The world-famous Kruger National Park is South Africa’s largest game reserve and one of the finest wildlife sanctuaries on the planet. The Kruger has nearly two million hectares of unfenced wilderness, in which more mammal species roam free than in any other game reserve.
The Panorama Route is a scenic road in South Africa connecting several cultural and natural points of interest. The route, steeped in the history of South Africa, is in Mpumalanga province, centred around the Blyde River Canyon, the world's third largest canyon.
I had read about the Panorama Route before we travelled to South Africa so I had planned we spend a couple of nights in Graskop so we could explore it.
The Panorama Route is a 160 km stretch of road that is surrounded by the Drakensberg mountains. It’s one of the most scenic drives in the world, with incredible key points of interest dotted along the way. The backdrop to most of the spectacular views along the Panorama Route is the spectacular Blyde River Canyon which is thought to be the third-largest canyon in the world. Measuring 25 kilometres (16 miles) in length and averaging around 750 metres (2,460 feet) in depth.
The weather was decent as we left Graskop but by the time we reached our first destinations, God’s Window and the Pinnacle, the clouds had gathered on top of the escarpment and there was nothing to see. So, we continued our journey up towards Bourke’s Potholes.
By the time we reached Bourke’s Potholes, the skies had cleared, and it had become a warm and sunny morning. Like all the other sights along the Panorama Route, there is an entry fee. There is no general pass.
Bourke’s Potholes are the result of decades of swirling eddies of water where the Treur River meets the Blyde River, the tumult of which has caused extensive water erosion over time. The result is a series of cylindrical rock sculptures that look as though they would be more comfortable on the moon. The Potholes were named after a gold digger, Tom Burke, who staked a claim nearby. Although his claim did not produce a single ounce of gold, he correctly predicted that large gold deposits would be found in the area.
A series of boardwalks have been set up, so you easily access the narrow canyons and see the swirling waters below. We were visiting towards the end of the winter, the dry season, so the water flow was not at its highest, but it is a good time to see the ‘potholes’ themselves. Some of the boardwalks become bridges that pass above the river canyon, which would not be great if you suffered from vertigo. The trail is about 700m in total, so it only took us about 30 minutes or so with plenty of stops to admire the views and takes photographs.
BLYDE RIVER CANYON
From Bourke’s Potholes we continued along the Panorama Route to a viewpoint of the Blyde River Canyon. The skies were now completely clear, so we had perfect views along and across the canyon, and to the land beyond. It was amazing. From the car park, there were several short trails to take to give different perspectives of the valley.
THE THREE RONDAVELS
Not too far from these viewpoints is another of the Route’s famed sites, the Three Rondavels. The trio of portly peaks are shaped like traditional beehive huts, with gently sloping walls and domed summits. Also known as the Three Sisters, they serve as reminders of the native hut housing structures called rondavels. Things were starting to get a little crowded around these spots along the Panorama Route, but we found our parking spot and made our way along the trail to the viewpoints. The Three Rondavels form a part of a spectacular landscape and are at a spot where the Blyde Canyon is reaching its widest point. For me, it was not the Three Rondavel that was the highlight here, but the oxbow created by the Blyde River.
At this point, we had a decision to make. Carry on around the rest of the Panorama Route loop or head back the God’s Window and Pinnacle, which had been covered with cloud earlier in the day, and hope things had cleared up. We chose the latter.
Luckily, by the time we got back to God’s Window, the clouds were gone. On the edge of a cliff face that drops over 700m to the ground below, God’s Window offers spectacular views from the edge of the Great Escarpment (Drakensberg) across the Kruger National Park to the distant Lebombo Mountains on the border with Mozambique. It was spectacular but not as interesting as the viewpoints further along the Blyde River Canyon.
We’d covered all the scenic spots we’d been interested in along the Panorama Route. There were some waterfalls but we decided to skip those as the weather had been dry for months so the water flow would be low so they would not be at their most spectacular. Instead, we thought we’d head to the small town of Pilgrim’s Rest.
Pilgrim’s Rest is a small town with a very colourful and exciting history. In 1873 the town and surrounding area were densely populated with prospectors all hoping to make their fortunes in the second of the Transvaal gold fields. It was estimated that at the beginning of 1874, there were some 1500 prospectors working around 4000 claims. Eventually, the prospectors moved out and the mining companies moved in with their equipment that could go deeper. The Pilgrim’s Rest mines had their most productive years in 1913/14.
Today the town is a tourist location that takes visitors back in time to the days of the gold rush in the 1870s. When it first became a tourist attraction in 1970 it was changed very little from its heyday and is now a protected historical site. In 1986 the town was declared a National Monument.
It is about 17km from Graskop to Pilgrim’s Rest along the R533, and the road has some steep ascents and sharp, winding curves. If you get stuck behind a truck as we did it can be a long and painful journey. But it is worth the journey to step back in time to the gold rush of the 1870s.
