It is no secret that many believe that tourism has the potential to become one of the largest employers in South Africa and when one explores our natural environments, the awesome beauty and potential of it, reaches deep into ones emotional beingness. The same of course applies when you notice how often these resources and heritage are trashed as a result of mismanagement.
Bernard Cohen (LROC) and others, like Gideon Stapelberg once said, “The sheer beauty of Songimvelo with its unspoilt tracks, appealed to the explorer in me”. Gideon, an accredited guide, 4x4 trainer and moderator, has been involved with the development of the various 4x4 routes in Songimvelo and other Lowveld areas since the 1990s and believes that this reserve offers true rugged beauty as only Africa can offer it.
Songimvelo covers an area of some 40 000 square kilometers and offers a number of 4x4 routes. And, once the powers that be have resolved some administrative challenges, this would become a trans-frontier park into Swaziland when it is linked with the Malolotja National Park. This would offer all 4x4-driving nature lover/adventurers an opportunity to spend a long weekend or more at Kromdraai, Humala River Lodge and others and drive various 4x4 routes on different days.
For this launch most attendees only drove the first seven or eight kilometres of the Ebutsini route, while others did drive the complete route later in the day, which covers a total distance of 30 kilometres of truly unspoiled beauty and many river crossings.
En route we stopped at one of the local villages and almost everybody bought mbele’s - much to the delight of the local entrepreneur, of course. This again illustrated the empowerment possibilities of local tourism development.
Gideon sharing a mbele with his grandson Gareth
The long and the short of the Ebutsini/Songimvelo/Malolotja development is that there is a serious commitment to develop the area to become a productive contributor to the upliftment of the local community by offering a five-star rugged African-nature and 4x4 experience like no other.
The trail is 30 kilometres long, taking four to five hours to complete. Vehicles with low range and good ground clearance are required to complete this trail. A local guide can accompany drivers with prior arrangement. Quad bikes are also welcome. Cellphone coverage is good and covered accommodation is available - food/catering is available and there are local spaza shops with basic supplies.
A self-drive trail, it starts at the Ekulindeni Tourism Centre, 50 kilometres from Badplaas, and heads deep into the Mpumalanga hills into an area steeped in history and rich in geological artefacts. It passes old mines, archaeological sites, traditional Swazi and old pioneer graves on its way through the Drakensberg's foothills.
The more challenging, optional 4x4-obstacle course is designed for vehicles that are equipped with recovery points and equipment or for groups with a qualified 4x4 guide. A maximum of 10 vehicles are allowed. Accommodation in luxurious Swazi huts with all modern facilities or in a traditional hut with dung floors and sleeping mats, is available. Evenings are spent around cosy fires enjoying Swazi dancing and traditional food. Camping facilities, self-catering units and rustic accommodation are available on request.
From Badplaas take the R541 towards Lochiel. Do not turn right there, but drive straight (50 kilometres from Badplaas). Turn right on Oshoek Road, Ebutsini Tourism Centre is 300 metres further on the left.
Rates and payment
Songimvelo Mololotja Transfrontier 4x4 Trails package of R500 for Dunbar 4x4 Trail, Ebutsini 4x4 Trail and Mololotja 4x4 Trail if driven within a period of seven days.
Difficulty grading: 2 - 3 rating.
The broken landscape makes the Songimvelo Nature Reserve one of the most aesthetically attractive areas in the province. Of particular interest are the spectacular deeply-incised gorges of the Mtsoli and Lomati rivers. The 4x4 trail is a dead end of eight kilometres with plenty of river crossings and open wild spaces to be enjoyed.
Although not a difficult trail, caution needs to be taken as big game like elephant and buffalo might be encountered. A minimum of two vehicles with low range, are required as there is no cellphone reception. Entry is only accessible on prior arrangement with the Songimvelo Nature Reserve's office.
Sixty-two kilometres from Badplaas. From Badplaas take the R541/Lochiel Road. Do not turn off towards Lochiel but drive straight towards the Bulembo Border. The entrance to Dunbar 4x4 Trail is a kilometre after the old mine village of Msauli.
Pictures by Matthys Ferreira