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As can be correctly inferred from the name, the Panorama Route is an especially picturesque stretch of road located in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province. Although most commonly tacked onto the main activity of safaris in nearby Kruger National Park, a self-driving Panorama Route tour, including the immense Blyde River Canyon, can make for a rewarding one-day excursion in its own right. For those with more time, there are enough lesser-visited sites and curious historic towns to make it worthwhile lingering in the area for up to three or four days.
|Start/end location:||Graskop to the Echo Caves. A longer version could start at Sabie or even Lydenburg.|
|Length of time:||To simply drive from Graskop to the Echo Caves would take around an hour and ten minutes. A whistle-stop tour taking in the major sites could be done in half a day – but at a more leisurely pace, one whole day would be ideal. For those hoping to explore the region and visit less frequented sites, there are enough attractions to fill several days.|
|Best time to go:||June to November. This time, during the South African winter, the skies are the clearest and the landscape is at its photogenic best.|
Although there is no ‘official’ or ‘standard’ Panorama Route tour and most guided tours involve a half-day visit as part of a stay at the Kruger National Park, a one-day self-drive version covering only the route could be as follows:
- Start at Graskop. The town was originally founded as a gold mining camp but is now mainly tourist-oriented. It is a common starting point for a drive along the Panorama Route and is also famous for its many excellent pancake restaurants.
- Drive to Pinnacle Rock, 5km from Graskop, is a lone 30m column of quartzite rising vertically from the forest below. This is a common stop on the Route, if only to snap quick shot of this lone tower of rock before moving on.
- Drive to God’s Window, 5km from Pinnacle Rock, is a viewpoint with particularly stunning vistas, as may be guessed from the name. From here, it is sometimes possible to see as far as the Mozambique border. Almost everyone on the Route stops here, and you don’t want to be the only one to miss it.
- Drive to Lisbon Falls, 10km from God’s Window, is a 95 meter triple waterfall, the highest in the province. This is one of the most dramatic of the many waterfalls along the Route. A small fee will give you access to the falls. You can either view it from the two viewing platforms or choose for a hike to its base.
- Drive to Berlin Falls is 6km from Lisbon Falls. An 80-metre waterfall, the Berlin Falls tumbles precipitously over the cliff, falling directly into the dark green water below, and can be observed from a viewing platform.
- Another 12km drive will bring you to Bourke’s Luck Potholes. Located at the start of the Blyde River Canyon, it is one of the major highlights of the Route. Formed by the action of water erosion over millennia, these strange cylindrical geological formations and the copper-coloured river running below can be viewed from several bridges constructed above. They are found at the confluence of the Blyde and Treur rivers and are named after Tom Bourke, a local gold prospector.
- Drive to Lowveld Viewpoint, 46km from the last destination. It is a spot with some good views of the landscape. This makes for a good place to stop and admire the scenery while listening to the noise of the river flowing below. The Three Rondavels are also visible from here.
- Drive 8km to the Three Rondavels. Perhaps one of the most impressive views on the whole Route, the attraction is a trio of distinctive rock formations which bear a strong resemblance to a kind of southern African building known as a rondavel. Beyond, the Blyde River Canyon stretches out in its full breath-taking splendour.
- Drive 31km to the Echo Caves. A cave system whose stalactite formation produces a peculiar echo that travels a great distance, the echo caves, were discovered in 1920 and are some of the oldest in the world. The largest chamber is 60 metres high.
A suggested two-day alternative might start at Lydenburg. After a first stop at Sabie, this itinerary continues on to Pilgrim’s Rest, taking in the Mac Mac Pools and the Mac Mac Falls on the way. After spending the night at Pilgrim’s Rest, the next stop is Graskop, and from there, the itinerary follows the one-day tour as outlined above.
For those with more time who want to explore the region in more depth, there are plenty of other attractions that could fill three or even more days. Branching off the main route, there are several other waterfalls to seek out and there is the possibility for good hiking near Bourke’s Luck Potholes. There are also several historic towns in the vicinity that can be attractive options for overnighting.
Pilgrim’s Rest, a goldrush town that seems proudly stuck in the past, is located near Graskop at the start of the Route and offers visitors the chance to try their hand at panning for gold. Sabie is a pretty, tourist-centred town that was formerly used as a base by big game hunters due to its high altitude and malaria-free status. Hazyview, to the east of the main route, is primarily known due to its close proximity to one of the gates to the Kruger National Park as well as its famous elephant sanctuary.
A half-day guided tour is often included with safaris in the Kruger National Park. To drive the Route independently, it is easy to hire a car locally. The Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport near the provincial capital of Nelspruit has several car rental desks. From there, it is only about a 100-kilometre drive to the town of Lydenburg. The roads on the Route are well maintained and there is no need for a 4x4.
- Former Pilgrim’s Rest resident and shopkeeper, Sir James Percy Fitzpatrick, wrote a well-known true-life account of his adventures along the Panorama Route, accompanied by his Staffordshire bull terrier, during the 1880s, entitled Jock of the Bushveld. You might want to give it a read if you want to follow his footsteps.
- The Panorama Route is a popular tourist destination and is generally considered safe to travel — although caution should be exercised as ever when travelling independently in South Africa.
- Most if not all the towns in the area are very tourist friendly and there should be no problem finding wi-fi access —although some towns have no ATMs.
A safari in the world-renowned Kruger National Park is the highlight of any trip to South Africa. While at the park many take a short trip out to some of the key sites along the Route almost as an afterthought. However, for those with a little extra time who choose to hire a car for a few days, a more extensive exploration of the Panorama Route in Mpumalanga offers the chance to discover something of the region’s history, to catch sight of the province’s diverse wildlife and, of course, to see some of the spectacular views and geographical features for which the Route is named.