The Springbokvlakte in Limpopo are 130km long and 80km wide, and include towns such as Bela-Bela, Modimolle, Mookgophong and Mokopane. On our visit we discovered a unique chicken breed, awesome pies, hot water springs and much more. We also met one of Bela-Bela’s best-known Toyota fans. This is the story of the Springbokvlakte – where the tales are sometimes tall, and often hot!
The fountain of… everything?
The hot water springs in Bela-Bela, formerly Warmbaths, are one of Springbokvlakte’s main attractions. People flock there to experience the geothermally heated groundwater. At peak holiday times, Forever Resort Bela-Bela is like a manic beehive, populated by grand city folk who make the short trek from Gauteng and plattelanders for whom the springs are their own Indian Ocean.
But are the springs more than just a hot swimming pool? Are there special healing powers in the soothing water? It sure seems like it. AB de Villliers, SA’s premier batsman, hails from Bela-Bela. His dad is a local physician, and everyone knows him.
There are many creative characters here, too. For instance, two newspaper columnists draw their inspiration from the Springbokvlakte and its people.
Keina Swart is co-owner of The Post, an award-winning local community newspaper, and a popular columnist for Die Burger newspaper. She has lived in the area for 20 years and says that although she had reservations at first, she will probably never move away. The vlakte grow on you.
“There are so many interesting people here,” says Keina. “But I also quickly learned that you can’t just write what you want, even if it is the truth. This is a small, close community. We see each other almost every day – in the bank, at the filling station, or at the school. So whatever you do, you still have to look people in the eye.”
Of course, small communities thrive on gossip. And one character who has probably been the topic of more stories than most is pioneering chicken farmer Mike Bosch. The charming farmer, who would be a huge hit on the dating television show, Boer soek ’n Vrou, says he isn’t bothered about marriage.
He’s got enough on his plate with the booming chicken business. You can bet your bottom dollar that there are several single ladies in Bela-Bela who would strongly disagree with the widower’s sentiments.
Mike, who owns a few properties in the area, started breeding a “new” chicken species 15 years ago and since then more than two million Boschveld chickens have flown their Bela-Bela coop and resettled elsewhere in Africa.
What makes this chicken so popular, says Mike, is that it is extremely hardy. “The Boschveld chicken lives off the land so it will survive, if necessary, on what Mother Nature provides,” he says. “It is also resilient to disease and can withstand varying climatic conditions. We will have to expand our operation. We can’t deliver enough chickens at the moment.”
Mike is a big Toyota fan one who calls a German bakkie with a two-litre engine all kinds of names. He has owned no less than three Fortuners over the years. All of them were white 3.0D4-D 4x4s, and he bought them new and sold them with about 200 000km on the clock.
“My kids are bigger now, so I don’t need the versatility of the Fortuner anymore. The kids have loads of sporting gear, so the double cab Hilux’s big bak works better for me nowadays,” he says.
He used the Fortuners for many overland trips. On one of them a friend’s Nissan double cab bakkie, towing a large boat, got stuck in Mozambique’s sand. “So I towed the bakkie and the boat out of the sand with the Fortuner,” says Mike.
“In all of about 600 000km in the three Fortuners we never had one mechanical problem.”
Now meet Rhonel Pienaar, who runs the Angel Scrap antique shop. It’s much more than an antique shop, though. Since the town’s public library closed down, Bela Bela’s residents have had no ready access to reading material. So Rhonel opened a “book house”. Books are donated and are available to everyone. You can borrow books at will, and return them on trust.
“We don’t keep records or charge any money. That would just complicate matters no end,” says Rhonel, who also runs a small restaurant on the premises.
The shop features a wide range of antiques, Rhonel’s paintings and art work and a collection of LPs from yonks ago.
“More and more people are bringing in their old things,” she says. “You can see they have sentimental value, but money is scarce, and people need food on the table. I buy everything that people bring in. It probably doesn’t make good business sense, but I’m not here to make millions, anyway.”
A doef-doef here and a doef-doef there…
The two-horse town of Settlers, about 25km from Bela-Bela, has seen better days. The hotel, said to have been a controversial hotspot where farmers were often collected by red-faced wives in the early hours of the morning, is no longer operational. Actually, it’s falling to pieces.
