After breakfast, we begin our hike through the forests to Makwarane, the first village on our itinerary. Before long, I assign my cane permanently to my back pack; with the rough and rocky terrain, it is more of a hindrance than a help to my mobility.
I soon develop a technique that carries me through the six day hike, and prevents me from slowing down the group. I walk about one meter behind a fellow hiker and focus solely on their feet, my reasoning being, that if I follow directly in their footsteps, then as long as they tread carefully, I won’t have an accident. Because I only see a small patch of ground around each individual footstep, this takes a huge amount of mental focus and self discipline to not look at the stunning scenery around me.
Luckily, we have plenty of respite along the way, stopping each time something note-worthy catches Nelson’s eye. He is a powerhouse of knowledge with all the ingredients that make up a great raconteur. He is well informed, funny enthusiastic and regales us with great stories, backed up by Thambo, who is equally entertaining.
We learn of the different plants’ medicinal values, mythologies, forest rituals, stories of a colonial elephant hunter who used these paths to illegally transport tusks. All riveting stuff, especially the ‘viagra’ of the forest; a plant that the older wife uses to make a drink for her elderly husband when he takes on a new wife and struggles to keep her satisfied.
Tshifiwa is quieter than her outgoing counterparts, and I often hang back and chat to her.
The rocky path between the two villages is challenging, even for the fully-abled, and I am amazed to hear that some villagers make the journey each day in order to get to work and back.
The route takes us through a combination of exquisite indigenous forest and what is referred to as the ‘’green desert’’; plantations of pine trees under which nothing grows. The different feel between the indigenous and pine forests are palpable. Even when I am only looking at a small patch of ground, I can tell when we have entered the indigenous forest from the lifeless pine plantation; there is suddenly abundant birdsong, a delicious cooling of air and the glorious smell of rich topsoil.
It is getting dark as we exit the forest and hit the red dirt road that takes us to Makwarane village. As with all the villages that we visit, it is up on a hill, which for us weary travellers, seems to go on forever. Drums are carrying across the valley, as we approach the village. We find out that it is local youngsters practicing for the Tshikona dance competition, but for me it feels as though they are playing to herald our arrival.
Thanks to my RP related night blindness, I can’t see a thing as we arrive in the village, and I’m popping for the loo. One of my fellow travellers takes me to the homestead’s longdrop before we go to the gathering hut to meet the chief and elders of the village.
Although we are all exhausted and hungry, there are formalities that need to be covered. In the mchief’s Rondavel, there are introductions, welcomes, prayers from an uncle who is also a pastor and thanks from Jeffrey.
I come to learn that there is a strict hierarchy in the Venda villages. At the top is the King. Then you have your chiefs, your headman of the village, and under him the petty headman. Also carrying importance are aunts, who make many of the big decisions and often represent the clan.
Tonight we are greeted by the petty headman Nenzelele, two uncles and Vicros, the neighbour. With Nelson translating, we are told, ‘In the olden days it was very difficult, we used to run away from white people. Now I don’t have many words, all my words flee away. I welcome you with both hands.’’
He thanks Jeffrey, who thanks him in return.
Before supper, we are treated to traditional music and dancing, which involves fancy footwork and exceptional rhythm. The woman wear traditional apparel and dance topless. Nelson tells us that the women were highly offended by previous overseas visitors who requested that they put their tops on as they were being ‘’objectified’’. The women refused to dance any other way, as this was part of their tradition, and had nothing to do with being objectified.
The women pull some of our group up to dance with them, and I refuse due to my ‘’night blindness’’, however the main reason for my refusal, is I don’t want my jerky, un-rhythmic movements to stand out against these exceptional Venda dancers.
By the time we finally retire to our hut, with it’s perfectly screeded cow dung floor, we are exhausted. Six of us are sharing a room, sleeping on reed mats. If we need to go to the loo, it’s a trek to the long drop. I was a student the last time I shared a room with a group of people. It’s definitely more of a challenge for some than others, but everyone manages with good grace. ‘’Just think, says the GP as we roll our reed mats out, and search with our torches for our toiletries, we could have been in a luxury retreat right now.’’
I pre-apologise for my snoring.
Although there is no running water, every evening and morning throughout our trip, we are each brought a warm bowl of water to wash ourselves.
We are woken in the morning with Nelson calling out that coffee is ready. The pleasant sight of members of the homestead sitting around a fire with a huge pot of boiling water, greets us as we exit our hut.
We gather together to thank our hosts before making our way to the next village. We are wished well, and told by the headman that they have relatives in Tshsingo village who will take good care of us.
The hike to the potholes is thankfully not overly challenging, as much of it is on fairly clear pathways. There is a group of women, washing blankets in the water. I discover that the one woman’s husband has died, and the blankets that are used for the visiting relatives are washed. Her friends are there to help her. I wonder how many friends I would be able to rustle together to help me with the washing if I were in a similar situation.
