The Letaba municipal region is fascinatingly beautiful, dominated by magnificent mountains and valleys. The northern section of the Drakensberg Mountain Range borders it on one side, the Kruger National Park and the Lowveld area on its other two sides.
The two main towns in this area are Tzaneen, situated in the fertile Letaba Valley at an altitude of 710m and Duiwelskloof, at an altitude of 930m.
Tzaneen, the capital of the magisterial district, is 90 minutes’ drive from the Phalaborwa Gate of the Kruger National Park. The town is situated at the slopes of the majestic Wolkberg Mountains and the name of the town is believed to be derived from the Tsonga word “tsana”, which means “Basket of Hills”, but some argue that the Sotho word, “tsaneng”, meaning “Gathering Place”, may also have a bearing on the town’s name. This town and surrounds are indeed famous for their baskets of subtropical fruit, winter vegetables and nuts, but Tzaneen is definitely also a very pleasant gathering place!
Duiwelskloof lies at the entrance to the northern Lowveld and it is just as green and lush as Tzaneen. During the summer months, the town is a riot of colour when the blue-mauve of the flowering jacaranda trees mingles with orange blossoms of the silver oak trees. It is also colourful during the winter months when the yellow and orange flowers of the golden shower creepers compete with red poinsettias and the brilliant flowers of the flame tree. Duiwelskloof is the centre of a thriving timber industry as well as an agricultural centre for the large citrus orchards and the many fruit and vegetables farms in the district. The famous Mooketsi Valley, about 11 km north-west of the town, is renowned as the largest tomato-producing area in the world.
Leydsdorp was established in 1890 as a “gold-rush” town. It was called after the then State Secretary of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (Transvaal Republic). Historical buildings and baobab trees are common features of this town.
Letsitele was named after the Letsitele River, which means the “Valley of the Dead” in Sotho. The town only started to grow and develop after 1950 when Dr Annecke managed to eliminate malaria. Letsitele is one of the largest citrus-producing areas in the country. Its crops include the well-known Valencia oranges and Texas Star Ruby grapefruit.
Ofcolaco (Officers’ Colonial Land Company) was a cooperative settlement formed for British officers after the First World War. It lies about 50 km south-east of Tzaneen.
Gravelotte lies about 55 km east of Tzaneen near the boundary of the Selati Game Reserve.
Adventure And Sport
Adventure opportunities: Adventure tourism options such as mountaineering, rafting and biking abound.
Tzaneen Dam: The water in the dam is used to irrigate the Letaba Valley, but also has popular recreation spots for anglers, picnickers, those interested in water-sports and those who like to enjoy a barbecue surrounded by the sounds of nature. The dam and 360 ha of land around its shores were proclaimed a nature reserve in 1978. Although wildlife is limited, the dam and its surroundings are a bird paradise.
Hiking: There are many beautiful scenic hiking trails in this area, which wind through indigenous forests, pine and bluegum plantations past waterfalls, refreshing streams and pools of crystal-clear water. There are also several other trails within the various wildlife and nature reserves in the area. Many trails go through the Magoebaskloof area. The trails provide for beautiful and scenic views and hikers will also encounter an array of bird life. The Hans Merensky Nature Reserve has four hiking trails, the Letaba, Waterbuck, Mopane and Sable Hiking Trails.
Modjadji Cycad Reserve: The reserve, about 30 km north of Tzaneen, has a network of hiking trails.
Ndzalama Wildlife Reserve: The reserve offers three-day guided walking tours as well as horse safaris and bushcraft and survival skills courses. It is about 50 km east of Tzaneen.
Rooikat Hiking Trail: The trail in the New Agatha State Forest, 18 km from Tzaneen, winds through 12 km of lush evergreen woodland along the Bobs River. Bushbuck, duiker, baboons and vervet and samango monkeys may be spotted, as well as water leguans.
Art And Crafts
Curios: Many tea gardens, farm stalls and curio shops sell crafts made by local artists.
Modjadji Reserve: Located some 40 km north-east of Tzaneen, the reserve was declared a national monument in 1936, in honour of the Rain Queen, Modjadji – the hereditary queen of the Lobedu. Legend has it that a sixteenth-century tribe from Zimbabwe, the Karanga, crossed the Limpopo River while fleeing from their enemies. The Karanga were best known for the stone walls they built around their villages. They settled in the cycad forest in the area that was later to become the Limpopo Province. Men originally ruled the group, but its last four rulers have been women. The Rain Queen was believed to be immortal and to have magical powers with which she could create rain. The title of Rain Queen is still ritualistically bestowed on descendants of the first queen. Earlier mortals were never allowed to see the Queen but the latest ruler, who ascended the throne in the early 1980s, is much more accessible to her people. The Modjadji Reserve has a small museum dedicated to the legend of the Rain Queen and visitors may also wander through the village.
Tsonga Kraal Open-air Museum: The museum in the Hans Merensky Nature Reserve northeast of Tzaneen, gives a glimpse into the traditional lives of the Tsonga-Shangaan people. Their origins are uncertain, but they are believed to have come from the Mozambique coast. They are keen fishermen, a fact that could possibly be attributed to their ancestral links to the coast. Tsonga Kraal is not a “living village” — the people working at the museum retire at night to their own homes and return the next day to demonstrate the traditional lifestyle of the Tsonga to visitors. Demonstrations include extracting salt from the salt pans and extracting and smelting iron ore. Goats, cattle and chickens wander through the village while visitors watch the energetic and rhythmic movements of the traditional dancers.
