After two amazing – but also tiring – days of animal-spotting in Kruger National Park, we were ready for a rest back in civilization and headed for Nelspruit, the nearby provincial capital of Mpumalanga.1 With a population of around a quarter of a million residents, Nelspruit has some of the amenities of the larger South African cities, without as much of the traffic and general congestion.
Exiting Kruger at the Crocodile Bridge gate – which lies less than 10 kilometers from Mozambican border2 – we began driving towards Nelspruit just as the sun was setting. We drove past seas of massive, green sugar cane plantations as we made our way back to the N4 toll road, the main route between Johannesburg and Maputo, and along which Nelspruit lies. The drive, which should have only taken about an hour and a half, unfortunately ballooned into a nearly three hour affair, due to slower night driving conditions and an elongated stretch of road work.
About 30 kilometers east of Nelspruit, in an otherwise nondescript part of the route, we found ourselves pulling up to an endless line of stopped cars. Unbeknownst to us at this point, construction had reduced a six kilometer section of the highway ahead to one-way, alternating traffic. After five minutes we turned off the engine. After another five minutes we turned off the headlights.3 After nearly an hour – which felt more like two – of watching traffic in the eastbound direction fly past us, and trying to surmise what was occurring ahead and when, or if, we would be moving forward again, there was a break in the action and our endless line of cars started plodding west towards Nelspruit.
We had reserved a “budget studio” for a couple of nights at the Columbus Guest House, which was located in what appeared on the map to be the eastern section of town, along the nearby nature reserve. Arriving much later than intended because of the road construction, we headed straight for the guest house to check in and gather ourselves. Following our Google Maps directions, we drove a couple of kilometers up a rather steep hill into the dark and then down Columbus Street, which has its own series of not insignificant hills. It seemed like we just kept driving into the abyss and I started to wonder – and become more than a little annoyed about – where the hell we were headed.4
Eventually we pulled up to the guest house and rang up Catherine, the lovely owner, who came out and helped us get sorted into our room. Although our studio was set up as a self-catering unit, the grocery stores were all closed – in South[ern] African parlance, it was outside of “trading hours” – by the time we arrived in Nelspruit. Catherine suggested that our best bet at the late hour might be the KFC at the base of the giant hill we had just driven up to reach the guest house.5 Feeling exhausted, and lacking a better option, we went and had some great fried chicken for dinner.
We spent the majority of the next day perusing and procuring goods and services on offer at three of Nelspruit’s larger shopping malls. One of our guidebooks made, and some anecdotal evidence even supported, the assertion that, in the Johannesburg area, such large malls “form the core of northern suburbs society.”6 Although this was an activity that we completely eschewed in Johannesburg, we dove head first into hanging out at the malls in Nelspruit. This was driven by various factors, including (i) a welcome lack of can’t-miss sights in Nelspruit; (ii) simple curiosity as to what such malls would be like after having recently wrapped up three weeks in lovely, but chronically underdeveloped, Mozambique;7 and (iii) some things that we actually needed to purchase and get accomplished.
In the latter category was the notable hilarity of Katie’s deliberate failure to bring a single pair of shorts (save for a 10-year-old pair of gym shorts that were not designed for primetime wearing in public, even when new) or a t-shirt with her to Africa. (For some equally perplexing reason, however, she seems to have packed an abundance of long skirts that, unless she expends additional efforts to tie/cinch up the ends, drag on the ground.) After a wander through the Riverside Mall and some trial and error trying to figure out what her U.S. sizing corresponded to in South Africa, Katie successfully purchased a few t-shirts from Edgars and a pair of shorts from Mr. Price Sport.8
We had a nice lunch outdoors at the Grove Mall – I recommend the Thai fishcakes at the Europa Cafe. To cap it all off, at the I’langa Mall, I had my first overseas haircut while Katie enjoyed an afternoon glass of wine – as one does on a Tuesday when unemployed traveling – at one of the restaurants, and then we got frozen yogurt at Wakaberry.
We ended our mall day by stopping at the upscale Woolworths Food grocery store to pick up some ingredients for making dinner – highlights included freshly picked green peas from Kenya, sautéed with some local South African green beans and mushrooms – and breakfast – highlights included Bulgarian yogurt with organic muesli and a side of local South African figs – back at the guest house.
Where We Stayed
☆ Columbus Guest House: Three and a half goats. Great value for our “budget studio” with panoramic views of the surrounding nature reserve – there were also fancier rooms on offer for those interested in such. Extra half goat for ease of online booking and the delightful proprietor, Catherine.
1 I have really taken to saying the word Mpumalanga and started to use it as a nickname for Katie.
2 The Crocodile Bridge gate is actually closer to Maputo than Nelspruit, and we spent the first portion of the drive out of Kruger listening to an English-language radio station from Maputo.
3 I learned that lesson the hard way in Colorado a couple of years ago. During a weeklong vacation with my family at my grandparents’ cabin in the mountains, I spent a couple of days drafting a brief – which, incidentally, was never filed – for a case that I was working on at the time. Around 2:00 am one night, after finishing the draft I was working on, I left the cabin and drove a couple of miles down the road towards the main highway, where the cell coverage improved, so that I could use the cellular data on my phone to email the document to my colleagues back in New York. Encountering difficulty in logging into my firm’s VPN, I turned off the car’s engine – but not the headlights – and sat on the side of the road for forty five minutes trying to get the email containing the document to finally clear my outbox. Unsurprisingly to anyone who drives a car regularly – I had not for nearly a decade at this point – I had drained the battery sufficiently to prevent it from starting. Thankfully, for me least, I was eventually able to reach my dad back in the cabin – unfortunately for him, it was nearly 3:00 am by this time – and have him drive down the road in the second vehicle we had brought up to Colorado to come give me a jump start.
4 In what has become a recurring phenomenon, the distance was not actually that great and the location did not appear nearly as remote in the light of day.
5 Thinking out loud, I commented to Katie that we could perhaps just make a dinner, albeit a lousy one, out of the sundry snacks we had left in the car. In a first for me, Katie then pleaded to be taken to KFC for dinner.
6 Upon reading such statements, I always make a mental note, but then subsequently forget, to look at what hilarious or unflattering things the Lonely Planet guidebooks assuredly have to say about some of the various cities in the United States.
7 As banal as they can be, I also find malls to be a potential point of commonality between wherever I am traveling and the United States, and that this relatable experience can provide a good jumping off point for simple comparing/contrasting (e.g., the malls in South Africa all seem to be anchored by at least one – and sometimes multiple – large, well-stocked grocery store(s)).
8 Locating a pair of shorts in the beginning of fall in South Africa – when all of the stores were eager to sell us a bunch of sweaters and other cool-weather clothing – was no easy feat, despite the fact that it was still well over 80°F outside in Nelspruit during the day.