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Posted on: Wednesday, 3 August 2011

When in Nelspruit: shop ’til you drop

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When in Nelspruit ...

When in Nelspruit …

Nelspruit is fondly known as Nellies by those who live there, and Mbombela by all that is official, although you are still alright for signs on the highway – most of these still indicate Nelspruit, for those as distracted as I am.

There has been an official name change. Nelspruit, home of Radio Laeveld 100.5 fm, is called Mbombela. But since this happened only in 2009, and the city was still officially referred to as ‘Nelspruit’ for the World cup, and all road signs (as I already mentioned) still call the city Nelspruit, there is some obvious confusion.

The only people unconcerned are the many traffic officials who zoot around in smart cars emblazoned with Mbombela Traffic, which had the rather sobering effect of ensuring that I maintained the ridiculous speed limit of 70 km per hour on the N4 through the city, despite the double carriageway. I was in a borrowed car!

Nellies is a great place to stay. If you’ve lived in Johannesburg at all, it’s kind of like living in Randburg all the time, with about twenty more shopping malls, all just around the corner from you.

If you haven’t gone on at least one shopping expedition whilst in the city, then you haven’t lived. There are malls everywhere – new malls, strip malls, industrial malls, big malls, small malls, car malls (with such a spread of new and second-hand cars it is small wonder that everyone drives an SUV of some description – there is Kruger to go to at the weekend, Darling); in short, Nelspruit is a wall-to-wall shopping metropolis.

Mozambicans know the city as a shopping destination, or they drive there for medical appointments. And all of the smaller towns in the Lowveld – like White River, Barberton, Waterval Boven, Kaapschehoop, Malelane and a myriad others – whilst all hosts of a local Spar at least (for some reason Spar has the monopoly on the Lowveld) – head into Nelspruit to really shop.


Photographs – Left: Paw paw plantations between Nelspruit and Barberton / Right: Sugar cane

So, it was with great enthusiasm that I decided, on about day two of suffering incredibly hot weather that is apparently the city’s seasonal equivalent to winter, that my Cape Town winter clothing was totally unsuitable and that a plan would have to be made. A shopping expedition followed.

And what joy. There is nothing like shopping in a place where, not only can you choose a parking place from a whole lot of parking spaces, but the shops were almost empty, and selecting and trying on clothes felt like it must feel for the likes of Madonna when she informs the store ahead of time that she’s coming in, and they close their doors to the rest of the plebians out there.

You would never think we were in the midst of a recession to sit and watch the main roads through Mbombela. Did I mention the Spur? If you want to make a quick killing, open a Spur in the Lowveld. Nelspruit is home to at least four of them. Driving through other towns in the Lowveld I was to count a fair number to add to my tally. Certainly there are more Spurs than there are independent restaurants.

Out doing a last-minute recce for bread on a Saturday evening, we left a certain strip mall, in a hurry to get home, only to be confronted by a queue of cars that went halfway round the block, waiting to enter the parking lot for an evening out at Spur.

Most of what there is to do in the city centres around shopping malls. The bulk of these are chain stores, but intermittently there is a little gem, like Stoep – books, art and coffee – at SonPark Boulevard Centre. The little shop is tucked away just past another gem, the independent movie house known as Boulevard Cinema (which not only specialises in local films and latest art movie releases but sometimes you can watch a movie and eat popcorn for less than you pay at places like Nu Metro).

Stoep is humming. It definitely qualifies as a trendy eatery, its walls donned with wonderful, must-buy-now local art (painted mostly by the chef, Hannah Steyn), price tags visible and affordable, a second-hand bookshop in an alcove, and a restaurant where coffee and cake are the order of the day. It is also a framing establishment and sells the odd nick nack, like home-made local biscuits and lovely rings, but none of it is tacky or vaguely in the region of ‘tuisnywerheid’ type fare.


Photographs – Left: Sunset over Nellies / Right: The ubiquitous “Soccer Ball” at a viewing point over Nellies on Enos Mabuza Drive

It’s the establishment of three friends, Hannah Steyn, Elsabe Malan, and Annemarie van der Walt, who have simply thrown together each of their niches and tastes, and come up with Stoep. Annemarie, obviously run off her feet, still manages a friendly face at my odd enquiry, and kindly agrees to let me swop two books I’ve just finished reading, for one of hers. If we were staying, this is where I’d hang out, on a daily basis. It kind of feels like home. Wish I had bought the painting of the chair…

The other place we get to hang out for a few hours, is the local library. This is my idea. I’m a fan of the library system in the Western Cape. It functions well, there are great books, always new ones on the shelves and the system is computerised. It even sends you reminders via email that your books are due.

Nelspruit, I fast learn, is not as lucky. It apparently takes at least seven librarians to keep this library ticking over at any one time, which isn’t too surprising given that they’re still on an antiquated card system (you know, the card of book stuffed in pouch with your name on it system of your childhood, well, mine at any rate).

New books, well, there aren’t many of them. And to join the library, temporarily, I have to part with a deposit of R290, R50 of which the library will keep for admin, and on the return of all four books (I’m used to taking at least seven) that I am allowed to borrow, they will return R240. I take the risk, and our family of three fight over which one of us gets to choose two books.

There is also much fumbling over writing my receipt. When I finally return it a couple of weeks later, together with the books, I need to point out their error, as they appear only too happy to short change themselves by R10(!).

What to do in Nelspruit when not shopping must wait for another story…

Nelspruit Links

Wanda Coustas


Wanda Coustas has written in one form or another for 10 years, seven of them as a copyblogger. She has travelled the Western Cape extensively and the rest of the country in protracted road trips that have given her both joy and an ongoing relish for experiencing what she writes about first-hand. She is a trained opera singer, poet, eurythmy dancer, philosopher, and bee whisperer.

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