April 2009. Here's a little introduction to the Waterberg: Geography; History; Growth and Change; Education; Government; Environment, Ecology, and Conservation.
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.
The ruins of several Iron Age settlements are located in the Waterberg. Some may have been inhabited as early as the mid-1500s and as recently as the 1800s. Archeologists suggest that the stone-walled settlements at high points were probably built for defensive reasons. They believe that the stone walls were constructed with upright slabs, somewhat like monoliths, forming complex arrangements of lanes, arcs and oval enclosures. These sites were probably built by Nguni speakers, the ancestors of the present Ndebele living in the Mokopane/Polokwane area (formerly Potgietersrus/Pietersburg). Or maybe, in similar settlements, by Setswana.
Since the mid-1800s, whites (mainly Afrikaners) settled in the Waterberg. Grave cairns on burial sites show the arrival of Christianity about this time. Early settlers found virtually no mineral wealth, and instead grew and bred what they were able to sell and use for their own survival, most notably maize and cattle. Tobacco was introduced much later in the 20th century and citrus within the last twenty years.
The Waterberg’s remoteness, dangerous wild animals, and the threat of malaria reputedly prompted Paul Kruger, the President of the South African Republic from 1883 to 1900, to deal with troublesome politicians with the order “Give him a farm in the Waterberg”, providing the impetus for the settlement at Vaalwater, still the only significant town in the heart of the Waterberg.
The original Vaalwater was totally rural, with the earliest shops and schools established as the population grew. The first school was established in a home; by the 1920s, it was moved to a building on Hartebeestpoort Farm. Vaalwater had a few shops, a hotel, a post office, and a cooperative that served the surrounding farming community. The railway line opened in the mid-1920s, served passengers until the 1990s and carried freight into the early 2000s.
Growth and Change. Tobacco was extremely profitable until recent years and cattle farming still does very well. Since the early 1980s, tourism and conservation enterprises have grown – game farms and hunting, second-home (time-share) developments and luxury lodges on “Big Five” reserves, private reserves and special species research areas, horse safaris and bush camps in wilderness areas. The traditional employment base of agriculture is gradually being replaced by employment in tourism and conservation.
Education. For most of its history, the Waterberg's poor have suffered from an indifferent education system. Worse, children of farm workers who lived on the farm (the great majority) had no schools at all. Farm schools – those established by the government and farmer expressly for the workers' children and neighbouring farm children – were developed. The quality of education was poor, the facilities and equipment quite minimal, but it was something.
Dr. Peter Farrant established the Meetsetshehla Secondary School on his farm (adjacent to the town of Vaalwater) in 1986, serving the children who received their primary education at various farm schools in the Waterberg. Meetsetshehla is now a state-aided, independent school with a dedicated staff and teachers providing a high standard of education to a very disadvantaged community. Matric results have improved dramatically in recent years and there is active support from the Waterberg community.
The Waterberg Academy, a private school established in 2003, provides a significant alternative to traditional education for young children of families determined to remain in the Waterberg. There are also primary and secondary government schools in Leseding and a government primary school in Vaalwater.
Government. Vaalwater is in Limpopo Province, one of South Africa’s nine provinces. All of the town of Vaalwater, and most but not all of the Waterberg, is in the Modimolle Municipality. Modimolle is the “new” name of Nylstroom. Vaalwater itself has been renamed as well, to Mabatlane. The renaming process however, was not done properly so the name has reverted to Vaalwater until further notice.
The Waterberg District of the Modimolle Municipality has an office in Vaalwater.
Environment, Ecology and Conservation. The Waterberg comprises a varied and wild landscape, including high mountain lookouts with incredible panoramic views, bushveld, sweeping grasslands, wetlands and dams, and hidden mountain streams. At about 1,830 metres (6,000 feet), Geelhoutkop is probably the highest point in the Waterberg. A very accessible high point in Marakele National Park is about 1,800 meters (5,900 feet).
In the May to September months of virtually no rainfall, dam levels are low and many watercourses dry completely. Nearly all of the area’s annual rainfall of 500-700 mm. (20-28 inches) occurs from October to April. During that period, dams fill and streams run hard and fast. Wildlife seeks and easily finds the water and vegetation turns many shades of green.
Some rain is soft and gentle, but much of the heavy rainfall comes in the form of majestic, severe storms. Lightning often ignites fires and rain, often but not always, puts them out. Cycles of fire and flood and drought have shaped the land for thousands of years and the balance of nature ensures that vegetation regenerates itself annually.
The Waterberg Nature Conservancy was established in 1989. It seeks to promote, conserve and protect the fauna, flora and wilderness areas, historical sites, river systems and natural heritage sites within the Waterberg Mountains; to promote the awareness of environmental issues by way of education, research, sustainable utilisation and tourism; to promote the upliftment, education and needs of the people employed within the Conservancy and surrounding rural communities; to promote, support or oppose legislation or other measures affecting the Conservancy and its members; and to represent its members in dealing with government departments, other authorities and the public generally.
In 2001, the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve was formally designated by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
A Biosphere Reserve ultimately establishes a cooperative and responsible approach to land management – an ethic of caring for the earth. The Waterberg Biosphere incorporates over 414,000 hectares (1,035,000 acres). It is one of 529 Biospheres around the world, of which five are in South Africa.