The Panorama Route is a picturesque road connecting an array of natural and cultural attractions, starting from Nelspruit and ending at the Swadini Forever Resort. Known as one of the country’s most scenic self-drives, this magnificent route is found in Mpumalanga Province, centered around the Blyde River Canyon – the world’s third largest canyon.
This route is part of the dazzling Mpumalanga highlands. Due to its proximity to the Kruger National Park, it is often featured in many game reserve itineraries. The Panorama Route boasts beautiful waterfalls (Lisbon Falls, Sabie Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Mac Mac Falls among them), God’s Window, the Blyde River Canyon, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, the Three Rondavels and Pilgrim’s Rest, to name but a few. The town of Sabie is home to various activities like 4×4 adventuress, abseiling, and more.
Don’t fret if it sounds like a lot to take in. Having experienced the Panorama Route, I’ll break it down and share the different ways to explore this vast area.
Something for History and Arts Lovers
Anyone that has taken the beautiful drive down the panorama route will tell you a thing or two about the historical Pilgrim’s Rest. This famous little town is a living national museum, and the entire town has been declared a national monument. The history of this quaint and delightful small town dates back to the pioneering days of the Gold Rush of the 19th century.
This dynamite of a town also has numerous art galleries and museums housed in corrugated iron buildings, the infamous Robbers Pass, the well-known Royal Hotel, the old digging site just outside the town (where you can have a guided tour of a recreation of an old gold mine), the Church Bar (a beer garden located in a building that was originally a church), old newspaper offices and an assortment of tea rooms, wine and craft beer establishments, craft markets, farm shops and diners for you to discover.
Bourke’s Luck Potholes: As you move along the route, you must spare at least two hours to explore the area on foot via sturdy overhead bridges overlooking the “potholes” below. The water from Treur and Blyde Rivers has carved out a series of unique and fascinating water features in the underlying rock face. These water features have taken thousands of years to form these strange unusual cylindrical sculptures carved by swirling water over thousands of years. There is a mini waterfall that makes an excellent background for your pictures.
God’s Window: This attraction is situated in the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve and perched on the edge of the escarpment with endless views of the Lowveld below (if you get there at the right time). However, at any time of the day, there is no guarantee you will be able to catch a glimpse of this wonder, as the area is always covered in dense mist, as I’ve learned from experience not once but on two occasions. Do thorough research before going to find out the best times to visit. Rumour has it that the moments before the sunset are the best to experience a little piece of heaven from God’s Window.
If you make it on a clear day, you will have splendid views of what has been dubbed “the world’s greenest canyon.” With a gorge dropping from 700 to 900 metres, it is filled with lush plant life, streams and wild animals.
Three Rondavels: These are three vast spirals of dolomite rock rising out of the far wall of the Blyde River Canyon. Their domed heads are laced in green, and their sides are stained with fiery orange lichen. When visiting the Three Rondavels, sometimes referred to as the Three Sisters, timing is everything. It is best to visit when there are clear skies to capture all the rondavels and the Blyde River at the foot of the gorge.
The Pinnacle: A single magnificent quartzite column rising out of the deep wooded canyon. It is best to view the pinnacle point from both viewpoints, giving you different aspects of this geographical phenomenon. When I saw it, the hiker in me wanted to climb up to its lush top.
Water Sports Enthusiasts
Blyde River Canyon is the world’s greenest canyon and one of the largest. Only the Grand Canyon in the United States and the Fish River Canyon in Namibia are more immense. The Blyde River Canyon Reserve extends along the Blyde River Canyon’s winding path, which at every turn offers more impressive views over sheer edges, dropping 800 meters into the riverbed. The best place to view the canyon is from the Lowveld View site at 1,219 meters. It offers a breathtaking view over the Blyde River Canyon with various rock formations like the Three Rondavels, the forested valleys, and the Pinnacle. Looking down, you’ll see the Blyde River beautifully winding its way across the canyon floor to the vast expanse of the Blydepoort Dam. However, the best part is when you descend to the canyon to enjoy water activities like kayaking, canoeing, and boat cruises.
Graskop Gorge Lift: This is one of the recent additions to the Panorama Route, an attraction worthy of your time. Ideally situated within the Swadini Forever Resort, it has been buzzing, attracting all types of adventure travelers from the time of its introduction to the public.
This glass-fronted lift takes you 50 meters down a sheer cliff face to the valley floor in the forest below. Once there, you can explore trails and streams further via a network of suspension bridges and walkways. Within the same vicinity are a few shops, craft markets, a restaurant, and a bar at the top.
The scenic mountain town of Graskop offers plenty of adventure activities and is close to many attractions on the Panorama Route. I always say you have experienced the Panorama Route when you have visited this small town. Graskop makes a good base if you plan to explore the Panorama Route over a few days.
The Echo Caves: Located outside Ohrigstad. The caves are now a historical monument as they are said to be amongst the oldest caves in the world. In bygone days, the local people used one of the cave’s stalactites as a drum to warn of approaching enemies. The caves extend for about 40 kilometers, and the sounds made inside them travel surprisingly long distances, hence the name.
Go Chasing Waterfalls
Mac Mac Falls: A walkway past local curio stalls leads you to the lookout over these twin waterfalls, which plummet 70 meters to the rock pool below. The noise is thunderous and can be heard miles away. The Mac Mac pools are a few meters away from the lookout spot and are ideal for a shady picnic stop and a dip in the refreshing mountain waters.
Other waterfalls worth a visit include the Lisbon Falls (the area’s highest at 92 meters), the Berlin Falls (42 meters), and Lone Creek Falls (70 meters). The latter has a large plunge pool perfect for hot summer days and a wealth of indigenous flora.
Hiking and mountain biking (MTB) trails
Leopard trail: This trail is one to be noticed, as it showcases some of the best views of the breathtaking Blyde River Canyon.
The Kadishi Trail: This is a spot your average person will never get to see. Only the brave have taken this journey. One will have to contend with a few hurdles, like the Thorny Rope Forest, before laying their eyes on this beautiful place. This forest features vines containing six-centimeter-long thorns, hence the name.
Jock of the Bushveld Trail: A beautiful meandering hike through marshlands and rolling hills with stunning rock formations. However, be careful not to try it after the rain. It’s safer and easier to navigate when it’s drier.
There is far too much to do in the Panorama Route for you to try and complete the route and its activities in one day. You could choose the attractions you most want to see and cover them in a day, but it’s best to plan for at least two to three days in the area. It is advisable to embark on this drive during winter when it is dry because the wet season brings with it mist and rain that, while beautiful, obscure the spectacular views. In summer, the area is awash with wild white and pink lilies.
For those who have the time needed to conquer the Panorama Route, there are tonnes of other activities and attractions to be enjoyed, and these include river rafting in Sabie, hot air ballooning, scenic helicopter rides, Shangana Cultural Village tours, elephant interactions, reptile parks, and animal rehabilitation centers.