Turning a dream into a reality
How Morning Sun Nature Reserve and Mashovhela Lodge came about by Dr. Hans H HAHN
Africa the Early Days
Ever since I, as a youngster in 1948, set foot on African soil, I became passionate about the bush and its nature and wildlife. My sense of adventure and romanticism made me explore and discover some of the most unspoiled regions of Southern Africa and learn their many secrets. I watched with horror the rapid encroachment of civilization into my secret bush hideouts, the degradation of natural habitat and the destruction there of fauna and flora, while trying to capture the shrinking remnants on cine film and photographs.
Searching for a Property
Realising that mere documentation was not enough, I started looking for a piece of relatively unspoiled land for me and my family to develop and conserve a conservation area. In 1970 a personal friend, Mervin Woodrow, who was then the owner of the Farm Zwarthoek, introduced me to a farm adjoining his own called Little Leigh. My wife and I went to look at the place: it was the end of a 16 year drought, the river was dry, huge ancient indigenous trees were dying and falling over in the river bed, the few Venda families who had previously eked out a precarious existence in the mountains, had abandoned their huts and worked-out patches of land to the encroaching sickle bush. The few existing rough foot paths were impassable by vehicle. In spite of this picture of stark desolation, the farm had retained some of its inherent beauty. I went to the owner right away and signed the Deed of Sale.
Exploring the Farm
For several years, when visiting little Leigh, my family and I camped by the riverside below what is now the site of the Lodge and slowly we began exploring the dense bush of the valley and up into the mountains. After our camp had been almost washed away after a heavy rain storm, we first built a very primitive shelter which, progressively, developed into a small rough house. Our only source of drinking water then was a spring which we called "Old Faithful" because it supplied us and wild animals faithfully with clean water over several decades.
Expanding the Boundaries
In the meantime, my friend Mervin was forced to sell Zwarthoek. I bought the farm from him, thereby almost tripling the size of the property. Some time later, another adjoining Farm "Morningsun" was sold to me. Events such as these slowly allowed the area available for conservation to grow to more than 3000 ha. By further purchases and cooperation agreements it is hoped to increase the conservation area to an even more viable size. This will hopefully remain an ongoing process.
Long Term Prospects
At an early stage I had concluded that, in order to preserve and conserve a property of such size for posterity and protect it against the pressures of a growing population, the property could not forever remain a private family refuge but had to be opened up to a broader conservation-conscious public, in close cooperation with our indigenous Venda neighbours. In the true meaning of conservation, the property needed to be utilized in a sustainable manner so that, in the longer term, its preservation and the restoration of previously degraded habitat would become self-sustaining.
For the first about 20 years the property remained mostly inaccessible. The present access road was a rough track which in rainy weather became almost impassable. Exploring the property, necessary to discover its many secrets and natural treasures, was possible only on foot.
The Start of Development
In 1988, my son Norbert decided that he was tired of city life and that he would help me to develop the property into a nature reserve. He moved into the house, assembled a team of local Venda helpers, mostly women who, manually with bush slashers, picks and shovels, opened up our present 4 x 4 road system and progressively improved the main access road.
With another team of unskilled helpers he laboriously built the Venda-style "rondavel" huts which still exist today but which initially were in a much rougher state, and made few concessions to creature comforts and aesthetics.
The site for building the rondavels was originally chosen not only for its unique atmosphere but also because it was close to the house and was already degraded by the remnants of a small Venda settlement which had been abandoned during the drought more than 20 years earlier. The site, whilst offering a dramatic panoramic rock face view, was challenging topographically and because of the confined space available. On the other hand, these same spatial restrictions were helpful in developing an environmentally friendly, stand-alone, alternative energy infrastructure, independent of the public power grid and in keeping the drinking water, hot water and sanitation systems as compact as possible.
Progress slowed down after Norbert discovered his real interest in life and became ever more involved in botanical research, obtaining his Master of Science degree at the then University of Natal, and more recently, his PhD degree at the University of Pretoria.
However, Norbert's research work, his resultant involvement with scientists from all over the world, and his serving on conservation-orientated committees, and meeting political and traditional leaders, is of great value to the project. Norbert's multi-disciplinary approach has made him a recognized authority and source of knowledge on the natural and cultural history of the region, its fauna, flora and people, its archaeology, geology and climatology.
Norbert's contributions to an understanding of the endemism and unique biodiversity of the Soutpansberg Region (including his discoveries and identification of numerous species new to science) enjoy international recognition.
The limited building skills of the labour force available to Norbert were a further handicap.
