Our final African border crossing was the Lebombo/Komatiepoort border from southern Mozambique into the northeast corner of South Africa.
Wessel was excited to put his feet on home soil. We all were; the trip so far had been weeks of relentless driving, from dawn to dusk some days. We wanted to put our feet up with a cold drink, do our washing, have a long shower, a shave, compile our photos, sleep in, and watch movies.
The hippo sign
The way to Lebombo was illuminated by a brilliant red sunset, as it had every evening. It reflected off the clouds and projected beams of crimson light across the highway. A few kilometres down the road was a big sign with a hippo on it, and we definitely needed a photo.
Wessel turned the car sharply and awkwardly off the road, mounting a grassy hill whilst still having the rear of the car on the road. It was a half-arsed job, and we looked as weary as we felt. It was a good photo.
Nelspruit (now Mbombela)
Ahead of us was the Kruger National Park entrance (preceded by a stretch of beautiful, new, well lit freeways), and then, Nelspruit, where we planned to stay. We felt bad that we zoomed straight past Kruger and couldn’t visit, but it was dark and Kruger was famously expensive. We felt as though we had seen some good parks already though. After an hour of exhausting night driving, we rolled into Nelspruit.
It had been a host city for the World Cup a few months earlier, but by now it was deserted. We checked into the Formula 1 hotel, not fussy about our accommodation. Two prostitutes were hanging around outside. Wessel tried to joke with the man at reception if they were allowed inside, to which he replied sternly “No! Those girls are not allowed in here!“.
We dropped off our bags and drove around town to find somewhere to eat dinner and have some beers. We found O’Hagan’s pub and grill, a big local joint packed with people and with a great bustling atmosphere. We walked in to the smell of steaks, chips and beer, and we smiled at this normalcy.
We sat in a booth and ordered a bucket of ice, filled with beer bottles. Wessel pointed out some stereotypical Afrikaaners. Women drinking glasses of white wine with ice, and burly rugby men watching sports on the various TVs dotted around the bar.
We ordered large amounts of meat; steaks and ribs, a substantial meal. Wessel felt glad to be back among his countrymen, and for Jeff and I, we looked on curiously at this new part of the world. We had beers left in our bucket when we decided to leave, so we took them with us.
A staff member came running out after us saying that we weren’t allowed to take them away. We insisted on speaking with the manager. He went off to find his manager, and as soon as left to find him, we walked over to the car.
Breakfast the next day was at Wimpy’s, a fast food chain popular in Africa. The interior was tacky, plastic and brightly coloured, and reminded me of McDonald’s when I was a kid. Images of styrofoam, plastic Ronald McDonald masks, and grease came flooding back, before their healthy new clean image. We sat at the tables and looked at the menus.
Table service for a fast food place – pretty cool. Full of bacon and eggs, and yoghurt and muesli, we had a few stops to make on the way out of town. I laughed at a sign stapled to a telegraph pole as we waited at a set of traffic lights; it read ‘Safe abortion, 100% guaranteed, quick same day’. Nobody had taken any of the tabs, funnily enough.
We took our first look at the landscape of Northeast South Africa in the daylight. Shrubs and spiky grasses covered the golden rolling valleys and mountains. Flat-topped mountains and sheer cliffs cut a swathe through the landscape.
A few hours out of Nelspruit was a sign pointing to the Sudwala caves. Apparently quite a popular local attraction, we took the opportunity to check it out.
Up a very steep hill was the carpark. Up an even steeper walk was the reception and entrance to the caves.
Cave tours left at predetermined times, and we got there just in time for the next tour. A guide took us through the caves. He was knowledgeable and funny, but we thought it would have been cooler if we could explore the caves unrestricted.
He showed us rock formations. One that looked like King Kong. Another that looked like Satan. Another was a giant Penis. We spotted a sleeping bat and crawled through a tight crawlspace. The caves weren’t bad. With the things we’d seen and places we’d gone so far, they didn’t compare though, and I got the first real sense that the trip was finally winding down.
A short drive down the road we stopped at a local waterfall. We needed to get there by foot, guided by a police officer through a pitch black abandoned train tunnel. The tunnel came out onto a timber balcony perched on the cliff edge. The waterfall was pretty cool, pouring down a sheer cliff into an expansive valley. Nearby was the Kruger House, President Paul Kruger’s private residence.
I was being argumentative and difficult that day because I didn’t know who Paul Kruger was and wasn’t interested in seeing his house. Jeff and Wessel had to drag me along. Once inside though, and reading about his life, I liked the mystique of the famous ‘Kruger millions’, a secret treasure stash that the President supposedly hid somewhere in this part of the world.
Treasure hunters had searched high and low, but to no avail. Kruger House was our last stop before we started our big push inland. Hammond settled into the road for a long haul, and we carried on down the highway towards Newcastle.