For four centuries the area north of Duiwelskloof, in the valley of the Molototsi River, has been the habitat of Modjadji (Modjadje or Mujaji), queen of the Lovedu tribe or the Rain Queen. Her mysterious history can be traced right back to the kingdom of Monomotapa, in Zimbabwe 400 years ago, where a princess of the Karanga empire had to escape her father’s wrath after having fallen pregnant by her half-brother. Blessed with her family’s magical rainmaking powers, she and some of her followers fled south and eventually settled in a forest of cycads. There Modjadji practiced her art and as her power became increasingly evident, her influence began to spread. Other groups thought twice before tangling with the Rain Queen, and as a result, the Lovedu were unaffected by the internecine wars that ripped through the Transvaal. In fact, so keen were neighbouring peoples to ingratiate themselves with Modjadji that they sent her regular supplies of gifts. Her most famous supplicants included Shaka of the Zulu and Moshweshwe of the Sotho.
Although her people believed she was immortal and omnipotent, as she aged it became increasingly obvious that she was not. Eventually she chose a successor to whom she passed on her rainmaking secrets. Legend has it that, once this task was fulfilled, the old Modjadji (‘ruler of the day’) had to commit suicide by drinking poison. A piece of the late queen’s skin was considered vital to the success of the new Modjadji’s rain-making ritual, and the use of this grisly component has persisted down through the generations. It is not known which generation Modjadji now sits in the royal hut.
The Lovedu have the distinction of being the only people in Africa with a female line of succession. Stories are rife that, in days gone by, once a man had done his duty of impregnating the queen, he would mysteriously vanish, as would any of the queen’s male offspring. Today the reigning Modjadji lives the same secluded life among her people; carved totems surround her sacred kraal in the hilly country near Duiwelskloof. According to ancient custom, even her own people hardly ever see her.
Above the kraal is a unique 305ha ‘forest’ of cycads, erroneously known as Modjadji palms, which has been stringently protected by generations of Rain Queens. They are about 50 million years old and among the tallest in the world, the property of the queen and nobody would dare touch them. It was largely their vigilance which eventually led to the area being declared a nature reserve in 1985. The cycads themselves are not 50 million years old, individual cycads are thought to reach ages up to possibly 1000 years. Cycad fossils similar to present day cycads are found alongside dinosaur fossils in geological formations thought to be millions of years old.
It is said that Sir Rider Haggard based his novel She on the mystic figure of Modjadji.