Thabazimbi, the jewel of the Limpopo province in South Africa is a town in trouble. Not only has the iron ore mine closed its doors, but the trade in rare wildlife, arguably Thabazimbi’s second largest industry, has also taken a knock as the bubble burst and prices crashed.
Simon, our friendly waiter at a local restaurant describes how more and more for-sale signs are popping up around town because work is getting scarcer by the day as hundreds of jobs were lost at the mine. And that is sad as this town is spectacularly beautiful, a green gem surrounded by high-rising mountains. As we head out on the Warmbad Weg towards Marakele just 20kms north-east from town we marvel at the number of game lodges on both sides of the road. Even if the iron ore is running out and Swarwitpense fetch a lower price, tourism is the best future hope for the town.
We are headed towards Griffons Bush Camp, a small lodge consisting of four chalets situated within the Marakele National Park. The last stretch of the road goes up Bakkerspass, a rough dirt road that can be negotiated slowly with a normal two-by-four. The biggest danger here is that you’ll become so fascinated with the beautiful mountains around you that you run the danger of going over the side.
We are in a “green camp” – no electricity – the power in our chalet is basically just a single LED light. The toilet, shower and wash basin sit outside the stone hut, fenced in by reeds to provide some privacy. Virtually no cellphone reception and no Internet. This is awesome. Abraham Lincoln once said: “For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.” And this is what I like – free from the daily overdose of tech, electricity and the media.
Rob Waldron, Thelma and Aloise are our gracious hosts. On the hike through his property, Rob tells us some interesting facts about the reserve and the Cape Griffons the lodge has been named after.
Rob is one of the farmers that refused to sell his farm to SAN Parks. Eventually, they offered to fence in his and some neighboring farms that they were also denied. This turned out to be a win-win scenario as it increased the park area to about 260 square miles (bigger than Pilanesberg), and allowed the fenced-in farmers to provide lodge accommodation to tourists within the park.
The towering Waterberg mountains border the farm and act as a natural barrier that virtually separates Rob’s farm from the rest of the park. A steep neck does allow some animals to circulate from the park to Rob’s section, like the lions that wander in every now and again. Rob tells me this on the hike we take from the camp, and it makes me glance nervously at the surrounding shrubbery. Fortunately, Rob is armed and has done the walk many times, and he and all of his guests have managed to remain in one piece after many years of hikes.
Another migrant from across the mountain was the lethal veld fire in September 2017. It almost took down the bush camp, but a concerted effort from the farmers managed to stop the fire mere meters from the camp perimeter. Where many trees around us burned down, Rob points out a tree with bark burned black, but green leaves sprouting out. It is the Protea Tree which I did not expect to occur north of the Western Cape. Apparently, the Protea Tree actually needs the fire to make its seeds germinate.
The next day we head out to the park. Unfortunately, no direct road connects Rob’s farm to the park, but we don’t mind going down the lovely but rough Bakkers pass to get the main gate just around the corner.
The landscape has recovered dramatically after the end-of-winter veld fire that ravaged most of the park recently. In the short span of 60 days and with the help of good rains, green grass has pushed up from the recent blackened earth.
Marakele is a marriage of two areas, with the western section accommodating the herbivore game, and a larger eastern area where the Big 5 cohabitate. These two areas are connected by a short tunnel passing underneath the Rooiberg road.
In contrast to the western section which is mostly flat, the eastern area gradually rises in steps and gradually transforms into the foothills of the spectacular Waterberg mountains. The hilly countryside to the east of the park reminds one somewhat of the area surrounding the Olifants camp in the Kruger Park.
We were particularly impressed with the Tlopi tented camp, an unfenced camp, sitting on the shore of the Tlopi Dam. Here you can sit on your wooden deck overlooking the water and enjoy the Big 5 coming to drink at dusk.
Heading further east on the Lenong drive. you will pass some of the most breathtaking valleys and mountain passes you will ever witness in a lifetime. The drive up the pass can be somewhat of a jaw-clenching experience – the road up the pass is only one lane wide.
If you encounter oncoming traffic it is best to back up to a spot where two vehicles can pass one another. Eventually, you’ll reach the lookout on the mountain and be rewarded by spectacular scenery stretched out to the horizon.
Marakele is the perfect getaway for tourists tired of the long queues and overcrowding of the Kruger Park. Admittedly you won’t have the frequency of animal sightings you’ll get in the Kruger, but on the plus side, the majestic Waterberg magic makes this park a lot more photogenic than most other parks in South Africa.