Nelspruit - There can be few more dramatic scenery “reveals” in South Africa – no, make that the world – than that of the Blyde River Canyon from the Three Rondavels viewpoint.
“You walk, and walk and it’s literally only at the last few steps that you see it.Wow!” The words of Chris Colverd – our host at Wayfarers Guest House in Sabie – were going through my mind as we followed the concrete footpath up from the carpark. There is not much to see on the walk, although the protea bushes here and there among the rugged rocks and alpine grass indicate the highveld nature of the place.
Even as you see the guard fence at the lookout site, from a distance of 20m or so from the edge of the drop-off, there is still no clue. And, on the day we visited, the lowering gloomy clouds made me think the tops of the mountains had been swallowed up. Then – Wow!
The Blyde River snaking through the orange cliff canyon hundreds of metres below you is truly one of the most awe-inspiring sights in South Africa. It’s not often that words fail me but as I stand, looking down at the rugged beauty, comment is superfluous.
One thing is for sure: you cannot say you have seen South Africa until you have seen this. It will leave you in wonder about the beauty of this country. It will banish things like xenophobia, Nkandla and Cecil John Rhodes from your thoughts… for a while.
If you haven’t been there and the Blyde River Canyon is not on your bucket list, it should be. Although we have travelled far and wide across South Africa in the past 25 years, there are several places I still have to tick off my local bucket list: the West Coast, the Western Cape hinterlands (from Hermanus-George heading inland) and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, but the Blyde River Canyon was always near the top. Now it has been ticked off, it is one of the highlights of our travels.
The whole mountain and forest area of Mpumalanga (and part of adjacent Limpopo) is well worth a visit; not only because it is reasonably close to Joburg, and because of the number and variety of places to visit and things to do, but also because of its close proximity to the Kruger National Park.
Sabie, which we chose as our base, is an excellent point from which to sally forth and explore this land of forests and falls.
Higher than the lowveld and dotted with tree plantations and fruit farms, this part of Mpumalanga can give you a sense that you are in tropical Africa but, as the mist rolls in over the pines, you feel you are in the Highlands of Scotland. So it was in Sabie some mornings when low cloud blanketed the area. It often burns off quickly and, when the sun is out and the skies are blue, there is a sparkling freshness to the place.
From Sabie, we first headed to the Kruger for a day and then decided to take in some of the multiple sights on offer. There are a dozen or so waterfalls near Sabie and all are beautiful. There are plenty of places to picnic and enjoy the peace and scenery, but because they are popular at the weekends I would avoid going there then.
As you head north out of Sabie and its small neighbouring town, Graskop, you are on what is known as Mpumalanga’s “Panorama Route”. There are a number of stops to make: God’s Window (which gives a view across the escarpment and towards Mozambique which is unrivalled on a clear day); Mac-Mac Falls, a popular spot with tourists and locals alike, Bourke’s Luck Potholes and then the Three Rondavels viewsite.
We missed out Mac-Mac Falls and started at the Three Rondavels, heading south. The Three Rondavels site is so named because the three round peaks you see to the right of the vista resemble rondavels or African huts. They are the harder areas of rock which have remained while the softer materials were eroded over time by the river, and they loom about 700m above the river bed. It is said the peaks are named after the three most troublesome wives of Chief Maripi Mashile – Magabolle, Mogoladikwe and Maseroto.
Like most attractions in the area, there is now an entrance fee to the site (R10 a car). The money goes towards the community, which maintains the place. Or I should say, should maintain the place. The day we visited, there was no water in the women’s toilets.
What was less acceptable, though, was a visit to the Bourke’s Luck Potholes site, now under the control of the Mpumalanga government, and finding the women’s toilets hadn’t been cleaned by midday. The government charges R30 a person and R20 a vehicle for access to the site and has plenty of foreign visitors, yet clean toilets are not a priority...
The Potholes are another interesting geological curiosity: water has, over the millenia, eroded weird and wonderful shapes into the rocks. I will say this about the site: it is well laid out and the paths and bridges allow visitors plenty of good views and opportunities for photographs and selfies.
At the Potholes and some of the other sites there are a number of shops and informal operations selling curios, which range from the interesting to the awful. The prices are not extreme, but look around because the quality does vary.
No trip to the area would be complete without a detour to the former mining town of Pilgrim’s Rest, about 30km from Sabie. A few years ago, there were fears the quaint town would collapse amid accusations of graft and favouritism on the part of the Mpumalanga government, which had taken away business concessions from long-term holders and handed them to people with no experience. But it appears that has been settled and things are back to normal.
The town, with its corrugated-iron buildings, has the air of a frontier mining town and is an oddity even in a province of different sights. There are plenty of curio places, museums and places to buy art and sculpture. We left with a few hundred rands’ worth of stained-glass work.
No road trip would work without some decent places to eat and, despite the small town nature of the province, you will be okay, both in Sabie and in Graskop.
In three nights in Sabie we ate at three different venues following Chris Colverd’s recommendations and were more than happy.
Best was the Wild Fig Tree, which offers a fine dining experience comparable with Joburg. The Sabie Brewing Company, newly opened, offers good food and a great range of craft beers, which sets it apart. The African Elephant, a one-time Spur, offers simple, good-value food.
In Graskop, it is the “duelling pancakes” which are the culinary focus of the town – there are two shops within a stone’s throw of each, the “original” and the newbie, which both offer good pancakes and waffles. There is also a good waffle joint in Sabie, so if the weather is wet or cold there is plenty of sweet comfort food to be had.
And, once you’ve seen the sights, once you’re winding up the Long Tom Pass on your way home, you know you will be back.
If You Go...
Sabie is just under five hours (no rushing) from Joburg along the N4, via Dullstroom and Lydenburg. Watch out for the potholeson the road between Dullstroom and Lydenburg .
l Potholes are common in Mpuma-langa. Check with the AA of SA for latest conditions and roadworks. Once you are on the secondary roads, don’t travel at more than 100km/h, because you won’t have enough time to avoid a damaging and potential deadly pothole. For the same reason, don’t travel at night.
l Take warm clothing but at the same time be prepared for hot temperatures (because the weather is so changeable, even in winter). Take wet weather gear for the mountains and forests.
l You need to plan for at least three nights in Sabie – and to see everything and include Kruger without rushing, five nights would be better.
l There are plenty of places to stay in the Sabie and Graskop area, ranging from hotels to B&Bs to guest houses and self-catering establishments. Wayfarer’s Guest House is a top pick because mine host, Chris Colverd, and his partner Merle, are a font of useful information and tips and are happy to share their enthusiasm and experiences. Breakfasts are a cut above the usual, too. www.wayfarers.co or e-mail: [email protected]
l Useful information:
Brendan Seery, Saturday Star