Some of my earliest childhood travel memories are of visits to spectacular places on the Panorama Route in Mpumalanga. Here we swam in icy pools and picnicked next to waterfalls cascading down from ochre-red cliffs high above us. And we tiptoed along the edge of sunburnt cliffs where breath-taking views stretch to a little past forever, and the massive drop below leaves you weak at the knees.
I wondered if my memories may not be childish nostalgia. So, many years later, I return with my adult worldview for a Panorama Route trip down memory lane to see if five of these remember placers are still worth a visit.
Where is the Panorama Route?
Officially the 110-kilometre Panorama Route begins at the top of Long Tom Pass outside the town of Lydenberg in Mpumalanga. From here, the route winds down the mountains to the Sabie valley, almost a thousand meters below and Mpumalanga’s waterfall central.
The road snakes gently out of the Sabie valley past an occasional waterfall and up into the high grasslands surrounding the village of Graskop perched on the edge of the northern Drakensberg escarpment.
From Graskop, the Panorama Route continues for another 50-odd kilometres through montane grasslands, fields of weird-looking weathered rock formations and occasional timber plantations to end at the Blyde River Canyon.
There are so many scenic places along the 110-kilometre route it’s impossible to do it all in one day! But fortunately for us, the five scenic stops I remember are between the Blyde River Canyon and Graskop.
Despite the misty weather conditions, we set off from Misty Mountain Lodge armed with plenty of memory cards, raincoats and our swimming costumes (you never know).
1. The Blyde River Canyon Panorama
When I think of a canyon, my mental picture is of the stark rock formations of the Grand Canyon. Or the barren desolation of Namibia’s Fish River Canyon, where the only break in the brown colour palette is the green of a seemingly sterile river.
It’s as if Mother Nature has abandoned these arid, windswept, yet achingly beautiful landscapes and withdrawn her life-giving touch.
Our first stop is the Three Rondavels viewpoint. As I gaze in awe at the splendid panoramic views of the Blyde River Canyon, I realise Mother Nature hasn’t abandoned all canyons. Instead, she’s devoted her canyon building energies here. Carving a spectacular path through the granite of the Northern Drakensberg using every shade of green in her toolbox.
2. The Scenic Three Rondavels
The view site gets its name from the Three Rondavels on the other side of the canyon. Here nature has carved out what looks like traditional African huts with immense walls of red quartzite and shale cliffs adorned with a thatching of green vegetation.
A pair of Cape vultures glide through the canyon far below us. Then, with a single twitch of their mighty wings, they soar up the cliffs riding a thermal that carries them high into a cerulean blue sky. A sky that has magically changed from slightly overcast a few minutes ago to picturesque blue with little white puffs of cloud far away in the distance.
This is the perfect scenic spot to reintroduce myself to the forgotten magnificence of the green Blyde River Canyon.
A Not So Cheeky Tip
Enamoured with the views, I, of course, want to go down into the canyon. There is a resort down there. So prepped with a cheeky story of why they should let me in, I march up to the reception.
Turns out I’m not unique! For R50 each, we are allowed to have a look around and redeem our fifty bucks at the restaurant. Which we do. Sipping ice-cold beers on the restaurant deck and keeping a close eye on the cliffs to see if they grow.
3. Bourke’s Luck Potholes
The perfect symmetry of a pedestrian bridge lures us down the paved walkway into a sun-baked orange rocky landscape fringed with green shrubs and grass. In the distance, a small waterfall foams merrily into the Treur River only to seemingly disappear into the rocks where it merges with the Blyde River.
For thousands of years, these merged river waters have patiently swirled their cargo of sand and pebbles to sculpt and polish a network of deep ravines and potholes in the earth’s crust.
We stroll along a web of pathways and bridges, each offering a unique view of nature’s patient handiwork. In one ravine, a cloudy sky and the satin sheen of the water polished ravine walls reflect in the bottle-green water gliding serenely beneath our feet. It’s quiet. Not a single splash or burble echoes through the corridor of orange sandstone.
And in another ravine, a soft ripple of foamy water trickles out of the sculpted potholes. Its gentle burble echoes in the narrow gorge. For a moment, I see a glimmer of gold in the bottom of one of them, but it’s only a couple of coins tossed into nature’s wishing well.
Further along, we find the spot where the Treur River spills down short rocky tiers into the ravine below to mingle with the waters of the Blyde River.
