After the Zambezi, River Limpopo of eastern southern Africa is the second longest river draining into the Indian Ocean. The river is about 1,750 kilometres and its source is the confluence of Marico and Crocodile rivers. Its current name is a modification of an original version, ‘diphororo tsa metse’ whose translation is “gushing strong waterfalls”. The geographical course of the river forms a large arc as it snakes eastwards forming a border that separates South Africa from Botswana in the Northwest, and Zimbabwe, which lies in the North.
River Limpopo has over twenty tributaries, a reason why it never dries up even though it flows through the Kalahari Desert in its upper course. The up-river section has arid conditions with infertile soils while its lowland is densely populated due to the fertile silt that is deposited by the occasional floods in the basin. Sometimes though, the flood does more harm than good. For instance, a cyclone triggered a catastrophic flood in year 2000, Mozambique’s worst flood in over five decades. The death toll was over 800, leaving more than 44,000 people homeless, not to mention the herds of cattle and arable land destroyed. Even today, some of the victims of the flood live in temporary recovery shelters with no source of income.
The waters of River Limpopo are generally slow and sluggish, possibly due to the high silt content from the up-river erosion activities. Occasionally, the river abandons its stealthy flow, breaking into cataracts and waterfalls along its course, like at Malala and Molukwe. These hinder navigation, except at the parts of its lower course from the confluence of the Olifants River and River Limpopo. There is however a sandbar on the river’s outlet to the sea that partially blocks large coastal steamers from moving up-river, except during high tide.
A notable consideration is the economic contribution of the river to the countries through which it flows. River Limpopo supplies neighbouring villages with surface water for irrigation and domestic use. The river bed is rich with minerals like coal, particularly concentrated in the river beds of its tributaries, the Crocodile and the Olifant rivers. Its wide, fertile flood plain supports the growth of rice and cashew. This makes it an important agricultural centre. It is also an industrial and tourist focal point. The port town of Xai-Xai in Mozambique was developed in the early 18th century due to its strategic location at the mouth of River Limpopo and the activities of Portuguese traders.
Apart from its obvious significance to humanity, River Limpopo is a habitat to a wide variety of wild animals and fishes. Amazingly, in 1950, a bull shark travelled for about 366 kilometres upstream up to the confluence of Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers. This is contrary to scientific thinking that this deadly sea monster only thrives in tropical and sub-tropical waters. Other than fish, reptiles like the bi-coloured rock python dwell on the fever trees that grow on the river’s banks. There are hippopotamuses in the river, with the highest concentration being the area between River Mokoko and River Mogalakwena. There is an infestation of fresh-water crocodiles in the river, some of which come from fish farms. For instance, the Rakwena Crocodile Farm bred and grew 15,000 crocodiles, which they later released into the Limpopo’s waters, a natural habitat.