In need of a break and a change of scenery, Ishay Govender-Ypma and her husband packed the car and headed for the Panorama Route on a simple quest: explore, unwind and recharge. Photographs by Teagan Cunniffe.
It’s the gateway to Kruger, but the tumbling geography that plunges through the Klein Drakensberg escarpment and turns the Highveld browns and yellows into fecund greens marks a part of South Africa that is anything but thoroughfare. Here, in the Lowveld, roads swoop through verdant plantations, waterfalls splay like magnificent brides’ veils, thick forests reach for the heavens while cotton-candy clouds sink to the ground, and slow rivers carry wallowing hippos. Until recently, it eluded my reach.
With a week to spare and the desire to escape the arduous demands of work, we set out from OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg in a rented Nissan Qashqai. It’s a grand choice for a party of two, but we’d heard there may be floods and opted for something with tyres that could scurry through potholes and mud. The N12 heading east out of Joburg is unseasonably barren, but wide and pleasant enough. Soon it becomes the N4 and after three and a half hours we stop for refreshments in Mpumalanga’s capital, Nelspruit, perched on the Crocodile River. Turning north on the R40, White River whizzes by as we take in dense banana and pineapple plantations and nebulous blue-green hills. The Lowveld is moist and tropical, the vegetation abundant. The heat is thick.
From there we head north to Hazyview, our first base for a week of exploring. At Summerfields Rose Retreat and Spa, I gravitate towards the litchi orchards (it’s a working litchi and macadamia farm too); deep-pink globes cluster in bunches that sag to the ground. Soon, my hands are sticky with litchi juice and I’m cradling memories of my childhood. The promise of lunch overlooking the Sabie River pulls me away. More pleasant surprises await: a private cabin and spa treatment along the river, and a pod of five lazy hippos floating metres away. It takes some effort to get used to the sounds of the flowing river, garrulous in fact, as it tumbles past our cabin.
Well rested, we start the next day with a large agenda. The Panorama Route proper. From Hazyview we head west on the R535, merging into the R533, past the gentle slopes of Graskop to the gold rush town: Pilgrim’s Rest. In less than an hour we time travel back to the turn of the 20th century, when many of the existing buildings were constructed. Pilgrim’s Rest was declared a gold field in 1873. Today it’s a quaint village frozen in time, saturated with nostalgia. You can even try your hand at panning for gold.
From Pilgrim’s Rest, we head back towards Graskop where we grab a pancake at Harrie’s Pancakes, something the town is famous for (they’re good, not great), and then move onto Pinnacle Rock on the R534. A 30-metre buttress rock protrudes like a lonely skyscraper emerging from indigenous forests, and wonderful views of the Drakensberg escarpment lie beyond it. God’s Window, which I’ve been anticipating for days, is about three kilometres away. After a steep 15-minute walk, we reach a 900-metre-high viewing point that stretches across the Lowveld in all directions. A glaze of mist obscures the promised postcard-view, but the colours swirl: green, blue, grey, and the camera shutters click. It’s quiet and a cool breeze sends a tingle down my neck.
Wonder View is just two kilometres away and we almost miss it. We stop, jump out the car and snap a pic of the grand view. We’re on a roll now. Lisbon and Berlin Falls are left for another day and instead we head to Bourke’s Luck Potholes on the R532. We quash the searing heat with cold water and new cotton hats purchased at the visitor’s centre and walk along suspension bridges that circumnavigate the potholes. The smooth hollows, filled with dark brackish water, appear otherworldly, bizarre even. Named after Tom Bourke, a prospector who had no luck here (but others did), it heralds the start of the Blyde River Canyon. Children are splashing in the water at the gentle fall around the back, and we regret not carrying a towel. We finish the day’s tour with a stop at Three Rondavels on the R532 – a trio of cylindrical rock formations 700 metres high resembling circular Zulu huts. We head back to Summerfields and reward our weary feet with pedicures.
The following day is reserved for a long and leisurely breakfast before a 42-kilometre pootle from Hazyview to Mac Mac Pools, where we take a dip with local families. Someone mentions a nearby hike but it’s far too humid at midday to move. Nearby, at Mac Mac Falls, we’re reminded that Mpumalanga surely must be the African curio capital of South Africa: on every roadside and at every attraction, a vibrant range of beads, masks, carvings and fabric vie with each other for attention.
