Travel & Outdoor

Whispering winds on the Lebombo Mountains

Whispering winds on the Lebombo Mountains

Between the rustling of sugar cane and the whispering wind on the Lebombo Mountains, Nicolene Olckers is exhilarated by rolling thunder, savours the full-bodied taste of Mhoba Rum and is hassled by unexpected roadblocks in Nkomazi region.

My first excursion looking for adventure and interesting places this year was supposed to have started at daybreak. After my standard quick Google “research” on points of interest and the usual sketchy track search on Google Maps, I head out to the rolling hills and sugar-cane plantations in Nkomazi.
Yet again I find myself dragging my boots only to get away well after the sun is up. I venture to the far eastern corner of the province, which, I admit, I am not to familiar with.
Although it is still early morning, it promises to be a swelter. The wispy clouds soon give away to intense humidity as I pop in to Mhoba Rum. The small distillery on the Kaalrug turn-off, which is roughly 12km from the Nkomazi Toll Plaza on the N4 towards Malalane, is one of the many homegrown “beverage” makers in Mpumalanga. The distillery is ideally located in the heart of the sugar-cane plantations. The old, red brick buildings with black-and-white chequered floors now have new purpose. I find Richard Rammutla sitting quietly keeping his eye on the heating still. He has been working for the owners for almost a year. With his friendly manner, he guiding us through the rum process.
“We squeeze that sugar cane to get the juice. We are making a natural thing. It’s a Mpumalanga thing. We make a natural rum. We don’t need a lot of ingredients,” says Richard. The rum, or tjwala, is made by pressing the juices from the sugar cane, after adding water and yeast according to their recipe. The mixture is left to ferment for a few days. This conconction is heated and put through a stripping still. Then left to rest for a couple of days before going through the second distilling process to produce the final white rum with a whopping 92 to 96% alcohol volume. The spirit is diluted with purified water and then left to age in the “cowboys” with burnt oak bars giving it the rich amber colouring of normal rum. The swirling fumes leave my head spinning and my tongue is plastered to my palette from thirst as I leave Richard to his crafting.

The tall sugar-cane stalks make way for indigenous bush under a clear blue sky. The natural scenery along the road is somewhat more rugged than the cultured forestry of the Sabi/Hazyview area. The dense bush provides a welcome respite from the morning’s heat. The chatter of children and the clucking of a chicken draw my attention back to the road. The kids watch my every move with suspicion, but their curiosity wins out.
Gesturing with my little camera I manage to snap a few photos, but only get a shy smile from the mother holding their evening meal. I am constantly amazed that in this day and age some rural South Africans still struggle to understand English. Yet the same goes for myself – I can barely speak a third official language, such as isiZulu or siSwati. We part on smiling terms with the children clutching my stash of sweet snacks.

I decide to take a footpath rather than stay on the main dirt road, and it is here that I encounter a minor obstacle. Surrounded by fencing and blocked off by a sheep gate I decide to turn around. I am hot thirsty and become even more impatient. Bees from a nearby beehive have made me their target. In the heat these little hummers are irritable and I make a quick getaway before I end up being stung.

In my quest to find a shortcut from Driekoppies Dam to Tonga, I end up with a “roadblock” yet again. However, I do enjoy passing over the footbridge below the dam wall. This time the path between the two fences is too narrow to turn my bike around and I opt to practise my fence-repair skills instead. Any one who says it is easy to cut doringdraad with a side cutter clearly has the grip of Hulk. By the time I have the desired gap to get the bike through and over the fence, my hand is aching, my shirt is drenched in sweat and I have a raging thirst.

After getting directions from a local resident I’m on the fast route – tar road – to Jeppes Reef and Matsamo.
The Matsamo Cultural Village is tucked next to the Jeppes Reef Border Post to Swaziland. African drums welcome me and the aroma of cooking makes my stomach grumble as I wistfully remember handing over my snacks to the kids. You cannot travel on water and beautiful places alone. The traditional grass huts and reed walls separating them are vibrant in colour and alive with song. After watching part of the show put on for tourists, I wander under the lush trees and among the huts to take some photos.

The restaurant serves lunch and dinner. A traditional South African home-cooked meal is served in pots, buffet style and includes a variety of salads and desserts. The village also hosts a curio shop.
After enjoying a scrumptious, eat-as-much-as-you-can lunch, I take off in the direction of Mbuzini.
This small village is tucked away in an almost-forgotten part of the country where it seems even my cellphone signal is confused, unsure of whether I’m in Swaziland, Mozambique or just roaming around Nkomazi, South Africa. On the outskirts of the small village, where the tar road ends, a left turn onto a cement driveway takes me up to the crash site of Samora Machel’s plane. In the distance towards the Makhonjwa Mountains, a thunderstorm is brewing and it sends a welcome cool wind my way.

My visit to the Samora Machel Museum and Memorial is quite something. The friendly guard informs me with a grin and glance at his watch that I’ve left it a little late to arrive for a visit.
The site incorporates some of the aircraft wreckage. The central feature is 35 tubes of steel. As I stand among these, the distant thunder, the soft moan of the wind through the steel pipes and the dark clouds are a reminder of the once controversial time in the history of this great country that I live in.


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