22 February 2012
My camp lies about 60km from the Limpopo river on the left bank of one of its tributaries, the Shingwedzi. In arid southern Africa the 1750km long Limpopo is an important watercourse. Its arc marks South Africa’s northern borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe, and it sustains all who live along its banks, from the parched Kalahari in the west to the floodplains on the east coast.
I have stood by the clear pool amongst the reeds where its tail, the Marico, springs from the earth on the highveld above Groot Marico in South Africa, and I have watched the long brown serpent spew its waters into the Indian ocean near XaiXai in Mozambique. Today I’m sitting under a giant old nyala berry tree on a high bank above the river’s full belly in Botswana. To get here, I crossed from South Africa at Pontdrift border post where you can drive through the sandy river bed in the dry season, but get hauled over the water in a cable car when the river is high.
Compared to the lush green and rampant growth of the area around my camp in Mozambique, things are hard here in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. A concentrated overpopulation of elephant has stripped the bush of most of its trees, leaving only mangled mopane, and the rains have not arrived to send grass sprouting from the bare, dusty soil. But despite these harsh conditions there is an abundance of game and wild things here, most of them easy to spot in the sparse cover. The elephants that were so numerous last time I was here seem to have moved elsewhere for the moment, though. It’s a relief, but the damage is done. Such devastation takes decades, if not centuries, to heal.
Most spectacular is the backdrop to all this: The rugged, convoluted rock of the valley. Doloryte dykes and great bodies of sandstone, shaped by aeons of floods and weathering, create a landscape that is almost fantastical in form. In places elephant have worn paths in the rock sheets over the centuries, elsewhere there are caves where animals find shelter, cliffs to which wild fig trees cling with sinuous fingers, and sculpted piles of jumbled, weathered rock that could well be home to fairies, dinosaurs or Indiana Jones.
In the wooded Lebombo hills near my camp in Mozambique, rhyolite rocks and boulders are a curse in the roads. Here, some 300km away, the sandstone of the more open Limpopo valley enchants me. In fact, I get the feeling that even if there wasn’t a single tree left here, this would still be a spectacularly beautiful place. Such is the magic of nature: It casts its spell in so many guises!