Situated in a fertile valley at the head of Magoebaskloof, Tzaneen is the second-largest town in the Northern Province. The town was established in 1919 and its name is variously said to mean ‘gathering place’ (derived from the word tsaneng), or tsana, meaning ‘basket of hills’. Tzaneen is the centre of one of the country’s largest subtropical fruit-producing areas, and is known for its pawpaws, mangos, avocados and tea, while citrus fruit, litchis, winter vegetables and timber are other important crops. It is also a popular tourist centre and a good base for numerous scenic drives through the region. The Tzaneen Museum recounts the history and culture of the region’s diverse cultural groups.
Among the many interesting exhibits are the royal drums of the Rain Queen, Modjadji, the largest collection of pole carvings in the country, pottery dating back 1 600 years and various ethnological artefacts. The Tzaneen Dam, on the town’s outskirts, is a popular site for activities South African holidays featuring angling, water-sport and bird watching opportunities.
Since the first tea plantations were established on the slopes of the Magoesbaskloof Valley in 1963, Tzaneen has become an important tea-producing area and large tracts are now covered by verdant green tea plantations. At the Sapekoe tea estate – the name is a combination of ‘Sa’ for South Africa and ‘pekoe’, the Chinese name for tea – visitors can take a guided tour of the estate and factory. The estate is located on the slopes of Magoebaskloof to the west of Tzaneen.
In 1888, rumours of a rich gold strike in the Murchison range caused a rush of diggers to the newly discovered goldfields. Situated in the Lowveld, however, malaria and blackwater and yellow fever took a heavy toll. When the Mining Commissioner, Christian Joubert, visited the area in 1890, the miners appealed to him for a site on which to build a hospital. His choice was a spot along the Thabina River, and the hospital was named after his wife, Agatha.
It was a poor choice, though, as malaria was rife here too, and the facility was later moved to higher ground in the vicinity of the homestead of Chief Mmamathola. Named New Agatha, the government building served as both administrative centre and hospital. In August 1894, the little outpost came under attack several times from the Mmamathola.
The history of New Agatha is closely linked to the days when the stage coaches operated by the Zeederburg Brothers and George Heys travelled between Pretoria and Leydsdorp, a journey which took four-and-a-half days. The weekly Zeederburg service was started in 1890, with overnight stops at Nylstroom, Agatha, Pietersburg and Haenertsburg, where Heinrich Schulte Altenroxel built a wayside inn in 1892.
Known as the Kwagga Service, the Zeederburgs tried to overcome the tsetse fly problem by using tame zebras instead of mules, but the idea was abandoned as the zebras were too unpredictable. The hotel was moved to New Agatha a few years later and became a regular coaching stop until 1916, when the service was discontinued following the completion of the railway line between Tzaneen and Pietersburg.
Although traces of gold were first discovered in the foothills of the Murchison range in 1870, mining was initially not economical here. It was not until the discovery of richer deposits by Auguste Robért in 1888 that miners swarmed to the area. Two years later, a government administrative centre was established on Robért’s camp and named after Dr W Leyds, the State Secretary of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) at the time.
Leydsdorp soon developed into a busy mining settlement with a police station, hospital, post office, hotel, bars, trading stores and an odd assortment of miners’ cottages. The town even had its own newspaper, the Leydsdorp Leader. Construction of a railway line linking what became known as the Selati Gold Fields to Komatipoort, where it joined the Eastern Line, began in 1892, but numerous problems delayed completion of the line until 1912.
Leydsdorp’s prosperity was short-lived, though; many miners died of fever and the village suffered from a shortage of water. So, when gold was discovered in the Sutherland range, many miners drifted further north and Leydsdorp gradually became a ghost town. In 1950, the last residents left and the village was abandoned until its restoration as a tourist attraction in the late 1990s.