When people visit South Africa, it’s usually a major city, the Garden Route along the southern cape, or perhaps a game reserve. We had other ideas, and along with Nicola’s family, we set off to spend a week in Mpumalanga. It rhymes with a cockney saying ‘mango’.
After a long flight from London to Johannesburg we picked up our hire cars and drove to Sabie, in the heart of the province of Mpumalanga, on the eastern side of South Africa. Nicola’s Aunt Joy and Uncle Leon help to run the ‘Merry Pebbles’ resort, which has camping plots, lodges, chalets, tennis courts, swimming pools, a restaurant and everything you’d expect from a great little holiday park. It was our home for the first few days in Africa.
We were partly there to surprise Nicola’s Aunt Joy, who was turning 21 again. After sneaking carefully into the holiday park, we hid around a corner then jumped out at Joy, who reacted in exactly the way we had hoped, clasping her hands to her face and leaping out of her skin. It turns out she wasn’t expecting her relatives from the other side of the world to turn up at her birthday party.
The town of Sabie is just over an hour away from Kruger National Park, but also a stone’s throw from a few great things that I can’t imagine many people outside of Mpumalanga have heard of:
Blyde River Canyon
This canyon claims to be the third deepest in the world, and means Nicola and I are doing well on our ‘Canyons of the World’ tour, following Durmitor last year. The drive through the canyon is slow, and treacherous in place; you frequently see places where rocks (and other cars…) have bounced down the hill. Eventually a winding road leads you to the peak of one of the canyon walls, where a little footpath takes you to the edge. The view at the rickety fence is impressive, with a 4,000-foot fall to the tiny Blyde River trickling along the bottom of the canyon.
Harry’s Pancake House
I’m not sure it deserves an entire paragraph to itself, but it’s getting one anyway. The savoury pancakes served here are delicious. I had a bobotie-filled crepe on our first visit, and a biltong one on the second. They were both extremely unhealthy, buttery and salty and superb. It’s probably a good thing I live so far away.
This gold rush town from the 1870s has been preserved exactly as it would have been at the time. Tin houses, garages and shops line the main (and only) street, and many have been turned into working museums. As you arrive in the town, you encounter more ‘parking attendants’ than tourists; many locals have donned fluorescent jackets and set up unofficial tourist parking. We paid the princely sum of about 50p for an hour. Try getting parking for that in London.
Bourke’s Luck Potholes
Where the Blyde River and Treur River meet, this amazing geological phenomenon occurs. The swirling water, combined with small particles of rock, effectively ‘sands’ the soft rock, cutting perfectly round potholes. We crossed the series of bridges linking the banks of the river, looking far down into the water below and making plenty of references to the fact that the potholes are similar those on Sandycombe Road. Richmond Council, if you happen to be reading this, look what will happen if you keep neglecting your resurfacing projects.
Sabie Brewing Company
The town where Nicola’s South African family live is home to the recently-opened Sabie Brewing Company. The building claims to be Sabie’s oldest trading post, and it feels like it’s come straight out of the Wild West. We went along for dinner one evening, and I ordered the ‘Tasting Platter’, which turned out to be a board of various miniature Sabie beers, each accompanied with tasting notes. Everyone else was being sociable but I stolidly read my beer notes, explaining in great detail to anyone who would listen about the subtle flavour and speculating wildly about malt content. I don’t know to this day what I was talking about, but it was good fun and the beer was great. Definitely worth a visit.
While staying with Nicola’s relatives at Merry Pebbles we: ate amazing steaks in the restaurant; chased Guinea Fowl around the tennis courts (sorry, Joy!); watched hoopoes and hornbills; raced around on bikes; played the world’s longest-ever game of pool; walked along the beautiful River Sabie and spent far too much time sampling local wines. It was brilliant fun, and it was great to properly meet Nicola’s South African family.
Before long, it was time to head off to the Kruger National Park. More about that later. But if you ever find yourself heading off on a safari in Mpumalanga, Merry Pebbles in Sabie is the perfect place to stay beforehand. Just ask for Joy and Leon.