“There! That’s where I want to go!” I said, while trying to come up with an itinerary for our second trip to South Africa. The picture of the Blyde River Canyon had been stuck in my head since last year, when we took our first trip to South Africa, a roadtrip from Cape Town to Johannesburg.
Turned out it was a bit out of our way then, but this year, it was definitely on the agenda! After all, the Panorama Route, which included the Blyde River Canyon, has been nicknamed South Africa’s most beautiful roadtrip!
Some people drive it as a daytrip from Kruger National Park, but there is so much to discover and so many places that deserve a stop that you are better off spreading it over 2 full days.
1. Where is the Panorama Route?
The Panorama Route is situated in the province of Mpumalanga, not too far from Kruger National Park. There is no exact start or end point.
The main attractions are situated in between Sabie and the Three Rondavels, along the R532 and the R534. You can buy a “Panorama Route” map in various service stations in the area, but I really don’t think that’s necessary. Once you are on the R532, everything is pretty well indicated.
2. The Panorama route of South Africa in 10 breathtaking stops.
I followed the route starting from Sabie, counter-clockwise.
All attractions have an entrance fee, albeit very small! Around the parking lot, there are many vendors selling all kinds of curios.
Most attractions have toilet facilities.
1. Bridal Veil Falls
The Panorama Route is all about waterfalls, one even more spectacular than the other!
The first falls you’ll come along, coming from Sabie, are the Bridal Veil Falls, so called because the water isn’t gushing down, but rather drizzling delicately like a bridal veil. To get there, you need to side-track from the R532 (it’s well indicated) along a bumpy dirt track.
Once you get to the parking, the path leading up to the falls is lovely! You’re surrounded by nature, which isn’t always the case for the other waterfalls. It’s a 15 minute walk and the path can be a bit slippery when wet.
Make sure you check out the layered rocks eroded by the wind and the waterfalls.
Entrance: R10 pp
2. Lone Creek Falls
Close to the Bridal Veil Falls. They can be reached via a dirt track, riddled with potholes, off the R532. The Lone Creek Falls are very powerful at a height of 68m. From the parking lot, a 200 m walk will take you to the bottom of the falls, which is surrounded by many ferns and mosses. You can follow several short hikes around the waterfalls for different angles and viewpoints.
Entrance: R20 pp
3. Mac Mac Falls
We visited the waterfalls twice. Once early morning when they were barely visible because of the fog and once on our way back late afternoon, which awarded us with a fantastic view. On both occasions we were the only people around! A lovely 10 minute stroll takes you to the viewing point. Unfortunately the view is obstructed by a metal fence, safety first I guess?
The view into the canyon along the short trail is just as stunning as the view of the waterfall itself!
A short distance away, just before arriving at the parking lot for the falls, are the Mac Mac Pools, in which you can swim or bathe on a scorching hot day!
Entrance: R10 pp for the falls
4. The Graskop Gorge Lift
By now you’ll have arrived in the town of Graskop, ideal for a quick stop or lunch.
Make sure you do not miss the Graskop Gorge Lift! This very new attraction only recently opened, in September 2018. Instead of looking out on the canyon and the indigenous forest, it takes you right into it! The glass lift takes you down 51m into the pristine canyon where a myriad of elevated walkways and bridges lead you through the forest and across the streams. Wooden panels explain the local fauna and flora in an educational and entertaining way. I was a bit sceptic before visiting, thinking it would spoil the pristine nature, but this is truly done with a lot of respect for the environment! If you haven’t seen enough waterfalls so far, there’s a pretty spectacular one here!
For the more adventurous amongst you, the Big Swing is awaiting!It’s a mix between a bungee jump and a giant swing. If you fancy “falling” into the canyon from the cliff edge and swinging over the waterfall and clear pool, then this is your thing!
Price: R190 pp for the lift / R 350 for the Big Swing
5. The Pinnacle Rock
We’re exchanging the R532 for the R534 here to do a loop of some of the most stunning views into the gorge.
The first one you’ll come across is the Pinnacle Rock, an impressive rock formation that emerges from the canyon and reaches a height of 30m! There are a few man-made paths you can follow for different viewpoints, don’t miss them! It’s worth hanging around to admire the birdlife and far-stretching views into the gorge.
