The Garden Route may be a bucket-list topper in South Africa, but Abigail Healy finds the Panorama Route and Blyde River Canyon have plenty to rival it.
The Blyde River Canyon is the third largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon in the US and Namibia’s Fish River Canyon. But ask Brits if they’ve heard of it and I’d put money on a negative response. Similarly, the Panorama Route, the access route to the canyon in the Mpumalanga province, could be considered a lesser-known alternative to South Africa’s popular Garden Route.
As I headed to South Africa, friends and travel colleagues looked at me quizzically when I mentioned I planned to travel this stretch of road. Running from the small village of Graskop, which means “grass heads” and refers to the surrounding grassy hilltops, it culminates at the Blyde River Canyon Reserve on the border with neighbouring province, Limpopo. Yet I discover that it makes a scenic addition to an itinerary when clients are planning a Kruger safari. In fact many of the selling points you would use for the Garden Route are readily transferable to this northerly alternative.
Clients can choose whether they prefer the option of self-driving – a good choice for those keen to enjoy their independence. Navigating is simple as it’s a case of following one road with points of interest clearly marked along the way. Alternatively, they can opt for a driver who doubles as a guide to ferry them along the route. The bonus of this option is the added insight into the area’s history and culture along the way.
My day starts with an 8am pick-up in Hazyview and driver Hans, from local destination management company Vula Tours, is raring to go as he has an additional stop planned.
“At this time of year some of the waterfalls aren’t very full as we’ve had so little rain so I want to show you Lone Creek Falls because you can view it from the bottom. It’s a more impressive perspective,” he says.
True to Hans’s word, Lone Creek Falls is spectacular; frothy water tumbles from a vertiginous 68 metres into a pool set in a cool glade. I can’t linger long, as there’s much more to come. The next stop is the Pinnacle. “You’ll recognise this from the brochures,” Hans tells me as we walk towards a fence that outlines a sudden drop. Rising from the vast hollow is a solitary column of rock – its apex roughly level with my eyeline while its base nestles 30m below.
Over the course of the day, Hans claims we climb to an altitude of 1,700m – on a par with some of the Alps’ high-altitude ski resorts, taking in sights that are more impressive each time. God’s Window is a panoramic viewpoint where the landscape below seems to stretch out to the ends of the earth. Lisbon Falls is a waterfall – viewed from the top this time – named after the Portuguese miners who came to South Africa prospecting for gold.
And of course the final stop at Blyde River Canyon where I am served the double whammy with the Three Rondavels – a trio of rocky outcrops that resemble traditional African huts.
We stop for lunch at Potluck Boskombuis. Signposted off the main drag, Hans tells me it is a traditional bush kitchen. A rustic shack sits on the riverbank and we watch as the chefs tend to the braai (barbecue), roasting game over the hot coals. As we eat springbok kebabs and bobotie, made from curried mincemeat baked with an egg topping, Hans fills me in on the area’s history. He explains that when gold was discovered around Johannesburg and diamonds in the Pretoria area, lots of wood was needed for mining activities so swathes of forest was planted. It explains why we drove past miles of perfectly spaced trees as we left Hazyview.
He adds that gold mining started 150 years ago but now the resources are very depleted and the mines are deeper and more dangerous. After the 2010 Fifa World Cup, tourism boomed and, although mining for resources such as platinum, chrome and coal is big business, it is now replacing gold as one of the country’s biggest industries.
Just before we reach the Blyde River Canyon, I stop to gaze down at Bourke’s Luck Potholes. The cylindrical holes in the marbled rusty red and yellow rock were created by years of swirling eddies where the Treur River and the Blyde River meet. They look as though they belong on a faraway planet.
The potholes were named after a gold prospector, Tom Burke, who claimed a stake on the land, believing it would yield gold. Sadly for Burke he never discovered his fortune here, though hundreds of others did. But his legend lives on in the geological wonder and, going by the number of visitors alongside us, this might just turn out to be a bigger legacy to leave behind.
Start with activities in Hazyview
Hazyview makes a good starting point for driving the Panorama Route and can offer adventure or relaxation, depending on your clients’ preferences. Summerfields Rose Retreat & Spa is a great spot for those looking to wind down with its luxury tented suites, riverside spa offering rose-themed treatments and a restaurant that uses fresh produce grown on the estate in many dishes. Those keen to add an adventurous element can try activities such as zip lining, river rafting, quad biking, horse riding, scenic helicopter flights, mountain biking and kloofing – which is like canyoning
I try zip lining with Skyway Trails (skywaytrails.com) based at Perry’s Bridge Trading Post. This sees me strapping into a harness and testing my braking skills on a short low-slung zip line next to the activity centre. Then it’s a short minibus ride to one of the last remaining naturally forested valleys along the Sabie River, by the Kruger national park. Here I glide over and among the treetops between 10 platforms, each offering up verdant panoramas. It’s a thrilling way to experience the area’s nature and a great afternoon activity for couples, friends and families alike.
End with a safari at Moditlo River Lodge
Clients visiting Mpumalanga and Limpopo will almost certainly have a safari on the mind and Moditlo River Lodge is around an hour-and-a-half drive away from the Blyde River Canyon. It is a great option for families as accommodation is in villas split into two interconnecting rooms. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style in the main restaurant so there’s something to appeal to all tastes. Dinner is either in the main restaurant or in the boma – an enclosed space around a fire, when the staff cook up a huge spread of meats on the braai.
Game drives are of course the main event and guests head off every morning (pre-sunrise) and afternoon (pre-sunset) in converted open topped Land Cruisers to spot wildlife with their ranger and spotter. Moditlo means “place of the elephant” and the reserve is home to herds of the huge beasts as well as leopards, rhinos, cheetahs, hippos, lions and a pack of wild dogs, all of which may be spotted depending on time of year and, of course, luck. I see a pair of adult male cheetahs in the grass, as well as elephants (below), a baby hippo, lions, and thanks to the eagle eyes of Kazi, our spotter, a honey badger on the final evening.
Book it: Premier Holidays has a seven-day trip including three nights’ B&B at Summerfields Rose Retreat & Spa, three nights’ fullboard at Moditlo River Lodge, international and domestic South African Airways flights, seven days’ car hire and entrance fees to Blyde River Canyon, Three Rondavels and God’s Window on the Panorama Route from £2,249pp. Price based on a November 2017 departure.