Sights and sounds VAALWATER, LIMPOPO
The only thing vaal about Vaalwater is its name. It’s a town of natural splendour, of larger than life characters such as Klein Fyn Faantjie, Ben Tabak and Klits Botha, and some of the best game farms in the country. It’s the gateway to Botswana, a tourism hotspot and part of the Waterberg biosphere reserve, with rock formations shaped over hundreds of millions of years
Text: Leilani Basson
Photography: Jannie Herbst
Vaalwater is a one-street town situated on the Mokolo River in the Limpopo Province, not far from Modimole and Mookgopong. Admittedly not one of the region’s prettiest towns, it is surrounded by the magnificence of the Waterberg wilderness, so named by the early trekkers for its bounteous supply of clear water.
The Waterberg has a history of sparse human settlement, which has remained so since the earliest of times. Despite its proximity to Makapan’s Cave in Makapan’s valley, a hominid-rich excavation site, few humans ever settled in the Vaalwater area. Although people passed through, or fled there to seek refuge, they never stayed. The mountainous areas of the Waterberg were some of the last places to be settled by whites in SA.
Even today, it takes a special kind of person to live in Vaalwater. They are an odd bunch indeed – some young, some veterans, and some imports from the cities and beyond. Yet they make a living, get on well together, and love their town.
Steve Fourie is one of the town’s older residents, and a real joker. There’s a naval quality about him, in his white shirt, white safari shorts and white Crocs. Although he has never sailed a ship, he worked on the railways for donkey’s years – well, 54 years to be exact. This is also how he ended up in Vaalwater.
“Daardie jare was hierdie arm-manswereld,” he says with a wink. “There were poor people, and very poor people.”
Steve worked on all the railway routes and speaks with passion about the days when trains were the only way for cream cans and any other form of goods to enter or leave the town.
“The railway line was started in 1904, but was halted during the First World War. It was eventually completed in 1920.”
Jan Blignaut, a resident for the past 42 years, also knows a fair bit about Vaalwater. “The early Boers cleared the area of shrubs, bushes and trees for farming purposes,” says Jan, his twaksak neatly rolled up on the table in front of him.
He takes a deep drag from his pipe and continues. “Crops and cattle were all they knew. Leopards became their number one enemy, since their cattle and sheep were fair game for these predators.
“Leopard hunting – along with the hunting of all other animals that posed a threat to their livelihood — were eliminated.
“Many years later, though, farmers began to realise that conventional farming would never work here and that it was more costly than profitable to work the land. This led to the conversion of traditional farms into game farms. Animals that once roamed the area have been reintroduced, and the bushveld has been rehabilitated.”
Bosveld Jacobs was the first private hunter in the Waterberg. Known to locals as the “biggest living game hunter ever”, Bosveld started a new industry in the region that turned trophy hunting into a commercially viable business. Many farmers abandoned the crop and cattle tradition and invested in game farming instead.
Today, Bosveld Jacobs Safaris is still one of the most recognised professional hunting and safari companies in the region. Bosveld is also writing a book, “The leopards of the Waterberg”.
Richard Wadley, owner of Mokabi Lodge, is an avid researcher and wildlife conservationist who knows more than most about Vaalwater and its surroundings. While serving on various archaeology and history societies, Richard and his wife, Prof Lyn Wadley, regularly conduct outings to Vaalwater to share its diverse history and heritage. Their next Vaalwater weekend is from 25-27 May.
“Welgevonden Reserve was one of the largest privately owned reserves in SA, covering 33000ha,” Richard explains. “Pienkies du Plessis, owner of the original Welgevonden farm, had the idea of acquiring neighbouring farms and establishing a nature conservancy that would return the land to its original state of wilderness. With the idea proving feasible, Rand Merchant Bank provided development support for the project in 1993 and Pienkies’ dream became a reality.
“Welgevonden became the first bushveld development in which each owner had a freehold title to 500ha of pristine bush, traversing rights in perpetuity over the entire 33 000ha and custody of the wildlife.”
Today, Vaalwater is a top hunting destination for both local and international hunters, creating spin-offs for quite a few industries.
Craig Puddick, owner of Bull’s Eye Taxidermy, runs a thriving business. The sign on the gate reads: “Please don’t feed the animals, they are already stuffed.”
Craig is a young man. Somehow one imagined a much older person in this line of business, but with youth comes new technology and a different approach.
“It started as a school holiday hobby and pocket money project,” says Craig, while keeping an eye on a blue wildebeest skin being pulled over a mould. “Animal art,” he calls it.
Craig’s career in taxidermy started as soon as he finished school. He has spent many years studying the different species of animals in their natural habitat and has had access to making hundreds of masks and moulds. “With the advantage of an in-house tannery, we are able to control all our processes and offer a six-month completion time.”
Craig’s creations are astonishingly life-like. The eyes are hauntingly real. And while taxidermy literally means “the arrangement of skin”, what Craig does is more than that – it is indeed animal art.
A good place to compare the older techniques of animal stuffing to what Craig does today is the Vaalwater Hotel. Watching over the bar is a stuffed … , a baboon and serval.
