Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2013/35 posted by hidden europe on

The Great North Road, a fragment of the classic Cape to Cairo route, cuts through Limpopo on its way to Beitbridge and the Zimbabwean border. A stream of buses and bakkies head north towards another Africa, their passengers barely sparing a glance for the passing landscape.

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Indulge us, if you will, as we go off-limits and report from Africa rather than Europe. We have been travelling in southern Africa this month. Here is our report from Limpopo, the northernmost province of the Republic of South Africa.

Dear fellow travellers

The Afrikaaner poet N.P. van Wyk Louw might easily have had the Great North Road in mind when he wrote "O wye en droewe land." For this area of Limpopo is indeed a wide and woeful land. Here is the highveld, a great swathe of dreamy grassland that is parched in winter, but this month is once again soaking up the early summer rains.

The Great North Road, a fragment of the classic Cape to Cairo route, cuts through Limpopo on its way to Beitbridge and the Zimbabwean border. A stream of buses and bakkies head north towards another Africa, their passengers barely sparing a glance for the passing landscape. Bare rock ridges punctuate the plains. Hail-white clouds dance on the tops of the hills while the ghosts of the Voortrekkers stoop by the side of the highway. The old Boer names are being nudged aside in the new order, Nylstroom morphing into Modimolle, Pietersburg into Polokwane.

The manne with their moustaches and beards sit it out on their farmsteads, one hand never too far from a rifle. Fear marks the Rainbow Nation. A hillside by the Great North Road just south of Polokwane is a sea of white crosses, each individual cross recalling the murder of a white farmer in South Africa. The manne have a word for these farm attacks: Plaasmoorde. Eleven huge white letters spell out the word, Hollywood-style, across the mountainside above the crosses.

Anger, guilt and violence are elements in the toxic legacy of apartheid. A veil of silent grief drapes the highveld.

We don't have the stamina to drive all the way to the Tropic of Capricorn, let alone to Zimbabwe, so we cut off the Great North Road at Polokwane and head east towards Tzaneen. A scatter of townships and rural communities, women carrying heavy loads wandering over the highway, roadside stalls and the merciless veld giving way to a more varied landscape. South Africa is a place of two worlds. Not just black and white, as you may think. There is a world that can be mapped and measured, a world of cool rationality. Then there is a world of the spirit, an Otherworld rooted in a web of faith and witchcraft.

Here, in eastern Limpopo, as elsewhere across so much of Africa, diviners still throw bones. Witchcraft is part of the fabric of everyday life. Pagan beliefs and Christian virtue make common cause in this region.

Buses belch exhaust as they lumber east towards Moria, carrying the devout to the headquarters of the Zion Christian Church. For ZCC believers, and there are millions of them in southern Africa, Moria is a pivot of heaven on earth. The church has its own prophets and diviners.

We ponder these two parallel worlds as we drive east and the country becomes ever hillier. Tzaneen is just over the horizon. But what a horizon. For this is the eastern edge of the highveld. Scrubby thorns and grasses have been replaced by pine and eucalyptus. The road slips round the south side of the Ebenezer Dam, a panorama opening up to the east with palms and tea plantations. The Scottish writer John Buchan came this way, and captured the moment beautifully: "Suddenly you cross a ridge and enter a garden... the contrast makes a profound impression." For Buchan, the road to Tzaneen was something special. That divide between the highveld and the gorgeously luscious sub-tropical lowlands to the east is a border between two worlds. A monument by the side of the road records Buchan's desire to return to the spot in old age, build a simple dwelling and leave his bones there.

John Buchan never did get to leave his bones in South Africa. He died in Canada in 1940. But his prose beautifully evokes images of South Africa, from the wide and woeful landscapes of the highveld to the lushness of the eastern Transvaal. In Prester John, the town of Wesselsburg is surely based on Tzaneen.

Beneath the great southern stars, Limpopo sprawls east towards Mozambique and north towards Zimbabwe. It is tempting to drive for hours on end. But Tzaneen is a good place to stay, a spot to linger. There are mangoes and macadamias, bananas and avocados. The spirits, we know, were on our side in leading us to so divinely beautiful a retreat.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.