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.
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.
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.
There are few places in South Africa where you can enjoy such easily accessible and dramatic scenery as that of the colossal Blyde River Canyon, weathered out of strata of red rock and dropping sharply away from the Escarpment into the lowveld. The Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve (also known as Blyderivierspoort Nature Reserve) stretches from a narrow tail near Graskop in the south, and broadens into a great amphitheatre partially flooded by the Blydepoort Dam about 60km to the north.
The views of the canyon are wonderful from both above and below, but the nicest way to take in the vistas is on an easy half-day’s drive along the canyon lip. Some 3km north of Graskop, the R534 does a 15km loop past a series of superb viewpoints. The road winds through pine plantations until it comes to the turn-off to the Pinnacle, a gigantic quartzite column topped with trees, rising out of a ferny gorge. After another 4km the road reaches the sheer drop and lowveld views of God’s Window, one of the most famous of the viewpoints; it’s also one of the most developed, with toilets and curio stalls. The looping road returns to rejoin the R532, which continues north for 28km beyond the turn-off to reach Bourke’s Luck Potholes at the confluence of the Treur and Blyde rivers – a collection of strange, smoothly scooped formations carved into the rocks by water-driven pebbles. The best view of all lies 14km beyond, at the Three Rondavels. The name describes only one small feature of this cinemascope vista: three cylinders in the shape of huts with the meandering Blyde River twisting its way hundreds of metres below. No photograph does justice to the sheer enormity of the view, punctuated by one series of cliffs after another buttressing into the valley.
The 90km drive from the Three Rondavels viewpoint to the base of the canyon provides spectacular views of the Escarpment cliffs rising out of the lowveld and is easily incorporated into your itinerary if you’re heading to or from Kruger. The drive winds west to join with the R36 and heads north to begin its descent through the Abel Erasmus Pass and then the J.G. Strijdom Tunnel through the mountain, with the wide lowveld plains opening out on the other side. The road takes a wide arching trajectory to circumnavigate the canyon.
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK is arguably the emblem of South African tourism, the place that delivers best what most visitors to Africa want to see – scores of elephants, lions and a cast of thousands of other game roaming the savanna. A narrow strip of land hugging the Mozambique border, Kruger stretches across Limpopo Province and Mpumalanga, an astonishing 414km drive from Pafuri Gate in the north to Malelane Gate in the south, all of it along tar, with many well-kept gravel roads looping off to provide routes for game drives.
Kruger is designed for self-driving and self-catering. Self-driving offers complete flexibility, though the temptation is to drive too much and too fast, leading to fewer sightings. Furthermore, rental cars tend to be low off the ground and aren’t as good for game viewing as those used by lodges or tour operators. However, you can hop in a car knowing you’ll find supplies at most of the restcamps – indeed self-driving is often the only way of seeing Kruger’s animals if you’re travelling with young children and want to manage time and food your own way. The park’s popularity means that not only are you likely to share animal sightings with other motorists, but that accommodation is at a premium, particularly during South African school holidays, when you may not be able to find anything. Book as far in advance as possible.
Outside the public section, big-game country continues in several exclusive and expensive private wildlife reserves, clustering on huge tracts of land to the west, often referred to as Greater Kruger. As far as animals are concerned, the private and public areas are joined in an enormous, seamless whole. The three major private reserves are Sabi Sands to the south, and Timbavati and Manyeleti, adjoining the central section of the national park. The private reserves are not places you drive around yourself, and they offer a greater sense of being in the wilderness as there are no tarred roads or buildings away from the lodges, and you will not be sharing your sightings with a bunch of other cars. The safari lodges are luxuriously romantic and beautifully set, and dedicated to finding you wildlife.
But whatever you choose, be sure to relax and don’t get too obsessed with seeing the Big Five. Remember that wildlife doesn’t imitate TV documentaries: you’re most unlikely to see lion-kills (you may not see a lion at all), or huge herds of wildebeest migrating across dusty savanna. The element of luck involved is exactly what makes game spotting so addictive.
It’s highly questionable whether Kruger National Park can be considered “a pristine wilderness”, as it’s frequently called, given that people have been living in or around it for thousands of years. San hunter-gatherers have left their mark in the form of paintings and engravings at 150 sites so far discovered, and there is evidence of farming cultures at many places in the park.
