It stretches from Bela-Bela in the South, just across the Botswana border in the North West, right up to the edge of the escarpment in the East. It encloses the entire Waterberg, and fringes the Soutpansberg and the Strydpoortberge. Of course, I’m talking about that area of South Africa commonly known as the Bushveld.
Biologically speaking, the Bushveld belongs in the savannah biome – wooded grasslands that account for 45% of our country. The key word is WOODED. There are no classical forests, but there are acres of acacia and thickets of thorns. Bushveld trees don’t soar or tower, they spread and straggle. Their relatively thin trunks are encased with coarse bark and many present thorny deterrents to browsers and wood-gatherers. But often, in a shady kloof or along a riverbank, you will find a handsome wild fig, stately boekenhout or pretty bushwillow.
On north-facing slopes you find the strange trees, the Naboom and the Kiepersol (in English, the Euphorbia and the Cabbage Tree.) Under and around these trees you will find mainly sourveld grass, not much liked by cattle and sheep, but fine for wild animals. And there lies one of the Bushveld secrets: grazing suitable not for the farm, but for the game reserve.
Over 2300 million ears ago, what we call South Africa was part of a massive super continent called Gondwanaland, and the land we live on was largely submerged under a layer of water. These were rough times, centuries of erosion forming gravels and soils that in turn were metamorphosed and compressed into the hard and abrasive quartzite and chert that we associate with modern Magaliesberg.
In the middle of the Bushveld, largely below other rocks, lies an enormous geological entity, an igneous complex they call it. Spewed out and over the archaic lake by enormous volcanoes about 2000 million years ago, this body of rock contains the world’s largest deposits of platinum and chrome and significant amounts of other metals to boot. After the rock had cooled and solidified and started wearing down, Southern Africa experienced an ice age, and glaciers wore down the surface, flattening it and leaving a layer of debris, called tillite.
Then, a mere 280 to 63 million years ago, as the super continent of Gondwanaland began to break up, this flat country was transformed into an steaming swampland inhabited by dinosaurs and other creatures. Layers of silt and humus built up and formed the sandstone layers we see today on koppies like Kranskop near Naboomspruit. Some of the swamp-growth settled in the area today called the Northern Waterberg, as it was heated and compressed by successive deposits of sand and stone, formed a coalfield that contains 50% of South Africa’s remaining coal reserves. The swamps became arid plains, and then deserts. Eventually the layers of deposits we call the Karoo Sequence lay up to 10 km thick over the land, interspersed and sometimes capped by a layer of volcanic lava that spewed out of fissures in the earth created by the pressures of the break up of Gondwanaland.
These various rocks and layers broke down over the eons, at different rates and in different ways. The dolerite is seen on ridges and outcrops, remains of the volcanic dykes and sills. Together with the older diabase rock, as the shale and sandstone weathered more rapidly around them, they formed the numerous boulders that dot the entire Bushveld. Where there were fault lines kloofs and valleys were formed by the water taking the path of least resistance. The fissures from the most recent volcanic activities left us with the mineral springs at Bela-Bela and Die Oog.
The various soil types were not particularly rich, and allied with the rocky landscape this meant the Bushveld was never going to be really suitable for crop cultivation. The earth entered a period of relative dryness over this area, and this meant that the strong pioneer plants took hold: kraal and common spike-thorn, sweet thorn, flame thorn and the most common of all, the hook-thorn, acacia caffra. Below the thorn trees are the hardy grasses, pioneer annuals like three-awn and carrot-seed grass, good grazing like foxtail buffalo grass, and soil-stabilizers like silky bushman grass.
In this rugged, semi-arid bush, the animals of Africa settled, evolved adapted. The big five mammals, most of the antelopes, almost 700 bird species, the crocodile, water monitor and many snakes. The insects, ever part of the balanced eco-system, included many ticks, dung beetles, the tsetse fly, but significantly not the anopheles mosquito and therefore no malaria.
All this had led to the area devoting a large portion of its natural resources to game reserves, private parks, nature reserves, conservancies and other protected areas: in fact, depending on the boundary definitions, up to 30% of the Bushveld can be regarded as “protected.”
Despite the relative dryness, the area includes a Wetland of international significance and renown – Nylsvlei. This floodplain eco-system of a mere 4000 hectares contains more bird species than the entire United Kingdom. There are breeding programs for the shy Tsessebe and majestic Roan Antelope.
The Waterberg itself – a series of sandstone buttresses, cut by a number of passes to the inner, Palala Plateau, has been declared a Biosphere Reserve. This is a unique category of protected area combining both conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. Both the conservation and the economy are driven by local community involvement, with assistance from government agencies. The Waterberg Biosphere contains five areas core to its existence: the Marekele National Park, the Mokolo Dam Nature Reserve, Wonderkop Reserve including Glen Alpine Dam, Moepel Farms and the Masebe Nature Reserve. The first three are well established and well known. The latter two, however, are the ones that are more interesting as they hold the key to the way conservation may need to go in Africa in the future.
The Moepel Farms is a state owned area largely inaccessible to vehicles due to its unique topography, lying close to the edge of the escarpment. Farming never took off because of the abundance of predators, the sourveld grasses and the presence of poison leaf. The very poor local community did not have funds to develop a park or reserve, but new initiatives and programmes will transform the relatively small area into a viable reserve. Adjoining it is the much larger Masebe Nature Reserve, where the locals have taken the initiative. Not only does it already include tourism-related education enterprises, but has one of the best rhino monitoring programmes in the country.
There are many private game parks as well, including 5-star luxury lodges and some of the top game viewing in the world: from the Marakele Concessions, to the Matekes, Mapoelas and Shibulas. Game farms catering for hunters are all over as well – and though they bring in valuable foreign currency, I cringe at some of their practices.
The hikers are well looked after – there are twelve overnight trails and still counting in the belt between Bela-Bela and Mokopane (Warmbaths to Potgietersrus.) In the middle of the Waterberg are Tshkudu, Rhenosterpoort, Kransberg and Mateke among others.
This little piece only touches on the diverse attractions of the Bushveld. It is my own take on the area, but I hope I have illustrated some of what is to be found out there. Before the place becomes over-commercialised or overused, get there, do some walking and absorb some of its unique attraction.
Deon van Rensburg