Sometimes one passes through an area only realising afterwards how much one has missed. The south-eastern corner of Mpumalanga Province is one of those places.
Leaving Eswatini, I first returned to Pretoria for a pre-booked camping trip with friends and relatives at Doorndraai Lodge before continuing my journey in mid-November. My plan was to head to Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal for December. The busy holiday season was coming up and I needed to find a hideaway from the crowds.
I had a few days to get to KZN so I set aside two nights on the way down, stopping at Ermelo from where I took a circular drive along the backroads to Chrissiesmeer. Upon leaving the area I’d made a mental note that I need to return someday to dig deeper into this hidden and unknown corner of our country.
Chrissiesmeer is both a town and a lake.
The town is tiny and the lake is often touted as South Africa’s largest freshwater lake. A quick search, however, reveals that Lake Sibaya in KZN is in fact much larger and all my research couldn’t reveal where Lake Chrissie got its “largest” sobriquet from. Nevertheless, both town and lake have a lot to offer visitors who’re prepared to spend a bit of time exploring.
It’s all about the wetlands.
The eastern highlands of South Africa is the source of four major rivers. Bubbling out of the ground from tiny springs, water trickles off in different directions gathering momentum and becoming significant rivers as they flow across the country towards the oceans.
The largest of the four is South Africa’s second largest river, the Vaal. From it’s origin near the town of Breyten, the Vaal River flows 1210km across the sub-continent till it joins the Orange River near Douglas in the Northern Cape. The other three large rivers originating in this area are the Usutu (Eswatini’s largest river), the Komati and the Olifants.
Two large freshwater lakes and hundreds of pans are a feature of this area known as the Matotoland Lake District.
Come at the right time of the year.
I would suggest that the area should ideally be visited at the right time of the year. Now, in mid-November the landscape was bleak. The plains looked parched, dusty and uninteresting. Enormous maize-fields were bare and dust blown up by the strong wind made the skies dull. It was difficult to find a pretty picture to photograph. But I’ve also been here in late summer when the grasses are green and all the hundreds of hollows are filled with water. When it rains the landscape is transformed.
Come around Easter and the countryside is splashed with the bright pink, white and purples of the beautiful cosmos flowers. Said to have been brought to South Africa from South America in horse-fodder during the Anglo-Boer war these pretty flowers have made the eastern highveld their home and seem to become more abundant with each season.
Frogs, birds and flowers.
Another reason to visit in the wetter months is the profusion of life bursting from the wetlands. Hundreds of small ponds, lakes, pans and hollows fill up with water and attract all kinds of birds, amphibians and insects.
Roughly 20 000 flamingoes are a highlight amongst 82 species of water birds and hundreds of other bird species encountered here.
Soon after the first rains, the annual frog festival held in early December attests to the profusion of frog species who find the abundance of water to be a suitable habitat. (Matotaland is derived from maxoxo the Swazi word for frog).
Later, in January when the grassland flowers are in full bloom, thousands of butterflies can be found flitting around, another reason for a festival. The residents of Chrissiesmeer don’t disappoint and the wildflower and butterfly festival is held annually around the third week of January.
The town of Chrissiesmeer, established in 1860 was named after Christina, the daughter of Andries Pretorius, President of the Transvaal Republic. A name that frequently pops up is that of Alexander McCorkindale. McCorkindale had formed a friendship with the President and the name of Chrissiesmeer was apparently to flatter the president and help smooth the way for the creation of “New Scotland”. The idea was to acquire land between Swaziland to the east and the Transvaal to the west and settle this area with immigrants from Scotland, McCorkindale’s homeland. The venture turned out to be a bit of a failure and never really took off but names like Lothair, Dundonald, Warburton and Sheepmoor are still reminders of this snippet of history. It is a story well worth reading.
For some reason, finding campsites in this area was virtually impossible but I finally managed to find a spot at Hein’s Farm Resort, about 12km north of Ermelo. The campsite is on a working farm and is situated right next the the rather busy N11 road between the towns of Hendrina and Ermelo. Heavy trucks mainly carrying coal came rumbling by at all hours but the noise was not too intrusive.
The campsites are well-grassed and shady and the facilities were clean. It was a good base for my brief visit to the area. Hein’s Farm is also very conveniently located for caravaners who need to break a long journey around here.
After two nights and again reminding myself that one day I need to come back here, my next stop was one I’d been looking forward to for a very long time.
I drove south, through the small but busy towns of Piet Retief, Paul Pietersburg, Vryheid and Louwsburg towards Ithala Game Reserve. Somewhere between Piet Retief and Paulpietersburg driving over the Pongola River, I crossed another provincial border. I was now entering the third province of my journey, KwaZulu-Natal.