Back to the Old Ways – Leon Marshall takes the N1 towards Limpopo and turns off to savour the charms of the slow road north…
To get away from British colonial rule, they packed their wagons and left the Cape for the Holy Land in the 1830s. On eventually reaching the Waterberg, a beautiful stream had them convinced they had happened upon the eye of the Nile, and they promptly named it De Nyl Zyn Oog. They even took a nearby hill for an overgrown and badly weathered pyramid.
It’s not clear from the records whether they continued their journey north. But the region’s scenery, especially in the warm season when it bursts into all shades of green, is such that they probably outspanned right there.
The river kept the name Nyl, and the town built on its banks was called Nylstroom. Its Dutch Reformed Church, built in 1889, is said to be the oldest north of Pretoria. Even the town’s new name, Modimolle, speaks of religious devotion to the region’s beauty. Its Setswana name is given to mean ‘God has eaten’.
Now known as Kranskop, the ‘pyramid’ rising right next to the N1 is so imposing it has in turn lent its name to the nearby pocket-jarring tollgate. The freeway’s heavy tolls are indeed one good reason for the casual traveller to take the turnoff to Bela-Bela, formerly Warmbaths, shortly before reaching the Kranskop tollgate. It leads to the R101 – the old highway that winds through the mountainous countryside and passes through the old towns.
More good reasons for taking the slow road north were given to me by Joe Grosel, a nature-tour operator whose ecological training and reputation as one of South Africa’s foremost birders make him a favourite with tourists. He told me, “Although the highway is convenient when simply wanting to pass through, the old road is much more rewarding if you have the time.”
The towns have charm, the roadside stalls offer excellent fruit, including grapes these days, and the side roads turning west off the R101 take you through the pretty passes and beautiful scenery of the Waterberg. The region’s many lodges and tourist facilities are proof of how attractive it is to visitors.
“My foreign clients especially like me to take them on the back routes. They enjoy the scenery and the birds and the animals you see along the way on the game farms and private reserves. And on the main road they like me to stop at the stalls.”
Following his advice, I drove into Bela Bela (Boiling-Boiling) as the summer sun was just peeping over the mountains. The town was still quiet, except for stallholders busily unpacking their wares under a makeshift pole and canvas shelter on the corner of Ritchie and Sutter streets.
Their wood carvings and iron- and beadwork were of a quality that would clearly appeal to tourists. But there the municipality went and built a concrete barrier right in front of their stalls, preventing the tourist buses from stopping. Their pleas to allow the buses alternative parking close by had been falling on deaf ears. And this in a region and a country crying out for every opportunity there is for people to make a living.
I gave the town’s warm baths a miss and headed north. Just outside town, the shell of an old car, and with a few plants clinging to life from soil that filled where the car engine used to be, made me pull off at a stall named Palm’s Coffee Shop and Padstal. The owner, Gerhard Smit, told me the pap en kaiings (crackling) on his menu was a favourite with passersby.
Further on I took the turnoff to De Nyl Zyn Oog. The gravel road led through an avenue of shady trees that opened into crop fields and cows and sheep grazing in green paddocks. The veld changed to low trees and then to a plateau of grassland dotted with silver cluster-leaf trees and rocky outcrops.
I searched for the eye of the Nile until some locals informed me there really wasn’t any exact place by that name. They thought the road sign referred to the route itself, or perhaps to the wider region with its streams that had those old trekkers convinced they had reached the headwaters of the Nile. But as Joe told me, the detour leading past game farms, wildlife estates, lodges, caravan parks, bush spas and guest houses was worth the drive.
All the more the pity then that Modimolle itself offers little for travellers to linger. The river passing through it could offer an ideal stop-over if cleared of litter. I instead carried on to the Nylsvley Nature Reserve north of town that occupies part of a vast floodplain into which the Nylstroom flows. It is one of South Africa’s best birding spots and, with three chalets, a guest house, camping site, restaurant and beautiful landscape to offer, it’s a haven for nature lovers.
The road onwards to Mookgopong, formerly Naboomspruit, crosses many streams that feed into the floodplain’s wetland, a Ramsar Site. Among the colourful roadside stalls along the way there was yet another marked by the painted body of an old car.
In town I met Jurina Buitendag, an estate agent whose enthusiasm for the region is boundless. She took me on a flash tour, starting with Elephant Road, so named for an enormous elephant statue at the road’s T-junction deep in the Waterberg.
Onwards, and we travelled a majestic pass called Bokpoort before arriving at a farm on the top of the mountain where an innovative young farmer named Paul Roos grows organic fruit.
In Mookgopong, Jurina introduced me to Corietha Steenkamp who runs an art café named Die Kat Kom Weer in what used to be the bar of the adjacent Naboomspruit Hotel that dates back to 1910. She is chairwoman of the local arts association and offers classes in painting, sculpture, pottery, beading and other forms of art.
Her big mission is to prettify the town, and to do so she is having her students paint the walls along the drab main street. A small arts and crafts market she staged in front of her café in November 2015 was so successful she wants the municipality to close the entire road for a much bigger market this year (2016).
That evening I sat staring out at the view from a pretty mountain-top lodge named Crocuta (hyena). Thunderclouds built up behind a distant peak named Hanglip that protruded like a swollen lip from the mountain ridge. It was somewhere out there that Eugene Marais won the trust of baboons that led to his famous book My Friends the Baboons. It might also be where he found the inspiration for his hauntingly beautiful poem Die Dans van die Reën.
End of the Road
The body of an old truck draws attention to one of the Waterberg’s many road stalls; Another old car serves as roadside advertising in its afterlife; An old Volkswagen Beetle entices passersby.