Mpumalanga (pronounced m-poo-ma-lung-ah) means “the place were the sun rises” in Zulu and siSwati. Reflecting its name, it is a scenic province with incredible vistas passing through the Drakensberg escarpment and Lowveld.
While the major attraction that draws visitors to the province is the nearby Kruger National Park, the surrounding towns have much more to offer than just a jumping spot for day trips into the Kruger and should not be missed. The Blyde River Canyon, one of the largest canyons in the world, is located in the Northern part of the province is one of the more popular destinations for visitors with a number of impressive viewpoints along the edges into the canyon below. The Blyde River Canyon area and the towns of Graskop and Sabie just South of the Canyon offer plenty of adventure activities, hiking trails and dozens of waterfalls to swim under and are conveniently located less than an hour from Kruger. There also plenty of private game reserves within the province, many of which can offer a similar game viewing experience as the big park without a large crowd.
Mpumalanga has drawn people for millennia because of its sweeping landscapes and rich deposits of gold and iron ore. Evidence of largescale mining in the Ngwenya Mountains in Mpumalanga’s Onderberg region confirm the existence of well-organized local settlements dating back as far as 46,000 years ago. Early San huntergatherers left behind rock art that still adorns cave walls today and the discovery of seven ceramic masks, known as the Lyndenburg Heads, are 5th century relics of the region’s ceremonial past. However, Mpumalanga as a modern-day province is young,having only been offi cially created when the former Transvaal Province was restructured by the new democratically elected government in 1994.
Early Nguni-speaking Bantu migrants from the north who introduced new smelting practices and developed organized societies paved the way for the rise of the powerful Pedi Kingdom. In
the 18th century, the Pedi controlled most of the Transvaal territory. In the 19th century, the Pedi vied for control of the northeastern Transvaal with the formidable neighboring Swazi Kingdom to the east. At the same time, smaller states such as the Ndebele attempted to stake their claim nearby, after defecting from the Zulu army south of the Drakensburg Mountains.
Ndebele and other small chiefdoms in the Transvaal that were not driven away by raiding Zulu forces in the early 1800s were fi nally subdued by encroaching Boer “Voortrekkers” in the 1830s. The Voortrekkers settled in the area to distance themselves from the control of the British Cape Colony and established small hunting and trading bases near Ohrigstad and Lydenberg, but stayed south of the warring Pedi and Swazi kingdoms.
In 1856, the Boers declared an independent Zuid-Afrikaansch Republiek (ZAR) and laid claim to the Transvaal and the land up to the Limpopo River. But their attempts to wrest control of the territory were thwarted as Pedi resistance drove the Boers out of their mountain stronghold in the Pedi-Boer War of 1876, a war that nearly bankrupted the new Boer republic. It was in this weakened state that the British were able to annex the ZAR in 1877. Two years later, the British Imperial forces were fi nally able to overpower the Pedi and usher in colonial rule with the help of the neighboring Swazi.
After the Boers regained control of the region in 1881, the subsequent gold rush rapidly transformed the Transvaal. Small deposits of gold had been discovered in the areas of Pilgrim’s Rest and Barberton, but it was not until the larger discovery in the reefs of the Witwatersrand near Johannesburg that the gold rush commenced in full force and teams of prospectors, or “uitlanders” (foreigners) fl ooded into the Boer republic to lay claim to riches and transform its small settlements into raucous mining towns.
Soon after, the South African War (1899-1902) decimated the area of Mpumalanga as many of its cities served as important battlegrounds between the competing colonial forces. Boer
sharpshooting commandos wreaked havoc in the countryside and Britain sent in reinforcements from far and wide to secure the region for the Empire. Though many saw this as a white man’s war, black Africans in the region were employed by both sides to assist in the war effort and even work as informants. But British war tactics proved devastating and unsanitary concentration camps took the lives of over 50,000 Boer women and children and black Africans caught up in the war. Eventually the republic fell to the British and Boer President Paul Kruger escaped into exile in Mozambique.
In the 20th century, the Transvaal saw the development of the farming industry and deep segregation as the government of the new Union of South Africa aimed to encourage rural
development. The 1913 Land Act carved up the countryside and established land tenure laws that heavily favored the white population. Black Africans were only allowed to live on newly
granted white land in exchange for their labor and were otherwise restricted to small sections or native reserves. Traditional chiefs in native areas were largely allowed to maintain their ways of living, but the land reserved for them was poor and increasing restrictions on black movement led to overcrowding. The establishment of the apartheid government and the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 further rescinded the rights of the black population and the forced removals of blacks occupying white designated areas continued throughout the next few decades. As rebellion and violent opposition to the apartheid regime erupted in the countryside, the area of Mpumalanga became the thoroughfare for exiled revolutionaries to infiltrate back into South Africa from Mozambique to continue the struggle for liberation and democracy in South Africa.
