What do genius 17th-century English architect Sir Christopher Wren, who lies interred in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and a Graaff-Reinet forester born 250 years later have in common? They share an epitaph.
Circumspice si momumentum requiris says the board, affixed appropriately to a eucalyptus pole in the heart of the Woodbush Forest in Magoebaskloof: “If you seek his monument, look around you.”
The copse of saligna gum trees surrounding the memorial to Alexander James O’Connor acknowledged as a “pioneer of afforestation with conifers” is certainly impressive.
Planted about 90 years ago, they have an average height of more than 70m (there are two other trees in the forest, known as the Twin Giants of Magoebaskloof, that are 115 years old and nearly 80m tall).
O’Connor’s philosophy was “if you cut down a tree, replace it with another” but, in execution, it has turned out to be something of a folly. Eucalyptus trees, imported from Australia, are regarded as an invasive alien species that suck up groundwater.
At the same time, the pine plantations championed by O’Connor that fringe the forest have also been criticised by environmentalists for endangering water supply and discouraging biodiversity.
These criticisms seem churlish since the stunningly beautiful Magoebaskloof indigenous forest is flourishing – it’s second only in size in South Africa to Knysna – mainly because the region boasts one of the highest annual rainfall rates in the country.
Perhaps that’s thanks to Modjadji, the rain queen.
There’s magic in the forest … and not a little holiness, too.
On the last day of my recent visit, I stopped at the Debengeni Waterfalls at the bottom of the kloof on the Tzaneen end of the R71 from Polokwane.
As I walked towards the falls – neither particularly high, nor furious – I noticed a white-clad sangoma chanting prayers and bowing repeatedly towards them.
Accompanying him was a well-dressed young man, filling bottles from a rivulet. I asked him whether this was a holy place and, smiling broadly, he responded “Yes, very!”
I’ve been unable to establish the reason for the spot’s tribal divinity. However, the romantic in me recalls that the original rain queen from this region was supposedly the source of inspiration for Sir Henry Rider Haggard’s mythical “She-who-must-be obeyed” in She: A History of Adventure, published in 1887.
According to Wikipedia, “Queen Modjadji, or the Rain Queen, is the hereditary queen of the Balobedu, a people of the Limpopo province of South Africa. The Rain Queen is believed to have special powers, including the ability to control clouds and rainfall.”
The mountain range that dominates Magoebaskloof is the Wolkberg (“Cloud Mountain”, a subrange of the Soutpansberg) and locals speak of living “in the valley of the silver mist”.
I got the gist of what they meant when I set off for Woodbush early one morning with Mark Harman, owner of Magoebaskloof Birders’ Cottages and expert bird guide David Letsoalo (083-568-4678). The mist is to Magoebaskloof what the “table cloth” is to Capetonians.
The mist gets pea-soupy on the upper reaches of the pass, which makes driving the windy R71 even more hazardous than normal.
The road is generally posted at 80km/h but shouldn’t be done at more than 60km/h: coming around a blind corner and being confronted with a crawling logging truck might ruin your day.
Though trained as a motor mechanic, Letsoalo was working with poultry when his interest in birds was piqued.
“I was so inquisitive that my employer bought me Roberts’ Birds of Southern Africa for Christmas in 1996.
“That’s when I began to take birding really seriously. I trespassed on a lot of properties in search of new species,” laughs the 47-year-old resident of Houtbosdorp, a settlement just outside the forest.
His illicit wanderings mean Letsoalo knows just about every nook and cranny of Woodbush and his knowledge of the place – including its history – is compendious.
“I attended a meeting of the Haenertsburg Environmental Club one night and the visiting speaker was amazed to see a young black man among all the older white folk.
“After spending time with me, he encouraged me to become a specialist guide for this area.”
Species names trip off his tongue too quickly to follow and, frankly, I was way out of my depth.
We stopped at various spots, getting deeper and deeper into the forest on roads which became progressively worse, and the three of us would stand on the verge.
Letsoalo would tilt his head to one side and say something like:
“Listen to that black-fronted bush shrike, coming up the valley. He’s responding to the call of another higher up.”
All I could discern were the barks of Knysna touraco and the chirruping of sombre greenbuls.
Thanks to Letsoalo’s discreetly aimed laser pointer, I was able to spot (and photograph, albeit not very well) a critically endangered Cape parrot in its nest.
There are thought to be fewer than 1 500 of them left – most in the forests around Hogsback in the Eastern Cape – but there is a significant breeding population in Woodbush.
For the devoted “twitcher”, Magoebaskloof is paradise.
Birdwatchers’ Cottages (www.mbcottage.co.za), on the A46 just below the crest of the pass, are a delight and unbelievable value for money.
Situated on Harman’s lush Dragonwyck farm (mainly avocadoes), I hope to spend a long weekend in one of the three and emerge only to replenish supplies at Haenertsburg or get takeaway meals either at the Magoebaskloof Mountain Lodge or Farmstall and Café sometime in the future.
I stayed in Narina, which was surprisingly sumptuous with a well-equipped kitchen.
Great additions were an outside bath and a large braai in an adjacent rondavel (when it rains on the farm, says Harman, it really rains).
There are more than 150 bird species recorded on the farm and, with several well-sign posted walks and a hide, one might never have to leave the property to tick “lifers” off one’s personal list.
The views across the valley from the dirt road leading to the cottages are breathtaking.
There is a large bronze bust at the mountain lodge of Kgoshi Mamphoku Makgoba, the Northern Sotho chief after whom Magoebaskloof is named.
Chief Makgoba’s people resisted the influx of Afrikaner settlers and their seizure of tribal lands for farming in the 1860s.
After the former Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) confirmed these occupations as legitimate 20 years later, he (and others, including Queen Modjadji) began a militant resistance.
The ZAR declared war in June 1895. Chief Makgoba – who had become known as “The Lion of the Soutpansberg” – was captured and killed by Swazi mercenaries employed by the commandos a week later.
He was decapitated and his head was returned to the Boers as proof of death. The whereabouts of the head remain a mystery.