Mountains of fun for baobab buffs, vultureheads and hikers in Soutpansberg getaway
The Soutpansberg is South Africa’s northernmost mountain range and the scenic centrepiece of Limpopo’s Vhembe District. It’s a gorgeous region with a great sense of escape and a distinctly African twist.
About 35km out of Louis Trichardt, Leshiba Mountain Retreats is a remarkable eco-lodge offering wildlife, adventure, romance and delicious magical realism. Most mornings here begin under a cloud of mist that burns off as the day goes by, revealing amazing velvety peaks and distant hills.
There’s a choice of accommodation, either full board or self-catered. The Venda Art Lodge offers a series of suites, with a main lodge area with a chill lounge, a kitchen and a pool looking on to the mountains. It’s set in indigenous gardens with mythological creatures and features – maidens, lovers, stylised benches, pots and lions – originally created by acclaimed Venda artist Noria Mabasa. The lodge is guarded by a sculpture of Sam the chief and his bull, which appear very real in the moonlight. Many guests have said goodnight to them after a glass of wine or two! Hamasha Bush Camp is perfect for an exclusive getaway deep in the mountains; Luvhondo Bush Camp sleeps 16 and is a self-catering spot for workshops and retreats; and the original Farm House is undergoing a beautiful renovation, and will offer luxury accommodation for 24 people.
Take a guided game drive to see the resident giraffes, zebras, antelope and wildebeest as well as astonishing birds and trees. Do the guided archaeological trail, a signature Leshiba experience. There are seven rock art sites hidden in the hills where there are San paintings and Khoe Khoe hand and foot paintings, and three sites where there is evidence of habitation.
Take a baobab day drive
The Soutpansberg mountains rise in the arid west near the bushveld town of Alldays and head east for about 120km in a series of dramatic peaks and gorges towards subtropical Thohoyandou. One of the best ways to get up close to the mountains is to pack a picnic and take a circular day drive that starts and ends in Louis Trichardt.
The mountains reveal their full drama almost as soon as you head out of town on the R522 towards Vivo. The single-lane road winds beneath the foothills of tha vhani ya muno, the mountain of salt, which takes its name from the natural salt pan to the northwest of the range. From Vivo take the R523 back towards Louis Trichardt – a soulful stretch of road that is studded with baobabs and leads past the ancient salt pan. The Soutpansberg is famed for its thousands of baobab trees, the source of much folklore and a tourism icon of Limpopo province. Adansonia digitata, as the baobab is scientifically named, has one of the longest lifespans of all African trees and most of the baobabs along this road are about 400 years old.
Head for the hills
The Old Salt Trail is a brand-new hiking trail pioneered by conservationists in the Soutpansberg and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), who have also worked hard to get the area declared a biosphere. Launching in June 2022, it is a spectacular network of more than 100km of hiking trails across the western Soutpansberg, home to about 600 tree species.
The Old Salt Trail is tough, it’s challenging, it’s wild. It leads you into the heart of the mountains with amazing scenery and stops at special rock art sites.
The western loop is a slackpacker’s delight (you carry only your walking provisions and overnight at Leshiba’s Luvhondo Bush Camp). It takes you to the highest point of the Soutpansberg, Mount Lajuma (1,747m). The eastern loop is for the traditional hiker who wants nights under the stars and the freedom to walk alone.
Visit the vultures
The Blouberg is an inselberg, or granite koppie, that is the centre of a 9,000ha reserve and is popular among mountain climbers, hikers and vultureheads. Blouberg Nature Reserve is vulture central, famed for its large population of endangered Cape vultures.
The vulture restaurant is visited by the Cape vulture, as well as lappet-faced, hooded, white-headed and white-backed vultures, and the rare Rüppell’s vulture. There is self-catering accommodation in charming and rustic bush camps, or you can pitch your own tents in the campsite. Visit www.bloubergreserve.co.za.
Nearby: Ribola Art Route
Dubbed the art beat of Limpopo province, the Ribola Art Route is an association of local Xitsonga and VhaVenda artists, potters, weavers, sculptors and crafters in villages stretching out from Elim.
Mbhokota village is the hub of the Ribola Art Route, with the Thshivuyeni, Mukhondeni and Mashau villages tucked into the valley below the iconic Ribola Peak. It’s home to renowned artists such as the late Jackson Hlungwani, John Baloyi and Phineas Mativandlela as well as Noria Mabasa, Thomas Kubayi, David Murathi and Johannes Maswanganyi.
Local guides will take you out to meet the artists and crafters, and you will see them working and creating in their homes and studios. Many took a serious hammering under lockdown, with no access to markets or sales, and one of the ways in which they have recovered is by making their work available online.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.