Set free in South Africa: My safari in Limpopo

This is Limpopo, a region as far north a traveller can go before crossing the confluence of the Limpopo River, hugging the borders of Zimbabwe and Botswana.

My first impressions of South Africa are different to the images I’d conjured up in my mind, but this is not Capetown nor Durban. In geographical terms Limpopo is to South Africa what Leitrim is to Ireland – laced with rural delights and earthy indigenous people eager to show me the road less travelled.

Next morning I’m taken by local guide Alfred to the town of Elim where locals go about their business at market stalls piled high with avocados, tomatoes, root vegetables and spicy piri-piri sauces. Some meagre chickens stare out at me from their metal cage. As we are in ‘Leitrim’, there’s an absence of generic stores, (apart from KFC which is hugely popular all over Africa) even in the local shopping centre which surprisingly offers free wi-fi to passers-by.

I politely ask one of the local ladies if I can take her photograph while her hair is being threaded, “Where you from?” Eunace asks me. When I tell her she seems utterly delighted. “You take me back to Ireland in your picture.”

I’m greeted with equal warmth by the local dressmaker who plays some Tsonga music and shows me how to move properly with the heavy traditional Shibelani skirts – made from 18m of fabric. The warmth and beauty of the locals is intoxicating as they their wares.

Cape Town seen from the air

I try the local delicacy Mopane worms, caterpillar of the Emperor Moth, and Limpopo‘s favourite snack, but find it similar in texture and flavour to a straw mattress. The Marula beer, served by the lovely Melina at the stall she s with her father, is equally an acquired taste.

The landscape of Limpopo is filled with colour as I travel next day en route to Mapungubwe National Park, and our driver, South African Ranger Werner, traverses the Tropic of Capricorn to get there.

Donkeys and cows take over the road along the way but it’s a novelty more than a nuisance. “This is not India,” Werner cries. “You are not sacred here.” Ahead, the landscape changes with unique sandstone formations dotted with termite mounds appearing along the edge of the road.

“There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne – bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive,” Karen Blixen’s words from her 1937 novel Out of Africa are as relevant today as they were then. A safari transports the reluctant explorer in any soul.

I check in to one of the thatched huts at Leowke Rest Camp in Mapungubwe Park and enjoy the prospect of the outdoor shower.

Every safari offers something different; here the natural rock formations, painted blush and pink in the sunlight, are hypnotic. Our guide Tinyiko has a gentle way of explaining the stories hidden in the landscape and takes his guests down to the river’s edge as the sun disappears behind the silhouettes of Botswana and Zimbabwe. On the way we pass Mapungubwe Hill which was a busy fortress during the Iron Age, and where archaeologists uncovered an 800-year-old golden rhino. Springboks, elephants, zebras and warthogs go about their business as we drive through the park.


Michelle and the jeep at the confluence of Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa

Meerkats and Nile crocodile are two creatures not frequently associated with Limpopo but they thrive here. The big cats avoid us on this occasion but it is best to have no expectations on safari. Then suddenly, as night sets in, a one-horned impala jumps in front of our vehicle. Tinyiko informs me that this is very good luck – these creatures are locally referred to as unicorn.

That night, after dinner, I take some time out on the porch where the stars are so numerous it’s difficult to see the dark black velvet of the sky, and I understand more what Blixen was writing about.

I’m reluctant to leave Limpopo but after a one-hour flight from Polokwane to Johannesburg Airport I’m ready to be educated about the country’s more recent history in Gauteng State. Johannesburg is believed to have been named after the city’s founder who discovered gold in 1886, and its legacy ensured that it would become the financial capital based on the wealth accumulated from mining.

The most important must-do in Johannesburg is the Apartheid Museum. Walking through its ‘blank’ entrance takes me right back to 1970. It is printed on my ticket that I’m white/blank and the other entrance has non-blank emblazoned across it. I’m reminded that apartheid still exists in the world.

A visit to Selma in Alabama or a stroll through the Bogside in Derry informs the most earnest traveller that this has happened before and indeed is still happening in parts of the world such as Palestine. Injustice is clearly seen in retrospect while walking through the corridors of a well-furnished museum.

My guide is Charles Ncube who was only six years old when his mother was taken from her home in the middle of the night and put in a big yellow Casspir (a police vehicle, similar to a tank, which was used to control the population of Soweto during apartheid). She was tortured and then murdered for being a member of the community trying to evoke change and introduce civil rights.

In the years of reconciliation that followed Nelson Mandela‘s release from prison, Charles and his family met the police officers who killed her. With a heavy heart I listen to his great acceptance and desire for peace in the new South Africa, based on The Seven Pillars of Democracy set out by Mandela.

It is more than just the black and white divide that strikes a chord with me but the sense of overcoming the past and unity for the future.

It’s been 100 years since Nelson Mandela was born in July 1918, and deeper within the museum is an exclusive homage to his extraordinary life. This son of a Xhosa chief is remembered by interactive installations such as a copy of his cell on Robben Island.

This is a place that I could spend an entire day and still not see everything.

“Honesty, the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself.” Some of the many words of wisdom from Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela posted around the museum. Interestingly, Mandela was signed into office in 1994 by the same judge who had incarcerated him in 1964. I’m deeply moved by this place.

Next, I meet Jo Buitendach, of Past Experiences Tours, who guides me through the trendy suburb of Maboneng.

She charges SAR 1,100 (about €65) for a private tour with three people. We explore Fox Street and its environs to see the best street art in Johannesburg. Tapz is the most famous local graffiti artist and Jo explains his process and his colourful works that are gaining popularity.

Places such as this are rich in racial and cultural diversity that sit comfortably together and are full of hope for the new South Africa. With trendy boutique hotels or big brand chains there is great choice for the tourist. But Charles is keen for me to see his home town, Soweto, a 30-minute drive from the city centre.

Situated in the south west of the city and covering some 200sq km, Soweto is home to about a quarter of Johannesburg‘s population of five million people. I take a tour with Lebo’s and its informative manager Luigile takes me around the township of Orlando in a tuk tuk.

It’s here that Mandela returned after his release from prison, and we stop off at the small red-bricked house where he lived – it’s as humble as the man himself.

I’m reminded of the many tribes I’ve encountered since my arrival in South Africa. Only the remains of exploitation trickle through the street from the Tufloos and homemade sanitation, but I have no feelings of fear, in fact tourists are made to feel extremely welcome and as in many poverty-stricken citadels, the children rush out with smiling faces and open hands. They are happy to give a high-five and love having their photos taken.

This is the ‘wrong side’ of Johannesburg, where the miners lived in appalling conditions, and the asbestos-roofed cottages are still in use for families of up to 10 people. It is here that I feel completely comfortable with the South African people – these economic migrants, some who have travelled from Limpopo and other rural states, in search of the streets paved with gold.

Take two: top attractions

Friendly retreat

In Limpopo I stayed at Madi A Thavha Mountain Lodge, where proprietors Aard and Marcella have carefully carved a family-friendly retreat.

Market delight

Neighbourgoods Market in  Braamfontein offers an eclectic mix of stalls that sell biltong, spicy sauces and sweet desserts as well as arts and crafts.

Getting there

Michelle was a guest of the South African Tourism Authority (

Hayes and Jarvis offers a nine-night, four-star luxury South Africa safari from Dublin.

The trip includes three nights in Johannesburg, three nights in the Kruger National Park and three nights in Cape Town.

It costs from €3,322pp, incl taxes and all transfers.

More details from Hayes Jarvis at 18 Duke Street, Dublin 2

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