The Mpumalanga of Tourists
Since my first encounter with the “Eastern Transvaal Lowveld” as the area was called back in the days it’s been a favourite weekend and holiday destination of mine. Over the years I’ve seen the region develop from being relatively unknown into one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions. With development, unfortunately, had to come change. After my tour through Limpopo, it was time to re-visit old favourites and discover some new ones.
When I first visited Mpumalanga as a schoolboy most of the roads connecting the towns were still gravel. To reach any of the many waterfalls tumbling over the escarpment one had to slip and slide
along muddy tracks. At Bourke’s Luck Potholes wobbly suspension bridges spanned the clefts and only the very brave would venture across for a better look into the depths. One could spend the day at any of the natural pools for a swim and a picnic and hardly see another visitor. After a breathless walk up the steep path one could sit in almost complete silence and gaze at the infinite views from God’s Window. Sitting there, one could reflect on the true beauty of this stunning region, feeling at one with the creator of all this splendour. The hushed silence broken only by the chirp of a bird.
Gradually the gravel roads were replaced by wide, tarred roads. The stuff of motorcyclists’ dreams, they wound and twisted their perfectly cambered way through the evergreen forests and plantations. With the roads came new signs making it easy to find the once-hidden falls and pools. Sturdy concrete bridges replaced loose planks. Walkways were widened and stairs built. Sturdy metal barriers and no-entry signs safe-guarded the careless from falling into the abyss.
Now, easy to get to, more visitors arrived. Buses came with people from all over the world to marvel at the beauty. They went home and told their friends. More people came. Larger parking areas had to be bulldozed into the hills. Flushing toilets and wheelchair access ramps had to be built and entrance fees were charged. The chirps of the birds were replaced by languages from across the globe.
Traders, attracted by the lure of tourist dollars recruited the local communities to sell “local” curios from across the continent. The same mass-produced wares at every stop. Competition to make a sale was fierce and their make-shift stalls were haphazard and untidy. A few gifted artists tried selling their original works, couldn’t compete and soon disappeared. The unspoilt beauty, the whole reason for visiting had become just another noisy, messy tourist trap. The people went home and told their friends.
The buses became fewer. Neglected roads started crumbling. Hawkers abandoned their untidy stalls. In the towns the pancake shops closed down and new buildings stood empty. Plastic and glass lay strewn in the once-pristine forests. Wind blowing across empty parking spaces.
Beautiful Mpumalanga, the province where the sun rises, a victim of it’s own beauty.
The Alternative Mpumalanga
Make no mistake, the waterfalls are still beautiful. The view from God’s Window is still as infinite as ever, the Bourke’s Luck Potholes still bear testimony to natures relentless power and the Blyde River Canyon is still the third-largest canyon in the world. If you have never done the Panorama Route, you should definitely still do it.
But turn off the main roads, follow that old, weathered signpost to an unknown place, dig a little bit deeper, and it’s still possible to find the Mpumalanga of old. There are still undiscovered pools to swim in and infinite views to be found where only the chirp of a bird can be heard.
For the next few posts, I’ll be taking readers on a trip through an alternative Mpumalanga: