On from the Lowveld | 290km

Hot-air ballooning with Bill HarropHot-air ballooning with Bill Harrop

NELSPRUIT

Nelspruit, capital of Mpumalanga province, lies in the fertile valley of the Crocodile River in an area known for its production of a variety of tropical fruit (pawpaws, bananas and avocados), nuts (pecan and macadamia) and citrus fruit. The town's development was closely linked to the building of the railway line between Pretoria and Lourenšo Marques (Maputo). The section of the line from Komatipoort on the Mozambican border reached Nelspruit in 1892 and a town steadily developed around the railhead. During the final phase of the South African War, Nelspruit briefly served as the capital of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR). Proclaimed in 1905, the town's name honours the Nel brothers, who used the area for winter grazing in the 1870s and in 1890 bought the farm on which the town developed.

LOWVELD NATIONAL BOTANICAL GARDEN

Situated on the town's northern outskirts, the dome-shaped granite boulders and cascades at the confluence of the Crocodile and the Nels rivers form an impressive backdrop to the Lowveld National Botanical Garden. Special plantings and lawns cover 25 ha of developed gardens, while a further 135 ha have been left as natural bushveld. Highlights include a world-famous cycad collection, comprising all 36 southern African cycad species, 18 African species and 84 species from elsewhere in the world. There is also a complete collection of baobab species, and a comprehensive collection of Acacia trees.

Visitors on their South African holidays can follow paved walkways meandering through the garden, or take the Riverside Trail, which winds along the Crocodile River and through the African Rain Forest, with its tropical forest plants from central, east and west Africa. The garden offers good birding opportunities, while a small group of hippo can be seen in the Crocodile River. Meals are available in the restaurant.

SUDWALA CAVES

...are situated in the wooded valley of the Houtbosloop (wood bush stream) on the slopes of Mankelekele Mountain. The caves were formed over million of years by rainwater, charged with carbon dioxide, seeping through cracks and dissolving the limestone rock to form a maze of caverns, tunnels and passageways. Water percolating through the roof of the caverns has created a subterranean treasure chest of stalagmites and stalactites with imaginative names like the Screaming Monster, Weeping Madonna and Samson's Pillar.

The main chamber, the PR Owen Hall, is roughly circular, with a diameter of 70 m and a height of up to 37 m. Visitors can take guided tours of the caves. Stone Age people lived here, and the Swazi King, Sobhuza I, took refuge in the cave when he fled from the Ndwandwe around 1818-19. In 1855, Somcuba and 3 000 of his followers were besieged in the caves by his brother Mswati.

The adjacent Dinosaur Park, with its collection of dinosaur and other prehistoric animal replicas, offers a Jurassic Park-like experience. Displayed in realistic settings is a unique collection of dinosaurs, extinct mammals and birds, evoking the vanished era when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It is said to be the biggest and most scientifically accurate collection of prehistoric animal replicas in the world. Also of interest is the Kraal Complex, a 'living' museum portraying the cultures of the Nguni people.

MONTROSE FALLS

After making its way through Schoemanskloof, the Crocodile River plunges 12m down a cliff, forming the spectacular Montrose Falls. Visitors are advised to exercise caution when exploring the area above the falls as the rocks can be treacherously slippery.

LYDENBURG

Long before the Voortrekkers arrived here, the area around Lydenburg was inhabited by Iron Age people. Significant archaeological finds have been made here, notably the discovery of seven terracotta heads, later named the Lydenburg Heads, dating back some 1 500 years. The heads may have been masks, and were probably used on religions occasions or during rituals. The town of Lydenburg was established in 1850 after the Voortrekkers abandoned Ohrigstad, and was named 'town of suffering' as a reminder of those who succumbed to malaria at Ohrigstad. Reminders of the town's early days include the Voortrekker School (1851), Voortrekker Church (1852) and the Dutch Reformed Church (1894).

Replicas of three of the Lydenburg Heads can be seen in the town's museum, which also has interesting displays on the Voortrekkers, gold mining and the Pedi people. The Gustav Kliengbiel Nature Reserve covers 2 200 ha to the east of the town and has been stocked with kudu, eland, blue wildebeest, blesbok, impala, grey rhebok and reedbuck. Visitors can explore the reserve along three trails, one of which meanders past the terraces and stone walls of an Iron Age settlement.

LONG TOM PASS

Winding across the Drakensberg, Long Tom Pass links Lydenburg to the towns of Sabie and Graskop on the edge of the Escarpment. This is one of the best-known and most scenic passes in the country, and is rich in history. Originally known as the Delagoosbergpad, Long Tom Pass lay on the early wagon route between Pretoria and Lourenšo Marques (Maputo). A rough track was built in the early 1870s, and some of the old names of places signposted along the road - the Old Trading Post, Die Geut (chute), Staircase and Whiskeyspruit - recall those early days. Following the defeat of General Louis Botha's force at Bergendal (the last set-piece battle of the South African War) on 27 August 1900, the Boer forces split up into several groups, one of which retreated eastwards over the Drakensberg with two heavy 155-mm Creusot field guns, nicknamed 'Long Toms' by the British.

Following the capture of Lydenburg by General Buller's forces on 7 September, several skirmishes were fought along the route over the Drakensberg between 8 and 10 December. Historic sites such as the Last Stand of the Long Toms and the Long Tom Shell Hole, a crater left by an exploding shell, have been signposted. Also to be seen is a replica of one of the guns deployed by the Boers to slow down the advancing British forces. Weighing 6 250 kg, the Long Tom had to be drawn by a span of 16 oxen and had a range of nearly 10 km.

SABIE

Long before the first whites settled here, the area was famous with big-game hunters, adventurers and transport riders. The town's name is derived from the African name Sabielala, meaning the 'Sabie Sleeping Place'. The first farm, named Grootvantijn (Big Fountain) was awarded to CJ Badenhorst in 1846, but it was the discovery of gold - first alluvial and later reef - which attracted large numbers of diamond-miners and fortune-seekers. The gold fields were nowhere near as rich as those of the Witwatersrand, and most diggers eventually drifted away. Today, Sabie is the centre of one of the largest concentrations of commercial forest plantations in the world.

A stopover not to be missed on South African holidays, is a visit to the SAFCOL Forestry Museum, with its interesting displays on the forest products industry. St Peter's Anglican Church (1913) was designed by the well-known architect, Sir Herbert Baker. Sabie is also an important tourist centre, and there are several magnificent waterfalls in and around the town. Among these are the 70-m-high Bridal Veil Falls, Lone Creek Falls - which leap 68 m over a sheer cliff - Horseshoe Falls and 46-m-high Sabie Falls.

WHITE RIVER

White River lies amid an intensive agricultural area where tropical fruit, citrus and vegetables are produced and is also a stop-over on the way to the Kruger National Park. The town was founded in 1904 by Lord Alfred Milner, administrator of the Transvaal after the South African War, as a settlement for Boer and British soldiers. It was established on the banks of the Emanzimhlope River, a Swazi name translated as 'white waters'.

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