While the walk to the potholes was relatively easy, navigating the terrain is extremely tricky. There are slippery water crossings, cliff drops and of course the potholes. Before we begin our river crossing to make our way to the main pothole, Nelson points out an eagle circling overhead with a huge snake in it’s beak.
I don’t accept any of the extended hands to help me over the slippery rocks. If I fall, I don’t want to take anyone down with me, and also, I find I am better balanced with both hands free. I choose my set of feet to follow, and fully activate all my senses in order to safely make my way across the river to the rocky bank near the main pothole.
Although the surrounding scenery is breath-taking, the pothole, with it’s sheer sides plunging thirty metres into malicious, bubbling waters, is simply terrifying. According to Nelson, “no one who has fallen in, has ever come out alive”.
I’m happy to retreat back to the bank, where we lunch next to a part of the river which is large enough to swim in. About half the group are brave enough to plunge into the icy water and swim out to the waterfall.
We have our picnic lunch, and listen to Nelson’s grisly stories of how witches and troublemakers have been tied up and cast into the pothole till as late as the 1950’s.
The stories give me the chills, and I’m almost relieved when we leave and make our way to Tshsingo Village. The final stretch before we arrive, is an extremely long, uphill trek made easier by cheering each other on, and the fields of bush flowering with fragrant yellow blossoms.
We are welcomed by the chief’s beautiful wife, Ndivo, who informs us that supper and formalities will be after the Tshikona music and reed dance. The youngsters of the village need to perform early, so they can do their homework.
The dance is performed outdoors by the male members of the community in a circle around a set of large drums.
The music and dancing is hypnotic. Members from young to old, with the Headman leading, move sinuously in a circle while blowing into their reeds. Although the individual dance steps are intricate. The group moves as a single system, which is quite extraordinary to watch.
It is dark once the performance is finished, and we are invited to join the dancers. This time, with the encouragement from my fellow travellers who promise to stay by my side, I throw myself into the music.
Supper is served in the meeting room by the chief’s wife, who I notice has no help and does everything herself. We find out from Nelson, that the chief’s wife isn’t allowed to have anyone help her in her household or kitchen, as it’s her responsibility alone that the chief doesn’t get poisoned. If the chief, or even one of his guests (which tonight is us) get sick, his family will visit and she will face the consequences.
As well as looking after the chief and his guests, Ndivo has four children. Traditionally, the chief will take on extra wives and there is a rotation system, so each gets to have a break. However, Chief Netshidzivhe has chosen to not take on more wives, leaving the full domestic responsibility to Ndivo.
Ndivo’s isolation stands out starkly from women in the other villages, who are highly connected and supportive of each other. The only other woman in the homestead is the powerful and intimidating chiefs mother.
After a delicious meal, Chief Netshidzivhe joins us. We greet him by kneeling on the floor, with bowed heads, before taking our seats. Tshifiwa acts as our honorary aunty, and prostrates herself in front of him while handing him some rolled up notes, to ‘’open his mouth”, a customary greeting for any chief if you wish to have a conversation with him.
Chief Netshidzivhe is the Guaurdian of Thate Vondo Sacred Forest, where we will be walking to tomorrow. It’s a role he takes very seriously. The king’s bones are buried deep in a secret part of the forest, and visitors are only allowed to stay on the allocated path. So many terrifying stories abound about foolish individuals who have tried to enter the sacred forest, and met their comeuppance, that apparently no-one lets their curiosity get the better of them. However, if one comes across a white lion, we are told to not be afraid, the lion is the totem of the forest and is there only to protect.
Before the chief takes his leave, he tells us that he is happy to welcome us into his home. He regales how when his Mom was a young woman, she was given a mirror and told by white people to pack a suitcase, and ordered to leave the land that they had been in for generations. We in turn apologise for the sins of the white people who have passed before us.
We are told we are not to take pictures in the forest, but Liesl, our shaman, asks if she can hold a healing ceremony to ask for forgiveness for our ancestors. Chief Netshidzivhe grants his permission.
Once he takes his leave, we have a question and answer time with our guides, who share stories of royal intrigue that could be plots from Game of Thrones.
After breakfast the following day, we are shown a nursery with indigenous trees that are cultivated and sold by Chief Netshidzivhe’s mother.
Over breakfast, we sit and chat with Ndivo, and discover that she was a cook at Venda University then went on to train to be a policewoman. She had just qualified, when it was announced to her that she was to be the chief’s wife. She still has the police uniform, which she keeps folded in a box.
She sees her job as ordained by God, and is the most dutiful wife and mother I have ever met. She’s certainly an excellent hostess. She tells me that it’s her birthday, even though she has ‘No birthday cake”. We all sing happy birthday, and lacking anything substantial, we gift her with my notebook, that we all write in and a pen given by Jana. Ndivo seems delighted, and brings the gifts with her when she sees us off.