Entrance: R15 pp
6. God’s Window
I wish I could tell you how beautiful the views were, but unfortunately the thick fog decided otherwise. The guard at the entrance was nice enough to tell us it wasn’t worth paying the entrance fee that day. The next day wasn’t any better…
To be honest, the pictures don’t look any more spectacular than the stunning view we got from the Pinnacle. The Pinnacle offers you views deep into the gorge whereas from God’s Window, the views are mainly far-stretching over the Lowveld.
I’m sure they are still very spectacular though and apparently the walk up to it through the rain forest is worth the effort alone! Maybe you’ll have more luck than I did?
7. Bourke’s Luck Potholes
After some stunning views and thundering waterfalls it’s time for something completely different and unique. The Bourke’s Luck Potholes are the result of thousands of years of water erosion that have created a rock formation of cylindrical potholes in the sandstone bedrock. The potholes get their name from a prospector, John Bourke, who was one of the first to proclaim that the region had gold deposit. Bridges and viewing platforms over the Blyde and Treur river allow you to see the interesting rock features from a variety of angles. It’s pretty popular so try to time your visit early morning, when there’s less people about. Leisurely wander around the many formations, rather than just sticking to the main bridges, you’ll appreciate the site all the better for it. The entrance fee is expensive compared to the other attractions on the Panorama Route.
8. Three Rondavels
For most people the Three Rondavels ARE the Panorama Route. It is certainly the poster child of the area and it’s the very same picture that made me want to go and explore the route.
The Three Rondavels are a natural rock formation, roughly shaped as the traditional oval-shaped huts (rondavels) you’ll see scattered in Xhosa or Zulu villages. The peaks are said to represent how the traditional huts evolved over the years: the most basic on the left hand side and the more modern beehive hut on the right. They are named after the three wives of Pulana Chief Maripi Mashile, whose tribe used the nearby mountain as a stronghold – they are (from left to right) Magabolle, Mogoladikwe and Maseroto.
The viewing point overlooks the Blyde River Canyon at a height of 1380m. As with the other attractions, take your time here! Don’t just snap a few pics and leave but walk the various paths and appreciate the true beauty of nature!
Entrance: R30 pp
9. Berlin Falls
From here on, we’re making our way down towards Graskop again. If you were unlucky with the weather so far, know that the western side of the R532 usually gets good visibility, even if the valley is completely covered by fog.
The Berlin Falls tumble down in a single drop for about 80 meters, before crashing dramatically into a round basin jade-coloured basin. The viewing point here is towards the top of the waterfall and you can clearly see the river feeding the waterfall.
Entrance: R10 pp
10. Lisbon Falls
At 94m, the Lisbon Falls are one of the highest waterfalls in the Mpumalanga province. You have to walk a bit to get a clear view and good pictures of what look in fact like 3 different waterfalls of various heights! They are more “cascading” than thundering down.
Apparently you can walk down to the bottom along a steep trail, but we gave that a miss.
The names “Lisbon” and “Berlin” are said to be to commemorate the identity of miners who came to the area to pan for gold in the late 1800s. Other sources say they were named after the originating city of the pioneers that discovered them…
Whatever the reason, both Berlin and Lisbon Falls make for a very scenic stop on your way back to Graskop or Sabie!
Entrance: R10 pp
3. Where to stay on the Panorama Route?
The small towns of Sabie and Graskop are, in my opinion, the best places to be based in.
Sabie is close to the waterfalls and has a few big shops handy for self-caterers, as well as petrol stations and a pharmacy. There are a few nice restaurants too. Don’t forget to taste the local Mpumalanga specialty: trout. The Wild Fig Tree restaurant prepares is beautifully!
I stayed at the Dublin Guest Lodge and can highly recommend it!
4. Best time to drive the Panorama Route
I drove the Panorama Route during the South African summer, in January. The area is known for its afternoon thunder storms, but it turns out that the morning fog was a bigger obstacle! God’s window was completely invisible throughout the day and it was misty around the Three Rondavels as well. The attractions in the valley and over the lowveld (along the R534 and the eastern side of the R532 ) run the biggest risk of being covered in fog. Lisbon and Berlin Falls are usually clear.
During the drier and cooler months from May to August you have the best chance for clear views all round.
The route and towns were actually pretty quiet, which came as a bit of a surprise. Turned out mid-January is considered low-season, so it might be the perfect time for those wanting to avoid the crowds.
The Panorama Route turned out to be one of the best road trips in South Africa. I would highly recommend you to split it into 2 days to truly enjoy it!