Head in the clouds – Panorama Route
In need of a break and a change of scenery, Ishay Govender-Ypma and her husband packed the car and headed for the Panorama Route on a simple quest: explore, unwind and recharge. For Getaway Magazine, May 2015.
It’s the gateway to Kruger, but the tumbling geography that plunges through The Klein Drakensberg escarpment and turns the highveld browns and yellows into fecund greens marks a part of South Africa that is anything but thoroughfare. Here, in the lowveld, roads swoop through verdant plantations, waterfalls splay like magnificent brides’ veils, thick forests reach for the heavens, cotton-candy clouds sink to the ground, and slow rivers carry wallowing hippos. Until recently, it eluded my reach…
With a week to spare and the desire to escape the arduous demands of work we set out from O.R Tambo airport in Johannesburg in a rented Nissan Qashqai. It’s a grand choice for a party of two, but we’d heard there may be floods and opted for something with tyres that could scurry through potholes and mud.
The N12 heading east out of Johannesburg is unseasonably barren, but wide and pleasant enough. Soon it becomes the N4 and after about three hours we stop for a refreshment break in Mpumalanga’s capital, Nelspruit, perched on the Crocodile River. Its neighbour, White River, whizzes by as we take in the dense banana and pineapple plantations and nebulous blue-green hills. The lowveld is moist and tropical, the vegetation abundant. The heat is thick.
From there we take the R40 north and head to Hazyview, our first base for a week of exploring. At Summerfields Rose Retreat and Spa, I gravitate towards the litchi orchards (it’s a working litchi and macadamia farm too); deep-pink globes cluster in bunches that sag to the ground. Soon, my hands are sticky with litchi juice and I’m cradling memories of my childhood. It takes the promise of lunch overlooking the Sabie River to pull me away. More pleasant surprises await: a private cabin and spa treatment along the river, and a pod of five lazy hippos, floating meters away. It takes some effort to get used to the sounds of the flowing river, garrulous in fact, as it tumbles past our cabin.
Well rested, we start the next day with a large agenda. The Panorama Route proper. From Hazyview we head west on the R535, merging into the R533, past the gentle slopes of Graskop to the gold rush town: Pilgrim’s Rest. In less than an hour we time travel back to the turn of the twentieth century, when many of the existing buildings were constructed. Pilgrim’s Rest was declared a gold field in 1873. Today it’s a quaint village frozen in time, saturated with nostalgia. You can even try your hand at panning for gold.
From Pilgrim’s Rest, we head back towards Graskop where we grab a pancake at Harrie’s Pancakes, something the town is famous for (they’re good, not great) and move on to Pinnacle Rock on the R534. A 30-metre buttress rock protrudes like a lonely skyscraper emerging from indigenous forests, and wonderful views of the Drakensberg escarpment lie beyond it.
God’s Window, which I’ve been anticipating for days, is about three kilometers away. After a steep 15-minute walk, we reach a 900-metre-high viewing point that stretches across the lowveld in all directions. A glaze of mist obscures the promised postcard-view, but the colours swirl: green, blue, grey, and the camera shutters click. It’s quiet and a cool breeze sends a tingle down my neck. Wonder View is just two kilometers away and we almost miss it. We stop, jump out the car and snap a pic of the grand view. We’re on a roll now. We bypass the Lisbon and Berlin Falls for another day and head to Bourke’s Luck Potholes on the R532.
We quash the searing heat with cold water and new cotton hats purchased at the visitor’s centre and walk along suspension bridges that circumnavigate the potholes. The smooth hollows, filled with dark brackish water, appear otherworldly, bizarre even. Named after Tom Bourke, a prospector who had no luck here (but others did), it heralds the start of the Blyde River Canyon. Children are splashing in the water, at the gentle fall around the back, and we regret not carrying a towel. We finish the day’s tour with a stop at Three Rondavels on the R532 – a trio of cylindrical rock formations 700 metres high resembling circular Zulu huts. We head back to Summerfields and reward our weary feet with pedicures.
The following day is reserved for a long and leisurely breakfast before a 42-kilometre pootle from Hazyview to Mac Mac Pools where we take a dip with local families. Someone mentions a nearby hike but it’s far too humid at midday to move. Nearby, at Mac Mac Falls, we’re reminded that Mpumalanga surely must be the African curio capital of South Africa: on every roadside and at every attraction, a vibrant range of beads, masks, carvings and fabric vie with each other for attention. The falls can only be viewed through a wire fence, so we don’t stay long and opt to head back to the hippos and litchis before turning in for the night.