The town is small and divided into an upper and lower part that are about 500m apart. The whole place is a museum with most of the buildings being original. There are also reminders of the town’s mining history scattered around. Everything nowadays is oriented towards tourists so there are guesthouses, bars, restaurants and boutique shops.
We enjoyed just walking around the streets and popping into the shops. There were plenty of things to tempt you, even if you didn’t think you were hungry. We ended up sitting down and having a milk tart wrapped in a pancake. So good!
After about 90 minutes of exploring and eating, we left Pilgrim’s Rest and headed back to Graskop.
Planning your visit to The Panorama Route
Best time to visit Panorama Route
The Panorama Route is situated in Mpumalanga and is perfect for chasing waterfalls. So, if you want to see them in full flow, then make sure to visit them right after the rain season. The rain season is during summer (December to February), so make your way to the Panorama Route during the months of March to May.
Where to stay
A PILGRIMS REST
The Guesthouse is lovingly furnished in a true British Colonial style, reminding one of the late 1800’s gold digging era which is so true to this area. The house has five rooms and offers accommodation up to a maximum of 12 guests.
There is a lovely lounge with a fireplace accessible to all guests and a true farm-style kitchen where breakfast is prepared. At the back of the house is a spacious garden where guests are welcome to relax.
All rooms are en-suite. There are three Deluxe Double Rooms, one Family Room (sleeps four guests) and one Deluxe Twin Room. The bathrooms are also decorated true to the era with some featuring antique baths with ‘over-bath’ showers.
The Twin Room features a big walk-in shower. All rooms are fitted with full air conditioning with heating during winter and cooling during summer. For cold nights most beds also feature electric blankets.
ZUR ALTEN MINE
This guest farm is situated on the outskirts of Graskop and overlooking the eastern Mpumalanga escarpment you will find our Guest farm. The name “Zur Alten Mine” is German and means “to the old mine” because the property was a former gold claim.
On offer is guest self-catering or bed & breakfast accommodation in a peaceful environment surrounded by forests, excellent for nature lovers and bird watchers.
The chalets are tastefully decorated with all the day to day amenities to ensure all aspects of your comfort. The 5 chalets / cottages are fully equipped for self- catering with fireplace, private veranda or garden, braai facility and en-suite bathroom (shower). In addition we offer a traditional German breakfast (continental) on request in our comfortable breakfast room.
The Guest farm consists of two beautiful wooden chalets both sleeping up to three people with one bedroom (two single beds) and an extra bed in the lounge. These chalets have a fully equipped kitchen with refrigerator, mini-stove-oven combination, water cooker, toaster, plunger, crockery, cutlery and cookware. The chalets overlook a small dam with a spectacular view to Gods window adding to the tranquillity of our Guest farm.
WESTLODGE AT GRASKOP B&B
Westlodge” is an architecturally designed, beautifully appointed, Victorian style home situated in the afforested, tranquil surroundings of the village of Graskop in Mpumalanga, South Africa.
“Westlodge” is designed to offer bed and breakfast facilities to discerning travellers and for those seeking above average accommodation in five stylish en-suite bedrooms.
Four of the bedrooms have satellite TV; hospitality trays with rusks/biscuits and a selection of beverages and refreshments on request.
The rooms also have oil fired heaters with fans in the two first floor bedrooms for the rare occasions when they are needed. Situated at an elevation of 1 400m above sea-level, we have a very mild climate with a constant cool breeze coming to us from the escarpment a mere 750m away
All the rooms have white 100% cotton Percale linen on the beds; white towells with pure silk duvets in our Garden (Fleur-de-Lis) suites.
Where to eat
THE GARDEN SHED
The landlady of the guest house we were staying at recommended the Garden Shed to us. The restaurant is located right in the heart of Graskop, and as we were staying in the town we could easily and safely walk there.
It was very busy when we got there, and apparently that it always the case in the evenings. So, it is worth booking if you can as it is small and can fill up very quickly.
The atmosphere was excellent and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time.
The food is mainly meat based as is the case for many restaurants in South Africa, which did not work so well for us vegetarian. But they did have a pizzas oven, so we had a very tasty cheese pizza.
THE GLASS HOUSE
The Glass House restaurant was also highly recommended by landlady of the guest house. It is just down the road from the Garden Shed, and it is also very popular, so booking ahead, especially the weekends, is required.
It is a family run business and the owner and his children are very attentive, so the service is excellent. In terms of atmosphere we preferred the Garden Shed which was more homely, but I can see that many people might enjoy the more formal surroundings of the Glass House.
DIVINE ME EATERYWhen we first arrived in Graskop were hungry and looking for somewhere to eat. The Divine ME Eatery is across the road from Abe’s Glass House restaurant. Its bright pink paint job make it hard to miss. The inside decor is just as bold and quirky.
Divine ME does breakfast, brunch and lunch, and serves an extremely eclectic menu. They advertised vegan food, which immediately caught our eye. It was late in the afternoon, and they were closing, but we only wanted something light to carry us over until dinner time. We ordered some vegan soup and a drink. The soup turned out to be surprisingly good.