It’s an early am on a sunny Monday morning in Limpopo, South Africa. There are four of us packed into a Toyota Hilux moving merrily through Witvlag, a town fronted by a community patrol sign that reminds us farmers and workers alike are currently insecure with their standing in this relationship. The climate is humid. Houses cascade up the green rolling hills of the Soutpansberg in the Venda region, each one lined with fertile harvests of maize. The area is lush, pushing tones of green directly from a Dulux archive. We’re heading towards Lake Fundudzi and the sacred forests that line its perimeter.
Tshimangadzo “Nelson” Maphaha has been with us for 4 days now. Small in stature, with a characteristic silhouette and an infectious smile, Nelson is a cultural guide who has found connection between the people and camps of the region, absorbing information, history and experience of the areas, which he now finds himself fit to relay. A father of three (two older and one in primary school), he is a proud Venda, growing up not too far from Cyril Ramaphosa, the now celebrated president of the African National Congress. He recalls the jubilation that echoed around the surrounding hills on the day that Cyril was elected (as president of the ANC), “I could hear them celebrating from my house,” he said.
Nelson is wise. As we travelled through the African Ivory Route over the past few days, meeting people I’d never have had the privilege to meet otherwise, his humility and desire to elevate advocacy of this isolated world is infectious. At every stop, he encourages creative problem solving to each of the business owners we meet, challenging every vendor, artist or entrepreneur to Think Different. “You should try and approach brand x during their end of year function…”, is something he’d say, pushing the boundaries of their financial sight. They listen intently, the respect returned. He believes in them.
We veer off the road towards the Sacred Lake: Lake Fundudzi, where the Vhatavhatsindi clan’s ancestors are inextricably linked. The pine trees that make up the setting are being felled for paper. Chainsaws zing their chorus through the forest as we head to the viewpoint over which regions of chieftainship and folklore still live strong.
The viewpoint itself is peace incarnate. Silence broken only by buzzard calls, cowbells or the distant laughter of a child somewhere deep in the valley. The ritual begins. Bending over, looking upside-down through your legs centring the lake in your newly adopted vista. Nelson asks the elders for permission to look at the Lake and for him to share his knowledge with us mlungus.
Ghosts and mythical creatures still exist to this day, Nelson shares, and the Lake is living proof. Tales of serpents and sorcery, half-human zombies and virgin sacrifices have been a part of its history, and remain part of its present. These tales relay like Greek mythology and the silence now makes itself an eerie participant.
Our journey with Nelson takes us between sacred places, through ancient historical forests, down deep into the rich culture that has filled the Soutpansberg for millennia. We are introduced to traditional Venda rituals that signify the coming of age of females, eat yellow-pap (maize meal) on the side of a grass and banana tree filled hill that gives us sight over the rolling beauty of the region and see raging waterfalls where Nelson used to play as a child.
The day flies by. Our host has enriched our lives with knowledge and experience that is otherwise left behind in these regions as inhabitants move back to crowded cities for work. It’s late and by now we’re halfway up a mountain by Mukumbani village, overlooking the emerald beard of tea that has grown out from the hillsides. We’re at a local shebeen enjoying our hard earned zamaleks (Black Label beer) and stillness that the greater Lake Fundudzi region brings.
The sun sinks pink into the tea as we make our way up to the camp that Nelson now calls home: Camp Fundudzi. Nestled at the peak of this mountain, I am treated to an introspection on modernity in this magical place, as owls and dogs make their presence known at the top of the world, happy in the knowledge that this day will always be mine. The wind moves peacefully through the trees, and I am comforted to know that I now have a friend in a place I could never have imagined I'd be, but so thankful that I am.
Thank you Nelson.