Phalaborwa to Mopani Camp (H14)
The Mopani-Phalaborwa Road (H14) passes Shikumbu Mountain (494m), which was occupied by the same 19th-century iron-making communities that inhabited Masorini. These hills served as landmarks of human habitation for anyone crossing the hot lowveld plains. Shikumbu is still regarded by many as a sacred hill associated with powerful muthi. Traditionalists in the area say that to point a finger at the granite mountain is to invoke bad luck.
The H14 tracks the seasonal Ngwenyeni stream (“place of the crocodile”) and follows the riverine bush through the flat mopane bushwillow woodlands. There is usually animal activity around Nandzane Water Hole, which marks the confluence of the Ngwenyeni and Shicindzwaneni (“place of the ilala palms”) watercourses. Nandzane is the Shangaan name for the caracal or rooikat, a medium-sized hunting cat with distinctive long and fluffy ears.
There are some beautiful loop roads off the H14 along the stream bank. This is a recommended winter drive as there is usually a concentration of game in the bush along the watercourse where pools of water remain late into the dry season. The Letaba River is one of the great bushveld arteries and it is worth stopping at the high-level bridge to study the surrounding area.
There are often buffalo, giraffe, elephant, wildebeest, kudu and other antelope along the banks of the Letaba and the birding is usually good. In the north most animals are found in close proximity to the major rivers, particularly in winter when the pans dry up and the rain clouds disappear.
After crossing the broad, sandy bed of the Letaba River, the H14 continues towards the main Letaba-Mopani Road (H1-6) with turn-offs to Shimuwini and Boulders Bush Camps. Game viewing along the H14 north of the Letaba River is not particularly good until one passes the trio of granite outcrops of Tsale (450m), Kaleka (396m) and Ngodzi (472m), which signal the start of the sweeter grass of mopane shrubveld on basalt.
Masorini Iron-Age Site
Masorini is an Iron-Age archaeological site occupied during the 19th century by the Majola, a sub-group of the Sotho-speaking baPhalaborwa people. The Majola were iron smelters and forgers and probably traded metal, food and ivory products with other communities across the lowveld and as far as the Mozambican coast.
The village has been partially restored and one can see the furnaces where smelting took place. The art of smelting was considered sacred and reserved only for men. If a pregnant woman was seen near a furnace it was deemed a particularly bad omen.
From the artifacts and food remains excavated at Masorini, it appears that the residents grew and processed sorghum and supplemented their diet by hunting. No domestic animal remains have been found. Archaeologists believe the Majola were the last in a long line of people who occupied the site, which has evidence of human habitation going back more than 1000 years.
Better than the South
Phalaborwa was settled by Sotho-speaking iron-working communities in the 16th century. The name literally means “Better than the south” because of the rich mineral profile of the area. Between 1800 and 1850, the baPhalaborwa were at the peak of their power under the chief Malatji, controlling a vast swathe of land between the Oliants and Letaba Rivers.
Their influence waned as the ivory trade was wrested from their hands by Joăo Albasini in the 1860s, and then, again, with the influx of European agricultural implements in the 1880s, which affected the viability of their smelting and forging businesses.
Shilawuri Hill (414m), is a great gabbro boulder which has been a lowveld navigational landmark for centuries. It marks the watershed between the usually dry N’washidzundzu and Nhlanganini watercourses. There is a loop road to Nhlanganini Water Hole which, when there is water, is inhabited by hippo.
Elephant and buffalo are often seen along the Nhlanganini creek, which is on the edge of a strip of sandveld. The diversity of vegetation here stands out noticeably from the mixed mopane bushwillow woodlands to the west and the shrub mopane to the east. Because of the variety of edible plants around, there is usually game to be seen. Look out for the pan-hinged terrapin at Nhlanganini.
There are sometimes scores of these turtle-like creatures at this water hole. They are common throughout the Park, evading predators because of their ability to release a powerful odour that makes them smell like lions.