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Introduction to the Waterberg

April 2009. Here's a little introduction to the Waterberg: Geography; History; Growth and Change; Education; Government; Environment, Ecology, and Conservation.

For a better look at the map, double-click on it.

Geography. The Waterberg Mountains run about 150 kilometers (90 miles) from east to west, and cover 14,500 square kilometers (5,800 square miles), roughly the size of the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana, less than half the size of the Netherlands, or slightly larger than the US state of Connecticut. The Waterberg (mountains of water, Thaba Meetse in the local Northern Sotho language) refers to the abundance of water, still true in good rainy seasons and questionable in bad rainy seasons.

History. Scientific debates continue about the age of the first primates and hominids, but the evidence is clear that they lived from two to three million years ago in the “Cradle of Mankind” at the Sterkfontein Caves, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) “as the African snake eagle flies” from the southwestern part of the Waterberg. In the last few thousand years, Europe’s Iron Age population moved through the Middle East, and ultimately to Southern Africa about 200 AD, joining the indigenous San people.

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The Waterberg is a Brand Name Worth Protecting

Edited from the original published in The Sunday Independent, 15 February 2009.

The Waterberg Mountains benefit from many features, including the name itself. To those who live here, and to many others, the very words conjure up all that is positive about the region – its bio-diversity, craggy heights, and vistas, its game, watercourses, and even its remoteness from urban centres. Throw the words Waterberg Biosphere Reserve into the mix, and more value is added. Those who operate tourist establishments profit from the natural branding; the rest of us are simply delighted to be here.

So it is with some alarm that we watch as the Waterberg name is abused by some and misused by others. The abuse is intentionally deceitful; the misuse is accidentally detrimental.

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Waterberg School Sets An Example: Meetsetshehla Secondary School defies the norm in its efforts to maintain excellence

Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 10 August 2008

Though only three hours from Johannesburg, the Waterberg range in Limpopo is remote, sparsely populated and quite beautiful with its rugged mountains, watercourses and wildlife. It is also very poor.

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Border Towns and Border Crossings

South Africa's newspaper The Weekender published this article in its 4-5 July 2009 edition, under the headline "Crossover Curiosities." The subheadline said 'John Miller finds border towns emphasise what unites people, not what separates them.' They included a couple of relevant photos, but not this one of the cable car crossing from South Africa to Botswana.

You'll have to read the whole story to see what I'm talking about.

Border towns are intriguing places. Their distinct identity defies our stereotypical view of the countries in which they lie. In such places, residents identify themselves less with their country and more with their neighbours across the border.

The mix of cultures and language that should be awkward, is rarely noticed. In fact, some border towns are so unusual they are not a transit point, but the destination itself.

Rio de Onor in the northeastern corner of Portugal, and Rio honor de Castilla in northwest Spain, comprise a single town in a remote agricultural area. A large stream (barely a river) separates the countries, but nothing separates the people.

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Almost Clueless in the Bush

This story about my jaunt to Mozambique was published in the 31 October/1 November 2009 issue of The Weekender.

We had left the beaches of Chidenguele in the morning, heading to Hyliota Camp, a rustic birding camp on one of Mozambique’s freshwater inland lakes in Inhambane Province. Before we confirmed our booking, we had prevailed upon the manager in SA that we didn’t need him or anyone else to guide us there. And we had no need for GPS co-ordinates as we didn’t have a GPS.

His written directions provided a few laughs, but not much clarity. Still, how could we go wrong — a Portuguese-speaker and a highly qualified South African field guide, enhanced by the vital talents of a retired CIA economist and a high-powered corporate coach from Washington, DC. We sought a path less travelled to a destination often ignored.

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Book Review: The Lazarus Funeral Parlour

A slightly edited version of this review was published in The Weekender, 29-30 August, 2009. The newspaper's headline was "Religion creates a storm in small town."

