Travelling in a landlocked province shouldn’t keep you from getting your feet wet. Here’s where to pitch your tent next to water, and sometimes share a river with Kruger.
My maiden name, Van der Merwe, means “from the stretches of the River Merwede” (in Holland). I like to think that this explains why I’m so attracted to bodies of water – rivers, lakes, dams, oceans. Or maybe it’s because our own bodies are half H20. Growing up in Nelspruit (now Mbombela), weekends often consisted of outings to nearby streams, pools and cascades. On the Panorama Route, around Sabie and Graskop, we were spoilt for choice when choosing a waterfall for a family picnic – Lone Creek, Bridal Veil or Horseshoe, to name a few. I remember birthday parties spent splashing in Mac Mac Pools, and pretending we were at the beach at Barberton’s “seaside” – a stretch of white sand near water in the nature reserve. We’d laze about on my dad’s catamaran for entire Saturdays at Da Gama Dam near White River – fishing, swimming, braaiing. Having recently moved back to my home province, I went in search of campsites that are a hop, skip or step away from a river or dam. There is an option to suit everyone, even if all you desire is sundowners next to a babbling brook.
1. For game and birdlife
Henk Van Rooyen Resort
This municipal campground is in Marloth Park, a town and 1 500ha wildlife sanctuary between Komatipoort and Malelane. Only a fence and the Crocodile River separate it from Kruger National Park. The resort’s name comes from the farmer who donated the land to the municipality to create this popular recreational area; accommodation is highly sought-after during school holidays, especially in winter. The 10 campsites facing the river come with shade awnings, water taps, lights, power points, clean and tidy ablutions and, best of all, braais and picnic tables with benches right at the fence. Due to popular demand, an extra 10 sites will be added before the end of this year. Four of these are ready to use – they’re further from the river but under big indigenous trees.
The resort is a bird and tree lover’s paradise, with fig, acacia, leadwood and sausage trees dotted along the fence and scattered around the grounds. Game moves freely in Marloth Park, including lions and leopards, but the resort is fenced for safety. Management claims that you can see the entire Big 5 during a week’s stay without leaving the campsite. We camped under a leadwood, close to the fence and facing Marloth’s dense bush. Every now and then, a family drove past on their own “safari” through the park.
You can’t laze around in the river with the hippos, but there is a large swimming pool (used by day visitors as well). There is also a tennis court, and Marloth Park is very popular for walking, running and cycling. Crocodile Road follows the river and fence as it stretches through the bushveld; good for a stroll or drive. For game-viewing over a relaxed meal, the A-amazing River View restaurant is aptly named.
072 282 2256, henkvanrooyen.co.za
• Crocodile River
• 14 campsites 10 along the river
• From R350 per campsite (max six people)
Plus Kruger’s Crocodile Bridge gate is 25km away (R93 adults, R47 kids). sanparks.org Four kilometres from the resort, Bush Centre has restaurants, shops, a waterpark and a nursery.
2. For stylish nature lovers
AfriCamps at Mackers
Established six years ago, Mackers started out with camping and cottages, but in July 2018 it partnered with AfriCamps, SA’s glamping specialist. The other camps are in the Cape, which makes Mackers its first upcountry site – bang in between Sabie and Hazyview. The tents are spaced out close to the water, with a choice of staying upstream, where the river flows calmly, or downstream at the rapids. We stayed in number 8 and could hear the swoosh and burble of the Sabie all night long.
The tents are roomy, decorated tastefully and can sleep up to five people in two quarters. You have the luxury of a bathroom, air-con, fireplace (wonderful for winter camping) and a kitchen with a gas stove and oven, fridge and cooking utensils. The braai pit is in front of a spacious deck, under indigenous shade trees; one water berry had its roots slightly dipping into the water. All the necessities are stocked in the honesty shop, along with board games to borrow. Guests can also order a self-catering breakfast basket or dinner braai pack.
Book a massage in the comfort of your tent, or de-stress on a sun lounger next to the swimming pool. There’s a short but lovely hike upriver, leading to bigger rapids and deeper pools for a dip. If you’re lucky, the camp dog will chaperone you – Pig is the ‘hippo alarm system’ of Mackers; he barks at night if the local hippo ventures too close. Also, keep an eye out for a fish eagle mating pair and rare African finfoots and narina trogons – 150 bird species have been spotted in the area.
