There are a few special places that, no matter how many times you visit them, always stir the senses, refresh the soul and banish the stresses and strains of everyday life. For me, Mpumalanga’s Blyde River Canyon is one of these places.
It has been a bolt-hole of mine for as long as I can remember – and one of the first places I visited as a tourist in my own country more moons ago than I care to mention.
Now, as then, I make my base at Forever Resorts Blydepoort. Forever Resorts is what used to be an Aventura resort, which was originally the state-owned Overvaal Oorde.
This sprawling resort occupies a prime position on the top of the Drakensberg escarpment on the edge of the Blyde Canyon, with views of the distant lowveld and the Three Rondavels – three peculiar-looking peaks that resemble the round, thatched huts after which they were named.
It is a one-stop shop for tourists in the area, offering a range of accommodation options from camping, caravanning and back-packer dormitories to fully equipped, self- catering chalets and more up-market family-sized bungalows. Top of the range is the three-bedroom guest-house, occupying a private position with uninterrupted views of those curious rondavels and more space than the average family or group of friends could wish for.
An on-site shop provides all the basics, from toiletries to fresh bread, milk and meat for the all-important braai and there’s a filling station and bottle store at the main entrance to the resort, which saves a road trip to the nearest town of any description, Graskop, about 45km away down the aptly named Panorama Route.
Blydepoort is the perfect place to start this route, with some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. Convenient look-out points offer a chance to get out and admire the dramatic vistas created as the Blyde river gouged its way through faults in the escarpment’s bedrock, searching for the path of least resistance to the beckoning lowveld below.
The resort at Blydepoort itself is a hiker’s paradise, with some spectacularly steep and winding routes down the face of the escarpment to the Blyde Dam and back up again. Sturdy hiking boots, a good supply of water, a packed lunch and a firm resolve is all that’s needed to negotiate the routes, which are interspersed with crystal-clear mountain pools fed by trickling streams. These pools offer the chance to cool off and swim along the way – a great way to commune with nature and to appreciate the stunning beauty of this magical place.
Rivers have shaped the landscapes along the Panorama Route, most spectacularly at Bourke’s Luck Potholes, a 15-minute drive from Blydepoort.
These amazing rock formations were formed as swirling waters and whirlpools at the confluence of the Blyde and Treur rivers wore away at the surrounding sandstone. Well-mapped walking routes allow visitors to explore the area thoroughly and there is accessibility for wheelchairs — something all too lacking at a lot of South Africa’s top tourist attractions.
From swirling water to falling water, the Panorama Route is waterfall country. Detours to the Mac Mac, Lisbon and Berlin falls are more than worth it – they are clearly signposted and have dedicated parking, as do the major lookout points along the route. Perhaps the most impressive of these is God’s Window, where a fissure in the escarpment offers incredible views over the lowveld, the distant Kruger National Park and even more distant Mozambique. A camera and pair of binoculars are an absolute must, as are a good pair of walking shoes.
Civilisation, for want of a better word, begins a short distance from God’s Window at Graskop. This small, sleepy town is driven by tourism, with plenty of curio shops, caf és and restaurants. Among the best-known are Harry’s pancake shop and its neighbouring Delagoa Trading Company curio emporium. Heaven is definitely a combination of fresh pancakes drizzled with lemon juice and some fine, locally produced African art.
A short – but impressively scenic – drive from Graskop is the historical town of Pilgrims Rest. This old gold-rush town has been lovingly preserved, with old corrugated iron houses and lots of broekie lace. A well-run and interesting museum catalogues the town’s history, both geographical and geological, and offers visitors the chance to try out some prospecting in the form of panning for gold.
Underpinning all of the experiences along the Panorama Route is the magnificent natural beauty of this part of Mpumalanga. It is impossible to get tired of the endless vistas and breathtaking views, which change constantly with the passage of the sun. Even cloudy and misty days have their charm. But, perhaps the best thing about the Blyde River Canyon and its surrounds is its accessibility, a short, four-hour drive from Johannesburg, making this a great weekend destination.
By road: From Johannesburg take the N1 to Pretoria and the N4 East past Witbank and Middelburg. At Belfast turn left on to the R33 and right on to the R540 to Lydenburg. This will take you through the village of Dullstroom. At Lydenburg take the R533 past Ohrigstad and, after 26km, take the R532 right to Blydepoort and Graskop.
By air: Fly/drive options are available from Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport at Nelspruit, which is about two hours by road from the Blyde River Canyon.
Where to stay: For more information on Forever Resorts Blydepoort, visit www.foreverresorts-sa.co.za or phone the resort on 013 769 8005