Gateway to the Kruger National Park and home to the quaint historical towns of Pilgrims Rest and Baberton, the natural wonders of the Blyde River Canyon.

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Blyde River Canyon

As one of the Top 10 Spots in South Africa and the topic of this years guide, we decided to take a drive to see what this area has to offer, and believe me we weren’t let down.  From the time we arrived in Mpumalanga until the time we left, we were astounded by the natural beauty of this area and found ourselves already planning our next trip.

We arrived in the Panorama Route area via Robbers Pass and made our way into Pilgrims Rest, a quaint historic village set on the hillside amongst the trees, where the streets are lined with tiny shops, museums, historical sites and coffee shops.  Pilgrims Rest is a historical monument and it offers visitors a glimpse back in time, to the early gold rush days.

 We left Pilgrims Rest and made our way to Graskop, which was to be our base for exploring the Blyde River Canyon.  The small town of Graskop is the perfect place to stay and it offers visitors to the area a wide variety of restaurants, tourist info centres and many shops selling locally made products.  Graskop also has all the usual necessities, like a spar, a bottle store, banks, petrol stations and a hardware store. 

The next morning we set off early, excited to see what lay ahead.  Our first stop was The Pinnacle, a tower of quartzite rising out of a deep wooded gorge with views over the Lowveld.   We were there relatively early in the morning and it made for a very scenic first stop with the mist rising out of the gorge.  A nice quick stop, just a taster of what was still to come, so off we went, next stop, Gods Window.

Mpumalanga Tourism have really gone out of their way to accommodate all the tourists that come here every year.  There are clean and neat toilet blocks at each stop, which is a blessing for all those with small bladders, as well as walkways and paths that have been made using what looks like the natural stone in the area.   Added to that there are thatched stands for the locals to sell their curios from.  The locals here are very friendly and helpful and visitors are able to browse through a myriad of handmade locally produced arts and crafts.  There are rubbish bins and ‘Keep Mpumalanga Clean’ signs everywhere and it seems to be working, as the whole area is free of litter.  All the routes and stops along the Canyon are all well sign-posted, so first-time visitors to the area would manage quite easily without a map.

Gods Window is a little further up the road from The Pinnacle and it really does offer fantastic views over the Mpumalanga Lowveld.  There are various viewpoints, each one with a different view of the Lowveld and if you follow the pathway right to the top it leads you into a rain forest, which is well worth the trek up the hill.  The difference in temperature and plant life is almost immediate as you enter the rain forest.  There are tiny birds that live here and some unusual trees and plants that seem to grow from the rocks.  I really enjoyed the cool air, the quietness and the fresh smell of this beautiful tiny rain forest.

 The next stop is a little further on, Wonder View.  Another beautiful view site where you can sit and relax and enjoy a truly spectacular view over Mpumalanga and on a crisp clear day I am sure that you can see forever.  I bought a hat here that was hand made out of plastic packets, sounds strange but the hats come in every colour under the sun, are lightweight, keep the sun off your face at a cost of only R25.

This part of Mpumalanga is renowned for its waterfalls and we visited the Berlin Falls and Lisbon Falls, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were really close to where you park your car.  I am not one for hiking miles and miles to see some water flow over a cliff, and once again it was worth the stop.
Both the falls are very beautiful and at Lisbon Falls we discovered that if you go down to the right, there is a natural rock platform that gives you a totally unique view of the falls, almost as though you were behind the falls.  I would have liked to visit more of these waterfalls, but as time was not on our side, we had to move on.  Other waterfalls in the area worth visiting are Bridal Veil, Horseshoe, Lone Creek and Panorama Falls. The best-known waterfall in the area is the Mac Mac Falls, which is over 56m high.

 Bourke’s Luck Potholes forms part of the Blyde Canyon Nature Reserve and was the last stop for the day.  It’s the only place along the Canyon where you have to pay to go in and at R22 per person it’s worth every cent.  These magnificent potholes were formed millions of years ago by swirling water erosion, created at the confluence of the Blyde and Treur rivers.  The cylindrical sculptures have a unique red and yellow colouring, with the water below a strange green colour.  The natural stone pathway leads you down a trail to the potholes, and arched walkways that criss-cross over the gorge offer perfect viewpoints and it’s worth spending a while relaxing next to the cascading waterfalls or enjoying a picnic under the trees.  This was definitely my favourite stop; it’s so interesting and beautiful here that I would have sat here all day if I could have.    

 We left early the next morning to take advantage of the beautiful sunrise over the Canyon.  The scenery from the Lowveld view site is amazing and you have a spectacular view over the whole Canyon.  It’s astoundingly beautiful and a lot bigger than I expected. 

The Blyde Canyon Nature Reserve covers over 56 000 acres of deep ravines, plunging waterfalls and towering sandstone cliffs that rise over 800m from the riverbed, as well as a vast array of plants and trees unique to this area.  The reserve abounds with birds and wildlife, including the crocodile, hippo, giraffe and the elusive Taita falcon, which is only found in a few places around the world.  

Our next stop was the Three Rondawels and the viewpoint from here gives you a closer view over the Canyon and the Blydepoort Dam, which marks the end of the Blyde Canyon Nature Reserve.  These three perfectly shaped rock spirals are on the far side of the Canyon.  Aptly named for their shape, the red sandstone walls are capped with a green ‘roof’ of grass.

We started making our way down to the dam via the Abel Erasmus Pass, through the Strydom Tunnel.  The drive down to Swadini is very scenic, you get to see the Canyon from the other side.  Once you reach the bottom and look back up you realise just how high these mountains are.  Along the route we saw waterfalls, baboons, birds and more birds and red sandstone cliffs that protrude at obscure angles from the ground.  You can almost picture how this area was formed all those millions of years ago just by looking at the rocks and how they lie, it’s really breathtaking.

 Eventually we arrived at Swadini.  We made our way down to where we were to catch the boat for a guided trip around the dam.  Our tour guide was well informed on the area and he pointed out various birds and plants, giving us some really interesting facts about the dam.  Built in 1974, 52 meters at its deepest, has a surface area of 263ha etc etc, but the most interesting thing had to be the Kadishi Tufa Falls.  These amazing waterfalls actually build-up ground and do not erode like other waterfalls.  This one is one of the largest tufa falls in the world.  The word tufa actually means ‘a porous limestone formed from calcium carbonate deposited by springs or the like’.

The hour and a half trip was well worth the R70.00 per person as we saw some pretty amazing sights, like the tufa falls, a huge cave, crocodile and hippo, birds and rare plants.  The scenery from the bottom of the Canyon, looking up, makes you feel really small and insignificant, compared to the grandeur of this place.  The Blyde River Canyon is the third largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon in the USA and the Fish Eagle Canyon in Namibia.  It’s also the largest green canyon in the world. 

I think it’s great that we as South African’s have this spectacular spot right here on our doorstep and the whole area has so much to offer.  No need to fly off to far away exotic destinations around the world, when we are blessed with so much natural beauty, right here in our homeland.  I confidently recommend the Blyde River Canyon to anyone looking for a unique South African destination and we found ourselves constantly saying that coming here was worth it, absolutely worth it!

Compiled by Holley Bromehead - Caravan