Sipho Mabena
Premium Journalist
3 minute read
10 May 2022
10:23 am

Sculpting a new career, when art skills are not enough

Sipho Mabena

"I did some research on the area’s natural wonders and narrate the history of the sites to tourists," Elvis Mpunzi Sculptor and tour guide.

CURIOS. Some of Elvis Mpunzi’s handmade wares he sells near a waterfall in Mpumalanga. He is doubling up as a tour guide, taking travellers to sites of interest. Pictures: Jacques Nelles

To survive in the abundant but fiercely competitive tourism industry in the Mpumalanga Lowveld’s picturesque panorama route, sculptor Elvis Mpunzi has had to diversify his trade and repurpose his approach.

The scenic route links various historic, cultural and natural sites of interest anchored around the Blyde River Canyon, the world’s third-largest canyon.

The Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) is currently constructing a R475 million sky-walk at the canyon, which will take tourists 700m high for a 360º view of the canyon.

More than three years ago when he arrived in the province’s historic and tourist town of Gras-kop to eke a living, the 25-year-old Mpunzi relied solely on selling his wooden figurines.

But he would soon realise it would take much more than just his artistic skills to survive in the small town already teeming with other people selling a variety of hand-carved sculptures.

So Mpunzi had to come up with a plan, fast, and this is how he ended up setting up his stall and workshop on the breath-taking natural wonder Natural Bridge, 2.3km from Graskop, along the R532 road to Sabie and Pilgrim’s Rest.

He strategically set up his stall and workshop where travellers park before following the short footpath and concrete steps into the gorge where the Mac-Mac Riv-er carved a path beneath rocks to form the natural wonder bridge.

‘When I arrived here, there were other stalls but the area was littered with all sorts of rubbish dumped by travellers.

This resulted in people no longer spending time relaxing on the park benches across the river,” Mpunzi said.

After setting up his stall, he immediately started picking up rubbish in and around the area and hanged empty plastic refuse bags on trees for travellers to throw their litter.

Travellers impressed by the spotless site started asking who was behind the pleasant change and wanted to make donations.

Soon, he became the custodian of the natural bridge used by the Voortrekkers more than a century ago and later by transport riders to cross the Mac-Mac River.

Other stall owners joined him, taking turns to keep the area clean, which resulted in them covering a much bigger stretch to rid of rubbish and then sharing the daily donations.

Mpunzi said these donations could run up to R1 000 a day and there are five of them to share, saying this was what covered their daily expenses.

‘Then I did some research on the whole area’s natural wonders and would narrate the history of these sites to tourists,” he said.

‘They would ask that I take them to all the sites. ‘So I have added tourist guide, and natural bridge caretaker, for which I receive donations, to my expertise.”

HOPING FOR THE BEST. Elvis Mpunzi with a hand-carved giraffe near a waterfall in the Mpumalanga Lowveld.

The area boasts many natural wonders, such as:

  • Pinnacle Rock, rising 30m above dense indigenous forest
  • God’s Window, so-called for its panoramic view of the Lowveld more than 900m below
  • Bourke’s Luck Potholes, a natural water feature marking the start of the Blyde River Canyon
  • Mac Mac Falls
  • Three Rondawels, the three giant peaks towering more than 700m above the landscape

‘Because there is so much to offer, there is always someone to show around and I take my sculptures with me and most of the time I return sold out,” he beamed.

But that was before Covid struck, decimating the entire industry and leaving people like Mpunzi with no income for more than two years.

He said it was so bad that at times he was forced to live on wild fruits as he ran out of money.

But the situation promises to return to normal. ‘Buses are again roaring in, albeit in small numbers, but we are hopeful by this time next year business will be booming again,” Mpunzi said.