Discovering Mpumalanga: 10 Towns Beyond the Beaten Path

Posted on 18 April 2024

Venture into the heart of Mpumalanga, a province where the sun kisses the horizon with its first rays, revealing hidden towns brimming with history, culture, and natural beauty. Beyond the well-trodden paths to iconic destinations lies a mosaic of lesser-known towns, each with its unique allure. From the misty charm of Dullstroom to the historical streets of Pilgrim’s Rest, Mpumalanga’s towns are treasure troves waiting to be explored.

Join us on a journey through 10 of these enchanting locales, where every corner turned and every hill crested unveils a story waiting to be discovered, a beauty waiting to be admired.

1. Dullstroom (Emnothweni)

Dullstroom, or Emnothweni, is a captivating haven nestled in Mpumalanga’s rolling hills. A mere 2.5-hour drive from Johannesburg, it’s a picturesque pit-stop en route to Kruger National Park. Dutch settlers, enchanted by the misty ambience, named it ‘Place of Eternal Mist’. This dreamlike quality is palpable upon arrival.

The town’s heart beats in the Olde Clock Shop, a trove of over 7,000 timepieces, boasting the largest collection in the Southern Hemisphere. For whiskey lovers, Wild About Whiskey is more than a bar; it’s a global odyssey of flavors, with the world’s second-largest whiskey collection. Meanwhile, the Dullstroom Inn radiates warmth and local lore, having welcomed visitors for over three decades.

Dubbed South Africa’s fly-fishing capital, Dullstroom’s legacy dates back to 1912, when Lydenburg’s postmaster, HJ Gurr, caught a trout-like fish. The town’s summers offer a warm embrace, while winters add a layer of frosty charm, perfect for wrapping up in scarves and exploring.

2. Hazyview

Summerfields Rose Retreat, Hazyview. Image: Melanie van Zyl

Hazyview is a delightful blend of untamed wilderness and exhilarating adventure, nestled in the heart of Mpumalanga. A gateway to the Kruger National Park, it’s a dream destination for wildlife enthusiasts. This charming town is a whirlwind of adventure, offering up-close elephant experiences, galloping horseback rides, and thrilling Big 5 safaris.

Known for its misty, languid summer days, Hazyview serves as a ‘Gateway’ to Kruger’s southern expanses and the breathtaking Panorama Escarpment. It is aptly dubbed Mpumalanga’s ‘Adventure Hub’, offering a myriad of heart-pumping activities, including hot air ballooning and elephant safaris. Gourmet travelers will find a culinary haven in Hazyview, with a variety of eateries that promise a gastronomic journey.

This town, referred to as the ‘Hotel Capital’ of the Lowveld, offers an array of accommodation options, from luxury lodges to cozy guesthouses. But Hazyview is more than just a stop for luxury and thrill-seekers; it’s a biodiversity haven, home to a vast array of butterflies, birds, plants, and mammals. Its lush landscapes, dotted with banana and macadamia nut farms, make it a key player in South Africa’s agricultural scene.

3. Waterval Onder

Nestled in the gentle fold of the escarpment and caressed by the Elands River, Waterval Onder, meaning ‘Below the Waterfall’, is a village that offers more than just its picturesque 228-meter waterfall. While often outshone by its more bustling counterpart, Waterval Boven, Waterval Onder is a tranquil haven for those seeking peace and quiet. It is steeped in history, notably as the last refuge of ex-President Paul Kruger before his departure into exile. Today, the Krugerhof, his former residence, stands as a solemn monument and museum, preserving the memories and legacy of a pivotal figure in South African history.

Sitting in the heart of Mpumalanga, a name signifying ‘the place where the sun rises’, Waterval Onder is a true embodiment of the region’s splendor. The village serves as a gateway not only to the breathtaking vistas of the Kruger National Park but also to the patchwork of nature reserves that showcase the area’s ecological diversity and natural beauty.

4. Graskop

Graskop, transforming from its gold mining camp origins in the 1880s, now stands proudly as a jewel in Mpumalanga’s crown of scenic beauty. Perched on the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment, this vibrant town is your gateway to some of South Africa’s most breathtaking natural wonders, including God’s Window, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and the captivating Graskop Gorge Viewing Elevator.

