If you find yourself in need of last-minute holiday plans or if you’re planning a trip for 2018, you need not look far abroad in search of natural wonders or adventure. The sought-after Kruger National Park aside, South Africa’s Mpumalanga province – the place of the rising sun – is a very under-rated travel destination but definitely worth exploring. A mountainous area, Mpumalanga doesn’t fall short of waterfalls, forests, canyons, natural wonders, and winding scenic passes perfect for a roadtrip. For the adventurous and young at heart, activities such as river rafting, abseiling, elephant safaris, paragliding, trout fishing, caving, and helicopter flights will keep you occupied and on the move. Whatever your need is – be it fulfilling your sense of adventure or seeking out a relaxing weekend, Mpumalanga has more than enough to offer.
Depending on how far you want to travel and what you plan to see, you can choose to discover Mpumalanga from one base or to set up camp along the way. Having done both, the option of staying in one place and doing day trips has the possibility of being slightly more relaxed but you might not get to see as much as you could if you decided to stop along the way each day.
The Panorama Route is a 285 kilometre stretch of road – starting at the foot of the Long Tom Pass and winding all the way to the edge of the majestic Blyde River Canyon, the world’s third largest canyon. In easy reach of the more popular Kruger National Park, the panorama route should certainly be slotted into your plans for a safari. Dotted along the way with significant natural and cultural sites, the trip can take as a good few hours and is dependent on where you start out, where you decide to stop and how long you spend at each place.
The Longtom Pass sets out from the town of Lydenburg and runs towards the town of Sabie. Reaching an altitude of 2150 metres at its summit, albeit dangerous in misty conditions and prone to working on your nerves when stuck behind trucks on the bends in the road, there is no question as to why the pass forms part of the Panorama Route. You won’t want to be behind the wheel on this stretch of road as the twists and turns require concentration but the majestic views demand your full attention. If you fancy a quick stop along the road, Hops Hollow Brewery – Africa’s highest brewery – is located just as you pass the highest point on the pass. They offer beer tastings, delicious nibbles, and overnight accommodation. You will pass various places offering accommodation along the beautifully-forested pass. As an option, you can book a night at Misty Mountain and take a ride on their Long Tom Toboggan.
A standard point to set out from is the small town of Graskop which is famous for the birthplace of the iconic Harrie’s Pancakes. Harrie’s is definitely worth a visit for its assortment of gourmet sweet and savoury South African-style pancakes with fillings ranging from traditional choices such as biltong with mozzarella cheese or bobotie and chutney vinaigrette to more exotic choices such as sticky pork with peaches and spring onion. Sweet options abound: perhaps cherries in liqueur or pancake with lemon meringue pie? Graskop is also your best bet to stock up on souvenirs and trinkets and the best place to stop and refuel before setting out on the best part of the panorama route.
Probably your first stop from Graskop and one of the most popular vantage points along the route, traversing the Drakensberg escarpment, God’s Window is easy to reach and each of the viewpoints an absolute splendour to behold. A massive valley stretches out – encompassing views as far as the Kruger National Park or even Mozambique.
Bourke’s Luck Potholes
Bourke’s Luck Potholes are a natural phenomenon of rock formations that developed over millions of years due to the churning whirlpools that meet between the Treur and Blyde rivers. Pathways and bridges have been constructed, allowing visitors to this nature reserve to observe the construction in the bedrock below.
Three Rondawels/Blyde River Canyon
A stop at the Lowveld View Viewpoint offers a taste of what’s to come: the Three Rondawels, which are reminiscent of three round traditional homesteads, and view of the edge of the Blyde River Canyon mark the crown of the Panorama Route. If you make the drive along the Panorama route just for this sight, rest assured that it is well worth it; no trip to Mpumalanga would be complete without this stop on your list.
If you aren’t keen on doing the drive back, the Blyde River Canyon Forever Resort offers a range of accommodation options in a beautiful setting. Little over an hour’s drive the Blyde River Canyon Lodge, actually located in the province of Limpopo, offers a more luxurious but slightly more pricey option. It’s worth the price being greeted by Zebra upon your arrival.
Mpumalanga is overflowing with waterfalls – perhaps not on the scale of Victoria Falls but still a fun stop along the way. You will find numerous waterfalls in and around the town of Sabie – a town you might pass on your way to Graskop. Lone Creek Falls, straddled by Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe falls, is the favourite of the three. The drive to Lone Creek Waterfall is an experience in its own – especially on a misty day with fine rain in the air. Just as you exit Sabie you will pass Mac Mac Falls and Mac Mac Pools. Lisbon Falls, the highest waterfall in Mpumalanga, is located on the panorama route shortly after God’s Window.
Pilgrim’s Rest is an old mining town that sprung up when gold was first discovered in the area around the time of South Africa’s gold rush in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Charming and ageing with time, the entire town was declared a National Monument in 1986 as a living memory of the gold rush days. A fun stop along the Panorama Route, the old hotel is rumoured to be haunted and a search through the old cemetery may have you discover the infamous robber’s grave. A short drive from Pilgrim’s Rest is the holiday resort of Crystal Springs, offering lovely and scenic self-catering accommodation and a perfect base for day trips. You can relax at the pool with a drink from the bar and opt for a meal from their restaurant on a lazy day.
Perhaps the most beautiful town in Mpumalanga, you will wind your way through Dullstroom on your way into the heart of Mpumalanga. A premier fly fishing destination, Dullstroom offers a host of restaurants, cafés and curious shops. Accommodation options in and around the town abound and the natural beauty of the area will transport you to a different world. If you’re only passing through, grab some trout caught locally for your braai later that night or nibble on something in a restaurant in town. The Milkshake Bar is a must-stop for anyone with a sweet tooth and offers non-conventional milkshake flavours such as zoo biscuit, fanta orange, jelly beans, Ferrero Rocher, or nougat and cream. As you exit town, grab a brew – be it a delicious craft beer from Anvil Brewery or a pungent freshly ground coffee from Beans About Coffee Roastery in the delightful gardens. Both sell stock to take with you on your travels to enjoy on your holiday.
Tip: Keep some cash on you as you may be charged a small entrance fee of around R10 or R20 at most stops. Bourke’s Luck Potholes will be the most expensive to enter at around R75 per person.