Exploring Mpumalanga

(I will have part two of the Exit Interview post coming later this week. I’m still reaching out to people and asking permission to share their stories of success. Stay tuned!)
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One of a million dirt roads begging to be followed.

This last weekend we took our first baby steps out into this magnificent country. I had done some preliminary research using a handy Lonely Planet guide (Thanks, Trish!), Instagram, and Google. What resulted was a two day trip east of Pretoria to the beautiful big sky country of Mpumalnaga. Think of it as Wyoming meets the Grand Canyon all at 6,000 feet. It was vast and beautiful and serene and quieter than any place I have ever been in the United States.

Okay let me step back and set this up the right way. I follow several professional runners on Instagram. They are kids compared to me, but their posts are inspiring and motivating even if I don’t end up getting out the door for my sluggish three miles around the golf estate. Over the last few months I noticed that some of the runs the South African, Swedish, and German athletes were posting took place in a town called Belfast, South Africa.

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More dirt that smells like sweat.

Situated roughly two hours east of Pretoria on the N4, Belfast and the surrounding dirt farming roads provide ideal conditions for distance runners: Safe, cool, non-humid conditions between 6 and 7,000 feet of altitude. It seemed like as good of a place as any to  escape from the late summer heat of the city. On Saturday morning we loaded up our rental SUV (a diesel powered Toyota Fortuner, or as the locals say “Very choice”) and headed east and up. The N4 is a fine road, mostly three lanes of well maintained blacktop. The traffic was light and the sky was the kind of deep royal blue that hints of the impending autumn. If you’ve ever driven west across Kansas, you know what I mean by headed up. The rolling hills all topped out a little higher than the previous, and without even noticing it, we climbed into high altitude.

Turning north of the N4 we followed the signs for 20 miles through some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever driven to Dullstroom, a small mountain town famous for its fly fishing. No kidding. In addition to distance running, people come here from all over the world for the size and abundance of brown and rainbow trout in local lakes. Who knew? Dullstroom also can boast of having South Africa’s highest train station at 6,800 feet above sea level. It also happened to be the location of our one night stay. Because we made excellent time from Pretoria, and because the boy were being so well behaved, we decided to call an audible and continue on to the main attractions of our trip.

The “Panorama Route” is paradoxically both a renowned and little traveled road loop through some of the most spectacular landscapes in the country. Most people opt to rush for the chance of big game viewing in Kruger further East, and they skip right over this four hour roundtrip journey. Starting in the working class town of Lydenburg (4,780ft), the R37 climbs forever up to Long Tom Pass (7,100 feet). From the pass, I’m sure we were looking out east at Mozambique roughly sixty miles away and at Swaziland just under eighty miles south. The views in every direction are breathtaking, as are the harrowing sets of switchbacks into the adventure town of Sabie. I’m talking about Tour de France level of climbing and descending.

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The road into Sabie.

Sabie is where the fun starts though. Up to this point, most of the trip was limited to staring out the car windows. Scenic overlooks are rare, and roadside pullovers can be dangerous. But Sabie caters to thrill seekers and the local economy is entirely dependent on hikers, some white water rafting, and mountain biking. We stopped here for lunch and to fill the tank. The people were welcoming and generous. I wish we could have stayed longer in the city center for shopping. But the main reason why people come through this town though is for the waterfalls and that’s why we were here. The road from Sabie to Gaskop is 20 miles and has a dozen stops for majestic waterfalls. Being full-blooded Americans, we chose the biggest two.

The Mac Mac Falls are 215 feet top-to-bottom. The viewing platform is a distance away preventing any real concept of the magnitude of water and the fall. I think the kids would have been much more impressed if we could have travelled down to the pools below. Unfortunately for us, Thomas Link wasn’t with our tour today. Maybe next time.

Mac Mac Falls
Mac Mac Falls from the observation platform.

Farther up the road is the aptly named God’s Window. This tourist trap presides over a near vertical 3,000 foot drop that will make your stomach uneasy as you approach the viewing platform. The parking lot is a veritable United Nations of tourists and the street vendors and monkeys know it. Most of the stuff being sold here today is factory produced and a knock off of the real thing. We quickly escorted the boys past the booths with their inviting colors and sounds and head to the trail. This was the lone stop on the drive that was crowded. While I would definitely return and stare out over the continent, I would do so early in the morning or on a non-weekend day. The commanding views were almost ruined for me by the selfie sticks and jostling on the trails around the park. I could feel the resentment and the frustration tightening in my shoulders. I held my son’s hand tightly and moved too quickly. What was I doing? In places like this (and more often, everyday) I just wanted to take a minute, just a minute, and to step back from the haste of the photo opportunities and the pressures of all the little thoughts and anxieties and wants, and to do as poet Anne Sexton said.

“Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.”What do I need to hear before all the self-doubt and justifications drown out the voice of myself? This is why we came here. To slow down. To do some hard listening. To sit with it all. I looked out of God’s Window expecting to see the world before me, and I all I saw was myself. 

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The views from God’s Window.

A half-mile hike up the trail will take you further from the crowds into a cool rainforest. No, literally. At nearly 6,000 feet of elevation, the cold clouds ram into the Drakensberg Escarpment providing near constant moisture to the ridge top. This enables more than 1,000 species of plant life to thrive.

To be honest I was happy to get back in the car and continue on. I’ve never been a fan of crowds and have always enjoyed the solace of the open road. Berlin Falls is a short drive from God’s Window, but it feels like different world. A crooked sign and a dirt road any Mainer would love will take you a couple of kilometers away from the tourist buses and you will again find yourself immersed you in the quiet of South Africa. At each of these stops there is parking guard who, for a small fee of ten rand per passenger, will keep your car from losing its tires or hubcaps or luggage while you take the tour and see the sights. There is rarely any formal information about the history or natural element, but there are always people set up selling handmade goods. While you can bargain here, neither Erin nor I can ever bring ourselves to do it, and so we always pay full price for the souvenir. I know you might think we are suckers, but after the conversion you are really haggling over a piece of beaded leather or painted wood that costs $1 or $2 (R10 or R20). For us, we’d rather have an intact conscience rather than an intact wallet . Berlin Falls was no different in this regard. We bought the boys each a sling shot (which was the biggest mistake we made on the trip), and I found some other gifts for friends and family back home.

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The solitary Berlin Falls.

As we left Berlin, I noticed how low the sun was hanging in the sky and felt a sense of urgency to get moving. Having only covered a third of the 120 kilometer route, I knew we needed to cut some of the itinerary if we were going to make it back to Dullstroom before dark. Everyone (the South Africans, the ex-pats, the waitstaff, the guy at the cell phone store) has warned me not to drive after dark. Not only is drunk driving extremely prevalent here, but crime and carjacking risks greatly increase once the sun retreats behind the horizon. Plus you also need to contend with both livestock and wild animals who happen into the road. Skipping Bourke’s Luck Pot Holes and only briefly stopping at Blyde River Canyon, helped get us back on track. Blyde River Canyon has a bit of an inferiority complex, but it shouldn’t. All the roadside signage and tour books bills the attraction as the world’s third largest canyon. The view stretches on for days and is as green and lush as any tropical forest. There is no need for the comparisons. The view from the canyon rim well earns its nickname, The End of the World.

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We let the wheels run as we traveled down off of Drakesburg Escarpment and into the agricultural valley below. I tried to sneak some views of the lowlands, but the potholes on the roads made Nashville’s 440 feel like driving on a sheet of glass. Add to that motorcycles and the lack of enforcement on posted speed limits in this part of the world, and I can understand why vehicular deaths occur so frequently. We cruised back into Dullstroom just as the last rays of sunlight crawled up the mountains in the East. I was more than happy to park the car for the night. We found a great meal at the Mayfly Restaurant and settled in for a relaxing evening at the cabin. We all slept soundly in the dark and thin air of the mountains, although at one point I awoke to what I thought was the sound of cows outside our door. I convinced myself I was hearing things and rolled over. In the morning though Erin confirmed my experience, and as we left for breakfast we noticed the dozen or so cows camped in the garden and field next-door. Much to the amazement of our boys, we also were lucky enough to watch as a rather irate farmer drove the bulls and bovine with a switch off the lot and back up the road.

Most of the shops, as well as the Birds of Prey Sanctuary, opened late on Sundays, so after a very European pancake breakfast, we called it a trip and returned to the heat of Pretoria. I left with a sense of accomplishment and also one of excitement. If the rest of the country holds as much wonder and beauty as this one 75 mile drive, four years will not be long enough to see and experience it all. On our next trip, I really want to spend more time in Sabie and Graskop. I want to get in a long run at 7,000 feet. I want to go fishing. I’m bummed we missed the hike to Lone Creek Falls, but it will certainly be on top of the list for the next adventure.

The Big Swing, anyone? Also, I’m accepting applications for co-adventurer for a twelve or fourteen day cross-continent drive in 2020. I’m thinking Cape Town to Nairobi to Kampala to Addis Ababa probably. Let me know if you are interested.

Be good, and keep in touch.

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