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The Road Trip To Mbombela

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The local eatery in Nelspruit with women rustling up African cuisine on the side of the road; Image by Motlabana Monnakgotla

A tourist magnet, this small town in South Africa faces its own Covid-19 crisis, but the outdoors still entice. 

In the northeastern region of South Africa, nestled in the verdant Mpumalanga province is a capital city named Nelspruit, now known as Mbombela, a stunning and popular getaway for city-dwellers and tourists from other parts of the country.

Personal reasons took me to Mbombela recently, with special permission to move between provinces. And in the current pandemic, with no tourists flocking to the town to admire its iconic scenery or engage with the friendly locals, I had all the time and space to soak it in and capture it all on camera.

I arrived here around noon by road from Soweto, the vibrant township where I reside, 371kms away in Johannesburg.

Mpumalanga was warm in comparison with the wintry Gauteng province, which Soweto is a part of.

Although in the same country, the two provinces have many obvious differences, but the conversations and concerns around the coronavirus pandemic were the same, when I was there.

Despite Mpumalanga recording lower infection rates – and hardly any power cuts as in Gauteng – the face-mask was a common motif here too, from the petrol stations to the parking lots.

An old family friend came to pick me up in a small town called White River. He had arranged a safe place for me to rest and work in at the Kabokweni township, where he resides. The driving was different. I am used to Johannesburg’s beautiful tarred roads but this time, I was up in the bumpy mountains in my 1.4-liter car. I was worried because the locals were speeding up and down and I had to be extra-careful as I negotiated my way up to my place of stay.

I was now settled and able to respond to work emails, make calls and even sample the province’s tap water (although I prefer the water in Johannesburg). The next morning, it was back to business. I was up early like any professional photographer to catch the early rays of the Mpumalanga sun. It was enchanting. My friend and I wore our masks and gloves and topped our hand-sanitizers. We walked down the hill and the first stop was at the local eatery where women were rustling up African cuisine on the side of the road. They could tell I was not a resident because of my accent, but didn’t mind me photographing them. 

About a kilometer down the road, was a church that I had spotted enroute to my accommodation the previous day. I was intrigued by the architecture of this Lutheran Church. 

As we continued walking and admiring the landscape, keeping clear of speeding cars, I also spotted a mosque on the horizon, and couldn’t leave without capturing it. We walked up to it and spoke to the caretaker about how they were practising social distancing here.

On our way back, I heard that 13 nurses had tested Covid-19 positive at the local clinic, so the town’s inhabitants had started taking the virus seriously. However, I did discover the face-mask-and-social-distancing rules were being flouted considerably at the shopping malls.

Well before my return to Johannesburg, I had picked up and could now speak a new language: siSwati (Bantu language spoken in eSwatini and South Africa by the Swazi people). I was fascinated by how the locals spoke it and I didn’t really care about what they were saying to me; I just wanted them to keep talking. I have since become a new convert to tuning in to siSwati news on the telly every day, still enthralled by how much a small town can teach fast-paced city-dwellers like me.

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