With Shan safely installed at King Shaka airport and headed back towards Cape Town, I turned the car northwards. Excited as I was to be spending that evening with Sharna and Daryl Balfour in Mbombela, I was also relishing the prospect of crossing some hitherto unexplored territory en route.
Above: there is bit of a saga coming up as to how this photo came about.
But before that, a bit of a journey
I didn't really know what to expect, even though the Daily News Empangeni bureau had been my patch back in 1974. Whilst there, I had been almost joined at the hip with George D'Ath, my counterpart on the Natal Mercury. Theoretically we had been rivals but more often we supported each other.
Zululand, as it was then, was vast and, in many areas, pretty sparsely populated. Often stories would break out at opposite ends of our patch and we'd divi up the fact-gathering. The strip between the Tugela and Phongolo Rivers and bounded by more or less parallel lines, running North-East through Eshowe and Vryheid respectively, were scarily remote to us.
Both of us moved away from Empangeni before we properly tackled this hinterland with its lure of the Wild-West. I never saw George again and, sadly, he was hacked and stabbed to death by Witdoeke vigilantes in Nyanga, Cape Town, on 10 June 1986. He was the first journalist to be killed in the political conflict in South Africa. He probably would have enjoyed the dark irony of the story he used to tell of the spelling of his last name. Evidently it had been De'Ath but a recent ancestor had thought it macabre and removed the "e".
And so, in 2022 I came to fill in a bit of the Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) that had passed me by. These are the pieces of my travels that draw me in with the magnetism of a jigsaw. I reached Eshowe ahead of schedule as the roads were clear early on that Monday morning.
Above: sunrise at 04h30 in Umdloti; my route for the next few Mpumalanga blogs.
From Eshowe the road dips down into the Mhlatuze basin before entering the rugged peaks and krandtzes that form the wild hinterland. Particularly spectacular is the White Mfolosi river valley that bisects the aforementioned remote strip. I can't remember when I first encountered them on this journey but the one blight was the phalanx of coal trucks presumably ferrying their loads between the Northern KZN coalfields and the Indian Ocean port at Richards Bay. These behemoths can drop down to 10 kph uphill and then make overtaking hazardous by accelerating to 100 kph downhill. Time was that this traffic would have been taken up or at least moderated by the railways.
The journey from Vryheid to Mbombela crossed familiar territory so it was a relief to see Daryl's smiling face after the remaining 4 and a half hours. It wasn't long before we had wine glasses in our hands and were resuming the banter we had enjoyed intermittently over the intervening 45 years. More of the wine later.
Annoyed with myself for having zero photos of the way from Umdloti to Mbombela, I jumped at the opportunity of a bit of photography the next day with my friends the experts.
Sharna and Daryl
The Balfours are renowned in international hospitality, especially for their top flight wildlife safaris majoring in photography across much of the globe. While discussing possibilities for the following day, Sharna suggested we take a trip up to Kaapschehoop for an iPhone safari.
They explained that many of the avid photographers who enjoyed their safaris often came as couples and quite frequently only one of the duo would be happy lugging around tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera kit. Consequently, Sharna had boned up on her cellphone techniques and provided coaching for those who wished to take a more casual approach to their wildlife and landscape pictures.
"The latest cellphones have extremely competent inbuilt cameras," she explained, while Daryl nodded knowingly.
I was happy to be in their hands. I did take my Nikon along for the ride after a good night's sleep, though.
Above: The deluxe spare room at Chez Balfour looks outward across the Steiltes Nature Reserve and inward at examples of their fine work.
While the town of Nelspruit is in the Lowveld region of Mpumalanga, Kaapschehoop is 28 km away, still in the Mbombela municipality but on the Highveld escarpment at 1640 m above sea level. The village came into existence as part of the 1873 gold rush that started in the Pilgrim's Rest area. Apparently Kaapschehoop peaked in the late 19th century with almost 5,000 residents and then descended throughout most of the 20th century until a low point of 16 inhabitants.
When you visit the place, its charms are clear. A huge amount of restoration has taken place and the altitude makes it a welcome refuge from Nelspruit. Brandishing our iPhones, Sharna and I darted about taking photos while Daryl looked on benignly.
