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.
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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.
Four hours’ drive east of Johannesburg International Airport is one of the city’s favoured mountain retreats: the waving grasslands and luxury guesthouses of the Mpumalanga Drakensberg, generally known as the Escarpment. While most travellers visit the region purely because of its proximity to the Kruger National Park, it provides some of the most dramatic views in the country, which can be enjoyed with little effort, even if you are simply passing through en route to Kruger. This tour of these highlands, known as the Panorama Route, can also be taken as an organized day-trip by numerous tour operators in Nelspruit. The main draw of the Escarpment is the Blyde River Canyon, whose dizzying views into one of the world’s great gorges appear in countless South African tourist brochures. In addition to a number of viewpoints along the Escarpment lip, the canyon has hiking trails which give access to the flora and (if you’re quiet and lucky) fauna of the reserve, including zebra, hippo, kudu and numerous primates – baboons, vervet and samango monkeys and bushbabies.
South Africa’s lowveld, wedged between the Mpumalanga section of the Drakensberg and Mozambique, is part of a vast subtropical region of savanna that stretches north through Zimbabwe and Zambia as far as Central Africa. Closely associated at the turn of the last century with fortune-seekers, hunters, gold-diggers and adventurers, these days the South African lowveld’s claim to fame is its proximity to the Kruger National Park and the adjacent private game reserves. Although several of the towns on the game park fringes are pleasant enough, most people come here to get into big-game country.
Largest of the lowveld towns, and the capital of Mpumalanga, is Nelspruit, accessible by air and bus (including buses from Maputo in Mozambique). East of Nelspruit, the N4 runs close to the southern border of the Kruger, providing easy access to its Malelane and Crocodile Bridge gates; the latter is just 12km north of Komatipoort, a humid frontier town on the border with Mozambique. From Nelspruit, you can also head 32km south to Barberton, an attractive settlement in the hills with strong mining connections, or continue another 41km to Swaziland.
The R40 north of the provincial capital passes through White River, Hazyview, Klaserie, Hoedspruit and Phalaborwa, a series of small towns that act as bases for exploring Kruger. Each town is well supplied with accommodation, and has a Kruger entrance gate nearby; tours are available from some. The closest to Nelspruit and an entry point into the Park, Hazyview is now leader of the pack. Hoedspruit and Phalaborwa actually fall within Limpopo Province, but for the sake of continuity have been included in this chapter.
BARBERTON, 36km south of Nelspruit, began its urban existence after gold was discovered in 1883. An influx of shopkeepers, hoteliers, barmen, prostitutes, even ministers of religion, soon joined the diggers in the growing frontier town, which consisted of tents, tin, thatch and mud, with nearly every second building functioning as a boozing joint. During the fabulous boom of the 1880s the mines slipped out of the grasp of the small-time prospectors and came under the control of the large corporations that still own them today. There are seven working mines around Barberton, each with its own entertainment venue for miners only, which means you won’t find miners packing out public bars as in the wild days of old.
This is the best place in the country to take an underground gold-mining tour, in a working mine, or learn to do gold panning. This attraction aside, Barberton also has a colonial backwater charm, reasonably priced accommodation, a handful of historical sights, tropical vegetation and an attractive setting in a basin surrounded by mountains.
Kruger’s western flank
The R40 heads north from Nelspruit along the western border of the Kruger National Park, passing through prosperous tropical-fruit-growing farmlands and crowded, poverty-stricken African areas. The only reason you’re likely to find yourself heading north along this road from Hazyview is to access the private game reserves – Sabi Sands, Manyeleti or Timbavati – that join up with the western flank of Kruger, or to reach the Orpen Gate, for the rewarding central section of Kruger National Park. Though marked prominently on maps, Klaserie, which lies on the border of Mpumalanga and Limpopo Province, is little more than an easily missed petrol station and shop, surrounded by a number of private game farms – poor cousins to the pricier lodges inside the game reserves to the east.
North of the Mpumalanga border, in Limpopo, you’ll pass little towns en route to the central section of Kruger National Park and the Manyeleti and Timbavati private game reserves. Coming down the Escarpment along the R36/R527 from the Blyde River viewpoints, you’ll encounter a fork in the road after about 75km. The more northerly road leads to the towns of Hoedspruit, which is not a desirable destination or place to base yourself, particularly in the area at the foot of the Escarpment, and Klaserie. Much further north and generally reached from Polokwane on the N1, the mining town of Phalaborwa is conveniently 2km from the Phalaborwa Gate into central Kruger and the rewarding camps of Letaba and Olifants.
At the Elephant Sanctuary, 5km from Hazyview on the R536 road to Sabie, you can touch and feed the two orphaned elephants rescued from a culling programme. A variety of programmes offers close encounters with the elephants – the “Brush Down” Programme, where you groom the animals and feel the texture of their skin and ears, combined with “Trunk in Hand” where you walk alongside them, lightly holding their trunks, is recommended. Rides are also available.