The falls can be viewed only through a wire fence, so we don’t stay long and opt to head back to the hippos and litchis before turning in for the night. The following day, after an outdoor bath to the thrum of the Sabie River (which we’re now used to), we hit the road and take the R40 north to Hoedspruit. The sky turns inky, and soon enough we’re driving through a storm. At Klaserie we turn right towards Kruger’s Orpen Gate and onto the gravelly Guernsey road. It’s quicksand-soft, and gloopy. We arrive at Phelwana Game Lodge, run by members of the same family who manage the Timbavati Foundation and Bush School next door, and stay put in our tent-for-two at the dam. The sound of the Sabie River is replaced by the hum humming of cicadas and catfish wriggling. There’s a hippo snort too.
Incessant rains keep us home-bound, and apart from a morning safari drive where we spot giraffes canoodling and buck grazing, we spend the time relaxing and re-booting. We read, lie in and enjoy bubbly at noon. Neighbouring Kruger National Park would make for an outstanding day trip – but we save it for another time. On our last day the rain breaks a little and there’s still one sight we want to explore: the Blyde River Canyon. But first we jump into the Qashqai, following Phelwana lodge owner Pierre de Villiers in his bakkie.
His family has been involved in game farms and conservation efforts in the Lowveld for around 77 years. He guides us around flooded banks and seismic-sized muddy potholes. From Hoedspruit we make a solo journey to the canyon, accessing the Blyde Dam from the Swadini Forever Resort. The skies are clear and we stop first at a nondescript path and follow some stairs to the dam wall, and then to the official panoramic viewing point. The waters are glassy-still and rich emerald, offset by the surrounding ochre rock. A couple sits embracing on a bench beside us.
The seven days slip by and before we leave, we plan a return trip. While there is ample to see and do along the Panorama Route, it’s the profound sense of stillness we experienced – the opportunity to go off the grid in parts, to languish in nature and her spoils in relative peace (even during peak season) that makes this special part of Mpumalanga a route worth visiting… again and again.
Need to know
While you don’t need a SUV, in the rainy season along mud and dirt roads it becomes invaluable. Lodges warn about corrupt traffic police trying to extort monies from drivers – they are correct. Never pay cash or try to negotiate. If it’s legit, you’ll get a bill posted. The skies turn hazy even in summer – try to pick a clear day to view the canyon.
Things to do on the Panorama Route
- Pinnacle Rock, God’s Window, Three Rondavels – These three stops are all a must. On a clear day the view from God’s Window stretches as far as neighbouring Mozambique.
- Bourke’s Luck Potholes – Various vantage points and bridges look down on the surreal rock sculptures formed over centuries by flowing water. Pop into the visitor’s centre for information on how they were formed (there are also two short walking trails for those with time to spare).
- Boat cruise on the Blyde River – Learn more about the natural history of the Blyde Canyon on a relaxing 90-minute boat tour on the Blyde Dam.
- Panorama Route Tours – Visitors looking for an information-packed guided tour of the region can book a private day tour with Tours de Mornay. +27 82 927 4072
Places to stay on the Panorama Route
Summerfields Rose Retreat and Spa is pricey, but there’s an outstanding spa on site and Summerfields Kitchen is the best restaurant in the area.
Tel 013 737 6500, 087 231 0112.
Phelwana Game Lodge – there are various accommodation options at this lodge in Klaserie
Tel 015 793 2475, 071 659 9555
What to eat on the Panorama Route
The area is well known for macadamia nuts, litchis and dried mangoes, and fresh when in season. Be sure to pick some up along the way.
Harrie’s Pancakes has been serving sweet and savoury pancakes in Graskop for 18 years. It’s become an essential stop for visitors. Be warned, bus loads of tourists arrive here. The pancakes are good, but not great.
Tel 013 767 1273.
Pioneer’s Butcher & Grill – this popular steakhouse in Hazyview is loved by locals. It serves outstanding steaks and the service is warm and friendly.
Tel 013 737 7397.
This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.