THE HEARTBEAT OF LIMPOPO

Bordered by Botswana and Zimbabwe, Limpopo province takes its name from the Limpopo River, which cuts through South Africa and Mozambique before flowing into the Indian Ocean.

The province has a strong African heartbeat and a rich mix of ancient cultures. Head north to discover the warmth of its people, the beauty of its wilderness and the power and romance of its proud pre-colonial history. Here are some of the best experiences you can enjoy in Limpopo.

Visit the ancient city of gold

Climb to the top of Mapungubwe Hill and feel the spirit of the ancients. From here you can see the impressive natural amphitheatre that was home to the Mapungubwe people who lived on the banks of the Limpopo River in the 12th century and traded gold with Arab traders from what is now Mozambique, as well as other kingdoms to the north and west.

Mapungubwe is a World Heritage Site and a national park, offering a variety of accommodation options and a museum that houses the famous 800-year-old Golden Rhino that was found here. Take heritage walks, game drives and a canopy tour that zips you above the treetops to hides and look-out points. And at sunset, head for the sites overlooking the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, where South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet. Visit sanparks.org/parks/mapungubwe

Go wild in the Waterberg

Big skies, big game and low, rugged mountains. Over the past decade or so, the Waterberg has come to rival the legendary Lowveld, with the added plus of being malaria-free. Head for the one of the area’s iconic bush retreats – the Ant Collection, which has proud traditions of conservation and adventure. Choose Ant’s Nest, a double-storey private villa or Ant’s Hill, which sits above a spectacular gorge with incredible views.

Enjoy Champagne sundowners and private, starlit dinners, be serenaded by an African choir or take a helicopter flip. You can even get married at the seriously romantic, tiny bush church that was designed by Sir Herbert Baker in 1914. Visit waterberg.net

Take a soul safari

Pack as little as possible and head for Garonga Safari Camp in the Makalali Conservancy near Tzaneen. Garonga has a North African feel, with a series of luxury tents overlooking a dry riverbed deep in the bush. Expect gentle bush romance: game drives with bubbly, a candle-lit bush bath (highly recommended), massages in the Aroma Boma and the opportunity for the wild and brave to spend a night sleeping under the stars on the sexy Sleep Out Deck, which is a giant bed and lounge on a generous wooden platform in the treetops, with beautiful bush views. Go at full moon to max the experience. Visit garonga.com

Visit the realm of the Rain Queen

From the village of Haenertsburg, the 40km-long Magoebaskloof Pass descends 600m in a series of dizzying bends to the subtropical town of Tzaneen. Every bend offers a different surprise: waterfalls, historic blue gum trees, lookout points, nurseries and roadside stalls. At the bottom of this pass, head left on the R36 to Modjadji, realm of the legendary Rain Queen. Queen Modjadji fled here from Zimbabwe in the 17th century, bringing her powerful rain magic with her. Settling among the ancient cycads, she started her own matriarchal tribe and became a powerful figurehead who is said to have struck fear in the heart of the mighty King Shaka. Visit golimpopo.com

Roam in the Valley of the Olifants

This self-drive route takes you through an amazing combination of mountains and bushveld. It’s named after the Olifants River, which cuts it way through steep mountains and flows through the Kruger National Park to join the Limpopo River. From Tzaneen, it’s a pleasant drive through the bush to the towns of Phalaborwa and Hoedspruit and back again. Phalaborwa is the closest town to the Kruger – it’s a five-minute drive from the centre of town to the Phalaborwa Gate. Residents are used to the “Hippo Crossing” signs and the odd warthog trundling down the main street. Hoedspruit is a friendly Lowveld town, a stepping stone to bushveld adventures, known for its surrounding lodges and strong conservation ethos. Visit www.golimpopo.com

Explore the Kruger

Two thirds of the Kruger National Park falls into Limpopo province and these central and northern regions offer a wealth of game, fascinating archaeology and fabulous camps. Just inside the Phalaborwa Gate is the Masorini Museum, a Late Iron Age archaeological site showcasing smelting furnaces, homesteads and historic implements. Another highlight is the Elephant Museum at Letaba Camp, which details the history of the park’s famous tuskers. Letaba is a pretty camp overlooking the river, where elephant sightings are practically guaranteed. In the north of the park near Pafuri, is Thulamela National Heritage Site – a significant archaeological site – with hillsides filled with stone ruins that tell the story of the ancient culture that settled here in the 15th century. Visit sanparks.org

