At Protea Hotel Ranch Resort, guests can get up close to adolescent lions and even pet them. // © 2012 Skye Mayring
Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge puts the work of local artists on display throughout its property. // © 2012 Skye Mayring
An artist on the Ribolla Arts Route shows off her work. // © 2012 Skye Mayring
Visitors can enjoy a beer inside the trunk of the Sunland Baobab, a tree that is said to me more than 4,000 years old. // © 2012 Skye Mayring
Debengeni Waterfalls is an ideal picnic spot. // © 2012 Skye Mayring
Okay, so you’ve been to Cape Town. And you’ve already seen the Big Five on safari. But have you walked alongside a pack of white lions? Or drank a Castle beer inside of the largest baobab tree on earth? Travelers looking for off-the-beaten-path experiences in South Africa will find them in Limpopo, the country’s northernmost province, which borders Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
From the moment I arrived in Limpopo, there was no doubt that I was in for an unconventional journey (the family of baboons lining the airstrip of Eastgate Airport made sure of this). Driving around the province, Limpopo’s roads proved to be both serene and scenic, dotted with banana and mango tree groves and patches of vibrant, red soil. Unlike the cluttered thoroughfares back home, hardly any advertisements or unnecessary signs distracted from the region’s natural beauty — just the standard “hippo-crossing” sign, another reminder that I was many miles away from home.
Walking With Lions
If you really want to freak out your mother, let her know that you’ll be roaming South Africa’s wide-open grasslands with a pack of lions. Protea Hotel Ranch Resort, located near Polokwane, the capital of Limpopo, is home to more than 30 lions and offers guests the opportunity to interact with the creatures during a mile-long stroll. Still have reservations? Don’t get me wrong, walking alongside these incredible animals can be a frightening, yet exhilarating, experience. However, in the history of Protea’s tours, there has never been an accident. The lions, many of whom are a rare breed of white lion, are raised in captivity and, despite their formidable sizes, they range in age from about 6 to 10 months old. The lions who take part in this tour have never hunted before (lions typically realize their hunting instincts at age 3) and have only been fed dead meat as to not develop a taste for live flesh. And, with names like Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, it’s difficult to be scared of them for too long. During the walk, a number of lion trainers marched by my side, and regaled me with stories about their cuddly friends. Under the watchful eye of the trainers, I was also allowed to pet the animals and hold onto the end of their tails as they led me on an adventure I’ll never forget. www.theranch.co.za
Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge is a hidden gem located along the banks of the Albasini Dam, with the Luonde Mountains serving as a backdrop. This quaint boutique hotel is decked out with art and handicrafts created by local artisans, and each guestroom tells a tale of the region’s people, with thoughtful design elements such as clay basin pedestals made by the Mashamba/ Mukondeni pottery village, sisal mats woven by the Rivoni Society for the Blind and one-of-a-kind fabrics sewn by talented Madi artists. Beds are dressed in mosquito nets — and for good reason. There will be bugs. Caveat aside, Shiluvari is a place where guests can connect with nature in a more sophisticated environment. There are three nature trails to wander, with or without the company of the owner’s Jack Russell terrier, and an on-site birding expert can point out the many riverine and woodland species that reside in the area. www.shiluvari.com
Driving the Arts Route
Anyone who overnights at Shiluvari should make a point to explore the nearby Ribolla Arts Route, which covers the four primary artists’ villages of Thohoyandou, Elim, Makhado and Giyani. With a guide, I visited the homes and workshops of sculptors, jewelry designers, musicians and crafters who loved to discuss their work as well as share stories about their heritage. Take it from me, there is no better place to purchase one-of-a-kind gifts for friends and family back home than straight from the hands of one of these artists. The drive from one house to the next is a fascinating experience in itself and provides a slice of local life. From the backseat, I watched young ladies ever-so-casually balance hulking baskets of clothing on their heads, a group of neighborhood kids deftly kick around a soccer ball and two very resourceful locals barbecue chicken feet in a metal wheelbarrow. Shiluvari’s half-day guided tour of the Ribolla Arts Route costs approximately $75, while a full-day tour costs approximately $100.
An Odd Bar By Far
Located about a 25-minute drive from Tzaneen, in a town called Modjadjiskloof, is a very peculiar bar, one that exists in the belly of an African baobab tree. The Sunland Baobab is billed as the largest baobab on earth and is said to be more than 4,000 years old. About a dozen people can cram into the baobab’s trunk and enjoy a local beer in a frosty mug, but due to the limited space and relatively stale air, visitors won’t want to rub elbows for too long. After getting a feel for the place, patrons can spill out onto the picnic area and chat around the fire pit. Kids will be drawn to the property’s gigantic log swing, playground area and to Sunland Farm’s herd of cows and calves. Perhaps the best way to enjoy the Sunland Baobab is to rent it out for a private party, which can be arranged through owners Doug and Heather Van Heerden. www.bigbaobab.co.za
Relaxing at the Falls
Debengeni Waterfalls, which lies at the foot of the Magoebaskloof Mountains, is an idyllic place to picnic, hike or simply spend a lazy afternoon. Notably, the Pedi people have used this waterfall for ceremonial rituals and to communicate with their ancestors and loved ones, according to our guide.
In the summer, visitors can swim in Debengeni’s lower pools or try out its natural rock slides, although they will do so at their own risks as there is no lifeguard on duty. In any event, I highly recommend taking a short hike around the falls to soak in the endemic flora and fauna. The nearby Woodbush Forest is the largest indigenous forest in Limpopo, boasting more than 40 species of trees. Birders, in particular, should be on the lookout for rare sightings, including the Narina Trogon, bushshrike and the Chorister Robin, a species only found in South Africa and Swaziland.