The 16th of June is Youth day in South Africa and because it fell on a Sunday this year, Monday is declared a public holiday as well. With a long weekend in sight, Raquel and I explored the different options and ways to spend this weekend. Initially, we thought about spending the weekend in the Kruger National Park, but after checking out a few options for accommodation it seemed that it could be expensive and considering that Raquel and I have a bit of Safari fatigue, we decided to explore other options.
When chatting to some friends about what to do for the long weekend, they suggested we do the Panorama route. I had never heard about this so didn’t even know where or what this route was and was slightly in the dark over whether this was something interesting. That is until my friend quickly googled it on my iPad and showed me what the panorama route is. Raquel and I were blown away by the pictures and immediately made it our destination for the long weekend.
For those of you like me who didn’t what this route is, here is a brief intro from the South African Tourism site: Enter Panorama, Mpumalanga, as you pass the north-eastern part of the Great Escarpment in the northern Drakensberg. The land falls away sharply, opening up dizzying vistas of the Lowveld plains far below. One breath-taking view after another – that’s South Africa’s Panorama Route. In Panorama, Mpumalanga, with its breath-taking vistas around every mountain corner, waterfalls plunging down faces of sheer rock, memories of the gold rush following you as you meander down an endless river canyon, and eagles hovering above your head – you can’t help walking with your head in the clouds
We left Joburg around the midmorning mark to start our four and a half hour drive towards the town of Graskop which serves as gateway of this route. It was a Saturday morning and we weren’t expecting any traffic, however we hit a convoy of bikers which left us stuck in slow moving traffic for around an hour before eventually leaving Joburg’s borders.
The road towards Mpumalanga is not very exciting until you pass eMahlaleni and the road starts meandering through hills towards Machadodorp. We have already done this part of the route when we did a roadtrip to Mozambique last year, but there was already a difference as last the hills were green and looked fertile, however this time hills were dry and yellow (it is winter here after all and our winters are dry).
From Machadodorp onwards we turned north towards Sabie, and deaper into the rolling hills. I’m not sure if this part of the road is part of the Panorama route, but it is quite a scenic road to travel and considering the amount of roadworks taking place, there is enough time to take in the great views.
We stopped just after Sabie along the road to take a break and have something to eat. Already here one got a sense of the views which you might come up across as the hills and mountains give way to the plains of the lowveld.
We wrapped up lunch and carried on along the now marked Panorama route to one of the first sights of the day for us: Mac Mac Falls. It’s not a massive waterfall but it is beautiful, especially from the vantage point from the viewing area which sits on the edge of a crevasse, which does not inspire good thoughts for those with acrophobia (fear of heights).
After taking in the waterfall, we carried on to what was supposed to be our base for the night, the town of Graskop which is nothing special aesthetically, but boasts the most pancake houses I’ve ever seen in my life, as every second shop seemed to be a pancake houses. It was already late afternoon when we arrived in Graskop, so we decided to have a late lunch/ early dinner at a Portuguese restaurant.
After dinner we made our way towards the hotel we had booked for the night, Mogodi Lodge & Resort. I had seen a few photos of the places and it looked like decent place to spend the night, that was until we arrived at the lodge to find out that our booking had been cancelled (major confusion on the hotels part which I don’t want to elaborate on).
Suddenly we were left with no hotel on a busy long weekend. We quickly got into our car and made our way towards another hotel in town. Unfortunately the hotel was fully booked, but they were kind enough to contact another hotel in neighbouring Pilgrim’s Rest who still had rooms available and make a booking on our behalf (Thank you Graskop Hotel for the kindness).
We drove the up the winding roads towards Pilgrim’s Rest, a road which didn’t inspire much confidence as it was already dark. I knew very little of Pilgrim’s Rest and arrived to a tiny town (much smaller than I expected it to be). We pulled up to the Royal Hotel and checked in to what already looked like a hotel pulled out from the past into the present.
Our rooms were in a little cabin up the road, which seemed like something from South Africa’s colonial past. It was only when we stepped inside did we realize this was deliberate. The hotel is nostalgia-filled trip into the past with a late Victorian feel to it with all the trimmings to make you think it was the 1870’s in this gold rush town. It was late already and there wasn’t much to do but head to bed to prepare for another day on the Panorama route.
When we woke up and headed back towards the hotel for breakfast did we realize that it was not only our hotel that was looked like something from western movie set, but the whole town. Pilgrim’s Rest is a gold rush town which when mining was closed down in 1971, it was sold to the government as a national museum. The residents at the time preserved the town so well that today, it still looks very much like it should have done during the gold rush.
We had our breakfast and took some time to walk around the town and take in the strangeness of being in place that looks so out of place in the 21st century. It really is like being stuck in a time warp, but this little town is so charming at the same time that it is actually enjoyable.
Having walked around and taken in as much as we could, we were back in the car and made our way back towards Graskop and our first sight on the route for the day, Pinnacle Rock, a rock formation which as its name suggests protrudes from the crevasse like, well, I guess a pinnacle. It was quite an interesting formation; however, what drew me was the amazing views beyond the Pinnacle. I remember similar views when I was in Zimbabwe but this was something else, and to our surprise only the beginning of amazing views to come.
The amazing view at Pinnacle Rock was followed by the aptly named God’s Window, just further up the road. Here there were several viewing spots with simply magnificent view of the lowveld plains below. Some of the spots were a tad crowded which meant it was hard just to take in the amazing view and appreciate the beauty of this location.
Having taken in some of these amazing views and walking along the hill paths taking in some fresh air, we were back in the car heading towards something else which the area has in abundance: waterfalls. The first waterfall being one with a name Raquel could connect with, Lisbon Falls. This was followed by the close by Berlin falls. At Berlin falls, we decided to also have lunch whilst hearing the water from the falls crashing into the river.
However, in terms of views the best was clearly still to come… We drove further towards Blyde River Canyon, coincidently the 3rd biggest canyon in the world and one of the only green canyons in the world. Our first stop was at the lowveld viewpoint, which incidentally also where we spent the most time as it was the least crowded of the bunch. The view here was magical and almost put you in some sort of trance as you do not want to look away. We spent a while here marveling at the beauty of we were looking at.
When we finally snapped out our trance like state we went back to the car and made our way towards the last stop of the trip, a rock formation in the Canyon called the Three Rondavels. Clearly one of the best views was left for last as you could see the river snaking along the canyon below the Three Rondavels. With this final magnificent view, we made our way towards Graskop, where we had some of Harrie’s famed pancakes before making the long drive back to Joburg.