Above, L to R, top to bottom: the first two pictures of traction engines hint at the town's industrial past; a lovingly restored verandah bungalow; step back in time for some lovely boer food when you visit the wagon house; ponies roam the streets as Daryl contemplates the transport options; more ponies shelter in a renovators' dream; the structure's still standing but it's a little out of town; a grand terrace downtown.
We had hoped to have lunch in Kaapschehoop but it was a Tuesday and not much was open so we headed back towards Nelspruit. Sharna had pointed me in several positive directions with my iPhone (hopefully the results above bear this out) and a residual appetite for some more photos remained.
As we descended the escarpment I spotted a tableau that floated my boat and mentioned this to Daryl, who was driving. He turned the car around and retraced our path a few hundred metres to where the outlook had caught my imagination ...
Above: The first frame with my iPhone was a snapshot of what I'd seen but now what my mind had selected as a promising scene wasn't quite doing it; out came the Nikon and all three of us wrestled in frustration with its settings. The next six frames illustrate a sample of our frustration and eventually the last frame was more or less what I wanted (give or take a few judicious tweaks with Lightroom). A larger version appears as the banner to this blog.
Only after commendable patience on the part of the Balfours were we able to continue our journey to a leisurely lunch at the Kingfisher alongside what appeared to be a raging torrent of a river that I mistakenly took to be The Crocodile. Sadly the river was the less dramatically named Gladdespruit, a tributary of the Croc that had been swollen by recent heavy rain (a harbinger of the soon to arrive devastating East Coast floods, perhaps?).
Wine and grub
Now Daryl is a winester and foodster of some renown. That is not to say Sharna's grub is not on the same level but this evening we were to have a braai and Daryl had once won the SA championships in that discipline. We detoured from the route home to Chez Balfour for some steak. A couple of perfect pieces presented themselves, well aged and marbled and what appeared to be an inch thick. Daryl and I chose one of these. Sharna was worried it wouldn't be enough and tried to persuade Daryl we needed another. We managed to convince her it wasn't needed. I tell you what, you'll never go hungry on one of their safaris with Sharna managing the catering.
Daryl had been given an electronic device for Christmas that purported to present the perfect braaied meat (as if he needed it) but before we go there and to the splendid bottle of Hannibal I need to take a few steps back.
Above: Daryl does like to keep his guests guessing - now revealed op sy moer; Daryl and Sharna haven't got mushroom for their steak lying untouched at the centre of the table.
When I had arrived the previous day I was tested via a brown paper bag on the constituents of the absolutely scrumptious op sy moer. I immediately got the Chenin bit and was appreciating the salinity of its blend partner. I was going for Palomino but didn't want to make a fool of myself so demurred. Of course, Daryl being Daryl, will never concede that I might have guessed correctly.
The splendid and perfect steak was soon added to our plates and melted in the mouth in between sips of the Bouchard Finlayson, a perfect accompaniment to the juicy red meat.
And there were some leftovers from the single steak after we'd all eaten our fill. Those Balfours do eat well, oh yes they do. Merci mes amis.
Recommended route to the Highveld
The next morning my friends were advising me on the route to take to Dullstroom to spend the next few days with my cousin, Stuart.
While they were showing me their recommended route I didn't question that they were sending me North to go West, nor had I realised that we were already North of Maputo. It is often a revelation to look at a map rather than just slavishly following one's SatNav. My personal global positioning, which is generally not too bad, had the Mozambique capital still way North of where we were sitting having breakfast.
The route swept up in a loop, taking in the Long Tom Pass and the highest altitude brewery in Africa before swinging South to Dullstroom. Thanks guys that was great advice and having travelled that route I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Above: The daunting Long Tom canons made things extraordinarily difficult for British troops during the Anglo Boer War; I was driving so was unable to sample more than the odd sip of the nectar at the Hops Hollow brewery. With its accommodation, I will definitely stop over there for a night next time I'm in Northern Mpumalanga!
I am bound to embarrass my cousin with my newfound affection for the fine fellow ...