021 300 5694, africamps.com
• Sabie River
• 10 riverside boutique tents
Skyway Trails at Hazyview has a tree-top obstacle course (R190 adults, R160 kids) and ‘aerial cable trails’ (ziplines) to glide over the Sabie River valley (R540 pp). skywaytrails.com
3. For old-school family holidays
Merry Pebbles Resort
Walter Comley’s father bought the farm in 1970, and he can still remember how small all the poplar trees were back then. Today these goliaths tower over the campsites in all their glory. The resort is pristine and tranquil – you wouldn’t think that the forestry town of Sabie is just 2km away. The lawns are lush, and our braai pit was a hair’s breadth away from the river. At night, the campsites and river are illuminated by ambient spotlights (and there are security beams and cameras to ease the minds of cautious campers). With spotless ablutions, abundant electricity points for campers, and a range of other accommodation options plus countless activities, it’s no surprise the resort is booked to the brim over long weekends and in the summer holidays. The busiest times are during special events, such as the Sabie River Tube Race and Sabie Classic Mountain Bike Race (both in February).
The Sabie River is crystal clear and shallow here. If you find the river a bit too nippy, there’s a lovely heated pool, as well as cold pools with fun waterslides close to the restaurant, recreation hall and play park. There’s everything here to burn off energy, from putt-putt and ping-pong to tennis, trampolines and a giant outdoor chessboard. There is also a mini-market, bottle store and laundry on the premises.
Biking, birding, tubing (tubes for sale) and fishing are the most popular activities; the river is stocked with rainbow trout and yellowfish occur naturally. The Loerie Day Trail starts outside Merry Pebbles’ entrance: the circular hike (it varies from 10km to 14km, depending on tree felling) takes you along the water and through the valley, passing plantations, indigenous forest and waterfalls. Permits cost R20.
Contact 013 7642 266, merrypebbles.co.za
• Sabie River
• 180 sites; 15 are waterside spots
• Camping from R170 adults, R85-R150 kids (max eight people)
4. For fishing and boating
Primkop is a long and narrow dam that overflows into another thin stretch of water known as Manchester Dam, and is managed by the White River Valley Conservancy. It’s 13km from White River, in a basin surrounded by farmlands and typical Lowveld rocky outcrops, very near to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport. Unfortunately, the dam was only 20 per cent full during our visit in late summer, which meant the waterline was about 70m from the campsites (there are plans to pump water in from the Crocodile River). The Lowveld Angling & Boating Association is in charge of the facilities and bookings. The new unisex, semi-outdoor bathrooms (revamped in 2018) are built from corrugated iron and wood, creating a rustic yet chic industrial look. The camping area is along one side of the dam, with views across the water of orchards hugging the granite hills.
The campsites are spaced far away from each other, with taps, dustbins and power points close at hand, and most have lush trees to pitch your tent under. Note that anglers often park their cars on the stretch of patchy grass between the camping area and the water. We were given site number 17, one of the most popular spots. It’s positioned far away from neighbours and close enough to the bathrooms, but not too close for the foot traffic to be annoying. The surroundings were peaceful – loud music, jet skis and motorbikes are not allowed, and boats have an eight-horsepower limit. There’s no on-site shop so stock up in a town en route.
Primkop Dam attracts anglers for its barbel, bass, bream and carp. Due to the risk of hippos and crocs, visitors are advised not to swim in the dam.
060 787 4920, [email protected]
• Primkop Dam
• 41 stands, 30 along the shore
• R100 per campsite (max six people) plus R50 adults, R25 kids, R40 per car and R30 per boat
If you’re looking for a watersport dam, try Klipkoppie 18 kilometres away. Longmere Dam, 20km away, is good for canoeing and swimming.
5. For biking and outdoor activities
Mankele Mountain Bike Park
Mankele is 32km from Mbombela, on the R539 to Sudwala Caves, and is widely known as a mountain biker’s mecca. It has 11 biking trails ranging in difficulty and length, from 2.4km to 55km. Mankele is fairly new (it opened in 2007) compared to the other options on this list, so most of the trees on the camp-sites are still too small to provide good shade. A handful of sites have shade awnings, but the stands close to the river have dense indigenous trees to envelop your tent. The only downside of these shady, waterside spots is that they have less grass (hey, you can’t have it all). The en-suite safari tents are tucked away in the bush for privacy – each has a double bed, three single beds, a braai area and a deck with a table and chairs.