Owner, Faan Taljaard bought the hotel with these three rather stoic characters in it. Faan moved to Vaalwater from Pretoria five years ago and is never going back.
He is the only resident with three nicknames — Vinnige Faantjie, Kaalvoet Faan, or Klein Fyn Faantjie. The “vinnig” comes from his bike, a Suzuki Boulevard; the “kaalvoet” is simply because Faan never wears shoes (not even on his bike) and the “Klein Fyn”, well, uhm, that is just a contradiction in jest.
Chantale Wiegand is Faan’s bar lady, cum hotel manager. She’s only been in Vaalwater for a few months, but already feels quite at home.
“Here you quickly get to know people and everyone gets to know about you even quicker,” Chantale laughs. She knows her clientele. Artist Andre Nell is one of them.
Andre is also an animal artist but prefers the more conventional paintbrush and canvas. He has been painting full time for the past 12 years and has never needed to advertise. In today’s day and age, it is hard to imagine doing business without a website and Facebook. Yet Andre has no time for uncommissioned work. Everything he does is to order.
“Many years ago the penny dropped for me,” says Andre, a comical guy with a naughty sparkle in the eye. “People don’t like the way they look. So I moved away from painting people to doing animals. If I have no choice I will paint babies, but grown people? No thank you.”
Andre does regular work for cricketer Fanie de Villiers and has a huge American following. “We moved here when my wife and I ran a game lodge. We then decided it was time to do our own thing.
“Louise is a freelance chef and I paint. We could have done it from anywhere in SA, but we’ve grown attached to Vaalwater, knew the people and just decided to stay. Now it will take a bomb to get us away from here.”
Wylma Swanepoel won’t leave Vaalwater without a fight, either. Her business, Die Koekblik, has been going for 17 years and is one of the town’s mainstays. Her mother, Annatjie Horn, helps her run it.
It is decorated with cake tins from all over the world. “There must be more than 600 tins now,” Wylma says. “We started with only four. People donate their tins when they relocate or down scale, so that other people can share in their memories.
“Often people who travel through Vaalwater come to the shop to look at the tins on display, and enjoy my mom’s koeksisters. We have regular customers who send our koeksisters to family and friends in England whenever they get the opportunity.”
Luckily Hester de Beer has never been faced with sending koeksisters by mail. As the Vaalwater Post Office’s branch manager since 1994, Hester has encountered many strange parcels. “The worst are the live wasps that are mailed to farmers from somewhere in Pretoria. These wasps feed on maggots and keep flies under control on farms. In order to keep the wasps alive, they are packaged with a chunk of dung. One can smell it a mile away.”
Hester has good smell days too. “When the lodges order their coffee beans from Sabie, the entire post office is filled with that happy aroma.”
Hester declares that she will die in Vaalwater. “Living here is really affordable. Renting a three-bedroomed house for R1500 a month — now that’s what I call good living!”
Young and old residents are proud of their Vaalwater heritage. The Jan Botha Museum is a private museum that belongs to the Botha family.
“It was built in memory of my father, Jan Botha, who died of cancer,” says Klits Botha. “He was a huge collector of vintage tractors. It all started with his own tractors. Currently we have 54 on display, with 10 vintage vehicles.
“It is a well organised and documented museum for indigenous South African history. Many local people lend items to us for display, so that we can share them with visitors. Over the last weekend in August, the Jan Botha Museum hosts a vintage day, when people from all over come to show off their antiques and vintage goods. This year we are aiming for our biggest vintage festival to date.”
Another highlight on the Vaalwater calendar is the Waterberg Game Festival that takes in the last Saturday of September. It stretches over three days and is hosted at Oljaco Kraals by one of the biggest game dealers in the vicinity. The festival is an enormous game auction, but offers something for everyone, including top local performers.
The festival echoes the credo of most Vaalwater residents – the desire to introduce visitors to the region; support the upliftment of the community, offer healthy recreation and unite the people of the Waterberg.
Did you know?
The Waterberg Biosphere Reserve was formally launched in 2001 as one of about 400 Unesco-registered biosphere reserves around the world. It is the only “savanna” reserve of this type in southern Africa.
The primary objective of biosphere reserves is to create and promote sustainable economic development in an area of particular or unique environmental interest, in ways that do not jeopardise this environment for future generations.
The concept necessitates the formation of a constructive partnership between conservationists, developers, community groups, commerce and government with the common goal of linking development in the reserve with an obligation to conserve the distinctive aspects of its natural environment.
The Waterberg Biosphere Reserve enjoys the unqualified support of the South African government at national, provincial and municipal levels and is integrated into the tourism development strategy of Limpopo Province.
Bosveld Jacobs Safaris: 083 231 8284; [email protected]
Bull’s Eye Taxidermy: 082 775 8489; [email protected]
Lyn and Richard Wadley: 083 609 1425; [email protected]
Die Koekblik: 083 651 2896
Mikes Meat Market: 014 755 3746; [email protected]
Andre Nell: 082 725 2206; [email protected]