“Give him a farm in the Waterberg!”

Once the domain of outcasts and tough Boer farmers, the Waterberg is now becoming the natural habitat of the fabulously rich, the wildly talented, the enormously successful and the plain legendary.

by Chris Burgess

With the promise of a farm in the Waterberg, the dour Paul Kruger quickly banished any dissenting voices from the parochial and obscure Boer Republic of the Transvaal that he lorded over as first president.

If there was one man President Paul Kruger would like to have banished to the Waterberg it would no doubt have been Eugene Marais.

Kruger knew that many were never heard from again as they vanished into the sprawling bushveld, the preserve of a motley group of gunrunners, prospectors, adventurers and elephant hunters. And if there was one man President Kruger would have liked to see vanish into the wild bushveld of the Waterberg, it was Eugene Marais. By the age of 21, the fearless newspaper editor had already notched up a charge of treason, accusing the revered oom Paul’s government of gross corruption, among other things.

But fortunately for Marais the Boer war broke out first, and when the budding genius did eventually settle in the Waterberg it was not under any duress. Instead, he was rather pleased with the idea of sharing the company of a troop of Chacma baboons for three years, a welcome relief from the psychological strain of morphine addiction, the truamatic aftermath of the Boer war and the pain of his first wife’s death.

What Marais would discover on his lonely wanderings with the baboon troop, a loaded Mauser rifle tucked under his arm, would not only give the amateur naturalist a glimpse into the psyche of the primates, but would also, by implication, suggest theories about the human condition that would eventually help topple Freud.

Almost a century later, the Waterberg is once again proving it’s worth as a theatre of observation. This time around a slightly more sophisticated primate is involved.
One whose need for splendid isolation is rather the insatiable product of a life spent in the glare of the limelight. As the tough Boer farmers, some descendants of the legendary elephant hunters, disappear, so the fabulously rich, the wildly talented, the enormously successful and the plain legendary are all increasingly regarding the Waterberg as natural habitat.
And as with other decisions made during a successful evolution, habitat choice is prescribed by definite practicalities.

Situated mostly on a vast plateau, the Waterberg is cooler than the rest of the bushveld and is but three hours drive from Johannesburg International Airport. It’s also malaria free and hosts the Big Five – leopard, elephant, rhino, lion and buffalo. All contained within an area of such beauty that Marais described it as being “indelibly etched into the imagination”.

A mountain range, lying like an inverted saucer, carelessly cast aside on the vast thorn-tree- studded northern plain that stretches away endlessly into Botswana, the Waterberg is but one of only two vertical disruptions, the other being the Soutpansberg. Rising dramatically from the plains in the south, the seven krantz-fringed mountains known as the Seven Sisters Of The Plain herald the most southern approach of a mountain range stretches for 150 km in a lazy arc from Thabazimbi in the west, past Nylstroom in the south to Potgietersrus in the east. Home to an astounding variety of plants and animals, not only are cedar and yellowwood trees to be found in the cool gorges and deep valleys of the mountainous west, but also five species of protea, peculiarly more than 1 000 km away from the closest Western Cape’s fynbos.
As the mountains give way to undulating hills, dense bushveld appears, with the claustrophobic vegetation eventually changing to mopani and towering baobab trees further to the west.

“Look, you can go walking at any time of the year in the Waterberg and you will find a flower or a fruit to eat,” says Charles Baber, the man fondly known as ‘the patriarch of the Waterberg’, bearing out the spectacular natural bounty of the place.
One of the last remaining farmers, his Bonsmara cattle stud is now marooned in a sea of game farms, even though he was there first.

One of the first families to settle in the Waterberg, the Babers arrived more or less at the same time as Eugene Marais, just after the Boer war. But despite having the heart of a cattle farmer, Baber has seen the writing on the wall. Quite literally, on the walls and signboards of his local town Vaalwater, where all imaginable adjectives associated with the hunting or the game industry – campfire, Big Five, outspan, leopard – are used to advertise everything from boma poles to alcohol.

