Sue Adams heads for Mozambique on the N4 from Nelspruit to Komatipoort, and gets much more than she bargained for
1 Croc Valley
In days gone by any citrus you bought from the Lowveld probably came from Croc Valley Estates (now Croc Valley Citrus Company). In the aftermath of World War I, 5-acre plots were sold to try and develop citrus farming but the plan didn’t work and a lawyer, Ivan Solomon, bought out the plot owners. Farming was tough but, at the beginning of World War II, the British Army bought the entire crop for the six years of the war to sustain the health of its soldiers. This farm became a huge success, particularly when Ivan’s son, Dennis, took over and pioneered many citrus farming and handling techniques still in use today.
2 Karino and Kruger International Airport
This area is called Karino, originally named Carino (meaning beautiful) by Italian settlers who came out to work on the railway and settled here. However, the mail for Carino and Carolina became mixed up so the spelling was changed to Karino. This international airport built in 2002 is probably the prettiest in South Africa, with a thatched-roof, game lodge look.
3 Crocodile Gorge Geology
As you drive through the gorge, you cannot miss the great granite outcrops around you. It may sound a little like science fiction but these rocks are part of a rock formation called pluton, and are about 2 billion years old. As the earth began to cool this molten rock 6km in diameter was pushed to the surface through an even older kind of granite, and is now known as Mpageni Granite. Over time, the Crocodile River cut down and eroded the rock; weathering through exfoliation also helped to round off these granite giants which make great lightning conductors in Lowveld thunderstorms.
4 The Railway Line
The construction of the railway line between Lourenço Marques and the Transvaal was a momentous event for the Boer Republic in the 1890s. The Portuguese completed the line in Mozambique and the Dutch company got the contract for the South African side. Bribery and racketeering were commonplace and one contractor even convinced everyone that stone in South Africa was not good enough for building and imported stone from Holland. Despite fever taking a terrible toll on both people and animals, and an occasional hindrance in the way of lions, the line was completed all the way to Nelspruit by mid-1892. With the arrival of the railway line to the flat, fertile valleys of Nelspruit, farming became very attractive and the area began to boom.
5 Gould’s Salvation and Krokodilpoort
In the late 1800s, the transport riders’ biggest fear for themselves, their oxen and horses was tsetse fly, until they found this new tsetse-free route along the Crocodile River and called it Salvation Valley. At the little creek of this name, Edward Gould and his wife Florence started a small hotel called Resurrection – hence Gould’s Salvation. The stream was believed to have miraculous properties – bathing in the water would protect you from malaria. Krokodilpoort (now a train station) is near a construction camp called Poort City that was established for building the railway. In the 10 months on site, about 130 people died from fever, as did more than 500 donkeys. In his book Lost Trails of the Transvaal, T.V. Bulpin describes how the doctor created a gambling pool, and whoever had the highest temperature in the little thatched hospital that day won the pool.
6 Fruit, Fish and Thatch
At the turn-off to Matsulu there is a large informal traders’ market with excellent fresh fruit and nuts. Don’t miss the beautifully carved wooden fish, crocs and turtles. One of the world’s biggest thatched huts, the Sisulu Cultural Centre, is just off the road. It was built to seat 1 000 people and is used for celebrations and big events. Look out for the well-stocked craft shop and the cenotaph built to commemorate people from the area who died in the liberation struggle.
7 Game Reserves
On the northern side of the road is the Mthethomusha Game Reserve, one of the first reserves in South Africa to be built on a basis of community and conservation partnerships. The tribal authorities have leased the land to Mpumalanga Parks Board, and Bongani Mountain Lodge is set high in the hills.
An added bonus here is the abundance of rock art sites. From Kaapmuiden the N4 follows the Crocodile River to the border, with the Kruger National Park boundary to the north of the river. This is Jock of the Bushveld country, filled with stories of transport riders and gold diggers braving rivers and wild animals to get to the port in Mozambique, or in search of riches. The Kruger Park Bushman Walking Trail is a fabulous way to spend two days walking among great granite outcrops, with the possibility of seeing elephant, buffalo and rhino.
This little town (mouth of the Cape) began as a railway junction in 1891 and had one line going to Pretoria and another built later to Barberton. It is at the confluence of the Kaap and Crocodile Rivers, where the butcher and his biltong are famous. Look out for the abandoned farm silo which has been painted to attract visitors. There are old tin-roofed houses along the railway line near the station but sadly they are deteriorating fast.
