Modjadji, S. Africa 2023
I heard of the modern existence of the 200 million year old species of the cycad in Africa. So, while trekking South Africa in 2023, I made it point to visit the Modjadji Cycad Reserve. This reserve was located in northeastern section of South Africa, in the province of Limpopo.
The location of the Modjadji Cycad Reserve is about 377 km northeast of Pretoria, South Africa. To get to the Modjadje Cycad Reserve from Pretoria, South Africa, we took the N1 North to Polokwane (Pietersburg).
Once in Polokwane, we turned east on R71 towards Tzaneen. Once bypassing the Lobedu Mountains and north of Tzaneen we took the R36 to Modjadjiskloof, where we followed the signs to the Modjadji village and then onto the cycad reserve. Unfortunately, the reserve was closed but the construction workers and security guards allowed us to explore the area.
Modjadji is home to the tallest cycads in southern Africa, and the largest concentration of a single species of Modjadji cycad, Encephalartos transvenosus, anywhere in the world, (pictured below).
The cycad is an ancient plant, resembling a palm or tree fern, which first appeared over 200 million years ago.
The survival and protection of the Modjadji cycads today is due entirely to the “rain queen”. Over 400 years ago, a Shona lady called Dzugudini fell pregnant before marriage and had to flee her tribe. She and some followers fled south and settled near present-day Tzaneen. She founded the Lobedu tribe who still live here. It was said that Dzugudini too with her the secret of making the rain fall, and so, although the tribe was very small, they were respected by the surrounding tribes and were never attacked. Since the early 1800s the tribe has been ruled by a Modjadji or “rain queen” who is not allowed to marry, but may have children. Above all she protects the Modjadji cycads that have grown to be the tallest in South Africa. Revered for her rain making powers, the Modjadji Rain Queen was said to have struck fear even in the heart of the mighty Zulu warrior, King Shaka.
These protected plant species not only grow in profusion in the area, but are giants in the genus of 29 species, with specimens up 13 meters high, and bearing cones that may weigh up to 34 kilograms.
Pictured above, the setting here is superb. When mist does not obscure the view, the visitor gazes over the cycad forest to the Lowveld and the Kruger National Park.
We took a gentle hike through the reserve, which had a series of paths that lead up and down the mountain slopes, (pictured above).
Pictured above, there was a small museum at the cycad reserve mountain rim, and a little shop selling refreshments and curios. It was abandoned and closed-down when my trekking group was there in 2023, exploring the reserve.
Pictured above, the Encephalartos transvenosus, with its glossy dark-green leaves, is one of the most spectacular and tallest of all cycad species. It is also one of the fastest growing, the seedlings growing rapidly and developing into an attractive tree with 1-m long leaves in four to five years.
The stem reaches a height of 12 to 13 m and 0.4-0.45 m in diameter. Typical of the species is the appearance of numerous dormant buds along the base of the stem. The new leaves are light green covered with fine brown hairs, while the mature leaves develop to from 1.5 to 2.5 m in length and are dark green and glossy. The leaflets, attached to the leaf stalk, are 160-250 x 25-45 mm, but reduce in size closer to the base of the leaf stalk. The leaflets overlap and a distinguishing feature is that these leaflets are reflexed from the leaf stalk.
Pictured above, the Modjadji Cycad, Encephalartos transvenosusis is regarded as a tree as it develops to a height of 6 to 8 m or more with a leaf spread of up to 5 m.
Pictured above, being a gymnosperm, these plants produce cones. They are dioecious, which means male and female cones are produced on separate plants. Male cones develop to a length of 300-400 mm; the female cones are very large and heavy. The cones are golden brown in color and are produced in late summer, weighing more than 40 kg, (pictured below).
On our way back to the Modjadji Gate, we came across a large group of Vervet Monkeys in a large tree, (pictured below).
Pictured above, the Vervet Monkey Cercopithecus aethiops was bluish-grey with a black face and long tail. The males were larger than the females with a characteristic blue scrotum. This troop seemed to have a distinct social hierarchy. Omnivorous and feeding on the fruit to this tree. The large tree was a Nyalatree, (pictured below).
Pictured above, the Nyalatree Xanthocercis zamdesiaca is an evergreen to semi-deciduous tree. It had a single short trunk. The old stems were grooved and dented with branch-ends that were pendent. The Bark was grey and rough, but did not peel off. This particular Nyalatree had a height of 22m, spread with a 29 m girth. This was an impressive tree.
Pictured above, the fruits of the Nyalatree were extremely abundant. While on the tree, the fruit was eaten by these primates. They occurred in ovoid drupes, (berry-like), and were individually oval in shape. The fruit pulp were floury, sticky and apparently edible.