Experience the magic of the Graskop Gorge Lift, a marvel of modern tourism that transports you deep into the heart of an untouched indigenous forest. As you descend 51 meters down the cliff face in this state-of-the-art viewing elevator, prepare to be wrapped in the lush embrace of nature. Stroll along elevated walkways and dramatic suspension bridges, each step a journey through an enchanting symphony of nature.

Graskop is an homage to the artistry of the natural world, from the cascading Lisbon Falls to the majestic Blyde River Canyon and the iconic Three Rondawels. It’s the perfect stop en route to Kruger National Park, offering awe-inspiring views, unique local crafts, and a peek into the soul of South Africa.

5. Malelane

Malelane, also known as Malalane, offers more than the eye can see. This peaceful farming town is the serene gateway to the iconic Kruger National Park. With lush sugarcane fields, vibrant subtropical fruit orchards, and bountiful winter vegetable gardens, Malelane is a picturesque representation of South Africa’s agricultural heritage.

Established in 1949, Malelane’s name is steeped in gentle mystery, but its significance is clear. It stands as a testament to the rich agricultural and cultural tapestry of South Africa. Beyond its agricultural prowess, the town’s charm is magnified by its role as a portal to wild adventures. The Malelane gate is a major entry point to Kruger National Park, making the town a favored stop for those seeking the thrill of a safari.

Nestled on the banks of the Crocodile River and under a sky that stretches infinitely, Malelane extends a warm welcome to all. It embodies the true spirit of ‘Sunny South Africa’, offering a journey of discovery and tranquility to both nature enthusiasts and those seeking a peaceful escape.

6. Wakkerstroom

In the verdant heart of Mpumalanga lies Wakkerstroom, a town echoing with the whispers of the past, proudly holding the title of the province’s second-oldest settlement. Perched on the cusp of KwaZulu-Natal, this once tranquil hamlet has blossomed into a vibrant oasis, cradled by expansive landscapes that stretch to the horizon.

Today, Wakkerstroom stands as a haven for those yearning for a respite from the city’s relentless pace. The town is a mosaic of cultural and natural delights, boasting an eclectic array of restaurants, quaint pubs, artisanal shops, and historical landmarks. Each street corner and cobblestone path in Wakkerstroom tells a story, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in a leisurely exploration of both its heritage and contemporary allure.

For birdwatching enthusiasts, Wakkerstroom is nothing short of a paradise. The area is adorned with a rich diversity of grassland birds native to South Africa, augmented by a variety of water and forest-dwelling species. The seasonal pans, rejuvenated by the summer rains, become a stage for the elegant dance of the Whiskered Tern, the graceful Great Crested Grebes, and the stately Maccoa ducks.

The transformation of Wakkerstroom from a once-sleepy village to a lively tourist destination is a tribute to its enduring charm. The town invites you to savor its culinary offerings, relax in its cozy eateries, or enjoy a serene picnic by the wetlands. For those seeking adventure, the surrounding region offers a plethora of activities, including mountain biking trails, horseback riding, and guided historical tours, weaving a rich tapestry of experiences for every visitor.

In Wakkerstroom, even your four-legged companions can partake in the joy, with spots like Martin’s Dam offering a perfect playground. Relive history at the Old Train Station, or find tranquility along the Wetland route. Every nook of Wakkerstroom beckons with undiscovered stories, waiting for you to write your own chapter in this enchanting town.

7. Barberton

The Barberton Greenstone belt is a geological Mecca, where some of the oldest preserved volcanic and sedimentary rock on Earth can be found.

In the heart of the Makhonjwa Mountains and nestled within the De Kaap Valley, Barberton stands as a living museum to the 1880s gold rush era. A mere hop from Mbombela and a scenic journey from Johannesburg, this town is steeped in the lore of gold discovery and the glory of mining. Walking its streets, you’re transported to the days of Graham Barber, the town’s namesake, and the legendary Edwin Bray’s Golden Quarry, the pulsating heart of a flourishing Gold Rush township.

But Barberton’s allure extends beyond its golden veins. The mountains here cradle some of the Earth’s oldest geological formations, offering a window into the planet’s primordial past. The Geotrail in this region is a journey of geological discovery, revealing ancient rocks and fossils that tell tales of the Earth’s earliest life forms.

Surrounding this historic town is a tapestry of biodiversity, a haven for a plethora of wildlife including the majestic African lion and an array of rare butterflies. Bird watchers will find themselves in a paradise with over 350 species gracing the skies. Barberton is not just a historical treasure; it’s a call to adventure and natural wonder, offering a myriad of experiences to every visitor.

