South Africa’s Scenic Panorama Route
The second leg of our South Africa tour was travelling from Johannesburg to Graskop near Kruger National Park, in total 250 miles – that’s 5 hours without stopping. But you’ll want to break it up and make various stops along the way because this region of South Africa has impressive scenery which makes it a classic road trip. It’s called the ‘Panorama Route’ and winds its way through some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes in the Mpumalanga province. There are various scenic viewing points over the dramatic Northern Drakensberg mountain range – the highest and longest mountain range in South Africa. The Panoramic Route also boasts the largest number of waterfalls in South Africa.
We were part of a small group tour, so our guide and driver took care of all the driving but we thought it would be pretty easy if you were doing it yourself, especially if you’re from the UK because you drive on the left. Roads on the route are good quality with the odd pothole closer to Graskop.
Our surprise first glimpse of wildlife in South Africa was at our first stop – a Total petrol service station! We saw our first ostrich and deer with straight antlers. We noticed some service stations are quite old fashioned and have service attendants to fill up your car. Another thing we noticed at service stations and pretty much everywhere was Nando’s restaurants just like the UK. That’s because Nando’s is a South African brand and their first restaurant was opened in Johannesburg, we always thought it was Portuguese!
Back on the road and we passed farmers in their fields looking after their citrus trees and lots of people on the sides of roads selling oranges and macadamia nuts, we past loads of macadamia trees along the route.
We also drove past some huge battery chicken farms and dozens of termite hills in the fields on sides of roads, some of them the size of cars!
Dullstroom for pancakes
Before we reached our first beauty spots on the Panorama Route it was time for lunch at Dullstroom. A picturesque little town, where we ate delicious savoury pancakes at Harrie’s Pancakes – an institution in this area. Our guide said they are the best pancakes we’d ever eat, we thought they were good but not amazing, the best ones we ever had were in Amsterdam. You’ll notice Dutch references everywhere on the Panorama Route, especially on place names – references to the past when South Africa used to be a Dutch colony. We also noticed plenty of British names too as we drove through towns like Belfast.
Blyde River Canyon
The highlight of the Panorama Route is easily Blyde River Canyon – this is Africa’s Grand Canyon. It sits on the Mpumalanga Escarpment and is third largest canyon in the world – 16 miles long and around 750 metres deep and leading to a dam at the bottom. Unlike America’s Grand Canyon this is very different because this is a green canyon, the valleys are covered with a lush forest – indigenous bush home to loads of wildlife including baboons and leopards. The Dam and parts of the river are home to hippopotamus and crocodiles.
The view is incredible and breathtaking, it’s one of those awe-inspiring views that’s hard to take in the magnitude and scale, the light was pretty nice too with the sun low.
We stopped off at the designated Three Rondavels Viewpoint where the vertigo inducing cliff edges will make you dizzy like it did us, so we took lots of careful small steps!
The Three Rondavels
The biggest landmark in the canyon are The Three Rondavels, 3 conical shaped mountains named after rondavels – traditional round African thatched roof huts. They also have names, supposedly after a local chief’s (Maripi Mashile) wives – Magabolle, Mogoladikwe and Maseroto.
The viewpoint is a minimal walk from the car park and if you want souvenirs then there are loads of stalls here to choose from. The sellers didn’t hassle us either unlike in Johannesburg.
It’s interesting every natural attraction on the Panorama Route has a fee attached to it – fair enough if the facilities like the loos are good, but be warned they’re not! Expect to see lots of tourists at each site, as the Panorama Route route is popular.
From the canyon it was a 1 hour drive to God’s Window, getting there you pass miles and miles of man made forests, there’s a huge timber industry in this area.
The view from God’s Window is another epic one. The viewpoint sits at the top of the gorge and is incredibly high at 900 metres with panoramic views. The view looks across the wide open plateaus of the lush lowveld as far as your eye can see. On a clear day you can see across Kruger National Park all the way to Mozambique – 125 miles away. What’s lovely is that the view looks like something from millions of years ago – it’s completely unspoilt and untouched by humans, not a town in sight.
Lowveld is name given to these wide open rural landscapes found in Southern Africa. They have a subtropical climate, and are low-lying about 500 metres above sea level. The lowveld seen from God’s Window is packed full of wild animals.
There’s lots of exotic plants here and loads of aloe vera, but sadly all had been ravaged by recent fires.
It’s a lovely beauty spot with nice easy walks at the top. We were lucky with the weather here visiting in September as it can get foggy and overcast because of it’s location in a mist belt.
Overnight in Graskop
We then drove on to our final destination – Graskop. An old gold mining town, now home to workers of the timber industry and a hub for tourists because of its proximity to Kruger National Park. Other nearby towns that are popular with people driving the Panorama Route are Hazyview and Sabie.
At the hotel we drank our first ever glass of creamy Amarula, South Africa’s version of Baileys, lovely! we got excited talking about going on our first ever African safari the following day.
Other Panorama Route Sights
- Lisbon Falls – The most dramatic and highest at 94 metres.
- Bridal Falls, Berlin Falls, Mac Mac Falls – are the next most popular
- Bourke’s Luck Potholes – unique geological rock sculptures and potholes.
- Pinnacle Rock – a 30 metre skyscraper rock in the middle of a forest
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Panorama Route Tips
- Tip #1: Hikers and twitchers should spend a few days doing the route – there’s loads of trails.
- Tip #2: Take a wide angle lens or use the panoramic feature on your smartphone.
- Tip #3: Try eating ‘biltong’ a dried cured meat – lots of places on Panorama Route sell it.
- Tip #4: We covered ourselves in mosquito repellent – just in case! as we spotted quite a few.
- Tip #5: You’ll need cash to pay entrance fees to viewing sites and waterfalls.