Adventure Articles

Louis Trichart, Thoyandou

a cultural adventure in a land of myths and legends

Article and photos by Lynette Oxley

On the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe (Beitbridge), just south of the Limpopo one can find the picturesque town of Louis Trichart in the mountainous area of the Soutpansberg. On a recent trip back from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe we visited this area as well as the Njelele valley (close to Toyandou town) in the neighbouring Venda. This geographical area is blessed with a rich historical background full of legends and myths and is one of a few remaining unspoilt areas of South Africa. Today, the history is still evident in the names of the two major towns in the area namely Louis Trichard that was named after a Voortrekker leader and Thoyandou after a historical chief of the VhaVenda nation.

On our arrival in Louis Trichard, we were welcomed by Marius Gilfillan from Carousel Lodge who accompanied us into the SAFCOR forestry area from where the famous Hanglip (previously called Hangklip) could be viewed. We visited the Hanglip Picnic site and Motane forest where all the trees are marked for the visitors information. Several hiking trails winds its way through this indigenous forest while Marius also runs several horse trails through this specific area. This whole area is very good for birdwatching and several interesting bird species can be spotted including the shy Narina Trogon (Apaloderma narina), the Purple Crested Lourie (Tauraco porphyreaolophus), the Knysna Lourie (Tauraco corythaix) and the Crested Guineafowl (Guttera pucherani). Although the Narina Trogan is a brightly coloured bird and is usually very difficult to spot because of its habit of sitting with its green back (disguised by the green surroundings) towards the observer. This bird has a combination of a crimson lower breast and belly and bright emerald green upper-breast and back. The Purple Crested Lourie differs from the Knysna lourie by having an obvious, very long and pointed crest and a slightly darker back. The Knysna lourie has an all-green head with a white eyering and white tips to the crest. It is also differs from the Livingstones and Shallow's Lourie which has different length and shaped crests. The Crested Guineafowl is a ground bird and is one of my favourite birds. It has a grey body, flecked with white, a marked blue and red head with characteristically black head plumes. Another distinguishing factor is its bright red eye.

After we left the beautiful Motana Forests, Marius took us to show us Mpephu's village. It was here that we started to experience the deep mysticism of this area which was carried forward into our next day's excursions with Johan Kloppers (Eagle Adventures). It is therefore important to discuss the historical background to the area before we can discuss Mpephu's village in more detail.

Legends, myths and religions play an important role in a society, it is a way of adapting human behaviour to the demands of an ecosystem or pressure of demography. It can also be used by the ruling class to maintain their class in terms of other people in the society. Myths are living social events, intelligible only in the context of real humans in real places involved in some or other social interaction. The VhaVenda nation has a rich history of myths and legends, some still influences their daily life even today. These myths and legends have developed with the VhaVenda nation, and have been adapted over the centuries with their changing social and physical environment.

Dabanyika was the first VhaVenda chief to have settled in this area, now known as the Njelele valley more than eight centuries ago. It seems that they have migrated from the region surrounding the big lakes of Central Africa making a home in what is now known as the Dzata 1 and Dzata 2 ruins. They obviously thought that they had found their "promised land" and Dzata literally means "a good place". The story goes that Dabanyika went of with his dog into a cave in the surrounding Soutpansberg where he was caught in a rock cave-in. His trustworthy dog was still outside the cave and apparently went to fetch his son and heir Toyandou at their village. When Toyandou reached where his father was trapped, he was still alive. It was impossible for Toyandou to rescue his father and they had a discussion through the rocks. Dabanyika made Toyandou promise that he would unify the different clans in the area and build a great nation. Toyandou did this and was one of the greatest vhaVenda leaders of all times. Toyandou literally means "head of the elephant" and this is an important indication in the Venda tradition of his strength as a leader. Elephants have always been used in African mythology as a symbol of strength, leadership and greatness. Even today this symbolism is continued where important people are greeted with "nda ndou" which literally can be translated as "good day elephant". It is further interesting to note that no future VhaVenda leader was ever called Thoyandou. The next chief in the VhaVenda nation was a Mpephu - a name still carried forward today.

The current Mpephu sacred village is situated in an area close to Hanglip and which Marius went to show us. We, as Westerners, or non-Venda people cannot enter this sacred village which are looked after by vhaVenda woman. This is the burial place of the vhaVenda chiefs and all the previous Mpephu's and this is where another very interesting myth comes into play. The vhaVenda's are historically known to re-bury their chiefs. Somewhere in history one of the vhaVenda chiefs swallowed a small white rock. This is interlinked with another Venda sacred place namely Lake Fundudzi, which will be discussed in more detail later. Apparently a white crocodile used to live in this Lake, and crocodiles are known for their strength and also for swallowing rocks to assist them with the digestion of their food. One of the vhaVenda chiefs obviously translated the white crocodile (possibly an albino crocodile that did exist) and the general habit of crocodiles swallowing small rocks into the swallowing of a small white rock by the VhaVenda chiefs - possibly to give them the same strength as a crocodile combined with the mysticism related to the white crocodile in the Fundudzi Lake. The re-burial of the Chiefs is linked to this custom, where a deceased chief is put on a wooden stack/elevation, until the body has totally decomposed. The white rock swallowed by the first chief then falls out of the body and is then swallowed by the new chief which in turn would give him strength and special features. That is also the reason why only women are allowed in this sacred village, because according to vhaVenda tradition they cannot become chiefs and therefore guard the body and the small white rock in order to ensure that the rightful chief swallows it and not another arbitrary male.