9 Tale of Two Brothers
The name Elphick is synonymous with this area. The two Elphick brothers came to the Lowveld, one to fight in the Anglo-Boer War in 1899 and then both to farm. They never really got on and a story is still told about one brother shooting the other through the corrugated-iron long-drop roof to frighten him. ‘Mkonto’ (spear) as Captain George Joseph Elphick was known, for his habit of carrying an assegai as a walking stick, pioneered pawpaw- and mango-growing in the area. Elphick grandsons and great-grandsons still live here on Althorpe but most of their farm was sold in a negotiated land claim settlement.
10 Magnesite and Other Minerals
Just before you get to Malelane you will see some mine dumps and a turn-off to Magnesiet. Magnesite is used for products that need to withstand enormous heat like bricks for kilns, and in the production of fertilisers. Ancient haematite and magnetite were also mined in this area, for ochre that was used as pigment for rock art, pottery and body decoration. One of the oldest ochre and haematite mines is just over the mountains at Ngwenya in Swaziland.
11 Place of Palms, Sleep and Sugar
There is some controversy over whether Malalane is named as the Place of Palms (eMlalani) or because of the expression ‘lala’ which means to sleep. Whatever the origin, this town is the heartbeat of the area known as the Onderberg. The building of a tarred road, the growth of the sugar industry and the fencing of Kruger Park all helped to establish a booming agricultural centre. Malelane Gate is one of the main entrances to Kruger Park. The road down to the gate is flanked by sugar cane but as you near the river look out for the Leopard Creek golf course as well as Hamiltons – one of the Lowveld’s more famous restaurants.
The big factory you can see between the cane fields is the TSB sugar mill, better known to all of us as the Selati brand of sugar. Although sugar cane was investigated as a possible crop from the 1940s, it was only in 1965, when the mill was built and the irrigation systems installed, that the cane industry could really boom.
12 Town of Dogs and Buffalo
My favourite place along this road is Hectorspruit, not so much because it’s worth visiting but because of the stories. The town is named after a dog called Hector, which belonged to a surveyor working on the Eastern Railway Line. The dog was bitten by tsetse fly, died and was buried beside a little stream since named Hectorspruit.
Lennox Anderson, born in Barberton, was one of the original owners of the Hectorspruit Hotel, built from a maize shed in 1924. He was a keen hunter and apparently shot the heaviest lion recorded to get himself into the Guinness Book of Records. The hotel was renamed the Buffalo Hotel when Anderson shot a record buffalo that had chased a young girl up a tree. The buffalo head is still mounted in the hotel bar and it’s a tradition to kiss the head with your hands behind your back while standing on the bar counter. Quite close to the hotel in the main street is an old weeping boerbean tree with a small fence and plaque, where apparently Paul Kruger gave his last speech in 1900 before leaving South Africa.
13 Aloes and Royal Palaces
Marloth Park is a housing estate/game farm that was named after the Aloe marlothii. It went through some tough times since construction began in 1970, and after liquidation in the 1980s the new agent offered free stands if you bought elsewhere in South Africa. Nowadays it is a sought-after development, with 13km of Crocodile River bordering on Kruger Park.
Tenbosch is the original railway siding named after the Dutch royal palace – a little pretentious possibly because all you can see now is fields of banana palms. Between 1934 and 1940, foot and mouth disease took a massive toll and 12 000 cattle were destroyed and buried here. The area was also part of a land claim by the Ngomane people, who originally had a huge sphere of influence that eventually dwindled down to the farm Tenbosch. In 1953, the Ngomane people were forcibly removed and their land given to white owners. In 2007, in a land claim settlement, the Ngomane were given back 32 000 hectares.
14 The Red Plane
As you drive into Komatipoort there is a rather dilapidated plane painted red. A De Havilland Caribou from Canada, it has quite a history. The story goes that this plane saw action in the Vietnam War and was nicknamed the Rebel Rouser. Apparently it was based for a while on a small island in the Pacific, then came to Mozambique and was then bought, supposedly by a South African company believed to be a front for the South African government, possibly involved in sanctions busting and supporting rebel movements in Southern Africa. No one quite knows how it came to be in Komatipoort but until recently there was a South African Air Force Base just behind where the plane is parked.
