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VVisitors keen to partake in some of South Africa’s lesser-known gold-rush history should consider a trip to Leydsdorp, a ghost town in Limpopo province. If you’re travelling on the R71 from Tzaneen, the turn-off at the small town of Gravelotte onto a comfortable dirt road leads to this gold-rush town, which once boasted prospector shenanigans to rival the legendary raucousness of Mpumalanga’s Pilgrim’s Rest.
Today, Leydsdorp has the dusty look of an abandoned settlement reverting back to bushveld, but it enjoyed a brief flurry of fame when gold was discovered in the Murchison Range in the late 1880s, sparking a gold rush to what was then the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (or ZAR: the South African Republic, the independent Boer state that would later become the Transvaal province in the Union of South Africa).
The discovery attracted gold-sniffers from all over the world: people with names like Paraffin Joe, Mica Bill, Brandy Smith and the Heavenly Twins; miners who had been in Alaska chasing the Klondike strike and in Australia working Kalgoorlie.
They gave their claims fanciful names like the Blue Jacket, the Antelope, the Old Birthday or the Flying Dutchman, and at its height the town boasted a population of 3 000 rough-and-ready types, who required 8 bars to keep their whistles wet.
By 1890, a ‘small town with a big cemetery’ had sprung up. The name was a nod to Willem Johannes Leyds, who was at the time state secretary of the ZAR. The dreaded blackwater fever (a vicious strain of malaria) was the biggest reason for the size of the cemetery, while barroom brawls or hungry lions also contributed to high mortality rates.
The boom didn’t last long; the richer reefs of the Witwatersrand quickly attracted miners’ attention, especially since Johannesburg didn’t have the same mosquito problem as the Lowveld, and hence was free of blackwater fever.
With the departure of the miners, Leydsdorp turned into a ghost town. But in its heyday, the place was home to some legends...
A famous story concerns the death of a miner called Sandy, who was well-liked among the other prospectors. They cobbled together a coffin for him out of beer crates and set a few African labourers the task of carrying Sandy in his coffin to the cemetery.
The mourners followed after a boozy wake, but on lifting the coffin to bury Sandy they found the box empty: the corpse had fallen through the flimsy wood and been lost somewhere on the trip to the cemetery. When the body was eventually found alongside the road, naturally everyone repaired to the pub to re-crate Sandy and discuss options.
This discussion, also well lubricated, eventually resolved that it was too late to complete the interment anyway, as the mosquitos were already out for the evening, and the risk of malaria transmission was high. It seems Sandy spent one final night in the pub, although it’s doubtful he enjoyed it quite as much as he had before.
Another story concerns two enterprising miners who responded to the chronic shortage of housing by building their home – complete with stove, chimney and kitchen – in a giant anthill that they had hollowed out. Visitors keep to imbibe local history will have no trouble imagining the frontier atmosphere of this now-deserted town.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Cell: +27 (0)71 676 1219
Cell: +27 (0)83 309 6901
How to get here
Take the R71 south from Tzaneen to Gravelotte and turn right onto the dirt road to Leydsdorp. Leydsdorp is about 50km from Tzaneen.
Best time to visit
Any time of year is good for a bushveld visit, except maybe in the height of summer (January and February), when temperatures can be daunting.
Things to do in the area
You can take a trip to the Moholoholo Wildlife Sanctuary, the Wolkberg Wilderness area, the northern Kruger National Park, and attractive small towns like Haenertsburg and Hoedspruit.
Tours to do
Bushveld Safari Tours – check the Hoedspruit Tourism website.
Unless you’re on a tour – in which case you should request a short stop-over in Leydsdorp – it would be best to drive yourself.
What will it cost?
As Leydsdorp is currently a ghost town, there is no charge for walking around and taking it in.
Length of stay
Unless you get caught up at the old hotel or the cemetery just outside Leydsdorp, a quick hour’s visit would be in order.
What to pack
As always with bushveld adventures, dress for walking in the outdoors and keep something warm handy for those winter mornings and evenings. Anti-malaria medication is always a sensible precaution when visiting the Lowveld.
Where to stay
Leydsdorp lies between Tzaneen and Hoedspruit, and both have websites (listed below) that offer a wide range of accommodation options.
What to eat
Best food advice in the bushveld: find a good butchery and buy fresh biltong. Also, stop at the roadside stalls and see what looks good.
The Tzaneen and Hoedspruit websites are full of events information, so check if their dates coincide with your visits.
Avocados in season (all year except January and February) are awesome, but there’s always something fresh and tropical to buy in this area.