It’s 6am and I’m sitting in a small queue of assorted cars and bakkies at the Phabeni gate of the Kruger National Park waiting for South Africa’s flagship national park to open for business.
In the back of my bakkie are two excited children, in the passenger seat an excited grandmother, binoculars at the ready as we prepare for a day cruising the Kruger bush in search of excitement and wonder.
It’s just a day-visit this time, part of a long-weekend away in one of my favourite parts of the world – the Mpumalanga Lowveld.
I’ve based myself in Hazyview, at the Casa do Sol Hotel & Resort, a four-star family establishment within spitting distance of everything this remarkable area has to offer.
Family fun is something that Casa do Sol specialises in. Indeed, as the young men in my charge agree enthusiastically at every turn, “Casa do Sol is brilliant!”
And I must say I find it hard to disagree. Themed around a rambling Portuguese village and set in lush, tropical gardens, the property is extensive and includes a fishing lake and the Ilanga Nature Reserve, with walking trails up the mountains behind the hotel.
There’s horseriding, mountain biking, two huge swimming pools, tennis … everything to keep parents on their toes and children well-occupied.
The hotel is a three-minute drive from the centre of Hazyview, on the Sabie road. What used to be a quiet, almost sleepy lowveld town is now a happening tourism hub, thanks in large part to the aforementioned Phabeni Gate which was opened only a few short years ago. This has made access to the Kruger Park for this area much easier, being only 12km out of town.
But there’s much more than Kruger to occupy in this part of the world.
Just outside Hazyview, on the Graskop road, is the Shangana Cultural Village. Created and built by local Shangaan people, the village offers tourists a chance to get in touch with the local culture of the Hazyview area and learn about the rich heritage of the Shangaan people.
Shangana is centred around the Marula market, a central “market” village where local craftspeople ply their trade. There’s a great range of arts and crafts on show here, so don’t forget some spending money. Entrance to the Marula market is free.
From this central point, guides lead guests down to separate villages on set tours, which are offered by prior booking. The midday tour includes lunch and an evening tour takes in an evening festival in the chief’s kraal. This includes dancing, drumming and a multi-course meal served in the traditional Shangaan way. It’s all great fun!
Further afield, the historic gold-rush town of Sabie is a short, 25-minute drive away down the R536. The drive to Sabie is an adventure in itself, with some breathtaking scenery and lots of interesting “padstals” along the way.
This is Jock of the Bushveld country – an area made famous by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick’s legendary tale of indomitable Staffordshire bull terrier Jock and his adventures in the time when Sabie was a small trading post on the route from Delagoa Bay. The little dog’s name is everywhere, from coffee shops and cafes to campsites and luxury lodges.
The Sabie Forestry Museum is well worth a visit, and for keen fishermen this town is known as “Troutville” – the Sabie river is teeming with the tasty fish. There are activities aplenty in and around Sabie, from hiking trails to 4×4 routes, quad-biking and horse-riding to hot-air ballooning and microlighting.
A visit to the Lowveld is not complete without taking in Sudwala Caves, located between Sabie and Nelspruit.
Formed over a period of 3000-million years, the caves capture a moment in the Earth’s history when this area was covered by a warm, shallow, inland sea. The Pre-Cambrian dolomite caves are amongst the oldest in the world and contain fossils of the first known oxygen-producing plants – collenia.
Guided tours take place every day and cater for the casual explorer – the Cave Tour takes about an hour exploring the large chambers of the caves. For the extreme adventurer there’s the Crystal Tour, a 5-hour 2000 m penetration of the cave system with stretches of crawling through water-logged tunnels and views of the magnificent aragonite Crystal Chamber. This tour takes place on the first Saturday of each month and needs to be booked well in advance.
With so much on offer there’s a risk of exhaustion, racing around exploring all the hidden nooks and crannies that make the lowveld the great holiday destination that it is.
After a couple of days “doing” the attractions, I opted for a couple of days rest and relaxation back “home” at Casa do Sol, relaxing on various loungers, letting the boys swim, fish and hike in the nature reserve while a revisit to Harry Potter took the strain of my physical and emotional unwinding.
In between chapters I kicked back, took a sip or two of a pina colada, watched the sunbirds flitting from flower to shrub, warmed by the marvelous lowveld climate and reflected that Mr Potter would have been right at home in the lowveld – it’s truly magic.