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