The following day, after an outdoor bath to the thrum of the Sabie River (which we’re now used to), we hit the road and take the R40 north to Hoedspruit. The sky turns inky, and soon enough we’re driving through a storm. At Klaserie we turn right towards Kruger’s Orpen Gate and onto the gravelly Guernsey road. It’s quicksand-soft, and gloopy. We arrive at Phelwana Game Lodge, run by members of the same family who run the Timbavati Foundation and Bush School next door and stay put in our tent-for-two at the dam. The sound of the Sabie River is replaced by the hum-humming of cicadas and catfish wriggling. There’s a hippo snort too. Incessant rains keep us home-bound, and apart from a morning safari drive where we spot giraffes canoodling and buck grazing, we spend the time relaxing and re-booting. We read, lie in, and enjoy bubbly at noon. Neighbouring Kruger National Park would make for an outstanding day trip – but we save it for another time.
On our last day the rain breaks a little and there’s still one sight we want to explore: the Blyde River Canyon. But first we jump into the Qashqai, following lodge owner Pierre de Villiers in his bakkie. His family has been involved in game farms and conservation efforts in the lowveld for around 77 years. He guides us around flooded banks and seismic-sized muddy potholes. From Hoedspruit we make a solo journey to the canyon on the R527.
We access the Blyde Dam from the Swadini Forever Resort. The skies are clear and we stop first at a nondescript path and follow some stairs to the dam wall, and then to the official panoramic viewing point. The waters are glassy-still and rich emerald, offset by the surrounding ochre rock. A couple sits embracing on a bench beside us.
The seven days slip by and before we leave, we plan a return trip. While there is ample to see and do along the Panorama Route, it’s the profound sense of stillness we experienced – the opportunity to go off the grid in parts, to languish in nature and her spoils in relative peace (even during peak season) that makes this special part of Mpumalanga a route worth visiting … again and again.
NEED TO KNOW:
While you don’t need a SUV, in the rainy season along mud and dirt roads it becomes invaluable. Lodges warn about corrupt traffic police trying to exhort monies from drivers – they are correct. Never pay cash or try to negotiate. If it’s legit, you’ll get a bill posted. The skies turn hazy even in summer – try to pick a clear day to view the canyon.
Panorama Route Directory
Pinnacle Rock, God’s Window, Three Rondavels
These three stops are all a must. On a clear day the view from God’s Window stretches as far as neighbouring Mozambique. Entrance is R10 a person for each stop. mpumalanga.com
Bourkes Luck Potholes
Various vantage points and bridges look down on the surreal rock sculptures formed over centuries by flowing water. Pop into the visitor’s for information on how they were formed (there are also two short walking trails for those with time to spare). Entrance is R80. mpumalanga.com
Kloofing and hiking
10 kilometres from Sabie, the dramatic Mac Mac Falls is the starting point of several hiking trails that lead along the gorge away from the falls. For a wetter adventure there’s also kloofing in the gorge. sabiextreme.co.za
Panorama Route Tours
Visitors looking for an information-packed guided tour of the region can book a private day tour with Tours de Mornay. R850 per person (minimum two people). 082-927-4072, toursdemornay.com
Places to stay
Summerfields Rose Retreat and Spa
It’s pricey but there’s an outstanding spa on site and Summerfields Kitchen is the best restaurant in the area. Dinner, bed and breakfast from R 2745 per person per night. 013-737-6500; 087-231-0112. summerfields.co.za
Phelwana Game Lodge
There are various accommodation options at this lodge in Klaserie: self-catering chalets, bush chalets and luxury tents. Tents are from R500 per person per night and include all meals and activities. 015-793-2475, 071-659-9555, phelwana.co.za
There are many restaurants and supermarkets in Hazyview, Graskop and Hoedspruit. If you’re self-catering stop in and take home coffee from Sabie, macadamia nuts, litchis and fresh and dried mangoes in season.
For 18 years Harrie’s has been serving sweet and savoury pancakes in Graskop, it’s become an essential stop for visitors. Busloads of tourists arrive here, be warned. The pancakes are good, but not great. 013 -767 1273, harriespancakes.com
Pioneer’s Butcher & Grill
A popular steakhouse in Hazyview, loved by locals. It serves outstanding steaks and service is warm. 013- 737 7397, pioneersbutchergrill.co.za
This restaurant serves a bit of everything, so should please most appetites. It gets really busy over weekends, so do reserve a table. 015 – 793-1001, Raptor’s View Entrance, Hoedspruit