Mia and Hancu Louw are no strangers to the Lowveld. Mia’s delightfully whimsical tales and the accompanying stunning photographs of her travels around South Africa are featured in a myriad of publications, Hancu usually portrayed in profile on the banks of a river or trekking up a mountain, always with a dog or two in tow.
Mia and Hancu met after she had returned from her gap years in Stratford-upon-Avon. She met him during her first year of varsity when they were both studying at Rhodes in Makhanda (Grahamstown back then). “We were both studying journalism,” smiles Mia. “Hancu and his res mates were the first group of friends I made at uni. We started dating in our second year, which means this year we will have been together for 11 years, and married for four.”
Mia specialised in photojournalism and Hancu in writing. After four years of studying, he went on to do his masters, while she started working in the journalism and media studies department as the photojournalism teaching assistant. “We called the Eastern Cape home for eight years, and we dearly miss Makhanda,” she recalls, “but the move from there to the Lowveld and Johannesburg at the end of 2017 steered both of our careers into a solid direction.”
Hancu worked at Lowvelder as a journalist for six months before accepting a job in Johannesburg at Idea Candy, a TV production company that makes various current affairs shows for kykNET and Showmax. He is currently the production manager for KN Verslag and KN Verslag in Gesprek. Mia started freelancing straight away, and for the past four years has been writing and taking photos for travel and lifestyle magazines such as Go!, Go! Platteland, Getaway and the AA Traveller. “I also do photography for small businesses, NGOs, families and portraiture,” she adds. “In 2020, I launched a small decor brand called Kaia Dekor, which focuses on glass lead lamps and terrariums, as well as shibori-dyed cotton throws. Shibori is a beautiful Japanese style of tie-dye.”
Watching this young and vibrant couple together does the heart good. Their interaction with each other is warm and joyous, the spark between them visible for all to see. This is one of the reasons why people often cannot understand the long-distance relationship the couple have often had to sustain, with Mia in the Lowveld and Hancu in the big city. “Something that boggles people’s minds is that I live both in Mbombela and Johannesburg,” says Mia, “moving between the two cities for work every three weeks or so – either for magazine stories or photography. I also have access to a glass studio a few metres from our house outside Mbombela, and Hancu and I have transported lamps, terrariums and sheets of glass between our two homes – it is a precarious endeavour! To keep it all in one place is easier.”
Hancu laughs, as he intertwines his fingers with his wife’s. “I haven’t seen her for a while, you know,” he says with a grin. “Being apart obviously isn’t our first choice, and both of us have looked for work in either cities to be together 24/7, but job satisfaction is important to us,” he says thoughtfully. “What we are doing in our careers at the moment makes sense, and we had to go through a mind shift to be positive about the distance and make it work. We try to look on the bright side – we get to live and experience a vibrant city and the perks that come with that, while also having access to the Lowveld and a house on a beautiful farm. One thing that has improved loads is our communication – if there is any friction between us, we sort it out much faster than when we were younger, because time with each other is precious. Time spent together feels like a holiday – even mundane things like going grocery shopping together feels like a massive treat.”
Mia has also built up relationships with some of the Lowveld’s business owners. “Friendships with people like Unice-Ann Badenhorst of Yoons Eatery in White River and Wendy Sippel of Crafted Cosmetics make it difficult to leave the Lowveld completely, and I also have friends and family here: my parents, my brother, his wife and their daughter live in Mbombela.” She adds that for the past four years it has been an advantage to be based in the Lowveld; the magazines she works for enjoy getting content from the northern part of our country.
“People and town stories in Mbombela, White River, Haenertsburg, Kampersrus, Chrissiesmeer, Tzaneen, Graskop, Barberton, Wakkerstroom and more. And don’t forget all the wonderful hikes on our doorstep! Obviously, it is difficult to have a semi-long-distance relationship. Hancu and I did everything together – we went from studying and working in the same department at Rhodes to living in two separate cities. But being best friends is also why we can make it work – we talk to each other constantly every day, even if it’s merely sending a silly meme to let each other know we are thinking about them. You have to connect, always.”
Having a strong support base in the Lowveld and Jozi is another factor that has made this arrangement easier for the Louws – the care and thoughtfulness of family and friends. “I have returned home late at night after a trip to find a plate of food waiting on my doorstep, left by my landlord and one of my mum’s best friends, just because she knows I’ve been travelling all day. It is the people in my life who make this possible and worthwhile, and a little easier when times get a little tough.”
The couple’s pets, cats Katja and Willem and dogs Bart and Phoebe, are a great comfort to them. They fit into the arrangement in their special way. Mia explains that when she is in the Lowveld, the dogs are with her on the farm, while the two cats stay in Jozi with Hancu. “For my birthday last year, my dad built us a catio, which is a patio for cats,” she says. “It looks like a neat chicken coop that fits around a window. It has grass and plants inside, which allows the cats some outdoor living, without the fear of them getting run over by the cars in Morningside. They grew up on the farm and we are petrified of them roaming in the bustling city.”
“When we go on holiday, we always take the dogs along. We spent time at Kaapsehoop Adventures this December holiday and slept in a teepee with Bart and Phoebe. When I go on stories, it becomes a bit trickier to take them with me. Then I get a pet-sitter to look after them or I drop them off at my parents’ place, which is only 3km from our house outside Mbombela. Hancu’s life with the cats in the Jozi flat surprised him! Katja and Willem are the first cats he owned and shared a house with – he was amazed by their affection and crazy antics. He comes home from the studio just before 11pm some nights after work – the news airs at 9:30pm – and having two little furballs running to greet him at the front door has helped loads with keeping the loneliness at bay. When all six of us are in Jozi, we make an effort to take the dogs for a walk or run in all the lovely parks in the city.”
Walking is something the couple indulge in quite a bit. Avid hikers, they have just returned from hiking the Magoebaskloof and are taking a quick break before returning to normal. Their go-to spot in the Lowveld is Kaapsehoop. “You pay R30 per person at Salvador Main Street Bistro and go for a hike all along the Drakensberg Escarpment with the dogs. Afterwards we have a beer and pizza at the pet-friendly Salvador,” smiles Hancu.
“We have a lovely courtyard and garden at our flat in Jozi, which is a luxury in the city,” Mia adds. “We love braaiing in our garden, or we go for walks in Delta Park or The Wilds Nature Reserve. I recently did a photo essay for Go! Platteland’s summer edition about urban green spaces in the city. It was an eye-opening experience to learn about all the options in Joburg to get your daily dose of greenery.”
While life with the Louws is ticking along very nicely at the moment, the bush will always call to this young couple, and their long-term plan is to come home. “We are fortunate and eternally grateful to have inherited a plot of land from my parents. We would love to utilise it and create a life for ourselves on the farm outside Mbombela.” Mia grins broadly as Hancu swings her up into his arms, then whistles for Phoebe and Bart. Hand in hand they stroll down to the dam for a quick dip and cold beer, happy to be home and together as the sun sets on a glorious Lowveld evening.
Photographer: Tanya Erasmus
Flowers: Pearly-Shell Bothma
Make-up: Elsabe Steyn