Taking the N1 through Limpopo up to the Zimbabwean border is a long drive and there’s not much to do or see along it. That’s if you’re in a hurry along this stretch of the national route which runs right through South Africa – from Cape Town to Beit Bridge, the border separating South Africa from Zimbabwe.
Should you take time and turn it into a proper road-trip, a delightful part of the country will open its welcoming arms to you. From hot mineral springs to the vast gorge in the Blyde River, the spectacular viewing from Wyllie’s Poort to game farm after game farm – there is actually a great deal to do and see.
You could, of course, miss most of the towns alongside the N1, if you didn’t know what to look out for – Bela-Bela (formerly Warmbad), Modimolle (Nylstroom), Mookgophong (Naboomspruit), Mokopane (Potgietersrus), Polokwane (Pietersburg), Makhado (Louis Trichardt) and Musina (Messina): new names for old towns.
Don’t be in such a hurry. There is excellent and plentiful accommodation all along the various routes leading away from the N1. Staying over can be an actual pleasure in of itself.
Just about a hundred kilometres north of Pretoria, Bela-Bela lies just off the N1. It houses some of the best known and popular hot springs in the country. Used for centuries by elephant and buffalo, but also the local human population, it became a state entity in 1873. It is now visited by 250 000 people a year. Consider booking ahead of time, just to be on the safe side.
2. Marakele National Park.
You could also drive on to Thabazimbi on the R516 and visit the Marakele National Park. You’ll be able to view the Big Five and the largest colony of the endangered Cape Vultures in the world plus a wide variety of buck and bird. The roads are excellent and the accommodation affordable.
3. Nylsvley Nature Reserve
Back to the N1 and then off again to have a look at the Nylsvley Nature Reserve near Modimolle, the place to visit if you’re a serious birder. If not, go anyway – there are up to 80 000 birds, there, at the same time. Not surprising, as the 4 000 hectare reserve has around 370 bird species.
You can then go back to the N1 via the nearby Mookgophong which also offers some hot springs which surface around the nearby Waterberg. Then on to Mokopane which probably has the best aloe display in the country – some 4 000 plants, a forest of colour in mid-winter when they flower.
4. Blyde River Canyon
Next is the provincial capital Polokwane – no longer a town but a bustling city, the commercial capital of the north where cattle ranches abound nearby, with a university on its outskirts as well as 2 000 hectare nature reserve and recreation park. It is also the gateway to the northern part of the Kruger National Park.
You’ll get there via the spectacular Magoebaskloof with its winding road, indigenous forests and fly-fishing, and then through Phalaborwa. You ought really to take some time and go south to experience the Blyde River Canyon and its majestic 26 km gorge.
Again back to the N1 and Makhado with its famous Soutpansberg Hiking Trail. You can also head due east through great scenery to get to the Punda Milia gate, the northern most entry to the Kruger.
Then from the town itself it is upwards along the steep Soutpansberg and its remarkable Wyllie’s Poort – two tunnels to take you through the mountain with some great views from the top, looking south even beyond Makhado.
Oh, not often thought of, but there are examples of San rock art in the region.
Then it is the land of the baobab and the mopane trees. Near the last town of Musina is a must: the remarkable archaeological heritage site of Mapungubwe, dating back to around 1200 AD – a world heritage site, described as the centre of the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned in the 14th century.
Then it is Beit Bridge, recently upgraded and modernised – once you’re on it, that’s the end of the N1. Think about it for a moment: almost 2 000 km of the best road in the world stretches away from you to the southern-most tip of the continent!