Have sundowners beside the Limpopo River

Head for Return Africa’s Pafuri Camp in the northern Kruger, a luxury tented camp in the heart of the wilderness. It offers some serious soul experiences, like sundowners on the banks of the Limpopo River at Crooks Corner, where the Levuvhu River meets the Limpopo, as well as the lookout from Lanner Gorge, where you can gaze at the river and bushveld below. Think surreal baobabs, forests of fever trees and plenty of elephants. Return Africa’s camp is in the Pafuri Triangle, the meeting place of two rivers and three countries: South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

The Makuleke people once lived here, but were forcibly removed in the ’60s. Their original land was restored to them following a successful land claim in 1996, and the community chose to manage it as an eco-tourism concession in a partnership with Return Africa. Visit returnafrica.com

Go romancing in Magoebaskloof

The luscious Magoebaskloof area has become the Wedding Capital of Limpopo, with over 50 weddings held there last year. Romancers and revellers are taking their pick from a series of charming country venues and honeymoon hideaways against the backdrop of dramatic mountains and forests. One of the most charming wedding and party venues is Mina’s, a gorgeous old farmhouse nestled in the forest alongside the Broederstroom River, with its waterfalls and dams. Zwakala Brewery, Limpopo’s first organic brewery is right next door.

One of the most romantic honeymoon cottages in the area is Meadow Cottage at Sequoia Garden Retreat – a little stone charmer in the woods with a private dam. Nearby, Cheerio Garden is famous for its spring spectacle of blooming azaleas and cherry blossoms. You can also visit Wegraakbosch Organic Farm to learn how cheese is made. Visit www.mountaingetaways.co.za

Stay in the village

It might sound odd, but you may never want to leave the remarkable bathroom at the Venda Village at Leshiba Wilderness, high up in the Soutpansberg mountains, South Africa’s northernmost range. The shower is a sculpted Venda man with a muscular body and a skimpy loin cloth and the bath is a giant egg adorned by a curvaceous maiden. One side of the bathroom is open to reveal the astonishing mountain views, softened by morning cloud. The Venda Village was initially designed by acclaimed artist Noria Mabasa, who was born in the area. The mythological African decor features clay pots and sculptures of lions, bare-breasted maidens, giant feet and moulded benches. The main lodge area has a pool and wild mountain views, while the private villas have their own splash pools and patios. Go for Champagne game drives, walk among the giraffe and zebras, take long hikes into the surrounding mountains and gorges, or just soak luxuriously in the delicious bathroom. Visit www.leshiba.co.za

Enjoy a wine safari

Hoedspruit has blossomed in the past few years to become the trendy new heart of the Limpopo Lowveld – or the Slowveld as it’s known around here. Delis, restaurants, wine shops and galleries have sprung up, all of which combine perfectly with the hot, relaxing surroundings and the blue views of the northern Drakensberg mountains beyond.

The Safari Wine Club is a fabulous spot just out of town, which distributes the best of Cape wines to the area. They offer wine tastings and bush outings. Visit safariwineclub.co.za

Get twitching

One of South Africa’s premier birding destinations is the Nylsvley Conservancy, which forms part of South Africa’s largest flood plain. Stretching over 70km, Nylsvley is a world-renowned Ramsar site. In the rainy summer months, the grasslands are transformed into a warm, tea-coloured lake that stretches for kilometres. These wetlands and flood plains attract the largest number of birds in the southern hemisphere –like an international bird airport.

Next, head north to Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge, another of Limpopo’s great birding destinations. It’s has been voted one of Africa’s finest, most sustainable and responsible lodges. Stay in a historic farmhouse, a treetop cabin in the forests or a charming cottage offering dramatic views of the Kudu River valley. Take a guided hike of the indigenous forests with expert birder David Letsoalo. Visit krm.co.za

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