Around 1000–1300 AD, centrally organized states were building stone palaces and engaging in trade that brought Chinese porcelain, jewellery and cloth into the area, but it was the arrival of white fortune-seekers in the second half of the nineteenth century that made the greatest impact on the region. African farmers were kicked off their traditional lands in the early twentieth century to create the park, and hunters and poachers made their livelihoods here decimating game populations.
Paul Kruger, former president of the South African Republic, is usually credited with having the foresight to set aside land for wildlife conservation. Kruger figures as a shrewd, larger-than-life character in Afrikaner history, and it was James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first warden of the national park, who cunningly put forward Kruger’s name in order to soften up Afrikaner opposition to the park’s creation. In fact, Stevenson-Hamilton knew that Kruger was no conservationist and was actually an inveterate hunter; Kruger “never in his life thought of animals except as biltong”, he wrote in a private letter, and it was his tenacity that saved the animals that hadn’t been shot out, rather than Kruger’s.
The park has been extended into Mozambique with the establishment of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park in 2000, and two border posts linking Kruger to Mozambique have been created, one right at the north of the park at Pafuri near Punda Maria Camp, the other at Giriyondo, between Letaba and Mopani camps.
Among the nearly 150 species of mammals seen in the park are cheetah, leopard, lion, spotted hyena, wild dog, black and white rhino, blue wildebeest, buffalo, Burchell’s zebra, bushbuck, eland, elephant, giraffe, hippo, impala, kudu, mountain reedbuck, nyala, oribi, reedbuck, roan antelope, sable antelope, tsessebe, warthog and waterbuck.
The staggering 507 bird species include raptors, hefty-beaked hornbills, ostriches and countless colourful specimens. The birders’ "big six" are the saddle-billed stork, kori bustard, martial eagle, lappet-faced vulture, Pel’s fishing owl and ground hornbill.
Keep your eyes open and you’ll also see a variety of reptiles, amphibians and insects – most rewardingly in the grounds of the restcamps themselves: there’s always something to see up the trees, in the bushes or even inside your rondavel. If you spot a miniature ET-like reptile crawling upside down on the ceiling, don’t be tempted to kill it; it’s an insect-eating gecko and is doing you a good turn. If, however, you have a horror of insects or frogs, stay away from Kruger in the rainy season (Nov–March).
Common among the three-hundred-plus tree species are the baobab, cluster fig, knobthorn, Natal mahogany, monkey orange, raisin bush, tamboti, coral tree, fever tree, jackalberry, leadwood, marula, mopane, lala palm and sausage tree.
Berg-en-Dal The focus of the camp is the Rhino Trail along the perimeter fence (with Braille facilities), meandering under riverine trees along the Matjulu dam, where there are resident crocodiles and nesting fish eagles. Game includes white rhino, leopards and lions, and plenty of kudu. Some say this is the best camp from which to set out on a morning walk, because of the high likelihood of encountering white rhino, and the pretty scenery.
Crocodile Bridge Try the tarred H4 north and dirt S25 east for elephant, rhino and buffalo. For cheetah, among the best places are the open plains along the S28 Nhola Road. If you’re pushing north to Lower Sabie, it’s worth taking the drive slowly, as this area, dotted with knobthorn and marula trees, is known for its herbivores, which include giraffe, wildebeest, zebra and buffalo, as well as ostrich, warthog and the magnificent black sable antelope. You should also keep your eyes peeled for predators such as lion, cheetah, hyena and jackal.
Lower Sabie The must-drive roads here include the H10 for lion and cheetah, the S130 for white rhino and the H4-1 for leopard. Sunset Dam, just outside Lower Sabie, is a favourite sunset spot, where you can get really close to the water, and is worthwhile at any time of day.
Pretoriuskop A decent focus for a day drive is Transport Dam, on the H1-1, a good place to see buffalo and elephant, and there’s invariably other game to be found.
