Mini Road Trip: The Panorama Route from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park

By: Keith Bain

November 25, 2014

South Africa’s northeast is well-known for the presence of Kruger National Park, one of the most successful and famous Big Five game reserves in the world, ranged along the country’s border with Mozambique. Between Kruger and Johannesburg, though, there exists one of the most exhilarating scenic stretches in southern Africa. The vast escarpment of the Northern Drakensberg mountain range, which dramatically drops away some 1,600m to a vast low-lying terrain, affords spectacular views, not to mention a sense of panoramic grandeur, as the hot Lowveld plains below stretch away to a shimmering horizon. Take a drive along the Panorama Route and discover some of South Africa’s most beautiful terrain.

Scattered throughout this middle zone between the Big Smoke and the promise of a Big Five safari, are vast subtropical forests, incredible Stone Age sites reaching back into a little-known pre-colonial history, and leftovers of gold-mining boomtowns going back to the late 1800s. And, of all its charms, it is the sights and sensations of the 33km Blyde River Canyon – South Africa’s biggest and deepest canyon – that are most likely to leave your jaw hanging open.


Cresting the canyon on a half-day road trip is part of the Panorama Route, itself an aptly-named succession of jaw-dropping views where big skies meet vertiginous cliffs, incredible rock formations, plunging waterfalls, and the dazzling wonder of the Blyde River snaking through lush vegetation.


The Panorama Route
High altitude view of The Panorama Route © SA Tourism 


If you’re driving from Johannesburg (although you can just as easily come from Kruger after your safari), you’ll come in via the Long Tom Pass from the town of Lydenburg. The pass, some 2,149m above sea level, is the highest tarred road in the country, and named for the cannons used by the Boers against the British in 1900.


For a chic pre-trip base, settle in for the night (or a week) at the Moroccan-inspired Timamoon, a former banana and avocado farm with six plush, super-private guest cottages set amidst indigenous forest and steep mountains. Each cottage is a five-minute drive from the next, so there’s a real sense of romantic isolation, but with pampering service when you need it, such as picnics delivered to you as you cool off in the Sabie River.


The Panorama Route | Pilgrim's Rest
Pilgrim’s Rest © Carsten aus Bonn/Flickr


From Timamoon, you can easily explore the nearby former mining settlement of Pilgrim’s Rest, a village of well-preserved settler heritage with tin roof buildings and old world charm straight out of the 1873 gold rush era. Step inside time-warp bars and throwback hotels, and even try your luck panning for gold.


From Pilgrim’s Rest, you’re within easy reach of Graskop, a tiny village that’s considered the southern gateway to the Blyde River Canyon. From Graskop, situated above Kowyn’s Pass on the Drakensberg Escarpment, the Panorama Route heads north and is signposted with a series of scenic stops, the first being a thin, tree-topped 30m-high quartzite rock known as the Pinnacle.


The Panorama Route | God's Window
God’s Window © flowcomm/Flickr


A little further on, God’s Window offers an awe-inspiring view of the wide-open plains of the Lowveld down below. From here, you can also take a walk through thick, indigenous forest that’s often shrouded by mist resulting from the hot air rising off the plains. With a 1,600m drop to the Lowveld, it’s this rising warmth that’s also responsible for the high rainfall that makes the area so lush with riverine forests and montane grasslands.


A little further along, Wonderview offers a similar perspective on the majestic scene unfolding below. Side roads detour to views of two splendid waterfalls – the 48m Berlin Falls and 37m-high Lisbon Falls, both pretty enough to warrant a stop.


The Panorama Route | Bourkes Luck

Bourkes Luck © SA Tourism


Further north, back along the R532, the so-called Bourke’s Luck Potholes mark the start of the Blyde River Canyon. These having nothing to do with luck, nor are they a hazard on the road. They are in fact a natural phenomenon – basically, large scooped rock formations caused by the action of pebbles and swirling water in whirlpools at the confluence of the Blyde and Treur rivers. They were named for a gold-digger (Bourke) who had presumed he’d strike it rich by panning here, but (as luck would have it) found nothing.


The Panorama Route | Blyde River Canyon
Blyde River Canyon © flowcomm/Flickr


Continuing north, each corner offers another magnificent vista, waterfalls cascading from high cliffs and rock faces dense with subtropical vegetation that makes this the greenest canyon on earth. Keep eyes peeled as you go, because it’s possible to spot animals such as klipspringer (literally “˜stone jumper’, these antelope are often seen dashing about on rock and cliff faces), dassies, grey rhebuck, bushbuck, bushpig, oribi, kudu, vervet monkeys, and chacma baboons. This area is also rich with birdlife – and from these heady heights, you’ll probably spot eagles soaring on thermals and updraft, virtually at eye-level.


The Panorama Route | Three Rondavels
Three Rondavels viewing point © Chris Eason/Flickr


It’s what lies 20km beyond the Potholes that is probably the best – and most anticipated – stop of the Panorama route. The Three Rondawels are a trio of massive hut-shaped rock outcrops situated directly opposite a designated viewpoint at the edge of a thrillingly high sheer precipice above the Blyde River. Several thousand feet below, the river courses towards the Blyde Dam, enfolded by lush, green mountains, and the distant shimmering plains beyond.


Finally, the road descends from the Escarpment via the Abel Erasmus Pass; down below, you can take a 90-minute barge trip on the dam, affording close-up views of the Canyon’s mouth, with the vastness of the Escarpment now looming high above. Or, better still, you can settle in somewhere for the night and then sail off at dawn with Sun Catchers Hot Air Ballooning for a spectacular flight above the Escarpment.

 The Panorama Route | Lisbon falls
Lisbon falls near Graskop © SA Tourism 


Whether you’re planning a balloon safari or not, there are plenty of decent places to stay at the northern end of the canyon, not least of which is the lovely Amafu Forest Lodge, with a handful of stone and wooden cottages as well as two luxury tents surrounded by gorgeous gardens studded with cycads. Situated in the foothills of the Mariepskop Mountains, with over 500 bird species in the area, the lodge is a great base for rafting on the Blyde River, or getting up early for a hot air balloon ride.


Amafu is also within striking distance of Moholoholo Animal Rehabilitation Centre, where injured, abandoned and poisoned wildlife is rehabilitated and certain species are bred for release into the wild. It’s also not far from the similarly conservation-minded Cheetah Project (aka Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre). Both facilities welcome visitors.


And, from here, you’re just a short drive from the entrance to Kruger National Park – useful, unless you decide do the whole thing in reverse and return to the surreal comfort of Timamoon before sundown.


Virgin Atlantic operate daily flights to to South Africa from London Heathrow. Book your flight to Johannesburg today.


Have you driven the Panorama Route? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below.


Written by Keith Bain

Keith Bain

Cape Town-based writer Keith Bain has co-authored guidebooks to India, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Kenya & Tanzania, Ireland, and Italy. He also co-wrote A Hedonist's guide to Cape Town, and is the co-founder of Best Kept (, a bespoke trip-planning company that tailors holidays in India and Africa.

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