Formerly cattle country, Vaalwater today hosts more game sales than anywhere else in the country.
They are almost a weekly affair, and you can pick up anything from a lowly bushpig for R300 to the endangered black rhino for around R500 000.
As well as game watchers, there are legions of top Spanish, German, American and Arab hunters who, used to hunting the best locations in the world, demand nothing less than the biggest set of horns in the Waterberg. Baber explains: “The demand for rare species and the need for breeding stocks drive sales.” In addition to the cattle stud, Baber’s two sons manage world-class game-viewing operations, mostly on horseback.
One of their lodges, Ant’s Nest, was listed among the UK Tatler’s top 101 international destinations, with Pink Floyds Dave Gilmour listed as a recent guest.

”Guys have come up here, billionaires and left millionaires,” Baber sniggerswith the good nature that comes with having seen your fair share

And in 45 years of farming, you are bound to see things. Baber remembers the influx of farmers from newly independent Zambia and Zimbabwe back in the 1960s. Famous for their spectacular agricultural successes in Africa’s hinterland. Baber recalls,” They taught us locals to really think big.” Now the game farms have come, and people are once again thinking big. “Guys have come up here billionaires and left millionaires,” Baber sniggers with the good nature that comes with having seen your fair share of ups and downs. “Sometimes fencing the farms costs more than the ground itself.”
And with game fencing costing about R25 000 a kilometre, you can understand why. It’s the sort of hobby reserved for people with serious money to burn.

These guys aren’t always looking for a return on their investment.” Baber admits.
There are quite a few landowners in the Waterberg who can subsidise an expensive hobby with a hefty alternative income.
Counted among them is the “Waste King,” as the locals refer to Heinz Heuser, a German South African businessman, who first ran Enviroserve, then Wade Refuse, in Johannesburg.
His presence is complemented by the ‘Chicken King’, Andrew Mehtvin of Rainbow Chicken Fame.

With this sort of money washing around, it’s no wonder that a local recounts a story about Auto and General founder, Douw Steyn’s attitude towards spending money on his bosveldplaas, with an unbelieving smile.
When Steyn was told that the watering hole he was planning might not be able to hold water in the dry season. Steyn allegedly remarked, half-jokingly: “Well, when it dries, I’ll just pump the water from Mozambique.”

Just outside Vaalwater, about 10 km on the Melkrivier road, a series of painted tin logos featuring the head of a sable antelope emblazoned on the backdrop of an Italian flag, are fixed to a game fence. Advertising African Safaris, they bear the silent testament to another wave of buyers lured to the bushveld by a cheap Rand and the promise of a bargain.

Back then buying Clifton beach houses in euros, Plettenberg polo ponies in dollars and picturesque wine farms of the Western Cape in pounds was a great investment.
But with a substantially stronger rand. South Africa seems to have retained the eye of the international buyers, with legendary American investor, Warren Buffet recently buying land in the Waterberg.
Maybe because – unlike more traditional African destinations – South Africa offers not only the thrill of a true African Wilderness, but also dazzling First-world amenities like the swanky shopping centres of Sandton, Tygervalley and Cape Town Waterfront.
The option of freehold title also makes South Africa a safer investment option than the 99-year leases available elsewhere in Africa.
But in South Africa, as in most african countries, land always translate into politics.
With foreigners increasingly investing in land, the government suddenly found itself unable to afford to buy in certain areas for its land-reform programme.
So it set up a task team to investigate the feasibility of limiting foreign land ownership, despite howls of protest from opposition parties who darkly muttered about the damning message it would send to foreign investors. When chief land claims commisioner, Tozi Gwanya heard of Buffet’s recent acquisition he warned that Buffet was doing so “at his own risk.”

But it is not only foreigners chasing up land prices. Just ask Clive Walker. Known for his conservation work with the white rhino and the critically endangered black rhino, the celebrated conservationist spent 11 years buying up farms for Cape Town businessman Dale Parkers 36 000 ha Lapalala Reserve. “Back in the 1980s land was going for as little as R100 a hectare.” Walker remembers. “Today you will be lucky to get away with paying R5 000 a hectare, and that’s if you can find any land at all.”
As the farms were bought, so the character of the place started changing. “At first the farmers didn’t want to know anything about selling, but the money eventually being offeredsimply became too much to refuse.” Walker recalls.

Buying farms that had belonged to families for oftenmore than a 100 years came at a price.
One Waterberg Afrikaner didn’t greet Walker, daardie Engelsman (that Englishman), for more than 15 years after having been approached by Walker to buy his farm.

