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 Mpumalanga, where ochre cliffs bear dozens of waterfalls and a distant storm brews permanently in the periphery, the Panorama Route is often taken as an afterthought to the elusive leopards waiting at the nearby Kruger National Park.
With our hopes of spotting Africa’s Big Five 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 meandered through 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 our South Africa 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 avoid them.
Our days were spent gorging on one too many fluffy pancakes, piled high with caramelised apple and cinnamon, admiring gushing 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. This guide covers the best Panorama Route attractions, where to stay and some practical tips to help prepare for the journey.
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With numerous waterfalls, viewpoints and rock formations to see along the Panorama Route, it can be hard to decide what deserves your attention. Most sights are separated into three main clusters so if you’re driving the route over multiple days, it’s best to focus on a different area each day.
This Panorama Route map is a good resource showing all the main attractions in the area.
For us, the spectacular viewpoint at the Three Rondavels (R20 entrance fee) overlooking the expansive Blyde River Canyon was the absolute highlight, particularly around sunrise when no one else was around.
Other popular sights include the infamously foggy God’s Window (R10), a viewpoint which looks down over the sweeping Lowveld; the Pinnacle, a craggy standalone pillar of rock; and Bourke’s Luck Potholes (R50), a unique geological structure of eroded rock that now forms a series of deep pools.
Raging waterfalls are another key feature of the Panorama Route and become particularly powerful just after heavy rains, a common occurnece in this part of Mpumalanga. Berlin Falls, Lisbon Falls and Lone Creek Falls are most impressive and between R5 per car and R10 per person.
Plenty of hiking trails criss cross the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, starting from easy hour-long walks through to multi-day treks through the region.
Many of these are accessible only through the Blyde Canyon Forever Resorts complex where you are required to register at the reception area and pay a R50 entrance fee for all hiking excursions.
Where you stay along the Panorama Route really depends on how much time you have and how you plan to do the drive.
Overall, Graskop whose main street is lined with pancake and biltong stores – a daily stop on our way in or out of town – is closest to the main attractions and the best place to base yourself.
For those on a tight budget, Sheri’s Lodge & Backpackers is a decent choice with a large communal area and both dormitory and private rooms available in individual rondavels. Check here for rates and availability.
As the name suggests, Rustique is a homely converted guesthouse with charming rustic touches throughout. Tea and coffee making facilities are available and guests rave about the delicious breakfasts and friendly host. Check here for rates and availability.
Set in the beautiful countryside, Thaba Tsweni Lodge is the perfect place for those seeking a place of tranquillity in the South African bush. The property boasts spacious, fully equipped self-catering chalets and has a large swimming hole nearby. Check here for rates and availability.
If you are driving the Panorama Route on the way to or from Kruger National Park though, Sabie and Hazyview are also good jump-off points with accommodation suited to every budget.
In Sabie, Thandamanzi Guesthouse provides great value accommodation with self-catering facilities in a lovely farm-like setting. Or for something a bit nicer, Sabie Self Catering Apartments has spacious rooms with a terrace overlooking the countryside.
Near Hazyview, you’ll find two laidback backpacker style options, Gecko Backpackers & Campsite and Hazyview Adventure Backpackers. Neither are particularly charming but for those on a tight budget heading into Kruger, these hostels are a decent base. For something nicer, you’ll find a large range of alternative accommodation in Hazyview.
When the speed limit is 100km/h you’d think that would take into consideration the condition of the road. Nope. Some stretches are absolutely full of potholes, 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.
One 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 Panorama 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 the wipers on our rental car 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 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 temperature racing 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 only 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, impossible.
Initially we had planned four days for our Panorama Route itinerary 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 from one 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 viewpoint and snap away before moving on.
As one of the premier wildlife-watching destinations in the world, Kruger National Park is one the most popular places to visit in South Africa 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.