Nowadays the dorpie’s only watering hole is at the Springbokflats Bowling Club. The bar overlooks the greens, which seem as out of place in Settlers as an elephant would be in the centre of Johannesburg. Every blue moon, they say, the locals do get together for a game of bowls, heavily supported by service from the bar. Now that would be something to see a bunch of farmer types in their khakis running after their bowls, a glass of brandy in hand!
Next to the bowling club is the museum the tractor and engine museum. Robbie Weir was one of the founders of the Veteran Tractor and Engine Club in 2002, and the museum followed in 2010. Every Thursday the club members get together at a central venue and tinker with their old engines. Today the museum premises are bursting at the seams with ancient machinery, the oldest engine dating back to 1917.
There is a story about Robbie, too. A man with a fuel tanker was sent to his farm to deliver diesel. The delivery man had strict instructions not to leave the premises before he received payment. So the man arrived, but Robbie was away on business. The delivery man waited and waited, but there was no sign of Robbie.
So he left the diesel at the farm, and returned to his office empty handed. His manager threw a fit but the delivery man, who’d had plenty of time to examine the old tractors and engines on Robbie’s farm, had his answer: “Don’t worry chief,” he said. “That man will pay. He has so much money he even paints his old scrap!”
Robbie and the other old boys spend many hours at the museum, passionate about their hobby. A 1932 Farmall F30 is fired to life, and you can see the glint of pride in the eyes of Robbie and his colleague, Gerrit Fourie.
“We call it ‘first smoke’ when a long-dead engine is fired up for the first time. In Europe the builders celebrate with a glass of champagne… here we gooi a bit of brandy and Coke,” says Robbie. And probably go for a game of bowls next door too, we suspect.
Petro Hansen is a columnist for Beeld newspaper, and lives on a farm next to the Settlers road. Her husband is the local veterinarian also farms with Sable antelope.
She has also lived here for two decades, and has a keen sense of the out of the ordinary. Like people who specialise in cooking the heads of sheep. And eating them.
The Sheep’s Head Guild is a unique institution. But Tannie Lisbeth Erasmus, the last of the guild’s recognised sheep head cookers, is feeling under the weather. We hear that the guild has, in any case, just about run dry in membership. It seems the younger generation of cooks in Springbokvlakte is not interested in Tannie Lisbeth’s recipes any more.
Beer and pizza… Springbokvlakte-style! Drive about 30km west of Bela-Bela, on the Thabazimbi road, and you’ll find L’Abri farm, road stall and eatery.
Owner Andries Saunders is adamant that it is not a restaurant, despite its reputation for serving the best pizzas in all of the Springbokvlakte.
“This is a farm, not a restaurant,” explains Andries while he pours one of his craft beers. “If you come here expecting a Spur or a fancy restaurant you will be disappointed. Here we kuier like we do with our friends. It’s all informal, like a braai at your buddy’s house.”
Suzette, Andries’s wife, serves up a pizza. They call it an Upington. The topping includes cheese, grapes and biltong, and it is very good.
The recipe for the base hails from an old Italian lady who once lived nearby, and the combination is outstanding. No wonder regular customers are said to drive all the way from Gauteng for a pizza.
The craft beer at L’Abri is gaining a reputation as well. The range includes L’Abri Lager, Cockpit Brewery, Bunny Beer, Beertjie Beer, Old Horny and Park Hop. It’s a delightful selection of tastes.
Also alongside the Thabazimbi road is Peet se Padstal. It has grown in recent times, and you could spend hours here, sifting through the arts, crafts and antiques.
A “Peet Special” is the offering of some interesting beverages, such as Jan-se-agteroor-moer- mampoer, dikbekpille and a special soap ring for men, with a strategic hole in the middle so that you can hang it up in the shower.
The road stall is renowned for its home-baked confectionaries, not to mention the best pie you’ll ever eat. The lamb pie and the fresh boerbrood are most memorable.
A rainbow of lekker! So the Springbokvlakte has seen better, more prosperous days. In Bela-Bela’s suburbs, the “For Sale” signs pegged into the beautiful lawns are outnumbered only by the pot holes in some of the streets.
Nevertheless, the Springbokvlakte region has much to offer the weekend visitor interesting people, fascinating places and special experiences are just an hour’s drive north of Pretoria. From the Springbokflats Bowling Club bar in Settlers to the pizza and beer of L’Abri not forgetting the hot springs in Bela-Bela there is a lot of good to right any wrongs. This is still one of the hottest places in Limpopo.