Have you heard of Mpumalanga’s Panorama Route? It’s a South African gem, less polished than Cape Town with its sapphire waters and its neighbouring wine lands with their citrine and ruby wines, less well known than the emerald green Garden route, less of a rough diamond than Johannesburg, but a gem nevertheless. It’s an area often sidelined as an overnight staging post for a trip to the almighty Kruger Game Reserve, but it’s absolutely worth a visit in its own right. Here’s why…
The main highlights pepper a 50km stretch of road between the sleepy town of Graskop and the Three Rondavels view point. There are expansive view points, tumbling waterfalls and hiking trails galore. You can pack most of the main highlights into a single day or, if you have more time, explore the area at your leisure.
The snaking roads are lined by forests and punctuated with small turn of the century (that would be the 19th century) gold mining towns. Be sure not to miss the following highlights:
This impressive tower of granite rises from the canyon floor, you may feel like you have stepped straight into the pages of a magical fairytale.
The expansive view from God’s Window at the top of the escarpment is stunning. Framed by rock buttresses, you can see down onto the lowveld and as far as Mozambique. If you have the time and energy be sure to follow the Rainforest Walk sign (keep to the left, the path splits once or twice) to get an more open (and unfenced) view with the land rolled out below.
Bourke’s Luck Potholes
These impressive otherworldly potholes have been hewn by the swirling water where the Blyde and Treur rivers meet. They are named for a Mr Bourke who hoped to find gold there.
Blyde River Canyon and the Three Rondavels
The Blyde River Canyon is vast and one of the 10 largest known canyons in the world. I’ve read it’s number 3 and alternatively that it’s number 9. Either way it’s a sight to behold and I believe it holds the title of World’s Greenest Canyon with it’s dense, lush foliage.
The Three Rondavels, so named for their similarity to traditional rotund thatched huts, are a trio of cylindrical rock formations within the canyon with conical green tops.
If you’re passing through Graskop, it’s worth stopping at one of their Pancake houses. Harry’s is the most famous and popular, but the Silverspoon is an alternative. Pop into Africa Silks while you’re there, to see local women weaving Mopane worm silk. (Don’t know what a mopane worm is? Check out this post.)
We based ourselves just outside the town of Sabie at Porcupine Ridge Guest House. It was around 4.5 hours drive from Johannesburg. We were well placed for both the Panorama route and an impromptu day trip to Kruger (which warrants a separate post). Porcupine Ridge was secluded and welcoming accommodation and had a charming waterfall within the estate, which provided the perfect post Jo’burg-to-Mpumalanga leg stretch. Sabie also had a modest, but pleasant selection of places for an evening meal unlike Graskop or Pilgrims Rest which seemingly offer slim pickings after 5pm.
In terms of a family weekend it was a great choice. The walks to the viewpoints (not always so appealing to younger travellers) were sweetened by the abundance of rocks to climb on, sticks to collect and stones to toss into rivers. It’s a giant outdoor playground and our kids loved playing there.
Top Traveller Tips:
- If you’re driving via the N4 and need a pitstop, stop at Milly’s. It’s the Rolls Royce of Service stations. We enjoyed a tasty lunch, overlooking a small dam (lake) teeming with fat trout. There is a neighbouring shop with delicious goodies, breads, cookies and freezers full of trout.
- Dense mist can roll in with little warning, so if the weather is clear make the most of all the beautiful vistas along the Panorama Route and save other activities for more overcast days. We were lucky that God’s window was flung wide open on day one. When we drove past on day two it was closed, shuttered and bolted, the view invisible.
- If you’re a keen amateur photographer, consider hiring a specialist lens for the weekend. The Panorama route is a photographer’s sweetshop, so make the most of it.
Is it worth a return visit?
The short answer: Yes.
The longer answer: Yes, Mpumalanga is a very restorative place to be, calm and forest green with something for everyone. There are plenty of things we didn’t have time to do including trout fishing, visiting Hoedspruit Cheetah reserve or Sudwala Caves (claimed to be the oldest in the world). Neither did we fit in any adrenaline adventures such as hurling ourselves off the Big Swing or trying white water rafting. We drove through Pilgrim’s Rest, (a preserved 19th century gold mining town), but didn’t have time to stop and explore it with its robbers graves, gold mining history and time frozen buildings.