Valley of the Olifants | 215km

Coach House Hotel and Spa. TzaneenCoach House Hotel and Spa. Tzaneen

TZANEEN

Situated in a fertile valley at the head of Magoebaskloof, Tzaneen is the second-largest town in the Northern Province. The town was established in 1919 and its name is variously said to mean 'gathering place' (derived from the word tsaneng), or tsana, meaning 'basket of hills'. Tzaneen is the centre of one of the country's largest subtropical fruit-producing areas, and is known for its pawpaws, mangos, avocados and tea, while citrus fruit, litchis, winter vegetables and timber are other important crops. It is also a popular tourist centre and a good base for numerous scenic drives through the region. The Tzaneen Museum recounts the history and culture of the region's diverse cultural groups.

Among the many interesting exhibits are the royal drums of the Rain Queen, Modjadji, the largest collection of pole carvings in the country, pottery dating back 1 600 years and various ethnological artefacts. The Tzaneen Dam, on the town's outskirts, is a popular site for activities South African holidays featuring angling, water-sport and bird watching opportunities.

Since the first tea plantations were established on the slopes of the Magoesbaskloof Valley in 1963, Tzaneen has become an important tea-producing area and large tracts are now covered by verdant green tea plantations. At the Sapekoe tea estate - the name is a combination of 'Sa' for South Africa and 'pekoe', the Chinese name for tea - visitors can take a guided tour of the estate and factory. The estate is located on the slopes of Magoebaskloof to the west of Tzaneen.

NEW AGATHA

In 1888, rumours of a rich gold strike in the Murchison range caused a rush of diggers to the newly discovered goldfields. Situated in the Lowveld, however, malaria and blackwater and yellow fever took a heavy toll. When the Mining Commissioner, Christian Joubert, visited the area in 1890, the miners appealed to him for a site on which to build a hospital. His choice was a spot along the Thabina River, and the hospital was named after his wife, Agatha.

It was a poor choice, though, as malaria was rife here too, and the facility was later moved to higher ground in the vicinity of the homestead of Chief Mmamathola. Named New Agatha, the government building served as both administrative centre and hospital. In August 1894, the little outpost came under attack several times from the Mmamathola.

COACH HO--

The history of New Agatha is closely linked to the days when the stage coaches operated by the Zeederburg Brothers and George Heys travelled between Pretoria and Leydsdorp, a journey which took four-and-a-half days. The weekly Zeederburg service was started in 1890, with overnight stops at Nylstroom, Agatha, Pietersburg and Haenertsburg, where Heinrich Schulte Altenroxel built a wayside inn in 1892.

Known as the Kwagga Service, the Zeederburgs tried to overcome the tsetse fly problem by using tame zebras instead of mules, but the idea was abandoned as the zebras were too unpredictable. The hotel was moved to New Agatha a few years later and became a regular coaching stop until 1916, when the service was discontinued following the completion of the railway line between Tzaneen and Pietersburg.

LEYDSDORP

Although traces of gold were first discovered in the foothills of the Murchison range in 1870, mining was initially not economical here. It was not until the discovery of richer deposits by Auguste Robért in 1888 that miners swarmed to the area. Two years later, a government administrative centre was established on Robért's camp and named after Dr W Leyds, the State Secretary of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) at the time.

Leydsdorp soon developed into a busy mining settlement with a police station, hospital, post office, hotel, bars, trading stores and an odd assortment of miners' cottages. The town even had its own newspaper, the Leydsdorp Leader. Construction of a railway line linking what became known as the Selati Gold Fields to Komatipoort, where it joined the Eastern Line, began in 1892, but numerous problems delayed completion of the line until 1912.

Leydsdorp's prosperity was short-lived, though; many miners died of fever and the village suffered from a shortage of water. So, when gold was discovered in the Sutherland range, many miners drifted further north and Leydsdorp gradually became a ghost town. In 1950, the last residents left and the village was abandoned until its restoration as a tourist attraction in the late 1990s.

MURCHISON RANGE

With a length of about 140 km, the Murchison range runs from approximately 25 km south of Tzaneen westwards, to just north of Phalaborwa. It was named in 1870 after British geologist, Sir Roderick Murchison, by Edward Button and James Sutherland. Together with Tom McLachlan, Button and Sutherland made the first discovery of gold north of the Vaal River when they found traces of it in the Spekboom River in 1869. The range is rich in minerals, and zinc, copper, emeralds and antimony are mined in the area. The mining town of Gravelotte lies in the eastern foothills of the range.

GIANT BAOBAB

In various parts of southern Africa, the hollow trunk of a baobab tree has served as a toilet, a prison and a pub - as in the case of this enormous baobab. Established by an enterprising businessman during the gold rush era, the baobab became a popular rendezvous for miners to quench their thirst and swap stories. The hollow trunk can hold 12 people standing, while many other miners used to gather around outside the gnarled trunk.

EILAND RESORT

...was developed around the hot spring that surfaces in the bushveld just south of the Letaba River. Despite its name, the resort is not located on an island, but takes its name from the farm on which it and the adjoining Hans Merensky Nature Reserve are situated. The farm, in turn, was named after an island in the Letaba River.

The hot thermal pool, swimming pools and mineral hydro spa are undoubtedly the resort's main drawcards, but there are many other activities and recreational facilities. Horse-riding excursions are available, guided game drives are conducted in the Hans Merensky Nature Reserve and motor-boating, water-skiing, sailing and canoeing can be pursued nearby. A variety of accommodation for guests on South African holidays is available.

HANS MERENSKY NATURE RESERVE

Bounded by the Letaba River to the north, the Hans Merensky Nature Reserve covers 5 300 ha of mainly mopane and red bushwillow woodland and scrub. The reserve was named in honour of the pioneering South African geologist, Hans Merensky, who donated a water hole to the reserve. The son of missionary Alexander Merensky, the younger Merensky's prospecting skills were instrumental in the opening of several mines.

Among these were Phalaborwa, the Rustenburg platinum mines and the Alexander Bay diamond fields.The reserve has been stocked with a variety of game, but on account of the dense vegetation the animals can be difficult to spot. Hippo and crocodile inhabit the Letaba River, waterbuck are never far from the river, while giraffe, kudu, waterbuck, impala, bushbuck and Burchell's zebra are among the species to be seen in the woodlands.

The visitor centre has displays on various aspects of the reserve, and there is an interpretive trail, two nature walks and an easy but delightful three-day overnight trail for visitors who prefer to explore the reserve on foot. The reserve's checklist of about 280 birds include species such as tambourine dove, green pigeon, several kingfishers, whitethroated robin and orangebreasted bush shrike. For many birders on South African holidays, however, a particular highlight is ticking Arnot's chat, a species which in South Africa is restricted to mopane woodland.

TSONGA KRAAL OPEN-AIR M--UM

Located in the Hans Merensky Nature Reserve, the museum is a reconstruction of a traditional Tsonga homestead 2. Built from natural materials, the kraal is centred around an inner court and consists of several types of shelter: sleeping huts, a sacrificial hut, cooking huts and tree, granary, cattle byre and chicken pen. Various building styles are depicted, including some no longer in use, and artisans can be seen at work on pottery, woodwork and wickerwork.

As the museum is situated at the site of an ancient salt works, visitors can see how salt is produced, and demonstrations of iron forging are also given. In keeping with the concept of a 'living' museum, the Tsonga inhabitants 3 wear traditional clothing and perform music on traditional instruments.

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