Skukuza Most people drive along the Sabie River to Lower Sabie, on the H4, one of the best places to see game. The tangled riverine forest, flanked by acacia bush and mixed savanna, is the most fertile and varied in the park. Another great drive is northeast on the H1–2 to Tshokwane picnic site, stopping at Elephant, Jones, Leeupan and Siloweni water holes. The area around Skukuza is also one of the best places to see endangered African wild dogs; worth trying is the S114 between Skukuza and Berg-en-Dal, the S1 between Phabeni Gate and Skukuza, and the H11 between Paul Kruger Gate and Skukuza.
One of the park’s nicest picnic sites is at Afsaal, between Berg-en-Dal and Skukuza on the H3, a good focus for a day drive. Once here, look out for the African scops-owl which sleeps in a tamboti tree nearly every day – the tree is marked so that you can try to spot the camouflaged bird. There’s a shop on site.
Another top picnic spot is Mlondozi, north of Lower Sabie on the S29, which overlooks a dam from a thatched lapa, with some tables and chairs under trees. Tshokwane Picnic Site, 40km north of Lower Sabie on the H10, is much busier, but you can buy meals here.
Undertaken with the guidance of an experienced ranger, Kruger’s three-night wilderness trails (eight in different areas) pass through landscapes of notable beauty with diverse plant and animal life. However, they don’t bring you nearer to game than driving; they’re really about getting closer to the vegetation and smaller creatures, though you have a good chance of encountering big game. Groups are limited to eight people staying in the same camp, comprising four rustic, two-bed huts, served by reed-walled showers and flush toilets; simple meals are provided. You walk for five hours in the morning, return to the camp for lunch and a siesta, and go walking again for an hour or two in the evening, returning to sit around a campfire. The trails are heavily subscribed. You can book up to thirteen months in advance through SANParks. The cost is around R3500 per person, including accommodation and meals. The only trail where you carry your own stuff is the Olifants River backpack trail, a guided, three-night trail, following the course of the Olifants River. If you want a more than average possibility of walking into big game, book Sweni or Metsi Metsi trails, while birding is best in the far north on Nyalaland Trail, and the trails that are closest to signs of civilization are Bushmans and Wolhuters near Berg-en-Dal in the south.
The S100 or N’wanetsi River Road is one of the best-known drives in the park, with a stop at N’wanetsi Picnic Site, and beautiful scenery of riverine trees and open acacia savanna. It passes through a variety of terrain, which besides being scenic, means it attracts large herds of buffalo, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, kudu and waterbuck and, in their wake, big cats. The S100 is one of the best roads to find lions.
Satara Rewarding drives are the Timbavati River Road (S39) and the drive east of Satara along the S100, which snakes along the N’wanetsi River towards the Lebombo Mountains marking the border with Mozambique.
About halfway along the tarred road between Satara and Skukuza, the area around Tshokwane picnic site can be good for lions, hence the number of motorists here.
The S52 Red Rocks Loop southwest of Shingwedzi is a favoured road for elephant sightings, and if you drive it in the early morning, look out for leopards.
Pafuri picnic site 46km north of Punda. This picnic site should on no account be missed, as it’s here that you’ll experience the true richness of northern Kruger, and it is rated as the top birding spot in the park. The site is a large area under the shade of massive thorn trees, leadwoods and jackalberry trees on the banks of the Luvuvhu River and is the ultimate place for lunch. An interpretation board gives a fascinating account of human history in the area. There are braai facilities, a constantly boiling kettle to make your own tea, and the attendant can sell you ice-cold canned drinks.
In terms of wildlife, if it’s leopards you’re after, Sabi Sands is best, especially in the south, where they have become quite blasé about people and vehicles. Timbavati is much quieter and wilder than Sabi Sands, and is known for its large herds of buffalo, with plenty of lions and elephants, though it’s not good for viewing leopards and cheetah. Timbavati’s name is associated with the extraordinary phenomenon of white lions, and while you may see some prides carrying the recessive gene which makes them look a little paler, the last sighting of an adult white lion was in 1993 – though a dozen cubs have been born since, but with the high mortality rate, it is not known whether two which were doing well in 2010 have survived. Manyeleti has a good spread of all game, with some stirring landscapes of open grasslands and rocky outcrops, where it borders Kruger. During the apartheid days, Manyeleti was the only part of Kruger black people were allowed in, and consequently is far less developed than the other reserves, with little accommodation, which works to its advantage in that there are fewer vehicles about.