled in their bushveld home. Watched over by Lucy, her father Dr Alan Kemp and the MGHP team, the birds are in safe hands, which is comforting as they really are under threat outside of the Greater Kruger National Park. To get involved with conservation initiatives, contact Lucy at [email protected].
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2. Zip through the Waterberg mountains
Anna Moale would make even the most nervous novices comfortable with the idea of throwing themselves off cliffs – or rather, off sturdy platforms built amongst indigenous trees in the folds of the Waterberg mountains (the Waterberg massif extends for approximately 14 500km² in Limpopo).
She and fellow guide Thabiso Ndlovu guided us expertly through ten zipline slides, which extend over 1.4km in total (the longest is 230 metres and the shortest is 70 metres). I’m a little blasé when it comes to ziplines as I’ve been on a few, but I loved the screams and giggles of the young British and Australian teens we met on our adventure (children from the age of five upwards can slide) – plus the bushveld terrain is very special, even though the dam on the property burst its banks a couple of years ago and the riverbed is desert-dry.
Thabiso and Anna glide like gazelles from one zipline to the next. “I’ve been doing this for six years now,” says Anna. “I was really nervous at the idea of ziplining in the beginning, but now it’s second nature to me. I have always been very athletic.” Thabiso has been at Waterberg Zipline Adventures for almost five years. “I have worked as a lifeguard and a guide for river-rafters and abseilers – I have always enjoyed adventure activities,” he says. “You get to meet all sorts of people.”
It is essential to book your place on the zipline, particularly on Saturdays and during schools holidays. “During those times, we take maybe 90 to 100 people a day,” says Anna. Pro tip: you do need to be slightly fit because there’s a little bit of steep uphill climbing towards the end of the course. It’s worth it, though, because the view is really spectacular. Visit Waterberg Zipline Adventures for more information.
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3. Enjoy a horseback safari in the bush
We decided to do something a little different for our 10th wedding anniversary – a horseback safari at Zebula Golf Estate & Spa, which offers a huge number of activities on its massive property.
Head ranger at Zebula, Suzette Boshoff, told us that most of their 11 horses are rescues. “When horses have been neglected or abused, it can take up to six months just to get their condition right – then they have to learn to trust human beings again,” Suzette explained. “They also have to learn to mix with the herd and get used to the area before we can even think of introducing riders.
They have to figure out the herd orientation and get used to the trails themselves. It’s quite a long, slow process – but there’s nothing more rewarding than being able to take these horses out on safari. Zebula is incredibly supportive of this project – we are all very lucky. I’m especially grateful that our grooms, Causemore Hove and Ezekiel ‘Ziggy’ Lebodi, take such great care of the horses around the clock. They do all the hard work!” We loved the safari – after the good December rains, there were babies everywhere: zebra, impala, and giraffe (we saw a calf that was perhaps only a few days old).
We also saw ellies at Zebula’s ‘Adventures with Elephants’ and enjoyed hot chocolate at the venue before heading back to the stables (I also got to tickle the tummy of a rescue meerkat called Trouble!). It’s a great way to spend a morning. Call the Adventure Centre on 014 734 7730 or email [email protected].
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Words and Photography Fiona Zerbst