Take your time in Thohoyandou
'Especially for first-time visitors, it can be hard to know where to look or go, but the central market is a good place to start if you want to get a sense of daily life in Thohoyandou,' says tour guide Musa Matchume from Madi a Thavha as we drive through the fertile area that stretches between the Soutspansberg and the Kruger National Park’s western boundary.
The hills are covered with fields of bananas, acres of subtropical fruit and neat rows of tea plants. Indigenous forests grow alongside alien plantations. Water runs in streams and pools in lakes. There are traditional huts interspersed with colourfully painted houses that range from elaborate homesteads to humble cottages of just a few rooms. Washing hangs on fences and lines. Mango and avocado trees provide pools of shade for children who wave as we drive by. The smell of smoke from cooking fires lingers in the early morning air and the sound of distant cowbells mixes with the modern beats that pump out from car speakers.
Driving into the town, billboards punt cellphone deals, people hail taxis and meat sizzles on roadside braais (barbecues), while the urban bustle is animated with the vibrant hues of traditional clothing, piles of bright produce on the pavement and China shops selling discount everything. 'The town was named after the king who ruled the Vhavenda kingdom from the 1690s to the early 1720s,' explains Matchume, who adds information, conversation, and local, historical and cultural context throughout the course of the day that I spend wandering through the town with him, chatting to some of its roughly 80 000 residents that we meet along the way.
There is a buzz of prosperity at the market. Women sit patiently while their hair is braided. Groups of young people laugh and talk in a musical mix of Venda, Sotho and Shangaan, reflecting the area’s mixed population. A dignified old man in a smart-looking suit walks carefully down the road, steadied with a cane. There is a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet close to an internet café, and lawyers' offices next to a music store that sells hits by local artists. Another man repairs shoes on the pavement while nearby a women sews.
The smell of smoke from cooking fires lingers in the early morning air and the sound of distant cowbells mixes with the modern beats that pump out from car speakers.
Commerce is audible as traders negotiate with buyers. Lots of what is on sale is edible. Along with piles of produce, including wild spinach and fruits, there are basins of mopani worms and protein-rich flying ants. Baobab fruits are sold alongside the nutty kernels of marulas. The sweet fruits that grow abundantly in the region are currently out of season, but at the height of summer, you’ll find them everywhere. I buy a small packet of the kernels to try, and vendor Violet Khorombi laughs and tells me to give them to my husband. 'They are associated with virility and fertility in men,' Matchume explains.
Later, we visit the Khoroni hotel in the middle of the town centre, not far from the university, to see where the town's VIPs eat. The restaurant at the hotel is named Malingani, which means 'the royals are busy eating'. The lunch buffet, a combination of Western food and traditional dishes like marogo and tripe, is delicious, and you can bump into local royalty, soap stars, business magnets and politicians, all of whom are known to hang out at this upmarket spot. 'Thohoyandou is one of South Africa's fastest-growing economies,' says hotel manager Kevin Lancaster. 'Of course there is poverty here, but nobody is hungry. The land is fertile. And the people have little tolerance for crime.'
Later still, we make our way to the Thohoyandou Arts and Culture Centre, where the internationally renowned and multi-talented Avashoni Mainganye is helping to develop the artistic talent of a new generation. He talks passionately about his students and the studio he is building on a green and scenic hillside. He reluctantly shows us his impressive portfolio. 'My art is rooted in the spirituality of Venda, but I give it a modern form,' he explains.
We also visit Japhter Luvhimbi, whose leadwood jewellery draws on the area’s tradition of functional art to create new, attractive and unique products. Like all the area’s artists, he’s welcoming and generous with his time, explaining his work and telling us to visit Azwi Magoro at nearby Muledane, which we do next. Azwi has just returned from an international woodcarving competition, where he won, despite the fact that his tools were stolen en route.
In the late afternoon, we end up in Matopo Lakes Gardens, a club/butchery/carwash 'where beautiful people meet'. The trendy bar is managed by entrepreneur Mukondi Takalani. The popular three-quarter litre bottles of beer (quarts) aren’t served at this bar. 'Here we only drink Castle Light and Heineken,' says Takalani, as if this says all there is to say about the patrons his establishment attracts. On Friday and Saturday the carwash turns into a dance floor under the stars and DJs play whatever it is people want to hear. 'Sunday we play all-day jazz, because we need to recover,' he grins. Back at Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge near Elim, which hosts me for the night, I watch the last of the light leach from the silent lake, replete with impressions, great food and even better conversations.
The next day I spend time visiting the potters, carvers, and textile, grass and other artists who live on the outskirts of the town, with guide Daniel Khosa from Shiluvari. Eliza Maluleke shows me some of the beadwork she's perfected over decades, Thomas Kubayi shows me around his carving and music studio, and David Murathi reminisces about the legendary local artists who have inspired him. Later, I visit the the Dancing Fish Gallery at Madi a Thavha where owner Marcelle Bosch actively works with and supports the area's talented artists and crafters.
On another day I go see the area’s cultural and natural attractions with freelance guide Thamba Masindi (+27 (0)72 504 0954), and pay my respects to the ancestors at Lake Fundudzi and the sacred forest. I also go home to meet Thamba's mother, who insists I try on her traditional outfit. I camp at Golwe-Vhurivhuri, run by Chris Nethonzhe (+27 (0)76 3029383 or firstname.lastname@example.org) and find the elusive African broadbill (and lots of other awesome birds). I also bump into legendary potter Sarah Munyai en route to Mukodeni Pottery (and give her a lift home and meet her son)
On yet another day, I hear the legend of the Mutavhatsindi Tree (which is believed to have strong magical powers) from Phinneas Maluti at the Limpopo provincial nature reserve near Mafukani village. I then find potter Rebecca Matibe. She is in the field ploughing, but her niece, Ipfani, invites me to share a celebratory feast with the family to celebrate the younger generation's university exam results.
And after all this, I am still not close to exhausting the range of wonderful experiences on offer in this special corner of South Africa ... which is a good thing, as I'm already planning my next trip. After all, I now have new friends to visit in the area – and new friends to make.