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The History of the Lowveld

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

The area known as the Lowveld is the lowland area, below 500 metres in altitude along South Africa’s’ northern border with Botswana and Zimbabwe with the famed Kruger National Park comprising half of it. It also comprises sections of Limpopo Province that extend down to the east of the Drakensberg escarpment, through Mpumalanga and then into eastern Swaziland, joining the border of Mozambique to the East and the Drakensberg to the West.


Although rather poor in water resources, mighty rivers rise along the face of the escarpment which flow swiftly to the Indian ocean via Mozambique, rivers such as the Sabie and the Crocodile rivers which merge with the Komati in the South, and in the North, the Oliphant’s and letaba rivers which join up with the Limpopo river, giving rise to thriving towns – Tzaneen, Phalaborwa, Sabie, Graskop, White river, Komatipoort and Barberton to name but a few. Today a rich agricultural environment of tropical fruits as well as huge timber forests, yet still an area of sweeping grasslands, indigenous forests, rolling mountains and natural beauty.

Yet it is this stretch of country that is rich with legends, myths, rumour and romance, not unlike the frontier days of the old “Wild west” made famous by stories by JT Edson and louis Lamour, the old dime novel American cowboy authors of yesteryear! It tells of men and women of all races, mostly Boer, Briton and Hollander, toiling against almost overwhelming odds; some for the sheer love of adventure, others for financial gain, some with the desire to share the word of Christianity, yet all collectively contributing to the rich tapestry of the Lowveld. Picture tribal warfare, trekking Boers, gold reefs ready for the taking, big game hunters, tricksters, con-artists, thieves, disease and sickness such as malaria, blackwater fever and nagana and I believe the reader will have a pretty fair idea of the hardships endured by these early pioneers!

Now this will probably conjure up the names of well-known individuals such Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, James Stevenson-Hamilton, Harry Wolhuter, TV Bulpin, Courteney Selous, Jock of the Bushveld, places such as Crook’s corner, Baobab Hill, Steinecker’s post to name but a few, so the writer thought to make mention of lesser known (although as important) role players in this kaleidoscope of events that make up the History of the Lowveld.


To start off, cultural and historical sites occur throughout the region including Early, Middle and late stone age as well as iron age sites. Radio carbon dating on pottery shards found in the Wolkberg mountains near Tzaneen, were found to be similar to pottery found in East Africa, which in its ‘own is quite amazing, however, seed traces in these shards provides evidence that South Africa is one of the sites of oldest food cultivation. In addition to this, yet it still remains a mystery, is that the Lowveld is the original home of the entire Worlds ‘cotton!

Woven cotton preserved in a silver jar, dating back to 3000BC was found in Pakistan, and upon studies by Sir Joseph Hutchinson, a British biologist, the linting gene that enables cotton to be spun could only have originated from the wild species that grows in the Lowveld! Humans thus carried cotton up Africa over to India and across to Peru-yet cotton never became a crop of importance at its ‘birthplace!                                                                                                                      Ref: David Hilton-Baber

This as already mentioned remains a mystery since this took place before recorded history, thus it could have been the San people who occupied caves near Ohrigstad (and others scattered across the Lowveld) many millennia ago, or as a result of Negroid tribes arriving on the scene some 1500 years ago in successive waves from Central Africa consequently displacing the San.

These newcomers brought with them the knowledge of iron smelting, often also working gold, if only for ornamental purposes, practising simple agriculture, but also tending sheep, goats and cattle. Roughly 1400AD, a second massive wave of Bantu-speaking people migrated from the North, bringing with them huge populations and huge herds with more sophisticated iron-smelting technology. This however heralded the beginning of multiple tribal clashes (The Mfecane, which was a widespread period of chaos and warfare amongst the indigenous ethnic communities in Southern Africa from around 1815 to 1840) which dominated the scene in the Lowveld for many years to come.

This in turn saw the rise and fall of several Kingdoms, notably that of the Pedi Kingdom under the rule of Thulare, who lived a peaceful existence until being crushed by the Matabele under the reign of Mzilikazi. The then scattered remnants of the Pedi Kingdom often times resorted to cattle raiding and skirmishes with both Boers and British troops ultimately contributing to the instability of the Lowveld area, and despite being heroic warriors, lost the battle against progress.

Quote -unquote, the Pedi were a major stumbling block to British rule and had been:’… a potent symbol of the possibility of continued African resistance to colonial claims to the land and demands for labour and tax!

The Balubedi, at this time also came into being, and were considered direct descendants of the powerful royal house of Monomatapa. Monomatapa was rumoured to be the area of untold wealth from whence King Solomon obtained all his gold and diamonds and lent weight to the myth of the land of the Ophir, and, the legend of Ophir which is that King Solomon was to receive his treasure every three years.

I have included the Balubedi since their belief system is based around their queen, Queen Modjadji, or the Rain Queen, and deserves mention in this tapestry of the Lowveld. She is recognised as the only traditional ruling Queen in Southern Africa and rules from her present day royal kraal in ga-Modjadji, formerly known as Duiwelskloof in Limpopo. Historically she was known as an extremely powerful magician with the ability to bring rain to her friends and drought to her enemies, respected and feared for centuries by many. Not a single King would knowingly incur her wrath-even King Shaka would send top emissaries to request her blessings. So strong is their tradition, that she may not marry, and only a suitor may be chosen for her by the royal council when she decides to have a child. She is chosen for her role only by the ghost of her predecessor, her destined end being death at her own hand by means of ritual suicide in order that she may rule by divine right.

1835 saw the start of the Great Trek, which saw more than 10,000 Boers leaving the Cape Colony with their families to move north. Plagued by problems such as exorbitant taxes, conflict with the Xhosa on the Eastern frontiers, and a hearty dislike for the English colonial authorities, made the decision to seek fertile lands and to establish their own country for want of a word, all the more important. Under the leadership of Andries Potgieter, Andries Pretorius and Louis Trichardt these early pioneers made their way northwards, with the Lowveld being among the areas where they settled. In retrospect, the complexities and setbacks encountered (as most will know) by the Boers, were largely due to the quarrelsome nature of their leaders! If only they had discovered gold first, it would have sorted out most of the differences I believe!!

In closing, no tales of the Lowveld can be complete without including the role of missionaries in the fabric of this collage’. Alexander Merensky and his co-founder Karl-Heinrich Grutzner, both from the Berlin Missionary Society started their first mission station north of the Vaal river. Due to the local tribesmen unfortunately continually plundering and raiding the station, the two missionaries obtained permission from the ba-Pedi (see above-Pedi Kingdom) to move the station to a more hospitable location named Botshabelo – translated meaning “place of refuge”. A blacksmith shop, a workshop to build and repair wagons and a mill were established, thus empowering the local community and members of the congregation to learn critical skills.


Other European mission stations also deserve mention such as Mission Suisse, Mission Vaudoise who have gone on to become known as Tsonga Presbyterian Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and in more recent times, increased missionary activities by the Catholic, Anglican and Dutch Reformed Missionaries. We owe a great deal to the current and earlier efforts of these missionaries who have for almost 3 centuries since the arrival of European settlers in South Africa, provided education and assistance to the less fortunate.

Despite leaving out hundreds of colourful characters and events that are worthy of inclusion in this blog, the writer must at some point retire as this would become a narration worthy of a book signing! Hopefully I have cast a different perspective on this wonderful part of the country, and would welcome any discussions or chats telephonically or via e-mail.

Check out Bushwise here.

Yours in Guiding

Trevor Myburgh


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