Prefer scenic and sedate escapes or adventurous, adrenaline-filled capers? South Africa’s most scenic route caters for both leisurely and ballsy road trippers. Buckle up for a epic road trip.
‘I love hiking in the afternoon. It’s the perfect way to get rid of the day’, said my companion Phillicity Flischman, owner of Lisbon Hideaway. Well, I’d had one helluva a day and although an afternoon hike wasn’t high on my to-do list, the sunset over Lisbon Falls quickly rejuvenated my energy stores. The iconic Panorama Route in Mpumalanga had proved as picturesque as expected. Waterfalls spouted from almost every cliff face and secret swimming pools were tucked into forested ravines. But I knew it was more than just pretty. It was a daredevil’s delight.
It was day three of my road trip and I’d decided to supplement the area’s scenic splendour with an injection of adrenaline. Kestell Barnard of Kestell Adventures has been working the adventure scene as a guide for over ten years and is based in Sabie. I was initially tempted by his canyoning activity (the opportunity to clamber up the Mac-Mac Falls rather than gaze down on it from the viewpoint), but decided that would be a much happier undertaking in summer weather. Instead, we went down the Sabie River – by gecko, a one-man inflatable raft with much-needed handles.
I met Kestell at his headquarters in Sabie and we hit the road. ‘This drive to Hazyview has 66 turns, so it’s popular with bikers’, he said before turning down a private plantation road. ‘Perfect for road tripping too,’ I thought. At the end of a 4X4 dirt truck, Kestell stopped the car at the edge of a tame-looking stream (what’s that saying they have about assumptions?)
I donned the wetsuit, strapped on my tackies and plunged into the water. Kestell has permits to operate on this ‘rougher, much more exciting strip of the Sabie called the U2 section’. As he explained, ‘There’s an optional eight-metre high river jump involved and some fun rapids... whenever you veer towards a big boulder in the river, just lean towards it; hug the rock. That way, you’re less likely to fall out.’
It was rougher than expected and boy, did I fall out, and at all the wrong places. I got sucked down into the boiling water and unceremoniously spat out again – to be expected, I suppose, from rapids with names like ‘Hell’s Gate’ and ‘Pinball Machine’. Luckily, there were more leisurely stretches of river where I managed to recollect myself. Overall, I’ve never had more fun in a three-kilometre stretch of river.
This was a trip for new adventures and in the name of trying Mpumalanga’s most exciting undertakings, my road trip had begun back in ‘The Devil’s Office’. I was joined by my friend and Lowveld local, Mia Louw, who told me that Kaapsehoop was once known as die Duiwel’s Kantoor. It’s not technically on the Panorama Route, but surely an appropriate start for a daredevil’s journey? A land where wild horses roam free.
From Kaapsehoop, it was an easy drive north towards the next stop, Sabie and Kestell Adventures. Bypassing the busier Mbombela road, I doubled back to Ngodwana and the N4, choosing to drive via Sudwala Caves instead. Following Kaapsehoop’s switchbacks and the riverine excitement on Sabie’s rapids, I then wound my way up Long Tom Pass to Misty Mountain, where another European invention waited on the hillside.
As I clicked in the seat belt, I learnt that the Long Tom Toboggan could reach speeds of up to 45 kilometres per hour. Like Kestell’s rock-hugging philosophy, I was also told that I should lean into the twists of the steel railing, like you would on a motorbike. Only mildly terrified (having tackled grade three rapids, my bravado was pretty high), I pushed off. All brakes were up and I hurtled down the slope at an alarming rate. It was another bumpy ride, but as I slowed to the end of the 1,7-kilometre track the exhilaration of it smeared a grin across my mug.
Ready for something more dignified, the following morning I made my way to Pilgrim’s Rest for a tour of one of the mining town’s lesser-known museums. Most of the homes in Pilgrim’s Rest were ordered via catalogue, delivered and then assembled Ikea-style. Alanglade House, which belonged to the mine manager 100 years ago, was an exception and is more a magnificent manor than a mere home. It is now decorated using vintage pieces from 1915 to 1950 and is also used in the spooky Ghostie Tours. My guide, Sharon Green, took me through each room to explain the history of the home and the area.
The entire town of Pilgrim’s Rest is a museum – one of only two museum towns in the country. ‘Pilgrim’s was the second town in South Africa to get electricity – before the queen!’ Alanglade was designed in the style used by Sir Herbert Baker, ‘but the toilets give it away,’ Sharon said. ‘Baker believed in much smaller, practical bathrooms. Many younger architects copied his buildings.’
The road back to the main street required dodging skills, and Sharon joked, ‘The number plate “MP” stands for “massive potholes”. Friends of mine lost two tyres on Robber’s Pass while driving the Lydenburg road.’ I suspected the ‘m’ stood for a more descriptive Afrikaans replacement.
