Mpumalanga, “the land of the rising sun” to its Siswati- and Zulu-speaking residents, extends east from Gauteng to Mozambique and Swaziland. To many visitors the province is synonymous with the Kruger National Park, the real draw of South Africa’s east flank, and one of Africa’s best game parks. Kruger occupies most of Mpumalanga’s and Limpopo Province’s borders with Mozambique, and covers over 20,000 square kilometres – an area the size of Israel or El Salvador. Unashamedly populist, Kruger is the easiest African game park to drive around on your own, with many well-run restcamps for accommodation. On its western border lie a number of private reserves, offering the chance – at a price – to escape the Kruger crush, with well-informed rangers conducting safaris in open vehicles.
Apart from the irresistible magnet of big-game country, Mpumalanga also has some spectacular scenery in the mountainous area known as the Escarpment, usually passed through en route to Kruger. The most famous viewpoints – God’s Window, Bourke’s Luck Potholes and Three Rondavels – are along the lip of the Escarpment, which can be seen on a 156km drive from the lowveld known as the Panorama Route. The views of Blyde River Canyon are most famous of all and, while you can’t drive into the canyon, there are some fabulous hiking and river-rafting opportunities in this area. None of the Escarpment towns merits exploration, but they are fine as night stops.
Jammed between the mountains and Kruger are the former African Bantustans, created under apartheid: Lebowa for Sotho-speakers and Gazankulu for Shangaan- and Tsonga-speaking people. Mozambique is a short hop away, there is daily transport to Maputo, and you’ll see cars with Mozambique number plates, especially in Nelspruit, the modern capital of Mpumalanga, taking advantage of the superior medical care and shopping. Nelspruit also connects with the road south through Barberton to Swaziland.
Descending the Escarpment on one of four mountain passes takes you into the tropical-fruit-growing and bushveld country of the lowveld, with impressive views back towards the towering massif of the Escarpment. A number of places close to the Blydepoort Dam at the foot of the Blyde River Canyon can be taken in as bushveld breaks on the way to or from Kruger. Closest to this area is the small but growing centre of Hoedspruit (actually in Limpopo Province, but covered here because of its proximity to Kruger) with its own airport, a jumping-off point for safaris in the central and northern section of the park, and yielding access to the Manyeleti and Timbabavati private game reserves. Note that malaria is a potential hazard in the lowveld and Kruger, particularly in summer.