Numerous traders and explorers were attracted by the purported riches to be found in the interior of what was know as Monomotapa following the seventeenth century discoveries of gold and iron by the Portuguese. However the Central Lowveld remained difficult to penetrate and, until 1725, largely unknown by any colonial power.
Most traffic between the coast and the interior remained confined to the indigenous tribes and Arabic traders. Indeed, an indication of the frustration of the Portuguese lies in their naming of a reported goldmine in the Lowveld as "Bura Mina de Ora" (the stupid goldmine)!
The first European party to enter the Lowveld region was led by De Kuiper in 1725. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) had occupied Delagoa Bay with the intention of establishing a supply station for onward trade with the East Indies, as well as forming trading links with the Monomotapian Empire
Source: Collection of J.B. de Vaal
De Kuiper's expedition was confronted by the local inhabitants in the vicinity of the Sabi River, around 50km downstream of modern day Skukuza. They returned to Delagoa Bay with a clearer understanding of the population ‘dynamics’ of the region. They also learnt that the route north to the Monomatapa Kingdom was well known, and required the navigation of ten river crossings and twenty separate chiefdoms. Extrapolating this information suggests that the area where we now find the Kruger National Park was then extensively inhabited and traversed by local tribes.
The next major documented expedition was undertaken by one Louis Trichardt, who leaves his name on the town after traversing the region in 1836. The majority of his party perished after a violent confrontation in the Banmo region of modern-day Mozambique, or of malaria, whilst their draft oxen were killed by sleeping sickness before the residual group reached Delagoa Bay.
Joao Albasini fared much better. In 1848 he crossed the low country in an ox-wagon from Lydenburg en-route to the Bay. His success owed to his knowledge that there was one point where the Tsetse fly infested bush narrowed to such a thin belt that it could be traversed in two hours. He waited for nightfall when the biting insects are inactive and crossed without encountering trouble. Albasini settled east of Schoemansdal (today’s Louis Trichardt).
Source: Collection of J.B. de Vaal
Shortly afterwards, many Portuguese traders began to appear in and around Lydenburg. One such hunter and trader was Fernandes das Neves who in 1860 travelled from Delagoa Bay with a large contingent of fellow hunters and their bearers to Schoemansdal. He crossed the Central Lowveld on an old and well-known path which took him to where Komatipoort is situated today. From there his party proceeded more or less parallel with the western side of the Lebombo Mountains, passing Phalaborwa on the east. From there the route continued east of Modjadji, past the stronghold of Makgoro and eventually onto Albasini's fort (Goedewensch) located below Piesangkop in Vendaland. The journey took 24 days in total.
By this time, other well known routes to the coast included a northern one from central Vendaland or Zoutpansberg via Pafuri and Modiakune to Inhambane on the coast. This was documented by Father Rita Montanha in 1856.
Separately, a route linking Vendaland with the coast by crossing the Lebombo Mountains at the Shingwedzi Gorge was known. Further south was the route which cuts across the Central Lowveld and crossed the Lebombo Mountains at Shilowa. This was used by the Balobedu people, amongst others, and was still remembered by elders in the community in the 1960s. They brought salt water from the Indian Ocean from Tsonga traders; it was believed to have magical and healing properties and was widely used by rain-makers.
The next route southwards passed the Duke Mountains and Mashishimales country, Phalaborwa and from there to the lower Limpopo River. The route furthest south was from where Lydenburg is today, following the Sabie River and crossing the Lebombo where the river has gouged out a natural gorge. This trail was particularly important for the copper trade as the local mining focus was in the Lydenburg area.