The Waterberg gained an enduring reputation for the offbeat when Paul Kruger banished his political enemies to the remote, dangerous, and malarial corner of the Northern Transvaal – “Give him a farm in the Waterberg!” Since then, the Waterberg has inspired painters and photographers, naturalists and scientists, but no one has mined its ornery characters and traditional ways for a good old-fashioned tale of good versus evil. Or sceptic versus scammer. Until now.

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Vaalwater Information

April 2009. In recent years, I've met a few volunteers in the Waterberg who've come from places far away. I've sensed a bit of culture shock in some of them, and so wrote this to help orient others who are considering spending some time here.

It's still called the "undiscovered" Waterberg of South Africa. It is remote (though less than three hours from Johannesburg), sparsely populated, and quite beautiful with its rugged mountains, water courses, and wildlife. It is also very poor.

North American, European, and Australian doctors, medical students, and teachers work for various periods in and around Vaalwater, the main town in the Waterberg. It is a rewarding experience for the foreigner, who will be making an important and appreciated contribution to the health, welfare and education of the impoverished residents of the Waterberg. The information provided here is intended to introduce you to the expectations and realities of your life in the Waterberg.

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Pondering Development

May 2009. After a career working in developing countries, I thought I'd ponder a bit about what it all means.

Poverty in the Waterberg is not much different than poverty elsewhere in small town and rural South Africa. Statistics are hard to come by, but the population in and around Vaalwater is estimated at 50,000. If you are White, you’d be surprised by such a large number until you make your way behind the government housing (pictured below) that is visible from the tar road to Melkrivier, back to the countless tin shacks erected on the seemingly endless land near the town dump. This is not a land invasion, nor a squatter settlement. Rather, plots are delineated and have been formally allocated to individuals.

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Art of Sara L. Miller

My mother, Sara L. Miller (1909-1990) was an accomplished artist. In 2006, my family published a book about her and her art. Here are a few samples of her work.

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English Under Attack

March 2009. If one test of being a first world country is language abuse, South Africa easily holds its own with England and America. Words matter. Phrases, sentences, paragraphs – if they purport to convey what we mean, and certainly what we think, they should be precise and accurate. On promotional materials, adverts, websites, television, radio, and yes, even in newspapers, I despair when I am so often confronted with jargon in place of thought as well as simply egregious mistakes in English. I’m picking on English because that’s the language I know, but I wonder if it would be just as easy to find examples in South Africa’s other ten official languages. Regardless, here are some examples, with comments from the South African bush, but I’m sure readers can apply them to South African urban life:

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Fire Ignites, Community Responds

September 2008. We know they’re coming when, in late August, the Waterberg sky turns from its fine winter blue to a dusty haze. We know they’re coming when the still air kicks up into light breezes and then winds. We know they’re coming because the rainless months have left the tall grass desiccated and yellow. We don’t need to hear the SA Weather Service advice that in many parts of the country conditions are “extremely favourable for runaway fires”. What we don’t know is whether they’ll hold off a while and let summer’s first lightning ignite them, or if man’s negligence will be the cause.

Fire season in the Waterberg is upon us.

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South Africa's Fascination with America's 2008 Election

October 2008. It cannot be denied – South Africans are paying attention to the election of the next president of the United States. Politicians do so because they’re always interested in other politicians.

Newshounds do so because it’s news. But many other more normal South Africans are intrigued by the lengthy, lengthy campaign, and there are several explanations as to why.

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Equus Waterberg Fund

It's still called the "undiscovered" Waterberg region of South Africa. It is remote (though only three hours from Johannesburg), sparsely populated, and quite beautiful with its rugged mountains, water courses, and wildlife. It is also very poor.

The Waterberg's employment base is traditionally on farms – predominantly cattle and tobacco. Tourism is an increasing source of employment, at places such as horse safaris, luxury lodges on large "Big Five" reserves, bush camps in wilderness areas, game farms, and more.

