At the Mthatha airport Mandela's casket was welcomed by a military guard and placed in a convoy for the 32 kilometer (20 mile) voyage toward Qunu. Residents and people who had traveled for hours thronged a road leading to Qunu, singing and dancing as Mandela T-shirts were handed out.
"We got up this morning at 2 a.m. and drove from Port Elizabeth — it's about seven hours — and we got here now. We're waiting on to show our last respects to Madiba," said Ebrahim Jeftha, using Mandela's clan name.
Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, tearfully embraced at Mthatha airport when the casket arrived.
Mandela had been imprisoned for 27 years for opposing racist apartheid and emerged in 1990 to forge a new democratic South Africa by promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. He became president in 1994 after South Africa's first all-race democratic elections.
Soldiers in full gear, male and female, were stationed on foot on either side of the road from the airport in Mthatha as cows grazed nearby. Some civilians were also already lining the route, shielding themselves from the sun with umbrellas.
Mandela had longed to spend his final months in his beloved rural village but instead he had spent them in a hospital in Pretoria and then in his home in Johannesburg where he had remained in critical condition, suffering from lung problems and other ailments, until his death.
There was a surprise announcement in the plans for Sunday's funeral in Mandela's home village of Qunu as retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu said he would not be attending because he had not received an invitation.
"Much as I would have loved to attend the service to say a final farewell to someone I loved and treasured, it would have been disrespectful to Tata to gatecrash what was billed as a private family funeral. Had I or my office been informed that I would be welcome there is no way on earth that I would have missed it," Tutu said.
Mac Maharaj, a spokesman for the presidency, said Tutu is on the guest list and that he hopes Tutu will attend. He said he was surprised by the statement and was looking into it for possible solutions.
"This is not an event where you need credentials and I hope a solution can be found," Maharaj said. "He's an important person and I hope ways can be found for him to be there."
In Qunu, residents expressed deep affection for their beloved native son.
"Long live the spirit of Nelson Mandela," chanted a crowd on a highway near Mandela's compound.
"My president," they sang.
There were also old songs of the anti-apartheid struggle.
"Release Mandela from prison," went the chorus of one.