We ended our first day's visit on a nearby farm, where we had a discussion with an old Venda man, who is apparently between 96 and a 105 years old. A wealth of knowledge was shared by this man who has experienced many changes in this region. Our day was ended by a friendly barbeque (braai) organised by Marius and other townsfolk involved in tourism at Carousel Lodge. This reinforced our impression of the hospitality of the people in this region.

We spend the next day in the Njelele valley (between Toyandou and Makhado) following the trail of the great legends of the vhaVenda with Johan Kloppers of Eagle Adventures. Johan's company is named after Billy Eagle, a Canadian Indian that came with the Royal Canadian Infantry during the Anglo Boer War in the 1900 and decided to stay in the area after the war was over. He was apparently appointed as a police constable and tracker at the nearby Elim police station. One day while he was in the Soutpansberg on horseback, he was attacked by a lion which pulled him of his horse. He then proceeded to kill the lion with his bare hands, a feat which hasn't ever been repeated. Billy Eagle later succumbed to the infections in his wound with the absence of any antibiotics during that time but went on to become a legend in the area.

Our first visit in the morning was to an area Johan calls the Lost Valley' with its strange terraces built by the VhaVenda over centuries and where some reoccupation has taken place through the years. The hills in the area are covered by age-old rock terraces stretching for miles and miles and are indicative of the origins of the vhaVenda nation. The Khoi and San who used to stay in this area, as well as other original indigenous southern African nations never used the terrace method. Other nations in Central Africa used to use this method and it was obviously brought down with the vhaVenda nation when they migrated from the great lakes of Central Africa. It is also within this context that we can talk about the so-called lost tribe of Israel - the Balemba. The Lemba nation has refined eastern features and current research is done to see if there is any link between them and Israel. The Lemba was culturally very strong and still today only Venda men can marry a Lemba woman and not vice versa. A Venda man can wed a Lemba women only after a certain ceremony has been completed. A fire is made on top of an anthill (big enough to fit a man underneath) and the Venda man has to then climb through this hot anthill. In this Lost Valley' we also saw some original African dogs - the so-called Nguni dogs as well as original African Nguni cattle. Both these species have adapted to the African environment successfully, and are hardy to African diseases.

Dzata 2 Ruins was our second stop. These ruins originated from the Thoyandou era, and were build with hard blue rocks, which apparently are not found in the area. Speculation exists that these rocks were carried on the heads of slaves coming all the way from Central and North Africa. Dzata 2 was reconstructed by archeologists and although some of the original walls are still standing some significant changes has been made to this site. Dzata 1, currently investigated by scientists hasn't been changed and is still in its original state.

We then went on to look at the sacred "Lake Fundudzi" situated in the Thathe Vondo forest, the home of the mythical python and white crocodile. The python is the god of fertility in the vhaVhenda tradition and the legend tells us that a VhaVhenda man had a broken heart because of the loss of a great love. In his sorrow he walked into Lake Fundudzi at which time he turned into a python. Young virgin Venda maidens still perform the famous Domba-python dance in this area to honour this god of fertility. We can further speculate about the white crocodile (as described previously) which the vhaVenda's belief lives in this Lake. This crocodile might have really existed because this Lake is still today inhabited by large crocodiles, and an albino crocodile might have once lived in the lake where young, virgin Venda maidens were once offered to them. Lake Fundudzi is surrounded by mountains and special permission has to be obtained to visit this sacred Lake. No-one washes or swims in this lake.

Also in the Thathe Vondo forest is the so-called "Sacred Forest". The Thathe Vondo forest has giant hardwoods (jakkelsbessie, yellowwood), a wide variety of ferns, creepers and a wealth of plants and trees which makes the forest nearly impenetrable on foot. The Sacred Forest is a mystical place, where no ordinary VhaVhenda people may walk and as a visitor one may not walk off the dirt track going through the forest - hikers are not allowed. In the Sacred Forest two mythical creatures keep guard namely the white lion (the spirit of Nethathe an important chief) and the thunder and lighting bird called Ndadzi which according to myths flies on the wings of thunder. One can speculate further about this bird and its origin, and the origin of the vhaVhenda people. Can we make a comparison between this bird and similar mythical birdlike figures in North Africa (Egypt)? Ndadzi's eyes flash lighting, from in its beak it bears rain and when it drops an egg at a foot of a tree this tree will be destroyed by fire. As previously stated, myths, religion and believes have their origin in how a specific society experiences their environment at a specific time. Myths always have their origin in an experienced reality. Some important chiefs from the Thathe clans have apparently been reburied (according to believe) in a cave in this forest, protected by the white lion and Ndadzi. One can also find the giant edible mushrooms, Nkoa in these woods, with a diameter of approximately 300 cm on top.

Our day was ended by looking down onto the Vando Dam and its surrounding valley with many unanswered questions and many myths to still explore on a next visit including that of the waterfall spirits, the ivory traders, the copper people, the sacred Albasini treasures, the golden rhino, the rain queen, the holy baboons of Lwamondo, the blue beads of Egypt and the ancient ruins of Mukumbani.

Louis Trichart and the surrounding areas provide a wealth of activities ranging from hiking, horse riding, birding trips, 4 X 4 trails and culture adventure tours visiting all the mythical places mentioned in this article.

For more information on Louis Trichard, accommodation and other activities

For more information on horse riding please contact Marius Gilfillan(Carousel Lodge): +2715 516 4482 or write to him at Box 362, Louis Trichard, 0920, Northern Province, Republic of South Africa.

For more information on culture adventure tours and 4 X 4 trails contact Johan Klopper (Eagle Adventures) at +2715 516 4222 or write to him at PO Box 996, Louis Trichard, 0920, Northern Province, South Africa.

E-mail us for more information!