Into God’s Country

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By Stuart Johnston

‘Time passes slowly up here in the mountains, but sightseeing in Mpumalanga can end up being a rollercoaster of sorts, because there is simply so much happening’

I don’t think it was the Rinderpest that got the Voortrekkers when they arrived at Ohrigstad, back in 1840-something. But I seem to recall from my history lessons—which I unfortunately repeated in Standard Nine—some bad stuff happened there. Tsetse flies. Sleeping sickness. Malaria. Heavy stuff.

Man, those Voortrekkers must have hated the British back in the Cape. You only have to look at the mountains on this western side of Mpumalanga—thick with thorn trees after heavy summer rains—to realise on a dirt road, in an air-cooled SUV, they could be tough to traverse. In an ox-wagon, with who knows what and whom lying beyond the next peak and valley, it must have seemed at times as though they were traversing a green hell. And yet, that was presumably preferable to British rule.

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A proud people, those Voortrekkers. Stubborn. Or maybe the guy in the head wagon suffered from that typical male disease that prevents most of us from stopping and asking for directions.

We’re taking a different route to get to HANNAH GAME LODGE, our first overnight stop on a weekend getaway from Joburg. Hannah doesn’t have any Big Five predators lying in wait to pounce on innocent tourists, and I think it’s all the better for it. We enjoy our own game drive as we arrive late on a Saturday afternoon, and en route to the lodge we spend pleasant, quality time closing down the various windows of our Joburg minds and synching in to the wildebeest and buck downing their evening cocktails at the local watering hole. These animals are far less skittish than they appear at other game lodges with the special ‘we-are-now-in-Africa’ treatment that is often laid on.

Next morning, after stopping off to pay our respects to the Voortrekkers at a roadside graveyard, we head for the ECHO CAVES. These were first made known to European-descent South Africans in the 1920s, and they boast one of the highest caverns of any caves in the word, with a roof height of some 60 metres. Our guide for the trip into the earth is very knowledgeable about the area, explaining this was where—long before the 20th century—the Swazi tribes hid from the Pedi tribes when the two were at loggerheads over some sort of land dispute. That was before old Andries and his ox wagons even thought about crossing the Drakensberg, or indeed escaping the British. 

The Pedi name for one of the nearby mountain peaks is MOHOLOHOLO, and the name, our guide says, came from the sound of the big rocks the Pedis rolled down the mountain onto the interloping Swazis, who then took refuge in the Echo Caves. Today, the MOHOLOHOLO REHABILITATION CENTRE does sterling work nursing injured animals back to health so they can return to the wild. 

Close by the Echo Caves is a quaint structure known as The Shoe, a man-made cave built by a gentleman as a tribute to his religious faith. There’s a museum and gift shop of sorts, worth a quick pop-in visit if you are attracted by the offbeat. 

Hanging in on the panoramic route on what turns out to be a glorious Sunday, we take in some of the lesser-known scenic delights of the area. Instead of visiting GOD’S WINDOW, we head north to take in THE THREE RONDAWELS—three mountain peaks that resemble the traditional grass-roofed houses built by tribesmen.

Time passes slowly up here in the mountains, but sightseeing in Mpumalanga can end up being a rollercoaster of sorts, because there is simply so much happening.

As this is the natural-scenic phase of our visit, we drive down into the Valley and visit BOURKE’S LUCK POTHOLES, a natural wonder that has seen the earth hollowed out into a series of gigantic cylinders by the swirl of the Treur River, which then plunges into the BLYDE RIVER CANYON

Tom Bourke was a prospector in the area in the late 1800s, and apparently he wasn’t lucky, as he never discovered an ounce of gold. But he correctly predicted there was gold in “them thar hills”, and soon towns such as Pilgrim’s Rest resembled the “yee-hah” villages popularised by old cowboy movies, as all manner of fortune hunters descended on the area.

The Blyde River Canyon is the third-largest canyon in the world. This we learn from our river-boat tiller man and guide as we join an assorted group of tourists, including a very cheerful bunch of Australian voluntary educationalists taking a break from their charity work at nearby, understaffed local schools.

This trip, courtesy of the Blyde River Canyon Adventure Centre, is a great way to see the canyon; in fact it is the only real way. You can take hikes from down here, too. The cruise takes just under two hours, costs R110 a head, and you need to book. It was a definite highlight of the trip. The majesty of the rock strata reaching skywards from the water was enough to quieten the chatter of even the young Aussies on the boat. 

Later that evening, we laze in the pool at the Blyde River Canyon Lodge, and check out the zebras taking shade beneath the overhang of the boma roof adjoining the pool patio.

We enjoy a traditional boere-type meal and a conversation with a lady who’d published a book on recipes for game meat. She and her friends—one of whom includes a lady in her eighties who still rides pillion on her boyfriend’s motorcycle—tells us of the reptile park KHAMAI REPTIEL CENTREwe simply must visit tomorrow, which we do. All interesting stuff, especially the pythons you can cuddle.

Soon enough we are leaving the panoramic route, and heading back towards what is known as the “more traditional Mpumalanga tourist route”. If we had had the time, we would have made a point to stay over at SABI SABI, which is in fact not too far from our return routing that would take us back to Hazyview, White River, Nelspruit and finally, big sigh, back home to the Big City. Sabi Sabi is one of the premier lodges in the area, located in the famous Sabi Sands reserve and reachable via the R40 between Klaserie and Bushbuckridge. If you want five-star lodge treatment, and a magnificent array of Big Five game viewing, this is the place. 

If only we had had more time to sample the culinary delights of the area. That, and perhaps a sip—or glass—or two of wine. In fact, the FNB MPUMALANGA WINE SHOW is being held in White River on 26 and 27 April. More than 1 200 visitors pitched for last year’s show, which was first held seven years ago, and 350 wines will be on offer over what sounds like a fun weekend.

Talking of White River, we head there too on our outward-bound journey, and stop off at the quaintCASTERBRIDGE, uh, mall, if you’d want to call it that. It’s how all malls should be, airy and with wrought-iron railings, real fresh air, vines, and shops that sell extremely tasteful art and even T-shirts that can be made up for you on the same day. That, and there’s a small MOTOR MUSEUM, too, with some interesting exhibits, including one of the first Minis introduced to this country in 1959, and a diminutive replica of a Lotus Formula one car, built in England.

Alas, it’s all over too soon. So goodbye Casterbridge, we would have loved to watch a movie at your rustic cinema. Farewell Mpumalanga, and until we meet again … Hamba kahle.