According to geologists, the Phalaborwa area was once subjected to intense volcanic activity, which caused a wealth of metals and minerals to be formed and deposited in the surrounding countryside. The remains of clay smelting ovens used by Nguni tribes, who mined copper and iron in the area centuries ago are found all over. These tribes moved south at one stage, but later returned and named the area “Phalaborwa”, which means “better than the south”.
Today, Phalaborwa is an important modern mining centre with its own airport. The cheapest phosphates in the world, as well as copper, vermiculite and other minerals, are mined in and around the town. Its central position, close to one of the entrances to the Kruger National Park in the middle of an area bounded by the Letaba River in the north and the Olifants River in the south, allows easy access to the rest of the Valley of the Olifants.
Phalaborwa is also known as the “Town of two summers” and has mild, frost-free winters with average daily temperatures of 22 degrees Celsius. Winter is also the best time for game-viewing.
Adventure And Sport
Adventure: There are many adventure-type activities available in and around the town, as well as in the nearby Kruger National Park.
Golf: The golf course of the Hans Merensky Country Club is set in Lowveld savannah and is surrounded by its own game reserve. Regular golfers are never surprised to see wild animals roaming the course.
Microlight Flights: Microlight “flips” offer the visitor the opportunity to enjoy the magic of the bushveld from the seat of a small aircraft. The proceeds of these flights go towards anti-poaching initiatives.
Sport: Phalaborwa offers many superb sporting facilities such as tennis courts, an Olympic-size swimming pool and an angling dam.
Archaeology And Palaeontology
BaPhalaborwa Sites: Phalaborwa has several important Iron Age archaeological sites. It is believed that the BaPhalaborwa tribe occupied the site of Sealeng where the remnants of walls and graves of the royal residences of about 24 chiefs can still be seen. According to African tradition, this area is revered as a sacred spiritual ancestral site. The area of Kgopolwe, which is little more than a hill, is linked to Sealeng because the royals used it as a second residence. The latter was only used in times of trouble when the chief found it necessary to hide away. This particular site is the oldest South African Iron Age site and lies just outside the Kruger National Park. Carbon dating indicates that this settlement was inhabited from approximately 800 AD to the late nineteenth century.
Pipe: About 2 000 million years ago volcanic eruptions created an amazing geological feature, namely a pipe. This pipe is 19 square km in area and is filled with an array of incredible minerals such as phosphate and gold. Sotho tribes first mined the copper and iron from 400 AD. Excavations of an iron smelting site and a complete furnace provide proof of these activities. A mere 150 years ago, local Africans continued to mine the copper and the iron and became experts and specialists in iron production.
Masorini Ruins: The Masorini Ruins are in the Kruger Park, about 15 km from the Park’s Phalaborwa Gate. Masorini is believed to have been the ancient home of a group of people who belonged to the BaPhalaborwa clan. The clan made its living from manufacturing and trading iron artefacts. Site excavations have provided conclusive evidence of how these people lived and worked, and how they interacted with other traders. Reconstruction of the site is not yet complete but picnic facilities have been erected at the foot of the hill leading up to the site. A visitors’ hut at the site provides more information and Park officials can arrange guided tours. The site includes the remains of a smelting furnace and the ancient smelting process is demonstrated to visitors, using a replica of the original.
Thulamela: The archaeological site of Thulamela can be found on a hill at the northern end of the Kruger National Park in the Pafuri section, about 200 km north of Phalaborwa. Thulamela (the word means “Place of giving Birth”) is the oldest restored building in the country. Baobab trees surround the stonewalled site and the remains are believed to be those of a late Iron Age settlement. Researchers believe that the site was occupied by the ancestors of tribes such as the Venda, Tsonga and Shangaan, probably from 1350 to 1650, when there was regular contact with traders on the East African coast. Archaeologists have found gold beads, charcoal, ostrich-eggshell beads and ivory, as well as metal rings — considered to be further proof of contact with traders from the East African coast. The descendants of the original Thulamela people are integrally involved in the development of the site as a tourist attraction. Money earned from educational tours is reinvested in the local community. Daily tours to the site are conducted and bookings can be made with several private tour operators or with officials of the Kruger National Park. A whole day should be set aside for the trip to Thulamela. On the way there, enjoy the scenery and the wildlife.
Art And Crafts
Foskor Development Trust: This centre is located in Phalaborwa and is an entrepreneurial training centre with an outlet at the Phalaborwa Gate to the Park. Here local crafters can be observed practising their crafts and selling their wares. Woven carpets, screen-printed fabrics, pottery, woodcarvings, sheet-metal work, beadwork and other articles are offered for sale.
Phalaborwa Foundation: The body organises guided tours to the townships of Namakgale and Lulekani.
Sealeng Kop and Kgopolwe Kop: Many chiefs of the Phalaborwa tribe are buried at Sealeng and Kgopolwe.
Fauna And Flora
Kruger National Park: The biggest wildlife attraction in the area is, of course, the Kruger National Park! The Kruger Park is over 1 million ha in size and is renowned as the home of the Big Five (lion, elephant, leopard, rhinoceros and buffalo). The park also contains hippo, crocodile, different types of antelope and a multitude of birds. The northern camps of the Kruger National Park are within easy reach of Phalaborwa but reservations for overnight accommodation should be made with the National Parks Board in Pretoria. Camps in the northern section of the Park include: Shingwedzi, Boulders, Punda Maria, Mopani, Bateleur, Shimuwini and Sirheni. Some of the accommodation at Shingwedzi and Mopani Camps has been adapted for use by the physically disabled. The northern regions of the Park are famous “tusker” areas as elephants with abnormally large tusks are often spotted here. However, it also teems with a diversity of other animals.
Mtimkhulu Game Reserve: The 7 000 ha protected reserve is located 50 km north of Phalaborwa. Its river adjoins the Kruger National Park. The reserve offers unique wildlife experiences and guided walks and biking trails can also be ventured.
River Safari: Do not miss out on a river safari down the Olifants River that allows many game-viewing opportunities.
Sunrise and Sunset Wilderness Trails: Phalaborwa has a special treat in store for visitors — it is the only town that offers night drives into the Kruger National Park. Entrance is gained through the Phalaborwa Gate and, if the visitors are lucky, they may even witness a lion feed. Nightlife in the Kruger Park is a wonderful experience, characterised by the eerie but beautiful sounds of the primeval African bush! These safaris also include the popular bushbraais.
History And Architecture
Foskor Mine Museum: The museum presents an informative historical perspective on the mining activities in the area, as well as on the lives of the tribes that once lived there. The Foskor company played an important role in the development of the town as a major mining centre and the museum is housed in one of the first houses of the town.
Mine: The almost 3-km-wide opencast copper mine, operated by the Phalaborwa Mining Company, is considered to be the widest man-made hole in Africa. Most of South Africa’ copper is mined here and the pit is 450m deep. The mine is a unique tourist attraction and well worth a visit.