There are a few special places which, no matter how many times you visit them, always stir the senses, refresh the soul and banish the stresses and strains of everyday life. For me, South Africa’s Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga is one of these.
It’s been a bolt-hole of mine for as long as I can remember, and one of the first places I visited as a tourist in my own country, more moons ago than I care to mention.
Now; as then, I make my base at Forever Resorts Blydepoort. This sprawling resort occupies a prime position on the top of the Drakensberg escarpment on the edge of the Blyde Canyon, with views of the distant lowveld and the Three Rondavels – three peculiar-looking peaks which do indeed resemble the round, thatched huts they were named after.
It’s a one-stop shop for tourists in the area, offering a range of accommodation options from camping, caravanning and back-packer dormitories to fully-equipped self-catering chalets and more up-market family-sized bungalows. Top of the range is a sprwaling three-bedroom guest-house, occupying a private position with uninterrupted views of those curious rondavels and more space than the average family or group of friends could wish for.
An on-site shop provides all the basics, from toiletries to fresh bread, milk and meat for the all-important braai and there’s a filling station and bottle store at the main entrance to the resort, which saves a road-trip to the nearest town of any description – Graskop, some 45 kilometres away down the aptly named Panorama Route.
Blydepoort is the perfect place to start this route, with some of the most spectacular scenery in South Africa. Conveniently situated look-out points offer a chance to get out and admire the dramatic vistas created as the Blyde river gouged its way through faults in the escarpment’s bedrock, searching for the path of least resistance to the beckoning lowveld below.
The resort at Blydepoort itself is a hiker’s paradise, with some spectacularly steep and winding routes down the face of the escarpment to the Blyde Dam and back up again.
Sturdy hiking boots, a good supply of water, a packed lunch and firm resolve is all that’s needed to negotiate the routes, which are interspersed with crystal-clear mountain pools fed by trickling streams.
These pools offer the chance to cool off and swim along the way – a great way to commune with nature and really appreciate the stunning beauty of this magical place.
Rivers have shaped the landscapes along the Panorama Route, most spectacularly at Bourkes Luck Potholes, a short 15 minute drive from Blydepoort.
These amazing rock formations were formed as swirling waters and whirlpools at the confluence of the Blyde and Treur rivers wore away at the surrounding sandstone. Well-mapped walking routes allow visitors to explore the area thoroughly and there is accessibility for wheelchairs – something all too lacking at a lot of South Africa’s top tourist attractions.
From swirling water to falling water – the Panorama Route is waterfall country. Detours to the Mac Mac, Lisbon and Berlin falls are more than worth it – they are clearly signposted and have dedicated parking, as do the major lookout points along the route.
Perhaps the most impressive of these is God’s Window. Here, a fissure in the escarpment offers incredible views over the lowveld, the distant Kruger National Park, and even more distant Mozambique. A camera and pair of binoculars are an absolute must, as are a good pair of walking shoes.
Civilisation, for want of a better word, begins a short distance from God’s Window at Graskop. This small, sleepy town is completely driven by tourism, with plenty of curio shops, cafés and restaurants. Among the best-known of these are Harry’s pancake shop and its neighbouring Delagoa Trading Company curio emporium. Heaven is definitely a combination of fresh pancakes drizzled with lemon juice and some fine, locally produced African art!
A short, but impressively scenic drive from Graskop is the historical town of Pilgrim’s Rest. This old gold-rush town has been lovingly preserved, with old corrugated iron houses and lots of “broekie” lace. A well-run and interesting museum catalogues the town’s history, both geographical and geological, and offers visitors the chance to try out some prospecting in the form of panning for gold.
Underpinning all of the experiences along the Panorama Route is the magnificent natural beauty of this part of Mpumalanga. It is impossible to get tired of the endless vistas and breathtaking views which are constantly changing with the passage of the sun. Even cloudy and misty days have their charm!
But perhaps the best thing about the Blyde River Canyon and its surrounds is its accessibility, a short four-hour drive from Johannesburg, making this a great short-break destination or add on to your South African safari.