Though small, the Panorama area of Mpumalanga is home to some of South Africa's most dramatic scenery, plus great dining and shopping opportunities - and national monument status
Mpumalanga's Panorama region lies in the Eastern Drakensberg mountains, just west of the Kruger Park, so is an obvious stop before or after a safari. After the heat of the Lowveldt plains below, it is refreshingly cool and green with an abundance of waterfalls: a real breath of fresh mountain air. A hire car is the best way to explore.
The most spectacular sight is the Blyde River Canyon, the world’s third largest at 20km long and some 700m deep. There are several lookout spots along the rim: to get an impression of its immensity visit the Three Rondavels - so called as the rocky outcrops resemble tribal huts - where there are views to the Kruger. The canyon is only accessible by foot on a three day hike but there are easy walks at Bourke's Luck Potholes (created by swirling waters in the gorges where two rivers meet) and the Pinnacle, a rock column rising out of a leafy ravine. In the car parks, you will find lots of native craft stalls on which to test your bargaining skills.
Graskop is a pleasant lunch stop south of the canyon and home of Harrie's pancakes (Louis Trichardt Street). Battle through the macadamia nut sellers! I find their savoury pancakes best: try the ’bredie’, a delicious lamb stew with pesto and some homemade gingerbeer (lunch for two about 110 rand). Next door is an excellent craft centre and opposite, is the Africa Silks weavery/showroom (www.africasilks.com), which sells great quality silk clothing, cushions and bedding - the duvets are wonderful but pricey.
Pilgrim's Rest, 10km and one pass from Graskop, is the country’s only national monument town, which started with the discovery of gold in 1873. It boasts an upper town, a downtown and a new town, the upper town being the most interesting. Its main street is lined with picturesque tin-roofed cottages shaded by large jacaranda trees and it is a charming, laid back place to spend a few days.
When mining finished in 1971, the town was purchased by the government and now operates largely as a living museum. Visit the printers, a garage (the first cars could not handle the passes so mules towed them up!), a typical house and a general store. On the outskirts of town is Alanglade Mansion, built in 1915 for the English manager and his wife who obviously expected more than a tin shed. It has spacious rooms and English furniture; the timber is Sri Lankan. Everything was hauled up by oxen from Mozambique, a six week journey.
The hillside open air Diggings Site Museum depicts the life of the early miners, with their canvas tents and basic gold panning techniques. You are welcome to try. I would never have realised the tiny bright flecks were gold. The miners were happy with two teaspoons a month - today it would take a long time to get rich.
To experience a little bit of Victorian hospitality, stay at the Royal Hotel (Main Street; from 320 rand per person B&B) with brass beds and a riot of Laura Ashley. The rooms in the hotel are nice but for real charm, get one of the restored cottages scattered throughout the town. We had the ‘Victorian’: 2 twin rooms with a spacious drawing room.
Breakfast is excellent with a huge buffet. Their homemade banana cake and scones should not be missed. There is also a nice bar in which to try the local ales.
Another good bar is the tiny snug at the Vine pub in downtown (Main Street) and for coffee, Pilgrim's Pantry opposite. It has a pleasant terrace with great cakes: delicious lemon meringue.
Next door is Ponieskrantz crafts, which produces 95% of its items on site. They do lovely coffee sets in earthy colours at about 250 rand.
A pleasant way to spend a day is exploring the region’s many waterfalls. To the north of Graskop are Berlin and Lisbon; south en route to Sabie are the spectacular 65m Mac Mac falls, named after 19th century Scottish miners who created the second part of the falls with dynamite. The nearby Mac Mac pools are a series of charming natural swimming holes and waterfalls that cascade down the hillside: a wonderful picnic spot while its pleasant one hour Secretary Bird walk does a hillside circuit through some interesting rock formations, giving sweeping views over these scenic uplands.
At Sabie the 70m Lone Creek Falls cascade down a red cliff, which has some impressive strata formations. Sabie has a good second hand bookshop next to the Woodsman bar (94 Main Street) and nearby at Three Rivers (R536 Hazyview Road) the Sabie Valley Coffee producers do light lunches and tasty coffee straight out of the roasters: it smells great as you walk in.
Food and shopping
For the some of the best food search out the upmarket shopping areas - definitely for the white ladies who lunch, but they have nice places to eat and relax and invariably some great shopping with smart clothes shops and quality African art galleries at surprisingly reasonable prices.
Perry's Bridge is one, just north of Hazyview where there are delicious cakes and coffee at The Belgian Baker. White River has the equally smart Casterbridge Farm (2 km out on R40 Hazyview road) with two great cafés to chose from: I like the Courtyard Café with its cool lime green chairs and shady seating under the trees (delicious homemade focaccias) but the Magnolia Café is also very good. Equilibrium (www.equilibriumgalleries.com) produces stunning furniture made from reclaimed railway sleepers: worth a browse to get interior décor ideas. On the other side of the road at the Bagdad Centre, Zanna’s is a nice deli/café; they do good breakfasts; I like their French Toast with maple syrup, bacon and banana.
Mpumalanga means ‘place of the rising sun’: it is worth spending a few days in the Panorama region and seeing it set too.