PRETORIA - Nelson Mandela will embark on the final leg of his exceptional 95-year journey on Saturday, when his remains are returned to his rural childhood home for traditional burial.
Since his death at his Johannesburg home on December 5, South Africans have turned out in pouring rain and blistering sunshine to say goodbye to their first black president.
Tens of thousands packed a soaked stadium in Soweto for a memorial service Tuesday and up to 100,000 people filed past Mandela's open-casket for the three days it was displayed at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he was inaugurated two decades earlier.
Crowds of mourners clamoured to bid a personal farewell to the anti-apartheid hero.
Hundreds of people pushed through a police cordon on Friday in a last-gasp bid to see his body before his coffin was closed.
Outside the perimeter, there was crushing disappointment for tens of thousands of mourners unable to pay their final respects to the man whose journey from prisoner to president transformed South Africa and inspired the world.
"We really thought this was the day. But again we did not get to see the old man," said Lydia More, 31, who got in line at 7:00 am.
"We just feel empty. It's so sad," she said.
South Africa has lost its talisman at a time when his "Rainbow Nation" struggles against glaring inequalities. Yet there is still a sense his legacy will ensure the worst can be avoided.
Mandela's body will be taken Saturday to the Waterkloof air force base for the two-hour flight to Eastern Cape province, where he grew up, for burial on Sunday.
"Saturday 14 December, 2013 marks the beginning of our father's final long walk back to Qunu, his resting place," said family spokesman Temba Matanzima.
On Sunday, some 5,000 people, including foreign dignitaries, are expected to participate in a formal, two-hour ceremony beginning at 8:00 am (0600 GMT).
The funeral procession from the airport to Qunu will be led by the armed forces and Mandela will receive a 21-gun salute and a flyover by the South African Air Force.
The burial itself will be a strictly private affair, barred to both the public and the media, government spokeswoman Phumla Williams told AFP.
"The family has indicated they want to make the burial a family matter," Williams said.
"They don't want it to be televised. They don't want people to see when the body is taken down," she added.
Around 3,000 members of the media have already descended on the village of Qunu where a special stage and marquee have been erected for the invited guests, who include Britain's Prince Charles.
The funeral will be held according to traditional Xhosa rites overseen by male members of Mandela's clan.
The slaughtering of an animal - a ritual performed through various milestones of a person's life - will form a crucial part of the event.
During the ceremony, Mandela will be referred to as Dalibhunga, the name given to him at the age of 16 as he entered adulthood.
Although Mandela never publicly declared his religious denomination, his family comes from a Methodist background.