Mpumalanga is called ‘Paradise Country’ and is one of the most beautiful and geographically diverse provinces in South Africa. It is the second smallest province in South Africa, landlocked between Gauteng, Limpopo, Mozambique, Swaziland, the Free State and Kwa-Zulu Natal. The entire province of 79500km² has an estimated population of only 4 million and so despite its small size, it still offers vast rural and scenic areas with many outdoors attractions, offering an array of outdoors and adventure activities. This makes Mpumalanga both an eco-tourism and safari hot spot, boasting the Kruger National Park and many adjoining game reserves among its treasures and attractions.
The name Mpumalanga means ‘The Place where the Sun Rises’ The sub-tropical ‘Lowveld’ area that is warm year round is where you will find the city of Nelspruit and the Kruger National Park.
Though the economy of Mpumalanga is based on mining (predominantly coal extraction, processing and power supply) and agriculture, there is an excellent road network and several small airports which serve an increasingly thriving tourism industry. Notable transport infrastructure is the Maputo Corridor – a road network and route that includes the N4 toll freeway between Gauteng and the port city of Maputo in Mozambique. Though originally designed to facilitate trade, a spin-off is ease of travel for tourists.
Mpumalanga is divided into 5 geographically and environmentally distinct regions.
The north-western part of Mpumalanga bordering Gauteng is of the Highveld biome – high altitude grasslands, cold in winter and hot in summer with summer rainfall and thunderstorms. Below this area, the south-western section of the Province borders the Free State and is known for predominantly mining towns and the proliferation of pretty pink and white cosmos flowers in the rainy summers, and this is called Cosmos Country. These two areas are known collectively as the Highveld and Cosmos Region. Despite its provincial cultural significance, there is far less on offer in this region for tourists than in the other four regions – with the notable exception of the area around Middelburg and the Olifants River Gorge which offers outdoors activities and hiking trails.
The Drakensberg Escarpment that runs through Mpumalanga divides the Highveld from the smaller subtropical (and therefore significantly warmer in winter) Lowveld region to the east, known for its game parks and the Kruger National Park, but also for citrus fruit orchards, tropical fruit, cotton and tobacco plantations. The high altitude and mountainous dividing line of the escarpment offers its own delights – though much of the indigenous forest has been replaced by plantations, now protected pockets of afro-montane ‘cloud forest’ still remain in between areas of high altitude alpine grasslands. These forests are lush, tangled and beautiful, full of gurgling rocky streams and waterfalls abound in the area – particularly around the towns of Sabi and Graskop.
This area is part of the Komatiland – an area known for its forests and eco-tourism adventures, including some excellent hikes. The northern section of the escarpment in Mpumalanga stretches toward the south-eastern corner of the Limpopo Province, and here is where you will find Mpumalanga’s most magnificent natural feature, and one of South Africa’s most popular tourist attractions – the Blyde River Canyon. The area dubbed the Panorama Route follows the winding Blyde River as it carves its way through the escarpment, and between the Panorama Route and the Highveld and Cosmos Region, the Highland Meander offers forest plantations, mountains and valleys with tumbling streams and rivers, superb trout fishing and outdoors adventure activities.
South of the Highlands Meander, the Grass and Wetlands Region offers South Africa’s version of the ‘Lake District with hundreds of freshwater lakes centered around Lake Chrissie. The ‘Wild Frontier’, though not a region in itself, is named for its ‘warring’ history and less so for its current character – now mostly under plantation. This section runs along the line of the relatively low-lying Lebombo mountains on the southern border between Mpumalanga and Swaziland – from the south-western border with Kwa-Zulu Natal and the southern tip of the Kruger National Park bordering on Mozambique.