Land of giants
The recent storms in South Africa’s northern Limpopo Province may have been big but they measure up against the region’s landscapes and wildlife. From its trees to its birds, mammals and the river itself, the valley of the great Limpopo River is a land of giants!
The vast landscapes of this place near where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet are dominated by baobabs. These colossal trees support a whole community of wildlife – elephants eat the bark, bats feed on the nectar of the flowers (and in turn pollinate them) and barn owls roost and nest in holes in their large boughs. Many particularly large trees still bear the pegs that allowed humans to climb up and collect rain water collected in troughs in the boughs. In such a hot climate in a place where ground water will have been shared with wild animals, this would have been a vital source of fresh water…if you can reach it.
During the dry winter months, large herds of elephants move into the valley from dryer areas over the river in Botswana. The riverine forest comes alive with a mass of grey bodies shepherding their youngsters and hoovering-up vegetation and the remaining water.
Herds of eland, Africa’s largest antelope, also roam the plains of the valley. Like in much of their range, black rhino’s are here but they are hard to see. The larger and more common white rhino has become synonymous with the Limpopo valley since the discovery in 1932 of a little golden rhino at the World Heritage Site at Mapungubwe.
Even the birds here are big enough to make small children and dog owners feel wary. Black eagles rule by day, surveying the land for their quarry from a perch high up on a sandstone cliff or by soaring the thermals on huge wings. The floodplains are home to marauding secretarybirds, storks, ground hornbills and kori bustards, the heaviest flying bird in the world, while the night is owned by owls. The elusive and sought-after Pel’s fishing owl uses the large trees lining the river to roost in by day and hunt from by night. Also in the riverine bush, hunting silently on a two-metre wingspan in almost complete darkness, the giant (or Verreaux’s) eagle owl hawks for birds and small mammals.
But as rich in wildlife and archaeology as this valley is, it is a landscape under threat. If proposed coal mining in the area is allowed to go ahead, pollution is not only likely to threaten the local ecosystem but important sites further down the Limpopo River system in the Kruger National Park and Mozambique as well.
Plans for the mine at Vele, just six kilometres east of the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site, also threaten to derail proposals for a major transfrontier conservation area between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, a scheme committed to by the government. The Endangered Wildlife Trust and BirdLife South Africa are just two of the many organisations fighting the mining application. And while no-one can be certain what either the short-term or lasting affects of the mine will be on this overlooked and sacred corner of South Africa, with so much to experience in this land of giants, my advice is to go there and to go there now!