Now retired from Lapalala. Walker runs a small museum out in the bush. One section is dedicated to Eugene Marais, another to his lifelong passion, the black rhino, and a third to vanished cultures of the Waterberg.
Wedged between the Bushmen and the BaPedi exhibits is one dedicated to the vanished Afrikaner Pioneers, a silent testament to the tough Boer farmers of yesteryear who fell victim, or benefited, from the rich and powerful’s need to own vast open spaces {depending on which way you look at it). Searching for the words to describe the changes she has seen over the years. Shelley Zeederberg says, “When I married and came to settle in Vaalwater 30 years ago, I had to learn to speak afrikaans within a week. Now I wish I had learnt to speak Italian or German.”

Her husband, Arthur Zeederberg, is a direct descendant of a famous pioneering family. Arthur’s great-grandfather moved into the Waterberg around a time of Baber’s ancestors but instead of farming, the Zeederbergs went into transport riding, eventually not only dominating the stagecoach routes into Botswana and Rhodesia, but also becoming the first to pioneer the use of Zebra as draught animals. The Zeederbergs true to their trading routes, run the local Spar.

“Let me put it to you this way Arthur says, “Edith Venter recently hosted a fundraiser for the local school and netted about R35 000.
Chester Williams, Francois Pienaar and Kobus Wiese were all there” Meanwhile, the Farmer Association Hall has had to be rented out to cover the cost of its maintenance.

Ironically it was an Afrikaner who sparked the buy-up land that would eventually see the Afrikaner farmers of old disappear.
Back in the 1990s, businessman Pienkes dup Plessis was better known to ordinary South Africans as the father of Janie du Plessis, the 1990s teenage television goddess whose career celebrity-starved South africans have followed ever since.
Pienkes started by buying 50 cattle farms and lumping them together to form the exclusive
36 000 ha game park, today known as Welgevonden Game Reserve.

But the financial strain of establishing a truly world class game park saw the corporate muscle of Rand Merchant Bank eventually supporting the venture. Catering for the upper end of the market, the reserve today boasts 50 lodges, with about a third privately owned, a third run as commercial lodges, and the remaining third belonging to companies and business consortia as venues to entertain important guests.

Cyril Ramaphosa, Harry Oppenheimer, and initially Douw Steyn were some of the first private investors.
Dimension Data and Nedcor now own lodges, and accommodation can set you back R8 000 per night.
The massive investment has also yielded a unique conservation model. Divided into 500 ha allotments, only one lodge can be built per allotment and strict building prescriptions govern designs. The lodges may only house 10 guests, they have to be built out of sight of each other, and all need to face the same direction.

In return for owning a lodge in the middle of an African Eden every owner pays the Welgevonden holding company a management levy, which is then used to manage the game and veld.

Douw Steyn an early investor in Welgevonden, chafed against the restrictions and eventually broke away, investing in a vast tract of land next door. Not only did he stock it with the Big Five, he also built former President Nelson Mandela a mansion, (rumoured to be 4 000 suare metres)
on the reserve in an attempt to stop the aging statesman from travelling. Instead, he hoped, guests would rather visit Mandela there.

The approach seems to be working. Whoopi Goldenberg, among others, attended the housewarming, and Bill Clinton’s bodyguards recently popped into Arthur and Shelley’s Spar for Cokes.
Madiba is also rumoured to be working on the second instalment of his memoirs at his Waterberg retreat.

With such visitors, it’s no wonder that Christo Steyn, a local estate agent, when asked about the possibility of visiting Douw Steyn’s farm, remarked matter-of-factly, “You won’t even get past the front gate. It’s simply off limits.”

It’s a sentiment that Eugene Marais, the great naturalist, would ironically have appreciated. When Marais started living with his troop of baboons the interaction between man and ape had been softened by the absence of hunters in the Waterberg for many years.

Those farmers whose land had not been burnt to the ground by Lord Kitchener, were either disarmed or imprisoned in the aftermath of the Boer War, but as the years passed, the hunters returned, and Marais never got close to his troop again.

Today, with powerful interests intent on retaining the Waterberg as a pristine Wilderness, Marais would no doubt have once again considered returning to look for his beloved baboons.

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