If the word “Mbombela” is not immediately familiar, that may be because – in terms of the map of South Africa – it is rela-tively new. The capital of north-easterly Mpumalanga province has only worn its current identity for a decade. Between its birth in 1895 (as a cattle-ranching outpost, and later as a key railway town) and its re-christening in 2009, it was (maybe better-) known as “Nelspruit” (after 19th century beef barons, the Nel family).
But if the name is a relative newcomer, then the reasons to visit the city are not. Mbombela is mostly seen by travellers as a gateway to Kruger National Park, on whose south-western doorstep it sits – and most of the visitors who pass through it continue on into South Africa’s most eulogised enclave of lions and leopards, crocodiles and cheetahs.
And yet, there is more to Mbombela and the area around it than an instant dash for the safari vehicle. Directly north of the city, Lowveld Botanical Gardens are a labyrinth of walks and waterfalls - while the Riverside Mall is a playground for 21st century shopping.
Most unmissable, however, is Blyde River Canyon (also known as Motlatse Canyon). Part of the Drakensberg Escarpment of mountains, this great gulf in the ground is a definite reason to reach for your camera. If not quite a Grand Canyon in scale (it is 16 miles long and around 750m (2,460ft) deep), it has a geographical magnificence that can leave the observer whistling in admiration. The main stars of the show are the “Three Rondavels” (also known as the “Three Sisters”); a trio of rounded, grass-covered peaks whose name raises its hat to the circular shape of the traditional Mpumalanga homestead.