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Big Tree

2007.  Next time you look at a map of Limpopo Province, you’ll notice a lot of empty space with few place names.  There’s plenty of room to designate Big Tree without impinging on any other geographic place.  And with a name as declarative as Big Tree, how could one resist a visit?  And so, on a slow trip from Equus to Pafuri in the Northern Kruger, we headed that way.

Pass through Tshipise, your classic rural habitation that looks to the hasty traveller as nothing more than a garage.  It is that.  On dusty, dirt tracks, we passed the occasional family, goat, cow, and scruffy homestead.  Before long, we came to a T-junction.  Thank goodness, it was well-sign posted, though not to where we were heading, but rather where we coming from.  Large, new green Roads Department signs.  One said Tshipise, with its arrow pointing right.  The other sign, not ten metres to the left, said Tshipise, with its arrow pointing left.  We were laughing too hard to think of taking a photo but we were happy to abide by the old adage – we came to a fork in the road, and indeed we took it.

We turned right. More dust, small communities, children, cattle and goats.  Alongside our dirt track were all the signs of major road construction – heavy equipment, wide swaths of cleared land, signs, markers, but no workers. 

In about 30 minutes, Big Tree with its very own big signpost.  It was easy to scope out the situation – there was the towering tree inside a large fenced area, not 100 metres from the entrance gate where we parked.  The attendant came to the bakkie window and with a smile pointed to the ticket booth.  Out of the vehicle I go, up to the small structure adjacent to the gate, with its own door in the back for the ticket seller to exit inside the fence, and with its own window in the front for tourists to queue up to purchase tickets outside the fence.  Two, said I, to the lady behind the window, difficult to make out behind the dark glass.  14 rand 32 she said, including VAT.  R14.32 said I, incredulous that the entrance charge would be such an odd amount, including VAT.  I gave her R20 and as quick as you like she filled out the ticket/invoice, dutifully pressing the Big Tree Development Company stamp first on the ink pad, then on the ticket/invoice, and slid me the correct change of R 5.68. 

Clearly their training in the tourism industry emphasized the importance of having plenty of exact change ready for the visitor, as well as a legitimate and legible ticket/invoice  We remain mystified, however, by the odd amount of the entrance fee, including VAT.

As I hopped back in the bakkie and the attendant opened the gate, I asked how many visitors have been there recently.  When he said we were the first of the day, I asked about the previous day.  “Eh, no visitors yesterday.”

A young chap materialized inside the gate.  He had been sitting quietly on the ground to the side, clean white shirt, worn pants and barefoot.  Without much ado, he was hired as our guide, what a surprise.  He directed us on the circuitous route of about 200 metres, leading us to the parking area outside the tree’s own personal fence.

The Baobab tree is a very striking feature which distinguishes Limpopo Province from the rest of South Africa.  Large Baobabs in the province are some of the biggest in the world.  Big Tree is the country’s largest – fully 39 metres wide (or maybe 43 metres) and 22 metres high (or is it 24 metres).  It is an awesome sight, and provides much to ponder – time, age, and nature.  Our guide had other things on his mind, however.  With the aid of his practiced eye and our imagination, he pointed out how the gnarled and twisted bark and branches looked like an elephant here, a giraffe there, and on and on and on, probably 30 different pieces of natural art.  In addition, he directed us to climb up and over some branches, into the tree’s very own trunk, a cave large enough, we were informed, to accommodate 30 standing people.  Probably proven with some frequency and great fun by local children.

Big Tree is very, very old, perhaps even as old as 3000 years, as our guide told us.  How did he know, we enquired?  Expecting such a silly tourist question, he was ready with the answer.  With all the gravity he could muster, he replied “Science tells us.”

What to make of Limpopo tourism efforts, employing three people full time at a remote location, starting construction of a proper tar road to bring the masses of tourists to Big Tree?  Ambitious?  Yes.  Wise?  No.

We didn’t make it to Sagole Spa not far down the road.

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