Bushwise Field Guides

The area known as the Lowveld is the lowland area, below 500 metres in altitude along South Africa’s’ northern border with Botswana and Zimbabwe with the famed Kruger National Park comprising half of it. It also comprises sections of Limpopo Province that extend down to the east of the Drakensberg escarpment, through Mpumalanga and then into eastern Swaziland, joining the border of Mozambique to the East and the Drakensberg to the West.

Although rather poor in water resources, mighty rivers rise along the face of the escarpment which flow swiftly to the Indian ocean via Mozambique, rivers such as the Sabie and the Crocodile rivers which merge with the Komati in the South, and in the North, the Oliphant’s and letaba rivers which join up with the Limpopo river, giving rise to thriving towns – Tzaneen, Phalaborwa, Sabie, Graskop, White river, Komatipoort and Barberton to name but a few. Today a rich agricultural environment of tropical fruits as well as huge timber forests, yet still an area of sweeping grasslands, indigenous forests, rolling mountains and natural beauty.

It is this stretch of country that is rich with legends, myths, rumour and romance. It tells of men and women of all races, mostly Boer, Briton and Hollander, toiling against almost overwhelming odds; some for the sheer love of adventure, others for financial gain, some with the desire to share the word of Christianity, yet all collectively contributing to the rich tapestry of the Lowveld. Picture tribal warfare, trekking Boers, gold reefs ready for the taking, big game hunters, tricksters, con-artists, thieves, disease and sickness such as malaria, blackwater fever and nagana and I believe the reader will have a fair idea of the hardships endured by these early pioneers!

To start off, cultural and historical sites occur throughout the region including Early, Middle and late stone age as well as iron age sites. Radio carbon dating on pottery shards found in the Wolkberg mountains near Tzaneen, were found to be like pottery found in East Africa, which in its ‘own is quite amazing, however, seed traces in these shards provides evidence that South Africa is one of the sites of oldest food cultivation. In addition to this, yet it remains a mystery, is that the Lowveld is the original home of the entire Worlds ‘cotton!

These newcomers brought with them the knowledge of iron smelting, often also working gold, if only for ornamental purposes, practising simple agriculture, but also tending sheep, goats and cattle. Roughly 1400AD, a second massive wave of Bantu-speaking people migrated from the North, bringing with them huge populations and huge herds with more sophisticated iron-smelting technology. This however heralded the beginning of multiple tribal clashes (The Mfecane, which was a widespread period of chaos and warfare amongst the indigenous ethnic communities in Southern Africa from around 1815 to 1840) which dominated the scene in the Lowveld for many years to come.

This in turn saw the rise and fall of several Kingdoms, notably that of the Pedi Kingdom under the rule of Thulare, who lived a peaceful existence until being crushed by the Matabele under the reign of Mzilikazi. The then scattered remnants of the Pedi Kingdom often resorted to cattle raiding and skirmishes with both Boers and British troops ultimately contributing to the instability of the Lowveld area, and despite being heroic warriors, lost the battle against progress.

1835 saw the start of the Great Trek, which saw more than 10,000 Boers leaving the Cape Colony with their families to move north. Plagued by problems such as exorbitant taxes, conflict with the Xhosa on the Eastern frontiers, and a hearty dislike for the English colonial authorities, made the decision to seek fertile lands and to establish their own country for want of a word, more important. Under the leadership of Andries Potgieter, Andries Pretorius and Louis Trichardt these early pioneers made their way northwards, with the Lowveld being among the areas where they settled, thus many towns began to emerge, all with a history and urban legends developing.

One such town being the town Hoedspruit – (the hat River) given by the then owner of the farm in that area, Mr. Dawid Johannes Joubert who lost his hat in severe flooding after a major cloudburst on the Mariepskop mountains in 1844. This flooding caused the Zandspruit river to come down in a flash flood ending up in him losing his hat which back in the day was a very important item of clothing for protection from the elements and since shops stocking hats were not very abundant, the incident was of major concern and hence the naming of the town Hoedspruit!

The Mariepskop mountain complex is also known as the Moholoholo mountain: meaning “The Great One” derived from the traditional leader Chief Maripe who with his tribe found sanctuary from raiding Swazi warriors, and thus named by his people at this time. Their defence was to roll boulders down from the flat summit to ward off their enemies, and although the Swazis attacked this mountain fortress many times, did so without success!


Several local place names commemorate this tumultuous period. The nearby Three Rondavel peaks are named for three of the chief’s wives, Magabolle, Mogoladikwe and Maseroto, while the adjacent Mapjaneng promontory, once again recalls the chief. Swadeni (also Swadini or Swatini), meaning “the place of the Swazi”, seems to be the only place name to commemorate the Swazis, who attacked but never occupied the region for an extended period.


Until next blog,

Trevor Myburgh