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The Panorama Route

Africa's best authentic tailor-made safaris

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The Panorama Route

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By Andre Van Kets

Co-founder, Discover Africa

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A popular add-on to Kruger National Park trips but also well worth exploring in its own right, the Panorama Route is a loose circuit of mostly natural attractions associated with the towering cliffs that divide the Highveld around Sabie and Graskop from the Lowveld of the Kruger Park and Mpumalanga’s provincial capital Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit).

A scenic and ecologically varied region, its defining feature is the Mpumalanga Escarpment, a geological extension of the Drakensberg that rises sharply from the coastal plain (below 500m/1,640ft) to several peaks that top the 2,000m (6,562ft) mark.
The Panorama Route Gods Window

The Panorama Route Gods WindowAlthough much of the region is given over to exotic plantations, significant tracts of indigenous forest remain, especially on steep cliffs, as do several areas of grassland studded with proteas and red-hot pokers. The region is notable historically as the site of South Africa’s earliest gold rush, which proved to be short-lived, as far richer seams of gold were discovered soon after in Johannesburg.

Highlights of The Panorama Route

169-hectare Lowveld National Botanical Garden

Well worth a stop if you pass through Mbombela, the 169-hectare Lowveld National Botanical Garden, set on the confluence of the Nels and Crocodile Rivers, is of equal interest to botanists and ornithologists.

The rainforest section protects a vast collection of prehistoric cycads. At the same time, a bird checklist of 250 species includes Purple-crested turaco, Half-collared kingfisher, and African finfoot, making it a perfect destination for bird lovers.

Mac-Mac Falls

The 65m (213ft) Mac-Mac Falls is named after a pair of Scottish prospectors who camped above it in the gold rush era. You can swim in the pool at the base of the falls or continue by car for 2km (1,24mi) to the start of a 4km (2,5mi) day trail to the little-visited Forest Falls.

Bourke’s Luck

Situated at the confluence of the Blyde (Joy) and Treur (Sorrow) rivers, the bizarre riverine formation known as Bourke’s Luck comprises a series of deep cylindrical potholes created entirely by water erosion and can be explored along a short network of paths and footbridges.

Blyde River Canyon

The 25km (16mi) long and 1.4km (4,593ft) deep red sandstone Blyde River Canyon, protected within a 270km2 (104 square mile) nature reserve, is one of the largest and most spectacular features of its type on Earth.

It offers much to keen walkers and wildlife lovers. The most rewarding of several day hikes is the Kadishi Trail, which leads through a lush indigenous evergreen forest (inhabited by Vervet and Blue monkeys) to an impressive stalactite-like Tufa waterfall.

Look out for localized and endemic birds such as Knysna turaco, Narina trogon, Southern bald ibis, Cape vulture, and Gurney’s sugarbird on a birding safari.
The Panorama Route_Blyde River Canyon

The Panorama Route_Blyde River CanyonOne of the most scenic spots in South Africa, the Three Rondavels viewpoint gazes across the vast Blyde River Canyon – the river itself a blue ribbon hundreds of meters below – to a striking trio of outcrops that recall traditional thatched rondavels (round houses).

Sudwala Caves

The dank, cool chambers of the Sudwala Caves support some incredible limestone drip formations. They can be explored on regular guided tours that lead about 500m (1,640ft) deep into the underground labyrinth.

Pilgrim’s Rest

Pilgrim’s Rest mushroomed into life in 1873 following the discovery of a large deposit of alluvial gold. The boomtown’s heyday was short-lived, but it was later restored as a living museum evoking the gold rush era.

Points of interest include the Anglican Church (built in 1884), the Methodist Church (1911), Catholic Church (1928), Old Police Station (1902), and the hilltop cemetery whose graves all point in the same direction, the one exception being an anonymous Robber’s Grave.

God’s Window

The finest of several viewpoints offering views along the R532, God’s Window provides a splendid view over the edge of the escarpment to the expansive Lowveld more than 1,000m (3,281ft) below. However, its impact depends on very clear weather.

Lisbon Falls

The tallest single-drop waterfall in the region, the twin-stream Lisbon Falls plunges over a 90m (295ft) stone amphitheater whose base is accessible via a steep footpath.

Travel Tips for The Panorama Route
  • The primary air gateway to Mpumalanga is Kruger-Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA), which stands about 25km (16mi) northeast of Mbombela off the R40 to White River. It is connected to Gauteng’s OR Tambo International Airport by several scheduled flights daily. There are also direct flights from Durban and Cape Town, and several car rental companies are represented there.
  • It may be more affordable for couples or families to rent a car out of Gauteng and drive, following the N4 east from Pretoria to Mbombela or the N12 from Johannesburg/OR Tambo to connect with the N4 at eMalahleni (formerly Witbank). The drive takes 3-5 hours, depending on your ultimate destination.
  • Self-drivers could visit most sites along the Panorama Route in one day, but two would be better. A good variety of hotels and lodges are available in Mbombela and smaller towns such as Hazyview, Sabie, and Graskop.

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