Mpumalanga means, “The place where the sun rises.” Here, in the eastern part of South Africa, the sun does rise on some of the most fantastic scenery and beautiful places! Mpumalanga is a province which borders Swaziland and Mozambique. It is very geographically diverse and includes mountains, breathtaking canyons, panoramic passes, waterfalls, and forests. While Mpumalanga is probably most famous for being the southern gateway to the country’s premier wildlife reserve, Kruger National Park, there are so many other natural and cultural attractions it has to offer.
The Remarkable Kruger National Park in South Africa
The Panorama Route
Let’s take a trip along this fabulous route which offers everything from dramatic scenery to colourful history, plus a wealth of other reasons to visit. The Blyde River Canyon, Pilgrim’s Rest, God’s Window, and Bourke’s Luck Potholes are all to be found on the Panorama Route.
Blyde River Canyon
When I first set eyes on Blyde River Canyon, it literally did take my breath away. Think Colorado Grand Canyon experience. It is the third largest canyon of its kind in the world and the largest “green canyon”, due to its lush subtropical foliage. It has some of the deepest and steepest cliffs of any canyon on the planet and is the second largest in Africa after the Fish River Canyon in Namibia.
To get a perspective on the size and impact of this canyon, you have to go to what is known as God’s Window, the canyon’s most spectacular viewpoint with astonishing views over South Africa’s Lowveld. At God’s Window, dramatic cliffs plunge 700 metres/2275 feet and, on a clear day, you can actually see the famous Kruger National Park. Be sure to take a walk in the thick, indigenous mist forest that is often among the clouds at God’s Window.
The canyon itself is 33 kilometres/20 miles in length. Perhaps one highlight which might capture your imagination overall is the Three Rondavels. These are three huge pinnacles of rock rising above the canyon. Once known as the Three Sisters, when you stand on the viewpoint with the Blyde River Canyon below, you will still be looking up at these three distinctive peaks which tower above the surrounding countryside. Erosion has worn away the soft underlying stone, leaving exposed slate and quartzite that shape these dramatic rock formations.
Activities at the Blyde River Canyon:
Some of the activities you can enjoy are a one-hour flight over the Blyde River Dam and canyon, returning towards Hoedspruit, where game can be viewed from the air. Another amazing experience which can be done while staying in Kruger Park is to have a helicopter ride starting out from close to your lodge, first seeing Kruger from the air and eventually landing on an inaccessible pinnacle overlooking the Blyde River Canyon. When I did this, it included an alfresco breakfast prepared by the pilot, which included champagne and orange juice. It certainly enhanced the view!
There are guided boat trips along the canyon passing by magnificent waterfalls and the Three Rondavels. If you are very adventurous, you can go river tubing for an hour-long adrenaline rush through wild rapids.
If you enjoy history and heritage as part of your travels, do visit the mining village of Pilgrim’s Rest, situated 30 kilometres/18 miles from Nelspruit, the capital of Mpumalanga. This is where gold was first discovered in South Africa and offers a fascinating insight into the gold rush days, with its authentic old building and shops. It is now something of a living museum and pays tribute to the gold panning days of the late 1800s. You will feel here that you have stepped straight back into the past. You can stay over in a historic hotel and drink in a legendary bar.
You can visit the Alanglade House Museum. Once the mine manager’s home, it was an elegant Edwardian house built in 1915 and furnished with period pieces. Home to a wide variety of shops selling antiques and collectables, Pilgrim’s Rest is a great place to browse arts, crafts, and curios on offer.
Nature lovers will enjoy a visit the Mount Sheba Nature Reserve, south of Pilgrim’s Rest. It is home to more than 100 species of indigenous trees including yellowwood, white stinkwood, Cape chestnut, and mountain cedar.
Bourke’s Luck Potholes
Bourke’s Luck Potholes are a series of natural geological formations that were formed by centuries of water flowing through the landscape, an activity that has carved out a dramatic and intricate series of natural rock formations and pools. This natural attraction is made up of inter-connected pools interlaced with sandstone. The potholes occur where the Treur River joins the Blyde River, at the start of the Blyde River Canyon. Over time, some of these potholes merge and new ones form. You can view the potholes from a number of vantage points and bridges that crisscross some of the most beautiful formations. Not only are the shapes of the formations spectacular but the sandstone is layered and coloured in shades of amber, ochre, and brown. The landscape constantly changes depending on the soil content of the water, the river levels, and the time of day.
Why the name? These natural sculptures are named after a prospector, Tom Bourke, who hoped to find gold at this site. He was unsuccessful, whereas other prospectors had more luck in the area.
The Sudwala Caves
The Sudwala Caves, the oldest known caves in the world, are about a half hour’s drive from Nelspruit. Although the caves were formed over a period of some 3000 million years, interestingly enough, they have only been accessible to the public since the 1960s. Early humans lived and worked in a part of the caves some 1.8 million years ago. There is a display of their early tools at the caves’ entrance. Take a guided tour of the caves and marvel at the amazing rock formations and look out for the 150 million-year-old stalactite/stalagmite column.
On a visit, you venture 600 metres/650 yards into the caves and travel 150 metres/180 yards underground. You won’t feel claustrophobic because the central chamber of the cavern is as big as a 500-seat concert hall.
If you fancy experiencing tribal culture in Mpumalanga, head to the village of Botshabelo (Place of Refuge) near the town of Middelburg, which has an excellent open-air museum providing an authentic look at the colourful Ndebele culture. The village houses Ndebele huts decorated with beautiful traditional paintings that are prevalent in this part of the world. The Botshabelo Historical Village preserves the customs and various art forms traditionally practiced by the Ndebele, particularly their women, including beadwork, murals, and the embroidering of blankets.
Midway between the Blyde River Canyon and the southern Kruger National Park, there is another notable cultural experience, the Shangana Cultural Village, where the residents invite guests to share in the way of life of the Shangaan people. A bustling African market village forms the centre of Shangana, where local craftspeople make and trade their craft. Guides will take visitors down to the villages on tours.
The small town of Graskop is the gateway to the Panorama Route and a good place to use as a base. It is 14 kilometres/8 miles south east of Pilgrim’s Rest. It was set up in the 1880s as a gold mining camp but now serves as a tourist centre. The name is Afrikaans for “grassy peak.” God’s Window is located just outside the town.
Nelspruit is the capital of Mpumalanga and the commercial and administrative hub. The streets of this large, modern town are lined with jacaranda trees and the impeccably-tended suburban gardens abound with flowering subtropical plants and shrubs. Nelspruit is a convenient stopover on your South Africa vacation, and several days can be profitably spent exploring the surrounding countryside.