We find a sun-warmed rock, away from the crowds frolicking in the small rock pools above the falls. Here, we sit with our feet dangling in the chilly water and contemplate nature’s creation before we retrace our steps back through this exceptional landscape.
4. Berlin Falls
Time has slipped away from us, and it’s early afternoon by the time we get to Berlin Falls. And to make matters worse thick clouds carrying the promise of imminent rain creep in over the escarpment.
Lush summer-green grasslands above Berlin Falls form a startling contrast with the orange-red sandstone cliffs. A thin ribbon of water surges through a narrow chute breaking up into soft, delicate white veils of water cascading down into the jade green pool far below.
We only spend a short while here absorbing this picturesque beauty. I’m keen to move on to my most favourite spot on the Panorama Route, Lisbon Falls.
5. Lisbon Falls – The Jewel of the Panorama Route.
In years gone by, my teenage self and my rock-climbing parents would climb down the first two tiers of Lisbon Falls. Then, we’d crawl on our hands and knees across the sometimes slippery third-tier toward the edge of a 90-odd meter drop. Lying flat on our stomachs, we peered over the edge, mesmerised by the endless cascade of water.
We spent many afternoons picnicking and swimming in a secret rock pool tucked in the folds of the rocks. Hidden away from the gaze of people at the viewpoint.
Occasionally, we’d hike down a narrow path to the pool at the bottom of Lisbon Falls for a picnic and a refreshing swim.
Today, a gusting wind pushes against our bodies at the top of the footpath. And slippery, thick mud squelches below our feet. The slightest misstep and we’ll slide down into the pool far below us. It’s too dangerous, so we abandon the hike in favour of a picnic next to the secret rock pool.
But the weather gods decide that’s not going to happen. I’m not going to have my nostalgic afternoon retracing my past footsteps climbing down the falls. The wind picks up and a light drizzle begins to fall.
Of course, I’m disappointed, but for me, Lisbon Falls is still the unparalleled jewel in Mpumalanga’s waterfall crown.
There Isn’t Enough Time
We drive away from Lisbon Falls in the rain with one regret, we should have allowed ourselves more time! We could easily have spent another day or two rediscovering the beauty of this small slice of the Panorama Route.
My nostalgic recollections are correct. This is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular scenic areas in South Africa and not to be missed. We’ll be back! Only next time, we’ll make sure to spend a couple of days visiting the Panorama Route.
Panorama Route Good to Know:
Nature isn’t free! And Cash Matters.
At all of the stops mentioned here, there is a nominal entrance fee payable in cash at the gates. At first, I was shocked and a little outraged. How can we be expected to pay for the beauty that mother nature has created?
But after a couple of stops at free sites, where litter is thrown next to the bins, never in them. And drunken louts lounge on the hoods of their cars while distorted music blares from the car’s interior. I’m very happy to pay a nominal fee to keep these beautiful spots clean and the louts out.
From November 2023 to October 2024, the entry fees per person are:
- R45.00 (South African Residents) and R90.00 (Foreign Nationals) at the Three Rondawels
- R75.00 (South African Residents) and R150.00 (Foreign Nationals) at Bourkes Luck Potholes
- R15.00 at Berlin Falls, and
- R15.00 at Lisbon Falls
For current entrance fees to other scenic spots on the Panorama. Route, have a look at the Graskop website.
Best Time to Visit the Panorama Route
If you can, plan your visit to avoid public holiday weekends and South African school holidays. It can get a little crowded.
The winter months are dry. Offering a better chance of absolutely clear views from the Blyde River Canyon and escarpment view spots.
We visited in the wet summer months when you can expect to encounter heavy mists and lots of rain. That said, all the photos in this blog were taken on the same day. which ranged from a misty start, to hot and sunny, to a rainy and miserable end, all in less than twelve hours.
Tip for Photographers
I took my photographs of the Blyde River Canyon and the Three Rondawels in the morning. In hindsight, late afternoon when the last of the sun’s rays hit the orange sandstone cliffs, would have been a better time.
While I can’t say for sure because of the heavy cloud cover. I suspect my Berlin and Lisbon Falls photographs might also have benefitted from afternoon light.
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DISCLOSURE: I have no commercial relationship with any organisation or their affiliates mentioned in this post. All photographs, experiences and opinions expressed in this blog post are my own.