There is a lot more to Nelspruit, or Mbombela, than its proximity to the Kruger National Park alone. It is true that this qualifies as a major attraction for visitors. That it lies within an hour’s drive of the huge national park is a tempting possibility for day trips into the park (and is no doubt the reason why everyone in Nelspruit drives around in an SUV).
But there is a lot more to do and see within 80 kilometres of the popular Lowveld city, through which the Crocodile River meanders (and continues to wend its way through much of the surrounding countryside; one seems to cross it a myriad times).
You can now fly all the way into Nelpsruit, although generally it’s a lot more expensive than flying to Johannesburg and hiring a car. The city has two airports, one an international airport and the other little more than a landing strip used for non-commercial flights. The weather is excellent all year round, if you’re looking for an excuse to visit, even if it gets a little warmer than is comfortable in summer. But just about everything is equipped with air conditioning as a result.
Day Trips from Nelspruit – here follows a selection of things you can look forward to in and around the city
Lunch and a hike at Kaapsche Hoop
The fairytale village of Kaapsche Hoop lies in the hills directly above Nelspruit, roughly 30 kilometres outside of town along Enos Mabuza Drive. Easy to reach from Nelspruit, it is often shrouded in mist and home to a great many wild horses (no-one knows just how many but on speaking to locals there are at least 150 of them).
Extremely popular over weekends for lunches, brunches and teas, the former mining town that began its life just before the discovery of gold in Johannesburg, has converted itself into a perfect weekend getaway for Gautengers and Lowvelders alike.
Most of all it is popular amongst hikers for the trail that starts at the hut in the town and heads off into the Berlin plantation, part of the commercial forestry of the area. The hike is anything from two to five nights divided into several individual trails that can be combined together. Four huts provide overnight sleeping facilities.
The falls around Sabie
Sabie is a quaint forestry town that lies in the shadow of Spitskop and Mount Anderson, its main road lined with at least 20 restaurants that include the Smokey Train Diner in an abandoned railway coach. Along the south bank of the Sabie River lie a series of three waterfalls close to the town (there are a myriad more a little further afield, if you have the time but these are easiest if time is an issue) – Bridal Veil Falls, Lone Creek Waterfall and Horseshoe Falls.
You can reach the fall via one of several sawmills in Sabie, along a rather pot-holed road (take the road past Merry Pebbles resort, it’s well sign-posted). Day walks around Sabie include the Forest Falls Nature Walk, which takes one to the Forest Falls (the only waterfall that is wider than it is high), the Loerie Trail, the Secretary Bird Walk, which finishes at Mac Mac Pools, and the Misty Mountain Trails. (See Sabie Accommodation to stay in the town).
Day trip into Kruger
The Kruger National Park, if you have a Wild Card, is easy to do as a number of day trips, Nelspruit is so close. But it is easier done as a long weekend or a three to four day stay (Kruger Park accommodation during school holidays can be an issue, so if you have left it until the last minute, you can rest easy knowing you can do it as a number of day visits).
Some people go to camp at Secunda for weeks at a time – the choice is yours. Best done outside of school holidays, the park is still one of the most spectacular in the world, and game is abundant. Spotting game depends very much on luck and your ability to take the time to try and find it, if you are going to self-drive.
Nelspruit gives ideal access to the popular southern region of the Kruger, and the nearest gates are Malelane (south east), Numbi (south west) and the Kruger Gate (slightly north of Numbi and a longer journey as a result). The escape to the bush is a highlight of any trip to the Lowveld. If you are not keen on a self-drive experience there are numerous personalised tours from which to choose.
Heritage Walk in Barberton
Barberton, just 43 kilometres from Nelspruit along a really scenic drive, is the town tourism forgot. The local community has been reticent in coming forward about the town’s incredible historical and geological relevance (the mountains around the town are the oldest in the world, dating back 3.5 billion years) but that will all soon change with the imminent release of both the Disney version of Jock of the Bushveld, and the film about Cockney Liz (legendary ‘barmaid’ who became known as Cockney Liz because of the accent in which she chose to sing, despite her obvious refinement and musical talent.
Both of these films will focus much deserved attention on the town, the origin of which was the 1880s gold rush (the Sheba Mine remains one of the richest working gold mines in the world). The Heritage Walk through the centre of town takes in all the relevant history, including South Africa’s first stock exchange. Whilst it is a well sign-posted self-guided tour, try to do it with a local guide as you will learn so much more by doing so. (See Barberton accommodation to stay in the town itself).
Whilst the tours of the popular cave tend to be over subscribed and the tour’s content more than a little hackneyed, the trip to Sudwala Caves still draws tourists by the thousand and is well worth visiting, if only to see the the oldest known caves in the world, said to have formed 240 million years ago, and the numerous calcium structures that have been given names like the ‘Lowveld Rocket’, ‘Samson’s Pillar’ and the ‘Screaming Monster’.
One-hour tours run during the day but what sounds even more worthwhile is the five-hour long Crystal Tour that happens once a month. Aimed at the more ‘adventurous’ amongst its visitors, it goes a lot deeper into the Mankelekele Mountains and includes a bit of crawling around, until one reaches the outskirts of the crystal chamber.
Interacting with Elephants – Hazyview
Both The Elephant Sanctuary and Elephant Whispers operate just outside Hazyview, roughly 70 kilometres from Nelspruit. Either of these offers you the chance to get up close to elephants and experience their intelligence and compassionate nature one-on-one.
Some of the elephants have been rescued from planned culling, all are handled in a gentle and compassionate way, but remain in captivity. (See Hazyview accommodation if you want to stay in Hazyview itself).
The Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden is a 1000 hectare game reserve just outside of Nelspruit, home to a group of chimpanzees that have been misplaced from their natural habitats in Central Africa. Chimp Eden is a sanctuary for them.
The reserve also raises awareness of the need for conservation and about chimps in Africa. Whilst some people stay in the reserve, there are also daily tours that are roughly an hour and a half long, three times a day. Feeding times are at 10am and 2pm.
Panorama and Highlands Routes
Both the Panaorama Route and the Highlands Meander are self-drive routes that take one through particularly scenic areas of Mpumalanga. Essentially they are tourist routes designed to take one via the highlights of the area.
The Highlands Meander is aimed at nature lovers and includes first-rate fly-fishing venues, the chance to spot some of the rarest birds, incredible rock climbing, and access to spectacular wild flowers. It includes the towns of Belfast, Dullstroom, Elands Valley, the Kwena Basin, Lydenburg, Machadodorp, Skurweberg and Waterval Boven and lies in the higher escarpment areas.
The Panorama Route, by comparison, offers one the chance to take in the natural wonders of the eastern escarpment of Mpumalanga. It includes God’s Window, Blyde River Canyon, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, the Three Rondawels, Pilgrim’s Rest, Sabie, Lydenburg, White River, Graskop, Ohrigstad, and Hazyview.
For more info and a first hand review, read our article at “A Little Taste Of Nelspruit“.