By Sean Jones
Mpumalanga: translated as “the place where the sun rises” in Zulu and Xhosa, tucked into the far Northeast corner of South Africa, is a world away from Cape Town’s lush, cliffside beaches. Eastern Mpumalanga is the Lowveld — the African bush — miles of rocky scrubland, dry as a bone in the African winter, awash in industrial forestry, mining, and — as you trek further east — all five of the most dangerous animals on the continent.
More than any other stop on their cross-country tour, Mpumalanga’s Lowveld shows Experimenters from The Fellowship Initiative the many contradictions of South African society: the spectacular natural beauty, the diversity of wildlife — all of which struggle to carry on in the face of unchecked incursions of industry — the indomitable spirit and creativity of African’s rural indigenous communities, who sell inventive handicrafts along the Lowveld’s endless roadsides, even in the face of poverty that shows itself in crumbing shipping-container homes, shoeless laborers walking miles-long stretches to work in mines or timber operations, and parched, red-earthed farmland.
A stop in the forestry town of Sabie offers Experimenters respite from their long journey, via ferry, plane, and bus, from one corner of the country to another. Students stay in riverside villas, carting their luggage past curious horses, dogs, and goats who live on the nearby farm. Smoke is rising from oversized grills, cooking up braai, South Africa’s term for the grilled meat that dominates the country’s menus — delicious blackened sausages, chicken, and beef filets — always served with a hearty helping of Pap, or mashed maize, and plenty of peri-peri sauce.
Students wake up with the sunrise, and get their blood moving by diving over 250 feet down a mountain, reaching speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, holding on only to a rope. They are ziplining — many for the first time. “It was like my soul was floating above my body,” one student says about the initial drop from the platform. Despite nerves that had the group buzzing all morning, every TFI fellow takes the plunge — some even electing to go down head first, in the “superman” position — with varying levels of screaming on the way down.
After their heart-pounding wake up call, Experimenters set off to tour the many natural wonders of the region, from Blyde River Canyon, one world’s largest canyons, unique for the abundant foliage that colors it green even in winter, to Bourke’s Luck Potholes, a mesmerizing array of natural pools and waterfalls at the spot where the Treur and Blyde Rivers meet, to God’s Window, the site of a nearly 2,300 foot high cliff that overlooks miles of Lowveld — where you can see as far as the Experimenter’s next stop, Kruger National Park, where lions and elephants roam freely.
One of the most commonly cited hopes of TFI fellows for their time in South Africa was to see wildlife, so their trip to Kruger National Park did not disappoint. During a two-night stay in the park, they see every one of Africa’s most dangerous “Big Five” game animals: the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. Pre-dawn game drives, during which Experimenters light up bull elephants and herds of zebras with spotlights through the night, and majestic African sunrises perfectly silhouette Umbrella Thorns and Baobab trees against a red and orange sky, lead to late night campfires, during which students talk about race, religion, and their desire to “keep the brotherhood alive” after their journey ends.
It is not only the adrenaline-pumping novelty of close animal encounters that is inspiring TFI fellows in Kruger, but that fact that, according to one fellow, there “are so many personalities here that I would never get to experience at home.” There is something about the fragile, dangerous beauty of the African bush that inspires a new level of camaraderie as the TFI fellows prepare to travel to Johannesburg — South Africa’s largest city, and the final stop in their Experiment journey.
Sean Jones is director of foundation relations and philanthropic partnerships at World Learning.