GPS: S 25 28.220 E 030 58.743 pop. 230,000 | elevation 683 m/2,242 ft
Nelspruit is the capitol and largest city in Mpumalanga. It is a great place to stock up on any items that you might need if you are heading North to hike, camp or see the abundant wildlife in either Kruger or the surrounding parks. It is also a popular transit point for those heading into either neighboring Mozambique or Swaziland. Because of its popularity as a hub for visitors heading onward there is plenty of quality accommodation from budget backpackers to high-end exclusive guest houses, but the sights and activities tend to be in the surrounding towns.
GPS: S 25 47.074 E 031 02.888 pop. 30,000 | elevation 819 m/2,686 ft
Barberton is a historical quiet old town 45 km from Nelspruit. It is known for its surrounding 3.5-billion-year-old rock formations that are said to contain the fi rst micro fossil evidence of life on earth. The town began as a gold mining settlement, with some of the original mines still operating today. In 1883 Graham Barber and his two cousins discovered a rich gold reef. The following year the town was christened Barberton by the gold commissioner with the smashing of a bottle of gin on the Barber reef. The town quickly grew to include hotels, music halls, billiard saloons and prostitutes as miners rushed to join in the prosperity. With the further discovery of gold, more money poured intothe town and some of South Africa’s earliest stock exchanges began operating in Barberton.
GPS: S 25 02.534 E 031 07.601 pop. 20,000 | elevation 531m/1,742 ft
Hazyview is a decentralized town that spreads out from its small center located just south of the intersection of R40 and R536. The main economic driver of this town is the tourism industry (with the farming of bananas and avocados coming in close second). There are a number of adventure activities and scenic sights around Hazyview, however most travelers choose this destination because of its close proximity to Kruger National Park – with the
Phabeni Gate a mere 12 km, the Numbi Gate 15 km, and the popular Paul Kruger Gate 45 km away.
GPS: S 25 05.945 E 030 46.792 pop. 10,000 | elevation 1,066m/3,499ft
Sabie is a small town halfway up into the Drakensburg Mountains and probably the best place to base yourself in the area given the town's relaxed atmosphere and its close proximity to the Kruger, the Blyde River Canyon and area waterfalls. If that isn’t enough, there is at least a week's worth of hiking trails and adventure activities on offer.
GPS: S 24 55.903 E 030 50.545 pop. 2,000 | elevation 1,441m/4,727 ft
Graskop is a small, liberal, laid-back town that got its name from the large swaths of treeless grassland surrounding the town. The town is small enough to get around on foot and the rural cozy atmosphere makes it a good location from which to explore the surrounding Blyde River Canyon and area hiking trails or just to relax for a weekend.
GPS: S 24 54.184 E 030 45.079 pop. 1,800 | elevation 1,285m/4,216 ft
Pilgrims Rest is an old mining town dating back to the late 1800s when prospectors came from across the world to try their luck panning for gold. Not much has changed in the town in the past 100 years, which makes it a great area to walk around and get a feel for early South African gold mining communities.
The Blyde River Canyon is one of the largest canyons in the world, and the largest “green canyon,” full of subtropical foliage. The canyon stretches over 26 km with a maximum depth of around 1,400 m/4,593 ft. Adding to the canyon’s attraction are the impressive and unique natural rock pillars such as the Three Rondavels and The
Pinnacle. The major canyon sights as well as a few additional sights in the surrounding area can be taken in via the Panorama Route.
GPS: S 25 24.924 E 030 06.328 pop. 6,000 | elevation 2,016 m/6,614 ft
At 2,012 m/6,601 ft Dullstroom is the highest town on the Drakensburg Escarpment in Mpumalanga with warm sunny days and freezing overnight temperatures in the winter. The town dates back to the late 1800s when Wolterus Dull collected money in Holland for the Boers during the Anglo-Boer War and today is a stress-free town with the main tourist attractions being trout fishing and happy hour. It is frequently busy on the weekends with urbanites from neighboring Johannesburg and Pretoria.
GPS: S 25 05.602 E 030 27.377 pop. 20,000 | elevation 1,401 m/4,596 ft
Lydenburg was named “the place of suffering” by the Voortrekkers, who founded the town in a mosquito-free area in 1849 after many of their family members died from malaria. More recently Lydenburg is known for its archeological significance with the 1950s discovery of the Lydenburg Heads – seven ceramic masks dating from the 5th century.