If you are looking for spectacular scenery, an abundance of wildlife, and plenty of outdoor activities, then Mpumalanga is for you. Just look out for the hippos crossing!
Collect an Avis hire car from Johannesburg Airport, and head towards Hazyview on the western border of the world famous Kruger National Park, an ideal base for Mpumalanga's many attractions. We stayed at the Kruger Park Lodge, a resort complex on the banks of the Sabie River complete with restaurants, bars, and a Gary Player designed golf course. The fairways are traversed by vervet monkeys and impala, and there is even a hippo hide on site.
Follow the signposts for the Panorama route. This will take you over the spectacular undulating scenery of the Northern Drakensberg Escarpment. Many of the hillsides have been given over to forestry, giving the town of Sabie its main source of income. Stop for a well deserved beer and hearty meal in the Woodsman Pub, then slip next door to check out the exotic, yet keenly priced African crafts in Mphozeni. The many waterfalls in the area are at their most spectacular during the summer rainfall months, when the flow of water is highest. There are usually curio stalls set up here where you can browse the beautiful soapstone and wood carvings for souvenirs. There is often room to haggle, if you feel confident.
Long Tom Pass/Lydenburg
The drive along the escarpment towards Lydenburg is known as Long Tom Pass, named after the big gun used by the Boer forces against the British. Although the journey is much less perilous today, you can only wonder at the difficulties encountered by the 19th century pioneers who had to endure mountainous terrain and the ravages of the malarial mosquito as they made their ten day supply trek to the Mozambique coast. Lydenburg is a town serving the local farming community, and you can see some local history and natural beauty at the museum, and Gustav Klingbiel Nature Reserve.
Pilgrim's Rest is a small town where gold was discovered in 1873. Although small scale mining ceased in 1972, the town has been preserved as a monument to the region’s heyday. The appearance of the stores and dwellings is much the same as it was at the end of the nineteenth century. The Royal Hotel is a nice place for a meal, resembling a Wild West saloon, and there is accommodation at the rear. It is a very atmospheric place, and a look around one of the many museums, or a visit to the daily gold panning demonstrations, gives a feel for the incredible hardships suffered by the locals and prospectors in the search for their fortune. The famous book Jock of the Bushveld is set in this area; Jock and his master, Percy Fitzpatrick used to ride the wagons between here and Maputo in the 1880s.
Continue to the aptly named God’s Window, a vantage point on the edge of the Drakenburg escarpment from where you gaze down on the lowveld, some 1000 metres below. Watch the buzzards serenely coasting on the thermals, and wonder at the view that stretches eastwards to the Kruger Park savannah.
Blyde River Canyon
The Blyde River Canyon is the world’s third largest canyon. It differs from its rivals in that it is a ‘green’ canyon; its slopes are carpeted in sub tropical vegetation. It is a spectacular site, especially the view of the Three Rondavels, enormous rock formations named for their similarity to the local thatched huts. The canyon is dammed, and a trip to the interesting information centre is gives an insight into the indigenous flora and fauna of the region, as well as a close view of the dam wall. Stay at one of the two Forever resorts in the region. Both Blyde Canyon and Swadini offer reasonably priced chalet-style accommodation within the shadow of the canyon, offering horse riding, hiking and swimming among their range of activities.
Bourke’s Luck Potholes
Bourke’s Luck Potholes lie at the southern end of the canyon. They are a honeycomb of funicular holes carved into the rock by the erosive action of whirlpools.
In the shadow of Marieskop Mountain lays the delightful Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre. The purpose of this superb establishment, as the name suggests, is to rescue injured birds and mammals with a view to reintroduction back into the wild. It also offers courses on conservation and wildlife management. The knowledgeable staff offer informative talks, allowing visitors to enter the compounds and stroke a serval, or allow a vulture to perch on your arm. This provides a highly interactive wildlife experience which is both educational and fun. Stay in the Moholoholo Forest Camp or Mountain View, end even take a ranger training course on site. Nearby is the tranquil Ya Mati tea garden where you can go for a light snack beside the Blyde River after the tour, or for a more authentic bush experience, go to the Ambri Africa Bush Pub, and take a few Castle lagers with the friendly owners and their game ranger clientele.
Head back to Hazyview, and stop off at the Elephant Sanctuary. You can take a hand-in-trunk walk with one of the two resident African elephants, or give them a brush down in preparation for the day ahead. It is a lovely way to safely get up close and personal to these magnificent beasts, and a kiss from an African elephant is not to be missed!
Stop off at Perry's Bridge trading post for a look around one of the fine stores, or visit the tourist centre. Helpful staff will assist with bookings for any of the numerous outdoor activities the region has to offer, including horse riding, rafting, mountain biking, ballooning, or game drives into the excellent private reserves of nearby Sabi-Sands. If you can’t find what you are looking for, just ask; they will usually come up with a solution.
Grab a snack and a locally brewed beer from the Perry's Bridge Brewery, then for an evening of music, dancing, and a taste of traditional local life from the region, visit the Shangana Cultural Village. You will be taken on a tour of a typical African village, and learn a little of the culture of the local Shangaan people, with a delicious meal in a rondavel to round off the evening.
Another good option is the Hippo Hollow Country Estate. The restaurant overlooks the Sabie River, and the resident hippos come out at dusk to graze the banks. On the drive home to your hotel, just make sure you heed the ‘hippo crossing’ road signs; these beasts usually win any argument with a hire car!