Entertainment And Shopping
Aventura Eiland Resort: The Aventura Eiland (Island) Resort, a popular mineral spa is in the Hans Merensky Reserve. The spa provides accommodation for those visiting the reserve, as well as entertainment and diversions for those visiting the spa itself.
Fauna And Flora
Eucalyptus Trees: The towering eucalyptus trees in the Commonwealth Plantation were planted in 1914 and are now over 55m high.
George’s Valley: The valley is named after the road builder who was so amazed by the scenery that he created detours so that people could get the best views of the area.
Hans Merensky Nature Reserve: This reserve is situated some 70 km east of the Tzaneen Dam and 50 km west of the Kruger Park. Some of the outdoor activities on offer are mountain biking, horse riding, self-guided vehicle trails and guided 4×4 tours of the reserve. There are also four self-guided hiking trails to choose from.
Letaba River: The river forms the northern boundary of the reserve and is inhabited by hippos, crocodiles and water monitor lizards (Varanus niloticus). The dolerite Black Hills along the eastern border are home to the elusive leopard. Two of the more notable species of animals in the reserve are giraffe and sable antelope — both were specially bred and are protected in the reserve.
Letaba Valley: Enjoy the breathtakingly beautiful scenery of the tranquil Letaba Valley from the comfort of your vehicle — there are various scenic drives to choose from, including the Magoebaskloof Pass, where visitors will be awed at the beautiful and breathtaking views and scenery. Other scenic drives are along the Great Letaba River, passing the graceful and majestic Wolkberg.
Modjadji Cycad Reserve: Hiking, angling and picnicking are popular activities in reserve in the exquisitely beautiful Mooketsi Valley. There are still a vast number of cycads left on the “sacred mountain”, as the reserve is popularly known. This is the largest cycad forest in the world, consisting of thousands of trees of the same species, Encephalartos transvenosus, commonly known as the Modjadji cycad. It is the largest species of cycad in South Africa and can grow to heights of between five and eight metres. However, cycads up to 13 metres high are not unusual. The trees are living fossils, survivors of a primeval group that was the dominant type of vegetation 300 million years ago. The trunks of these trees are rich in starch and were used for food by indigenous people. The trees are now protected by law.
Ndzalama Wildlife Reserve: The 8 000 ha of bushveld covered by this reserve are home to lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and to one of the largest free-roaming herds of sable antelope in South Africa. The famous “sacred rock”, from which the reserve’s name is derived, is one of its treasures. The reserve also boasts an exact replica of a Shangaan tribal kraal.
Tzaneen Dam Nature Reserve: The reserve is popular amongst anglers and campers. The reserve is characterised by the lowveld veld type and by the variety of animals that roam the plains, including the rare sable antelope.
Valley of the Olifants Garden Route: Garden and plant lovers are in for a treat when they visit the gorgeous subtropical gardens and many nurseries on the route. Booking is essential, as most of the gardens are private property.
Wegraakbosch Farm: The farm demonstrates how cheese is made over an open cauldron of fire and the children can interact with the farm animals. Walks can be taken through the rain forest or one can just relax with some good-tasting cheese to complement a glass of wine.
Woodbush Drive: The road passes the entrance to the Debegeni Falls and meanders through the largest indigenous forest in the province. See if you can spot the tallest man-planted tree in the world, with a height of 82,5m.
History And Architecture
New Agatha Forest Station: This building used to be a staging post for the Zeederberg Coach Company and is now a luxurious hotel. The Coach Company ran a service between Polokwane (Pietersburg) and Leydsdorp during the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Siegfried Annecke Research Institute: The Institute was named after Dr Annecke, an important researcher who helped to combat malaria in the Lowveld and virtually eradicated the disease.
Tzaneen Museum: The museum exhibits some ethnological artefacts such as weapons, pottery, African drums and utensils of the local Tsonga and North Sotho people. Well-informed guides show visitors around and explain the Tsonga legends that are depicted in sculptures under the trees in the garden. The museum also possesses a very large number of pole carvings from the region, as well as some world-class woodcarvings and various artefacts from the mysterious minority tribe, the Lobedu, which was ruled by the Rain Queen.
Big Baobab: The tree, just outside Leydsdorp, affords visitors the opportunity to be truly “one with nature”. This giant tree, which was formed and twisted into shape over thousands of years, was used as a pub during the gold-rush years of the late nineteenth century and is now a popular tea-room. Some baobab trees grow so big that people can actually live in them. Amazingly, these trees continue to grow even when their inner pulp has been burnt away. Older trees develop into a “community” which provides shelter and food for a variety of creatures. Elephants eat the leaves and the bark, baboons eat the fruit, fruit bats pollinate the flowers and even people have utilised these trees for centuries. The bark and wood were used for making rope, mats and baskets, and even paper and cloth. The seeds can be ground and roasted to make a drink that tastes a little like coffee and even the pollen has been used to make glue.
Debegeni Falls: The Debegeni Falls are one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the province and visitors can take their picnic baskets with them to prolong the experience.
Duiwelskloof Falls: Permission to visit the Duiwelskloof Waterfall and Picnic Site can be obtained from Duiwelskloof Holiday Resort in Duiwelskloof.
Sapekoe Tea Estate: This tea plantation was established in 1963 and offers tours of the factory. Sample its well-known tea while enjoying a beautiful view of the gardens.