With memories of crisp country air, icy mountain pools and the emerald peaks of the Drakensberg fresh in our minds, we headed north to spend our final days in South Africa along the Panorama Route.
Set in the verdant countryside of Mpumalunga, where ochre cliffs bear dozens of waterfalls and a distant storm brews permanently in the periphery, this is a route many take as an afterthought to the elusive leopards awaiting them at the nearby Kruger National Park.
With our hopes of spotting Africa’s Big 5 pegged entirely on our upcoming trip to Namibia, we arrived with a different purpose entirely – to lay eyes on the magnificent Blyde River Canyon.
This was a place we discovered only recently while flipping through an old family photo album; the once white pages checkered with faded polaroids.
A sun-kissed figure sat carefree and smiling on an overhanging rock, legs dangling daringly into the abyss as a sparkling thread of water caressed the distant canyon walls.
For a place so strikingly beautiful that had, until now, evaded us, it piqued our curiosity and was hastily added to the itinerary.
The potholed road led us through a patchwork of greens and browns, the serenity marred only by our frequent and largely unsuccessfully attempts to dodge them.
Our days were spent gorging on one too many fluffy pancakes, piled high with caramelised apple and cinnamon, admiring waterfalls from above and being doused in their forceful spray from below and tiptoeing along the sunburnt clifftops of one of world’s largest canyons.
Surrounded by nature, this was a beautiful way to close off our time in the Rainbow Nation. These are the things we wished we had known before embarking on the route and some practical tips to help prepare for the journey.
With numerous waterfalls, viewpoints and rock formations to see along the route, this map is a good resource showing all the main attractions.
The spectacular view at the Three Rondavels (R20 entry fee) looking out over the entire canyon was real the highlight for us. The raging Lone Creek Falls after torrential rain was also an impressive sight. Other major attractions include Bourke’s Luck Potholes (R50) at the northern end of the route, and God’s Window (R10) and the many waterfalls (R5 per car to R10 per person) near Graskop.
Plenty of hiking trails criss cross the region, starting at easy hour-long walks through to multi-day treks. Many of these are accessible only through the Forever Resorts Complex where you are required to register at the reception area and pay the entry fee (R50).
Where you stay depends on how you choose to do the route.
Overall Graskop, whose main street is lined with pancake and biltong stores (which became an almost daily stop on our way in or out of town), is closest to the main attractions and the best place to base yourself.
If you are coming to or from Kruger though, Sabie and Hazyview also have suitable accommodation for every budget.
When the speed limit is 100km/h you’d think that would take into consideration the condition of the road. Nope. Some stretches are full of them, particularly leading north from Graskop.
Pay close attention to the road and stick well below the speed limit in heavily potted areas, especially at night and after heavy rains when the holes fill up with water and are almost impossible to spot.
For anyone partial to the odd pancake and bag of spicy biltong (…definitely us), Graskop has enough options to keep you busy for days. Once you’re on the road though, there’s not a great deal of places to eat along the route so bring snacks or a picnic lunch to munch on during the day.
An exception is Potluck Boskombuis, a rustic open-air restaurant with a lovely location alongside the river a short distance from the Three Rondavels viewpoint. The food is a little pricy by South African standards and we didn’t actually eat there, but it’s a beautiful place to stop in for a drink and take a break from driving.
While the scenery along the route is beautiful, we were a little surprised to find that every single attraction along the route, be it tiny waterfall, viewpoint or major attraction, has a fee attached. Often it’s a nominal sum, but if you want to see it all or revisit a particular place, it all adds up.
Bourke’s Luck Potholes attracts the highest price at R50 per person while some of the smaller waterfalls are just R5 per car. Wonder View (near God’s Window) and the Lowveld View (near the Three Rondavels) are the only areas we saw that were completely free.
On our trip in March, afternoon downpours were a daily occurrence. And by downpour we mean the equivalent of a giant bucket of water being chucked directly in your face repeatedly. Even with our wipers ticking furiously, it rendered us blind behind the wheel and we were forced to pull over several times.
While this made for difficult driving, it gifted us some truly impressive waterfalls.
The pesky fog, infamously forming thick puffy blankets over the lowveld is also enough to obscure even the most majestic sights from view. God’s Window and Three Rondavels are most notoriously affected by this as the air changes in temperature as it races up the canyon walls.
Morning and evening fog is also something to look out for. It is common practice in South Africa to have your hazard lights flashing if you are driving well under the speed limit in both foggy and raining conditions. We suggest you follow suit.
Basically, unless you’re there early, don’t expect to be alone at any of the viewpoints. In fact if a tour bus or two shows up the tiny viewing areas you find overlooking most of the attractions can get downright crowded.
Though it wasn’t all snowy white tourists sporting the latest safari wear; there were plenty of locals enjoying the area as well. A Sunday afternoon braai (the South African term for barbecue) beside the waterfall is a particularly popular pastime, so get ready to smile because they will all want to take a selfie with you.
The growing commercialisation of the area also means that every attraction now has a pay point and a gate that is locked overnight. Annoyingly for us, this sometimes made access at sunrise and sunset, when the light over the countryside is most beautiful, not a possibility.
Initially we had planned four days to explore the many raging waterfalls, lush lowveld and meandering curves of the Blyde River Canyon. In hindsight though, two days would probably have been sufficient to see most of the route as many attractions are only a short drive to the next.
Many of the sights are part of three main clusters and as most spots had just a small viewing platform, there’s little more to do than look out from the view point and snap away.
As one of the premier wildlife-watching destinations in the world, Kruger is one the country’s biggest draws and for many will be the first port of call after landing in Johannesburg.
Taking a small deviation along the Panorama Route will gift you some spectacular natural sights along the way rather than just counting down the hours on the highway. And at a push, many of the sights can be seen in one long day as an alternative route to Kruger National Park.
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