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Mpumalanga

Mpumalanga is one of South Africa’s smallest provinces and one of its most exciting. Visually, it’s as beautiful as it is diverse, with mountain vistas, lush green valleys, arid bush, subtropical plantations, and cool-climate towns. Its green valleys, arid bush, subtropical plantations, and cool-climate towns. Its natural assets make it a prime target for outdoor enthusiasts, who come to abseil down waterfalls, throw themselves off cliffs, raft or tube down rivers, explore subterranean caves, gallop through grasslands, and hike or bike forest trails. The province’s major draw, though, is the massive Blyde River Canyon, which carves its way spectacularly through the Drakensberg Escarpment. The world’s third-largest canyon, it’s one of South Africa’s iconic sights and on a clear day, the many vantage points can leave you breathless. The Eastern Lowveld also provides access to the southern half of Kruger National Park, with an excellent selection of lodges and wilderness activities right on the mighty park’s doorstep.

POINTS OF INTEREST

MBOMBELA

The low-lying provincial capital of Mpumalanga, rapidly-growing Mbombela (a siSwati word meaning “Crowded Place”) is an important agricultural center for oranges, mangoes, bananas, avocados and macadamia nuts. Formerly called Nelspruit, it has experienced a high level of industrialization since the 1990s, and has also grown in significance as a trade funnel on the main road and rail route between Gauteng and the Mozambican capital, Maputo.

DRAKENSBERG ESCARPMENT

Home to some of South Africa’s most striking landscapes, the Drakensberg Escarpment was, until a couple of centuries ago, untamed rainforest roamed by elephants, buffaloes and even lions. Today, it’s holidaying South Africans and, increasingly, international visitors who wander the highlands, enjoying the beautiful landscape in their droves. The escarpment marks the point where the highveld plateau plunges down 3,200 feet to the lowveld, forming a dramatic knot of soaring cliffs, canyons, sweeping hillsides and cool valleys thick with pine trees and waterfalls – an apt backdrop for the myriad adventure activities that are on offer here.

DULLSTROOM

This little oasis is all about good food, old-fashioned English pubs, fresh country air, and fishing in the surrounding cool waters. You might even think you’re in Canada. Replete with pine trees and lined with pretty clapboard buildings, Dullstroom is one of the coldest towns in the country and a popular place for international athletes to train at high altitude. The area is famous for one thing – trout – but there’s lots more to do here, including hiking, playing golf and horse riding. A refined stop-off between Johannesburg and Kruger National Park, Dullstroom has plenty of pleasant spots to toast your first or last night in South Africa.

WATERVAL BOVEN (EMGWENYA)

Rock climbers, mountain bikers, waterfall abseilers, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts flock to this minute town, just off the N4, for serious adventure-sport action. Nestled into the Drakensberg Mountains, it has a spectacular natural setting. The town is a handy stop-off about 2½ hours’ drive from both OR Tambo International Airport and Kruger National Park’s Malelane Gate. It was officially renamed Emgwenya, and you will see the name on newer signposts, but most locals continue to use the old title.

BLYDE RIVER CANYON

Blyde River Canyon is both one of the world’s largest canyons and one of South Africa’s most outstanding natural sights – little wonder that it is increasingly popular with international visitors. The canyon’s scale and beauty make a trip here a memorable experience, especially if you’re lucky enough to visit on a fine day. Epic rock formations tower above the forested slopes and eagle-eye views abound at the dramatic meeting of the Drakensberg Escarpment and the Lowveld. Appreciating the area’s scenery is easy on Rte 532, which largely follows the edge of the canyon as it winds north from Graskop. En route, there are numerous scenic stops to make, taking in waterfalls and lookout points. Lying within the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, most stops have a nominal entry fee, and their car parks are generally mobbed with craft stalls and tour buses. Take some coins and small notes to pay entrance fees, and always make sure you are given a ticket. Although the viewpoints have set opening hours, some may open longer or be accessible when unstaffed.

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

Kruger is one of the world’s greatest wildlife-watching destinations. All of Africa’s iconic safari species – elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, rhino, buffalo, giraffe, hippo, and zebra – share the bushveld with a supporting cast of 137 other mammals and over 500 varieties of bird. Beautiful granite kopjes (hills) pepper the south, the Lebombo Mountains rise from the savannah in the east, and tropical forests cover the north of the park. Yes, Kruger can sometimes become crowded. And yes, you may have to wait in line to see those lions. But that’s because the vast network of roads makes Kruger one of Africa’s most accessible parks (explore on your own or join one of the many guided wildlife activities) and accommodation is both plentiful and a great value.