Venda Culture was something completely new for me! Even the language, Venda, is something unfamiliar and doesn't sound at all the Nguni languages of isiZulu and isiXhosa that I've grown up around. I had no idea what to expect from our next stop, and after Kruger National Park's drought-ridden landscapes I certainly didn't expect lush, fertile mountainous beauty!
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The road to Fundudzi Camp
We were headed towards Fundudzi Camp, a community-run camp on the outskirts of Mukumbani Village, about 10km west of Thohoyandou. We wanted to learn more about Venda culture. The big attraction of our visit was the sacred Lake Fundudzi and the nearby Thathe Vondo sacred forest.
Game reserves are difficult places to leave - there is always the tempting thought that an incredible sighting is waiting for you just down the next road... After packing up our campsite in Kruger's Shingwedzi Camp we headed for the Punda Maria Gate, Kruger's via the least direct route possible. It was another blisteringly hot day in Limpopo, and once more I found myself on the sunny side of the car! I also had the pressure of being the navigator in an area that was completely new to me. With intermittent cellphone signal we resorted to our good old South African road atlas, and with my finger tracing the route we headed south-west.
We had been told to phone Nelson, the head guide and our host at the African Ivory Route's Fundudzi Camp for directions once we got closer. I was a little concerned when he gave me directions like "When you get to the big rock, turn left and once you reach the bamboo stand, phone me for further instructions"! I began to wonder where we were headed. Nevertheless, his directions turned out to be spot on - the 'big rock' was unmistakable and we reached the camp without any wrong turns.
We also reached it in the nick of time - the sun was setting and navigating in the dark would have been an interesting experience. The golden evening light gave us the most incredible welcome to the area, and it is one of the most beautiful drives we have done so far on this trip! The rich red soils of the area are incredibly fertile. So much so that every house has a veritable orchard of fruit trees growing outside - mangos and litchis galore!
The area is also known for its tea, and we drove through a section of the Tshivhase Tea Estate, the lime green tea leaves juxtaposing beautifully with the red soil, and with their edges tinged gold by the sun. Mukumbani Village is set on the sides of a mountain, and its jungle-covered cliffs felt exciting, mysterious and other-worldly after the flat plains of Kruger.
Exploring Lake Fundudzi: Sacred places in Venda Culture
Lake Fundudzi and the nearby Thathe Vondo forest are sacred places in the spiritual life of Venda's Vhatatsindi people. They believe that the lake is protected by a python god who lives in the hills around the lake. Residents can hear him beating his drums, and he is celebrated annually with a puberty dance performed by young girls from the villages close by.
The lake's mysticism is inherent in its water, which is said to rise and fall independent of rainfall, and although three rivers flow into the lake it never overflows. On two separate occasions, the lake's water has risen apparently specifically to thwart outsiders' plans for development along the lake's edge.
The lake is also unique in that local villagers can enter the water without fear of attack from the numerous crocodiles who live in the lake. Our guide Nelson recounted stories of having crocodiles swim past him when he was playing in the lake as a child. Not knowing if this protection extended to white visitors, we decided not to risk it, even though the day of our visit was another uncomfortably hot and dry day in Limpopo!
To make more sense of Lake Fundudzi and Venda culture, our day's tour with our guides Nelson and Susie began with a visit to the Phiphidi Falls, a series of cascading falls that have significance in the local Venda culture. From there we went on to the lake itself.
Lake Fundudzi hasn't escaped the severe drought conditions ravaging the area and after parking Thomas above the historic water line, we began a half hour walk across dry ground to the pool that remained. Nelson told us it was the lowest he had ever seen the lake. After explaining more about the significance of the lake, he instructed us on how to greet it in the traditional way, the ukodola. On first sighting of the lake, you must bend over and greet it upside down through your spread legs. You repeat a Venda phrase that if Nelson's translation was to be believed, isn't appropriate for publishing here! The next step is to spit on the ground and throw a small stone through your legs into the lake behind you. All of this we did. When in Venda...
Following the lake, we escaped the heat in the Thathe Vondo sacred forest. The spirituality of this area was tangible, and sitting on the damp grass under a cool canopy of green, Nelson explained to us the process of a second burial. In Venda culture, the ancestors must be petitioned for the deceased of the family to join their ranks. If the ancestors permit, the bones of the deceased are exhumed and reburied amongst the graves of the tribe's ancestors, the location of this cemetery being a secret. The exhumed bones mustn't be allowed to touch the ground, and are carried by a young girl of the family whilst in transit. This important role, which to me seems quite traumatic for a young girl to undertake, must be an honour in Venda culture.
Taking in the sights around Mukumbani Village
As I mentioned, the landscape around Mukumbani Village is absolutely breathtaking. The village itself is nestled on the slopes of a jungle-covered mountain, and overlook the lime green hills of the Tshivhase Tea Estate. During our stay, we took in a few of the local sights.
The highlight for us was a visit to the Tshathingo Potholes. This series of small cascading falls and large natural swimming pools is a favourite amongst locals. Because the pools get deeper the further down the falls you go, Nelson and Susie explained to us that the top pools were for small children learning to swim whilst the lower pools were for the older children. We watched some teenagers making precarious rock jumps off the cliff walls into the lowest pool below and decided that he was right!
The potholes really are a sight to take in and the series of falls and pools ends in the river plunging down a vertical face into a swirling cauldron below - the final pothole from which there would be no escape if you were unlucky enough to fall in. Keeping this in mind, we gingerly navigated the narrow rock platform above the pool, desperate to get a good look over the edge but not quite trusting that final shuffling step!
The rich and fertile soils of the area mean that no home, however poor, goes without food. Fruit trees line every garden fence and branches heavy with mangos and litchis hang well within reach. Susie took us to visit a family friend on our way back to Fundudzi Camp and we were greeted by one of the most jovial and welcoming families I have ever met. The youngest daughter supplied me with a steady stream of ripe litchis that she found on the ground while her father set about picking us a bagful to take home. The wife and aunts fetched traditional gear for me to try on and the granny of the house quickly went and changed into her traditional Venda outfit to join me for a few photographs. I say a few photographs, but what actually happened was that everyone who owned a cellphone formed a circle and we were surrounded by the Venda paparazzi, furiously snapping away while we posed for them! I'm sure those photos are circulating around Facebook somewhere! So much fun and laughter with people with whom we couldn't even speak English.
After a great day out it was time for a shower and then dinner at the local Kid's Corner Tarven. No, that is not a typo of on my part as we saw branding and advertising for a number of local tarvens on our drives through the area! Dinner was a delicious meal of fried chicken and chips, eaten on the verandah whilst enjoying a glorious sunset over the red and green hills below.
Although Lake Fundudzi may not currently be on your trip planning radar, it is a very special place and we had a great time there, learning about Venda culture and traditions. The African Ivory Route's Fundudzi Camp was a perfect balance - set in the cool green hills above the village and a delightful haven away from the heat and bustle and yet within walking distance of Mukumbani Village and its welcoming people. The chance to interact with the locals was a very special and enriching experience. South Africa is a country that is incredibly rich in cultural diversity, so why not make a plan to explore more of that on your next holiday?