Review by Vincent Carruthers | River of Gold by Peter Norton, Michael Gardner and Clive Walker. Jacana Media. Johannesburg. 2015. Price R280.00 (Special launch offer during April R230.00)

River of Gold is a remarkable new book about an even more remarkable South African river: the iconic Limpopo. The authors take the reader with them on a journey of 1 800 km along the length of the Crocodile-Limpopo River from its source in urban Johannesburg to its mouth on the Mozambique coast. And what a journey it is! Combining superb photographs, history and legend, geology, geography and anecdotes, the three men who have put this book together have each had a long and intimate association with one of our country’s best known but least explored rivers.


The style of the book is relaxed and informal. There is an introduction to the work as a whole, followed by five chapters, one on each of the five sections into which the Limpopo has been divided. The first section deals with the Crocodile River from its source to the confluence with the Marico River. This is of immediate relevance to residents and visitors to the newly proclaimed Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve. Here, text and pictures include historical events as well as principal aspects such as the Cradle of Humankind, the Magaliesberg range and the Hartbeespoort Dam. The discussion on the source of the river introduces a conundrum – is it a spring under St Mary’s Cathedral or the seep above the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens?
Continuing the journey, what happens to the Crocodile River after it leaves Hartbeespoort Dam and flows towards Botswana changing its name to Limpopo? As the river swings northwards, spectacular tributaries off the Waterberg join it and here exciting adventures of famous nineteenth century pioneers and hunters enter the story. Then, at the northern apex of its long, horse-shoe course the Limpopo passes the Mapungubwe World Heritage site. Here the book is crowded with little-known facts and fantasies we follow the river eastwards through some of the most remote parts of South Africa. Readers are introduced to ancient Iron Age cultures, hunters, chiefs and tribes with illustrations of the spectacular scenery. The final chapter deals with the floodplain in Mozambique over which the authors travelled together (seldom getting out of second gear) to reach the remote mouth of the river.
In addition to being a wonderful repository of information, River of Gold is also a personal journey. The three authors have all had their own adventures along the river at various times which they relate and many of the illustrations are personal ones of themselves and their families taken over several decades.

The enormous scope of information in River of Gold is not presented as a continuous readable narrative. It is an assembly of many bite-sized texts, either as subtitled passages or different lengths of text boxes each dealing with a particular topic. Biographical sketches, geological explanations and slices of ancient history are randomly strung together like a necklace of beads sustaining the readers’ interest by their very diversity. This is a book to be dipped into rather than to be read from cover to cover.

Unfortunately the book is not without flaws. The most important of these is that there is no index. As explained, a wide and very varied assortment of facts is scattered randomly in the pages as the five sections of the Limpopo River are described. It is therefore almost impossible for the reader to access a specific topic or piece of information without laboriously hunting it down and turning page by page. An index is as imperative to a work of this nature as a search facility is to Google. The second deficiency is that end-note references are given for the sources from which the huge diversity of information was amassed. But, alas, most of the end-notes I randomly checked are mis-numbered and easy referencing to further reading is lost to the reader. It is to be hoped that subsequent editions will include an index and that the careless editing is corrected.
Despite the defects, however, River of Gold is a delightful book to own, particularly for those of us with a connection to the river as it flows through the Magaliesberg Biosphere region.

Photograph (inset): Braamfontein Spruit. Conservation and civic concern keep some of the headwaters of the Crocodile-Limpopo River as delightful urban beauty spots.

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