The legends of Rain Queens and adventurous boers make for a mystical mix that has left behind a trail of wonderous places to visit. I attempt to follow the 1837 ox-wagon trail of Louis Trichardt en route to Maputo, Mozambique.

I am inspired by the people who have explored this great country we call South Africa. From the first seafarer who
rounded the Cape, Bartolomeu Dias to those trekboers with their canvas-covered ox wagons who left the Cape in hope of finding land for themselves. I stand amazed at the vast country they discovered. Places that are still shrouded in mystery, intrigue and ancient plants.

I decided to venture across the provincial borders to the province of Limpopo. My plan was to find the trail of pioneers and boer traders. It was while speaking to a friend and resident in the Tzaneen area that my interest was piqued in the rule of the Rain Queen at Balobedu. From the book of E Jensen Krige titled The realm of a Rain Queen, it is clear that the westerners were as enthralled by the mysterious queen as her subjects.

The last Rain Queen was inaugurated in 2003 at the of age 25. According to reports in local newspapers, Makobo Constance Modjadji became the sixth Rain Queen. She was the youngest yet and the first to be educated and serve as Rain Queen. She died in 2005, and rumour had it that her niece, Masalanabo Modjadji was to be crowned at the age of 11.

At the Modjadji Cycad Reserve the small “museum” or information centre, seemed bare and looted, the basic history of her kingdom laid to waste, the information plates last updated in 1982. As we walk into the cycad forest, I can only imagine that many travellers and explorers must have gazed with wonder at the ancient trees. The forest, with these giants towering to impressive heights over the trail, dates as far back as the time of the dinosaurs.

From a distance they could be mistaken for palm trees but on closer inspection you see the magnificent cycads,  several crowns of which tower at least 10m into the sky. Others with multiple squat stems branch off and curl to form a new head or crown. The newly hatched leaves are silky soft but once unfurled and extended the leaves are hard, spiky and waxy, providing a natural deterrent to intruders and unwanted guests alike. The living cycad fossils have survived storms and political change. It is said the seeds from the female plant were ground to a fine flour and used for baking. It was later discovered that this custom caused illness similar to Alzheimer’s and was stopped.

I stand there considering what Louis Trichardt must have thought as he probably passed through the valley. He left the Cape in 1836 and made his way north to explore. His party of 58 Voortrekkers included his wife and sons. The journey from the Soutpansberg area to modern-day Maputo would take seven months to complete. The trekkers spent two and a half months finding a route down the Drakensberg escarpment by which time their stock was
depleted by tsetse flies, and many of the men and women died of malaria. According to Trichardt’s diary, only 27 of his party arrived in Delagoa Bay in 1838.

His route is not well documented and entries from his diary and the book on his wife’s writings shed very little light on the actual route along which they must have travelled to Delagoa Bay. I am guided by a very vague basic map I
found on the Internet and thus make my way in a south-south-easterly direction. From Balobedu Cycad Forest I cruise along a tar road through Modjadji and Magoebaskloof and head to a place named The Downs. This route is clearly marked on a 1917 edition of roadmaps by the former Transvaal Automobile Association as a dotted line.
According to the map legend, the route is listed as “doubtful”.

On today’s maps and GPSes the road is an unpaved invitation to adventure that leads from Trichardstdal to the Lekgalameetse Precinct Wildlife Resort. At the entrance I am issued a permit and informed of the sites to be seen along the road. To my surprise the road in the reserve is tarred but it soon ends in a two-track trail that is slightly rutted. I am distracted by a dazzle of zebras and elands grazing on the grassland, and take a tumble as I look away
from the road. Fortunate to have nothing broken and no injuries, I pick up the bike and continue.

The reserve which straddles the Strydpoort and Drakensberg, features rolling grass planes and sheer cliffs. Due to the little rainfall the roads are dry and very dusty. The hard-baked red earth has been pounded to a fine powder in places by heavier 4×4 vehicles and some deceptively sandy curves make for tricky manoeuvring. I soon find the
dirt changing to teeth-jarring rocky descents and narrow tracks, with stomach-churning chasms at the side of the road.

By the time I arrive at the outgoing gate where two rangers look at me in amazement, I am hot and thirsty. I must have been a sight. Dusty and sweating and with shaking knees I manage to get off my bike to take a break in the
shade of a nearby tree. The ranger tells me that there is only a small section of bad road that I have to look out for, but for the next 10km I am shaken, rattled and jostled by the rocky road. Sharp turns and switchbacks on stones and wash-aways aren’t made any easier on the downhills and the steep ascents have me gripping the handlebars with force.

The yawning drop on the side of the road offers wide views of a deep valley. The indigenous bush provides shade, but the dappled shadows make it difficult to spot the odd sharp stones. Again I am thankful for the wonderful invention of suspension and wonder what it must have been like to come down a mountainside in an ox wagon with little to a no-braking system and only a very basic suspension. I am relieved when I arrive at the new bridge crossing over the Olifants River near GaMafefe Village. My route from here follows the banks of the river and passes through several rural villages towards Ga Malepe and ultimately to Penge.

At Matlawane the river is a flat flood plain with islands dotted with resting cattle and the vibrant chatter of children enjoying an early spring swim. I do the same and have to cope with wet clothes on my way home. But it is between Alverton and Maahlashi that I chance upon another mystical find.

The Transvaal candelabra trees (Euphorbia cooperi) stand tall in the relentless heat. Their trunks are like plated armour against the elements, and they can grow to 10m high. I later discover that this plant is not as innocent as it looks. The white sticky sap is poisonous to man and animal. When it comes into contact with skin, it causes blisters and even the fumes from burning the plant can cause breathing complications. In some of the nearby villages it is planted as a natural fence with the sharp spines causing burning irritations when touched.

A few careful photos later I am en route to Kaspersnek, with a quick snack stop at Johnny’s Pub in Pilgrim’s Rest and then home before dark.


Get in touch
Lekgalameetse Precinct Wildlife
Resort on 015-290-7341
Modjadji Cycad Reserve on 015-307-3582