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Colonisation

European colonists tended to avoid the Lowveld; the sleeping-sickness laden tsetse fly and the near certainty that they would contract malaria gave the region an evil reputation.

There had also been skirmishes with some of the tribes, particularly the Swazis and Shangaan Tsonga clans who were both notorious foes. The whole area was populated by indigenous tribes, most of whom had never seen white men before and were far from welcoming.

Certain European pioneers did blaze a trail. De Kuiper performed a service to the cartographers by collecting and recording the names of the chiefs through whose territories he marched, and also the names of the rivers.

Finally, however, he and his fellow Dutch explorers were attacked by Blacks and forced to retreat to the Lebombo Mountains.

Though explorers and hunters from Mozambique probably found their way across the Limpopo from time to time, more than one hundred years were to elapse before the next expedition visited the district. Then, in 1836, came the Voortrekkers searching for a route to the coast.


Lioness shot at the front door of the Leydsdorp Hotel in the 1890s...

The Van Rensburg trek met disaster on the west bank of the Limpopo, only 80 kilometres east of Phalaborwa, where every member of the party was killed in the course of a savage attack by tribesmen.

Louis Trichardt and Hendrik Potgieter searched fruitlessly for them or their remains before making their way to the Portuguese coastal town of Delagoa Bay.

The Lowveld remained an environment into which sorties were launched in order to capture native cattle or hunt game. The area below Kowyn's Pass became the great hunting ground of the men of the old Republic. They trekked here in the winter with their stock and returned to their farms on the Highveld with wagons laden with biltong and antelope hides. In this way, they avoided the blistering heat of the summer, and the rain that brought its attendant dangers of malaria and sleeping sickness.


Lowveld Boer hunting party. A slaughter of Roan, Sable, Kudu, Waterbuck, Buffalo, Zebra, Leopard, Warthog and Wilderbeest

The scent of Gold

In 1890, came rumours of the discovery of gold on the banks of the Selati River near Leydsdorp. This started a rush to the Selati River Gold Field where Karl Mauch, the most optimistic geologist of the 19th century prophesied that gold would be found.

The quantity of gold recovered in this region would not have been of much use to a modern mining company. Nevertheless it proved enough to launch one of the great railway scandals of the day. The Baron Oppenheim and his brother floated the Selati Railway Company, in Brussels, to build a railway line from Komatipoort to the "new Transvaal gold field" near the Selati River. The line between the Portuguese border and Komatipoort had been opened on July 1st 1891, though the first train from Delagoa Bay did not reach Pretoria until October 1894.


Zeederberg postal coach arrives Pilgrims Rest, 1880s.

The Oppenheim brothers and their shareholders did not wait to find out how the new goldfield was prospering. They went ahead and laid 80 kilometres of track from Komatipoort to the point where Skukuza camp now stands in the Kruger Park. The next step was to build a bridge across the Sabie River. But that was the end of the line and of the company, which crashed owing its creditors R800,000. This 80 kilometre line was one of the most expensive railways ever built.

After the company had gone bankrupt, the line lay idle for 18 years with stacks of material and implements rusting beside the track and a locomotive standing in the sheds at Komatipoort. It became Stevenson-Hamilton's private line when he first took up his appointment as Chief Ranger of the Sabie Game Reserve. If he wanted to get to Komatipoort he mounted a trolley and, propelled by manpower, made a leisurely journey through the wild country he was shaping into a reserve.

In Komatipoort he caught the train to Pretoria; this was the only use to which the Selati line was ever put until 1912 when the South African Railways took over and extended it first to Tzaneen, and later to Soekmekaar, one of the most picturesque routes in South Africa through big game country. A railway made a great difference to an area that had always been regarded as the back of beyond.


Picnic with the family the colonial appropriation of Loolekop in Phalaborwa begins in earnest, 1938

The men who knew the Phalaborwa district best in the early days were the hunters and the prospectors, tough, fearless men. They routinely dealt with herds of buffalo and lion prides on foot. In later years, when the elephants began to return to what was still called "the game reserve", they were a considerable source of worry to the lonely men who camped there from time to time. Any prospector who worked in the district before the fence went up on the boundaries of the park will tell you that the sight of a man digging a prospecting pit arouses an elephant's curiosity. It has to know what is going on, even if it means coming right into camp for a close-up view of the proceedings.

Cleveland was perhaps the best-known of all the prospectors. Cleveland Kop is named after him and there is a Cleveland Place in Phalaborwa. Then there was Valentine, the corundum specialist, who made a number of important finds. Another well-known character in the district was a former British soldier named Scammell, who found and mined a deposit of copper-bearing ore. Some 80 years ago he owned and operated the Guide copper mine, quite close to where Namagale township is today. The professional geologists, whether they were asked to go there or not, have all paid Phalaborwa the compliment of visiting it-sometimes half a dozen times-just to see what has turned up since they were last there.