Four hours’ drive east of Johannesburg International Airport is one of the city’s favoured mountain retreats: the waving grasslands and luxury guesthouses of the Mpumalanga Drakensberg, generally known as the Escarpment. While most travellers visit the region purely because of its proximity to the Kruger National Park, it provides some of the most dramatic views in the country, which can be enjoyed with little effort, even if you are simply passing through en route to Kruger. This tour of these highlands, known as the Panorama Route, can also be taken as an organized day-trip by numerous tour operators in Nelspruit. The main draw of the Escarpment is the Blyde River Canyon, whose dizzying views into one of the world’s great gorges appear in countless South African tourist brochures. In addition to a number of viewpoints along the Escarpment lip, the canyon has hiking trails which give access to the flora and (if you’re quiet and lucky) fauna of the reserve, including zebra, hippo, kudu and numerous primates – baboons, vervet and samango monkeys and bushbabies.
More about South Africa
Find out more
Blyde River Canyon
Blyde River Canyon
There are few places in South Africa where you can enjoy such easily accessible and dramatic scenery as that of the colossal Blyde River Canyon, weathered out of strata of red rock and dropping sharply away from the Escarpment into the lowveld. The Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve (also known as Blyderivierspoort Nature Reserve) stretches from a narrow tail near Graskop in the south, and broadens into a great amphitheatre partially flooded by the Blydepoort Dam about 60km to the north.
The drive along the canyon lip
The views of the canyon are wonderful from both above and below, but the nicest way to take in the vistas is on an easy half-day’s drive along the canyon lip. Some 3km north of Graskop, the R534 does a 15km loop past a series of superb viewpoints. The road winds through pine plantations until it comes to the turn-off to the Pinnacle, a gigantic quartzite column topped with trees, rising out of a ferny gorge. After another 4km the road reaches the sheer drop and lowveld views of God’s Window, one of the most famous of the viewpoints; it’s also one of the most developed, with toilets and curio stalls. The looping road returns to rejoin the R532, which continues north for 28km beyond the turn-off to reach Bourke’s Luck Potholes at the confluence of the Treur and Blyde rivers – a collection of strange, smoothly scooped formations carved into the rocks by water-driven pebbles. The best view of all lies 14km beyond, at the Three Rondavels. The name describes only one small feature of this cinemascope vista: three cylinders in the shape of huts with the meandering Blyde River twisting its way hundreds of metres below. No photograph does justice to the sheer enormity of the view, punctuated by one series of cliffs after another buttressing into the valley.
Three Rondavels to Blydepoort Dam
The 90km drive from the Three Rondavels viewpoint to the base of the canyon provides spectacular views of the Escarpment cliffs rising out of the lowveld and is easily incorporated into your itinerary if you’re heading to or from Kruger. The drive winds west to join with the R36 and heads north to begin its descent through the Abel Erasmus Pass and then the J.G. Strijdom Tunnel through the mountain, with the wide lowveld plains opening out on the other side. The road takes a wide arching trajectory to circumnavigate the canyon.