Mankele lies nestled between the Houtbosloop River and an indigenous forest, with a mountain (where most of the action happens) towering over the campsite. The facilities are in immaculate condition, including a coffee shop, kids’ play area, two pools (one for campers, one for day visitors) and two ablution options for campers – outdoor showers (ideal for busy MTB events) as well as indoor bathrooms. There are lots of braai spots and plenty of plugs at the electricity points.
Besides the MTB and trail-running routes, Mankele has a range of fun activities for families: paintball, an obstacle course, a kids’ zipline and river rafting – the river runs at a pace that makes rafting fun rather than an extreme sport. Bikes can be hired if you don’t have your own. If all of this sounds too exhausting, simply laze at the pool, go fishing or take a dip in the river – it’s slightly murky but deep enough to splash in.
078 801 0453, mankele.co.za
• Houtbosloop River
• 50 stands, about 10 spacious sites on the river
• Campsite R120 adults, R90 kids; safari tent R295 adults, R165 kids (sleeps five)
6. For hikers and dog walkers
Elangeni Holiday Resort
This 34-year-old establishment in the Elands River valley (between Waterval Boven and Nelspruit) has gorgeous, gargantuan trees decorating the grounds. Although it focuses on school camps and team building, Elangeni gets booked up during the December holidays. It’s also right next to the N4, making it an ideal halfway stop between Joburg and Kruger Park. Campers can hear the traffic but you get used to it after a while – it blurs into the rush of the river – and calms down at night. The waterside stands are very close to the Elands River, but views of the water are blocked by a low grass slope (a safety measure if camping with kids). The river, which rushes down from the Drakensberg escarpment, is brown and deep enough to swim – though it’s not advised due to potentially hazardous branches and reeds.
The campsites are covered in thick grass, ideal for picnicking and lounging around on. The ones closest to the water are also nearest to the ablutions, which are simple but clean and tidy. This is also where you’ll find the laundry, scullery, jungle gym and trampolines. There are braais, taps with borehole water nearby and shared electricity points. A highlight is the crystal-blue swimming pool, within earshot of the river and with a view of the aloe-speckled hills this area is known for.
There’s river tubing and a zipline that whizzes over the river to an obstacle course. An absolute must is the overnight hiking trail (25 kilometres) up to Sonbesie hut in the mountains, close to a river and natural pools. Coming back down, you pass two remarkable waterfalls.
083 797 7505, elangeni-resort.co.za
• Elands River
• 50 stands, 15 next to the water
• R135 per campsite (max six people), plus R60 pp. Dogs stay for free.
7. For countryside pursuits
Elandskloof Trout Farm
Elandskloof lies among the green hills of the Highlands Meander, 14km from Dullstroom. Accessed via a gravel road, you don’t need a 4×4 but drive slowly because there are some rough patches. True to its name, we saw a herd of eland on our approach, and in addition to fish, the farm is home to herds of antelope, zebra, wildebeest, fallow deer and more. It’s been in the Combrink family for seven generations, and the 11 trout dams are an attraction. Some of the facilities are in need of a little TLC, but there are heaps of activities to keep campers amused. There’s an indoor heated pool and jacuzzi, a farmyard play area for children, and more than 200 birds have been recorded on the farm – blue, crowned and wattled cranes are annual visitors from the start of spring.
The campsites and ablution blocks are spread out in different sections of the farm, with open stretches of grass scattered with thatched roofs for shade (you pay extra for these). We camped close to the swimming pool, in front of a narrow dam where there are old trees stretching high, willows leaning into the water and views of the grasslands and distant hills. Our site had a portable braai, a power point nearby, a water tap and thick green grass.
Besides fly fishing, the gravel roads around the farm are perfect for mountain bikes or off-road motorbikes. There is also horse riding, kids’ pony rides and game drives on the estate (from R75). Ask about the short hike to the waterfall; it isn’t marked but staff can point you in the right direction.
071 698 7845, elandskloof.co.za
• 11 trout dams and one overflow dam
• 100 stands, 8 spots next to a dam
• R90 pp, dogs R30, thatch-roofed stands R60-R200 (tip: if you arrive after 2pm, you only pay from the next day)
Text by Mia Louw.
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