15 Place of Prawns and Tigers
If you can’t get to Mozambique to eat plates of prawns, Komatipoort is the next best thing. Situated on the confluence of the Komati and Crocodile rivers, the town was originally a building camp for the Eastern Railway Line. T.V. Bulpin writes that in 1891 it was ‘a hot and squalid camp’ and a ‘hangout for smugglers and rival African labour recruiters.’ In 1945, the railway station was upgraded and Komatipoort became an important tourist gate into Kruger.
Komatipoort hit the news in 1984 when P W Botha, then Prime Minister of South Africa, and Samora Machel, then President of Mozambique, signed the Nkomati Accord, hoping for peace between the two countries. Two years later the Mozambican presidential, Soviet-made aircraft with Machel on board crashed 52km from Komatipoort, killing Machel and 33 others. There has been much controversy over whether the crash was an accident. There is a monument at the site of the crash, which can be reached on the R571.
16 The Fighting Peacock
Ludwig Steinacker was a Prussian soldier who arrived in Natal in 1899 and persuaded the British that he should fight in the Lowveld during the Boer War. He created a garrison that became known as Steinacker’s Horse, and was renowned for his uniforms.
Harry Wolhuter, the first game ranger in Kruger National Park, remembered him as a ‘pompous little cock-sparrow of a man’. Steinacker came up with the idea to blow up the Komatipoort railway bridge behind Boer lines in order to hamper their retreat in the Anglo-Boer War. The bridge was so heavily guarded that they blew up the railway line at Malelane instead. Steinacker seemed to be a law unto himself, with more than 450 men at his command. After the war he unsuccessfully tried to have his regiment reconstituted, and later took poison and killed himself.
17 Building Bridges
The first railway bridge over the Komati River was completed in 1891. The bridge over which you drive is new, built in 2000. Building the bridge was actually delayed when it was discovered |that endangered Blue Swallows were breeding under the bridge. When they had safely bred and hatched, building commenced. It could not have been easy building with crocs and hippos in attendance, and apparently much slapping of the water was done throughout the day to chase them away.
18 To the Border
If you are driving through the border give a thought to Winston Churchill, then a young war correspondent taken prisoner by the Boers in 1899. He managed to escape, and hid on a goods train destined for Lourenço Marques. He spent a worrisome night in Komatipoort when the train was halted, listening to Boers walking around. When he saw the name Resana Garcia painted on a board at the next station, and Portuguese soldiers in uniforms, he knew he was safe and fired his pistol into the air.
If you can, pull off just before the border and look down to the confluence of two of South Africa’s greatest rivers – the Crocodile and the Komati. This is now a peaceful sight but has been the cause of much conflict.
Where to stay and play:
Stop for Lunch
• Chilla’s Cona is a local bar a couple of kilometres along the Matsulu turn-off. It buzzes with atmosphere on weekends but you just have to rock up and hope it’s open. For a real Lowveld bush feel try The Deck overlooking the Crocodile River in Malelane. The food is good but the view is spectacular. 013 790 1246
• For those who love good fresh produce and a great wine list there is nothing to beat Hamiltons on the road to Malelane Kruger Park gate. The who’s who of Leopard Creek frequents this place so make sure you book. 013 790 3421
• Tambarina in Komatipoort is the place to eat prawns fresh from Mozambique. You can sit out on the cool veranda and get your hands really greasy. 013 793 7057
• A real luxury bush treat is to stay at Bongani Mountain Lodge in Mthethomusha Game Reserve. Mandela spent time here after his release from prison, which says it all.
013 764 3577
• Rio Vista in Malelane is a comfortable place on the Crocodile River and a good place to stop over en route to Mozambique or the Kruger. 013 790 1246, [email protected]
• Komati River Chalets is a self-catering or bed and breakfast stopover in Komatipoort. The owners go out of their way to make you feel at home and can help you out if you are keen to go tiger fishing. 013 793 7623, www.komatiriverchalets.co.za
• If you want to be really spoilt with a view of the Komati River, River Hill Lodge is beautiful.
013 793 7855, www.riverhilllodge.co.za
Enjoy the Outdoors
• The Bushman and Wolhuter Walking Trails in Kruger National Park are in a class of their own with knowledgeable guides, great natural scenery and, if you are lucky, good animal sightings. Book well in advance. 021 424 1037, www.krugerpark.co.za
• Tiger Fishing on the Komati River is something the real fishermen try to keep secret. Contact Craig at Nkomazi Wildlife and Tiger Fishing Safaris on 079 186 6423.