Just a short hop away from Pilgrim’s Rest, Graskop is surrounded by an array of natural splendour – Berlin Falls, God’s Window, the Pinnacle Rock, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, the Three Rondavels, and closest to town, Lisbon Falls.
Phillicity and Ian Mashego kindly took me on a trail to Lisbon Falls and showed me the route to the bottom. Phillicity used to hike here with her parents. ‘This was my mom’s favourite. We would pack a picnic and come down for Sunday lunch.’ But for Ian and I,
it was our first time at the bottom of the gorge. He agreed with me: ‘It’s much more beautiful. Everyone just comes here to see the top!’ We took pictures posing carefully on the slippery rocks and revelled in the spray. Proving that even for sedate activities, there are always new ways to see Mpumalanga’s famous Panorama Route.
How to plan A trip to the Panorama Route
Day 1: Gauteng to Kaapsehoop
DISTANCE 340km ALLOW 7 hours
Take the N4 to Mbombela and turn right, off towards Ngodwana, and drive the remaining 15km to Kaapsehoop. Start with breakfast at Salvador Mainstreet Bistro. A popular local hang-out, food is reasonable (I got breakfast for R38) and the sunny outdoor seating welcoming. Small dogs are allowed too. Afterwards, drive to the nearby Saddle Up Eatery at Kaapsehoop Horse Trails for lunch with forest views. (it’s just 7km out of town on the road to Mbombela). Hop onto one of their steeds for an afternoon ride to the escarpment edge. Finish the day with dinner from Miz Gooz Berry at her B&B for the night, The Nest, which overlooks the Berlin Plantation on the outskirts of town. This homely B&B is decorated in pastel florals, French country style. Cottages are cosy with heaters, and filter coffee, milk, rusks, salt and pepper plus more are provided. If you’re a foodie, book dinner with her in advance.
Day 2: Kaapsehoop to Misty Mountain
DISTANCE 120km ALLOW 8 hours
After breakfast at The Nest, take the road back to the N4 via Ngodwana and turn left on the R539 towards Sudwala Caves. Then, left again onto the R37 passing through Hendriksdal. At the T-junction, turn right to Sabie and Kestell Adventures headquarters where you’ll set off for tubing. If you still want secret swimming pools and fun bum slides, but the choice to dunk yourself, book the two- and-a-half-hour Forest Cruise and enjoy the serenity of Whiskey Bottle Falls. Afterwards, reward yourself with lunch at the Sabie Brewing Company. If you have time, take a drive out to Lone Creek Falls on the old Lydenburg Road. Then from Sabie, drive 25km towards Mashishing on the Long Tom Pass to experience one last adrenaline injection for the day on the Long Tom Toboggan. Afterwards, you can rest your weary head at Misty Mountain. Expect majestic views (when there’s no mist), spacious suites and relaxed, country-style hospitality. There’s a restaurant on site, plus walking trails and a dam to while away an afternoon. Studio units have a veranda and braai area for basic self-catering
Day 3: Misty Mountain to Lisbon Hideaway
DISTANCE 80km ALLOW 5 hours
Kick off the morning with a wander around Pilgrim’s Rest (a 60km drive back down Long Tom Pass, through Sabie on the R532 and skirting Graskop on the R533) and book an 11am tour of the Alanglade Period House Museum. Then, about-face to Graskop on the R532 to enjoy a trip in the new Graskop Gorge Lift. From here it’s an easy meander to Lisbon Hideaway in the afternoon, just 10km away on the R532. Try to get to Lisbon Falls for sundowners – it’s just a five- minute walk – and, time permitting, hike
to the bottom for the best views.
Day 4: Lisbon Hideaway to Blyde River Canyon
DISTANCE 230km ALLOW 8 hours
After breakfast, decide which of Mpumalanga’s natural sites you want to see – there’s Bourkes Luck Potholes, Pinnacle Rock, Berlin Falls and God’s Window so take the R534 loop to see them – but aim to arrive at the Blyde Canyon Adventure Centre on the other side of Blyde River Canyon by 2.45pm for a boat ride. Don’t stress about missing out the Three Rondavels viewpoint, you’ll have that all to yourself at sunrise if you stay at Blyde Canyon, A Forever Resort. From Bourke’s Luck Potholes, stay on the R532 until you hit a T-junction and take the right turn towards Hoedspruit on the R36. Go down the pretty Abel Erasmus Pass and through the JG Strydom tunnel. Keep straight and the R36 becomes the R527, but look out for the right turn down just before crossing a bridge over the Blyde River. Then it’s just a 20-minute drive to reach the Swadini side of the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve for the two-hour boat trip. (In total, it takes just over an hour to drive from the Three Rondavels to the boat departure point).
This story first appeared in Getaway Magazine.