Ingrid Takes Over
In 2003 (after having lived in Europe for six years), my daughter Ingrid, an artist, qualified goldsmith and jewellery designer, decided to add her own skills to the project. Together with her little boy she moved into one of the rondavels and built up a new builders team, still using local helpers but under the supervision of a more experienced Venda builder and his bricklayers and carpenters.
Like Norbert before her, Ingrid endeavoured to use locally available materials - wherever possible. Norbert, serving on several conservation committees and environmental initiatives had, in the meantime, initiated an ambitious wetland reclamation project on the property, which entailed the eradication of a forest of invasive exotic eucalyptus trees. A local mini-entrepreneur, owner of a portable sawmill was hired to cut up the huge logs into planks of various sizes. These were carefully stacked and allowed to dry for over a year in temporary drying shacks. This beautifully coloured, but extremely hard wood was eventually used by our own labour force for most of the woodwork now to be seen at Mashovhela Lodge, including almost all its furniture.
Ingrid proceeded to drastically renovate and improve the existing rondavels. She developed further the concept of a stylised Venda village by the construction of typical Venda style patio walls to provide improved privacy, creating indoor and outdoor sculpted murals of her own design and generally took charge of the entire decor of the Lodge.
The main building (reception, restaurant, kitchen, bar, lounge and conference facilities) was designed and built under her direction from scratch and so were the spacious outdoor leisure areas, including boma and swimming pool.
Extensive staff quarters, workshops, power generator and store facilities had to be provided, where previously there had been nothing.
After "Old Faithful" had dried up during one of our repeated droughts, two strong boreholes were drilled, one for gardening purposes and the other, drilled 75 meters down into solid rock, to provide very clean spring water for the Lodge. In the semi-arid Soutpansberg region, clean water is a scarce and precious commodity to be used with respect and sparingly.
In order to minimize the emission of green house gases, our hot water is heated, as far as possible, by solar energy, supplemented by (eucalyptus) wood-fired boilers built to my design. Environmentally friendly LPG gas geysers serve as a standby.
For lighting and electrical power we rely, in the first instance, again on solar energy (photovoltaic panels) supplemented (as little as possible) by diesel-powered generators. As soon as we can, we shall switch over to biodiesel for our generators. To save on fuel we have installed three generators (30kVA and 50kVA respectively) always using the smallest generator suitable for the job.
Due to our policy of eradicating invasive species of exotic trees (eucalyptus and wattle), we can harvest an ongoing supply of combustible biomass and firewood. Otherwise only dead indigenous trees and slashings may be used for firewood.
For many years I have been actively involved in the development of improved wood gas technology. It is intended to eventually run our diesel generators on wood gas produced from such combustible biomass.
Our guests are encouraged to support our environmental endeavours by using hot water and electricity sparingly, and to help us protect our natural vegetation and wildlife, big and small, and our habitat.
Choosing a Name from the Venda Culture
Choosing a name for our nature reserve and lodge became a topic for lengthy debate. Originally I had intended to name the whole property "Mashovhela Nature Reserve". Mashovhela is the name of our beautifully mysterious rock pool, in walking distance of the lodge. Mashovhela, also traditionally known as the place where the drums can be heard, is the second-most-sacred place in Venda folklore. This sacred site is still used occasionally by sangomas in rain-making ceremonies, like a few years ago - shortly after which we and all of Vendaland had the heaviest rains and most devastating floods in living memory. Most of the ancient trees bordering and shading Mashovhela rock pool were washed away by those floods which dramatically changed the course of the riverbed and deepened it in places by up to three meters.
According to Venda culture, the legendary and powerful Venda king Thohoiyandu mysteriously disappeared from his royal kraal one night and took with him the sacred drum which was endowed with mystical powers. Neither were ever seen again. Tradition has it that it is this sacred drum can sometimes be heard in the echoes from the rock cliffs of Mashovhela pool.
Unfortunately, "Mashovhela" is a name difficult to remember, not only by white people but even by non-Venda black South Africans. As a compromise and after long debate, I settled for retaining the name Mashovhela for the lodge but naming the property as a whole "Morning Sun Nature Reserve". "Morningsun" is the name of the farm which is crossed before entering farm Little Leigh, on which the lodge is situated.
"Morning Sun" is easy on the tongue and Morningsun farm is situated near the eastern entry to the property, quite literally where the sun rises in the morning. The name is a symbol of hope for the success of our conservation efforts.
Louis Trichardt Accommodation
The reserve now offers top quality eco-friendly accommodation, allowing people to experience Louis Trichardt, the Soutpansberg and the local Venda Culture.
Soutpansberg Accommodation | Eco-friendly Accommodation South Africa | Venda Culture | Louis Trichardt Accommodation | South Africa Culture