8. Waterval Boven

Perched ‘Above the Waterfall’, as its Dutch name translates, Waterval Boven, or Emgwenya, is a village that tells a story of rich railway heritage. Overlooking the Elands River, this village was established in 1898 as a crucial railway depot and now serves as a repository of historical marvels, from the ancient railway Tunnel to the magnificent Five Arch Bridge and the storied residence of President Paul Kruger.

Waterval Boven, however, is more than just a historical landmark. It has become a mecca for sport-climbing aficionados, offering over a thousand climbing routes set against the dramatic backdrop of the Drakensberg Mountains. For those seeking peace, the tranquil fly-fishing spots managed by the Waterval Boven Trout Association offer a perfect escape. The Elands River Fly Shop stands ready to assist both novice and experienced anglers in pursuit of the perfect catch.

Whether it’s the adrenaline rush of scaling climbing routes, the tranquility of fly-fishing, or a leisurely hike through nature’s splendor, Waterval Boven is a symphony of experiences. This village is a blend of historical intrigue and adventurous spirit, all set against the stunning canvas of the Drakensberg.

9. Chrissiesmeer

Chrissiesmeer, affectionately known as South Africa’s ‘Lake District’, is a tranquil sanctuary nestled in the heart of Mpumalanga. This enchanting area is famed for housing the country’s largest natural freshwater lake, Lake Chrissie, along with an impressive collection of 270 smaller pans spread across a 20-kilometer radius. Exploring Chrissiesmeer is akin to walking through a living storybook, where the splendor of nature takes center stage.

Lake Chrissie, named to honor Christina Pretorius, daughter of the president of the South African Republic, stretches across a significant expanse, offering vistas that captivate and enthral. But the allure of Chrissiesmeer extends beyond its glistening waters. Known as ‘Matotoland’ or ‘Frog Land’, this region is an ecological wonderland. Each year, its waters play host to an awe-inspiring spectacle of over 20,000 flamingos, transforming the area into a paradise for bird watchers.

The tapestry of Chrissiesmeer is woven with rich historical threads. Ancient rock art by the San people reveals stories from millennia ago, offering glimpses into the lives of the earliest inhabitants. The area is steeped in legend, including tales of the Tlou-tle people who, over 1,500 years ago, are said to have built floating villages on these lakes, seeking refuge in their watery embrace during tumultuous times.

Chrissiesmeer is not just a destination; it’s an experience that resonates with the soul. Whether you’re delving into its historical depths, bird-watching by the lakeside, or simply soaking in the tranquility, Chrissiesmeer is a place where nature’s beauty and history’s echoes combine to create a truly unforgettable journey.

10. Pilgrims Rest

Pilgrim's Rest

Source: Facebook / @ Pilgrim’s Rest SA

Nestled within the breathtaking embrace of the Drakensberg Escarpment, Pilgrim’s Rest stands as a living museum, a beautifully preserved testament to South Africa’s illustrious gold mining past. Born in the fervor of the 1870s gold rush, this enchanting town along the scenic Panorama Route is like a portal to another time, offering a vivid glimpse into an era defined by adventure and discovery.

Pilgrim’s Rest is a town where every street, every building echoes the aspirations of those early prospectors who ventured here with dreams of striking gold. It’s a place where history is not just told but felt – through the rare Veld Pond coins minted during the Second Boer War, each coin a tangible connection to the town’s storied past.

Declared a National Monument, Pilgrim’s Rest invites you to wander its historic streets, to pause and admire the old-world charm of its architecture, and to absorb the tales of those who shaped this unique corner of the world. The town is a treasure trove of stories, from the daring escapades of gold miners to the enduring legends of those who sought their fortunes in this rugged landscape.

In Pilgrim’s Rest, history comes alive, not as distant tales but as vivid experiences waiting around every corner. This town is more than just a destination; it’s an immersive journey into the heart of South Africa’s golden age. Whether you’re a history enthusiast eager to explore the depths of South Africa’s mining heritage or a traveler in search of unique and authentic experiences, Pilgrim’s Rest offers a rare opportunity to step back in time and discover the rich tapestry of stories that make up South Africa’s golden history.

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Also Read: 10 Best Places to Visit in Hartbeespoort

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