We all pile up in a bakkie for next part of journey which is through the pine forest. We are all grateful not to walk through the ”green desert’, as we extremely depressing after Jeffrey’s lessons on the ecological damage that they do.
Entering Thate forest is like entering a fairy tale, and it’s easy to see how so many myths come to life here. The place is simply bursting with life. Bird song erupts from the giant trees, there are ferns, undergrowth, creepers. When we settle down, eyes closed, on a flat piece of earth to receive our meditation, Jeffrey weaves us into the forest, into it’s roots, it’s trees. A monkey in a tree nearby calls out. By the time I open my eyes I feel as though I’ve become a part of this living, green lung.
Before we leave the forest, I take in the magnificent forest with it’s different shades of green, the light and shadows, and try to commit it to my memory.
We walk from the forest to Tshitangani village, which is next to Lake Funduzi. About half way to the village, while we are still high up, we are told that soon the lake will come into the view in the distance. We are told that our first view of the lake must be taken in upside down. We do as we are instructed to, and Nelson says a prayer to the water spirits. Translation “whatever we do wrong, forgive us as it is not our intention to do harm.”
The walk downhill through the pine forest is extremely hazardous due to the loose rocks caused by soil erosion from the pine trees. Jeffrey tells us that when the pines were planted, the top soil that was held together by the root system of the indigenous trees, flows down to the river raising the level, which is devastating to the river life and impacts the river into which it flows all the way to the Kruger park.
Thankfully, there is a blessed piece of indigenous forest just before the village.
The chief of this village is the co-Guardian of Funduzi lake with the Chief of Tshiheni.
However, he is away, so we are greeted and hosted by the headman of this village.
As we arrive at our hosts’ homestead, we all collapse on the beautiful lawn. The headman is very house proud and a talented gardener.
Lining his house are beautiful, intricate topiaries, that decorate almost every home in Venda. No one seems to know who or where the topiary designing skill originated. Our rondavels, like our hosts’ house, is immaculate. Our host’s wife is rythmically chopping wood to cook our supper.
In the morning, we are joined by the headman, who is from the royal family of Tchitalaguni. Like all the men who have greeted us so far, he is very dressed very smart, his shoes shone to a shimmer, a stark contrast to our travel worn selves.
We listen to his many stories once we have completed our kneeling and bowing. There is plenty mythology around the lake. In 1971 when white families pitched tents with a plan to erect homes, the river rose and washed the tents away. The white people never returned.
The river is called the ‘’Place of drums’’, because drums are heard to be playing.
There is ‘’Chapize” small mountain, in the middle of the lake. Shepherds used to go there with their sheep. The lake rose, creating an island. One sheep left, that stayed there and years later. A lot of sheep could be heard, indicating that the sheep was pregnant. When the water dropped to a low level the shepherd gathered sheep and gave one to the royal family to honour the headman. The ancestral Tshichona drumming is said to have originated at the lake. And can be heard coming from the water. The crocodiles have never killed anyone, although they eat animals, they leave the villagers cows.
Like the chief with the forest, the headman takes his role as guardian of the lake very seriously, stating that it is the responsibility of his clan to educate people to keep it clean.
Tourists must go through Royal family to have permission to visit the lake. Visitors must be educated on litter and given rules on digging, starting fires and only doing line fishing and not using nets. He encourages future generations to follow the same rules, and pass on the knowledge.
There is anger and pain when he speaks of the pine forests. You can see it in the stoop of his body and hear it in his voice. Nelson translates that it hurts that the lake is reduced from the sands that flow from the pine forests. Once there were hippos and they don’t come anymore. There were more fish. He fears that one day the lake might no longer be there. He wants to engage government to stop planting more pine forests. He would like Lake Funduzi to be included in the school curriculum. Nelson says he is in discussions with the education department about this through the tourism and wants it included as part of the Venda heritage.
Liam asks what he ios proud of about being Venda.
‘’In Venda,’’ he begins, ‘’we look after each other. If I have a neighbour who doesn’t have food, I can’t let him go hungry. We respect our old people. We don’t have fences, because we won’t steal from each other. Our people care about education, and learn languages easily. Venda people are good at crafts, and music.’’
I had personally experienced all of this in the short time that I had spent in Venda. I wondered what would make me proud of my people. And who even were my people.
Before we depart on our hike to Lake Funduzi, we gather to say thank our hosts. Once we have expressed our gratitude, Mr Hunguma says, “thank you for recognizing my humanity.”
I find this deeply moving and shocking, coming from a man with such dignity, who has welcomed us into his home and treated us so beautifully. It is another painful reminder of how him and his family have been treated by our predecessors and how deeply those wounds lie.
After warm farewells, we set off for the sacred Lake Funduzi.