The Panorama Route March 2021

Having left Limpopo behind and being on our way to Blyde River Canyon we saw a sign on the R36 pointing towards the Echo Caves and thought: why not. We had done the Sudwala Caves a few years ago but couldn’t remember having visited the Echo Caves anytime in the past with family.

We turned right onto a dirt road but unfortunately arrived at the caves when the offices were already closed.  We met Annekie, who’s family owns the property, and after a chat we were allowed to park and camp there for the night. When we were settled in, we invited Annekie and her friend Hennie over for a glass of Amarula in the serene and utterly quiet surroundings of the resort.

Next day we visited the small but pretty caves. It was almost like a private tour, because there were only two other guys in our little group. Our guide was very knowledgeable and was more than happy to point out the quirky shapes and forms and play the drum on the hollow drip formations. Near the end, he explained that the last section was a bit confined and not recommended for people suffering from claustrophobia or any other health issues. This was my cue to stay put until they returned, cos I didn’t fancy myself gasping for air and getting in a panic. About 20 minutes later they came back and we walked out to get Trokkie ready to leave.

On the way back to the main road, we stopped at Museum of Man: a rock shelter depicting the use by humans through the ages. It was quite interesting to see how this habitat had been used by both indigenous groups and Afrikaans boer settlers alike.

Stefaan especially liked the statue in the (now dry) fountain! And I liked his likeness in the lineup of the evolution theory! 

Once back on the R36 we backtracked a short distance till we could turn right onto the R532 towards the Blyde River Canyon with all the iconic touristy stops.

When we lived in Thabazimbi (late 80’s) we had taken a few trips- with and without overseas family- to this area because it is so beautiful, so this was a kind of memory trip again. It’s amazing what a gap of 35 years can do to the memory. Although the landmarks in itself didn’t change (duh, what is 35 years in the life of mountains and waterfalls) we couldn’t remember paying entry fees everywhere or having this abundance of souvenir stands.

And unfortunately… the mess. Although the tourist attractions where you pay an entry fee are generally clean and reasonably maintained, the more unofficial view and lookout points, where you can just pull off the road to enjoy the majestic views, are just a mess: there is litter everywhere. Not only fast food containers or plastic bottles that visitors leave behind after an on-the-road-lunch-stop. No… sometimes you see full rubbish bags just dumped in the bush. Unfortunately this is a general problem, because we have experienced the same in other parts of the country. It is just is so sad, because it just discourages any visitor or passerby to park the car and enjoy the view. 

Let’s skip to the pretty parts: the views down the Blyde River and the Three Rondawels are still breathtaking in their imposing presence. Deep down in the valley, the river gurgles its way through the dense green forest carpet covering the hills. The quietness is overwhelming with just the occasional bird scratching around in a nearby bush, some eagles lazily drifting on the wind streams above and the odd, colourful lizard sunning on a rock. 

The drive in this area is just a treat on its own: the gradient layers of mountains set against the cloudy and thunderous sky with yellow, orange and green grasslands softly waving in the wind and playing shadow games with the clouds. 

This is also forestry country and the roads wind through hills covered with massive pine and eucalyptus forests.

Meandering through this amazing landscape brought us to Bourke’s Luck where we had a quick lunch and toilet break before walking down to the waterfalls. On the chance of repeating myself: it is sad to see that, although the touristy spots are in general functional and maintained to a certain degree, sometimes the maintenance is just not up to scratch with plumbing falling apart, paintwork looking dilapidated and broken windows left unrepaired.

On our walk down to the potholes there were certain portions that we couldn’t really remember well until we came to the one image that’s carved in our minds and where we have taken so many photos with family visiting from overseas: the weird and wonderfully eerie rock formations that the swirling waters have carved out over millenia.

We left Bourke’s on a run to escape a big cloudburst and continued on the R532. Just before turning off onto the R 534 towards God’s Window we stopped at our first waterfall: the Berlin Falls.

There is just something magical about waterfalls and it’s mesmerising to stare at this continuous force of water plummeting down the gorge. We were surprised that the waterfall was so full and strong, while the river upstream gave the impression of just being a humble and timid trickle of water snaking through the landscape.

As we eventually walked back to Trokkie, we had some visitors: Tsolo (if I spelled your name wrong, please let me know) and her friends who, after visiting our home on wheels,  wanted her own little photo op with Trokkie! Great going! Thanks for your interest guys!

A stop at God’s Window confirmed again where it got its name: amazing vista’s from the tropical forests over the endless plantations to the mountain ranges that fade away on the horizon in various hues of blue. Who wouldn’t want a view like that!

It seems that the concept of the Love Bridge in Paris is contagious, because the fences on all the lookout points were adorned with locks and memento’s. And those who didn’t have a lock handy, seemed to have been content enough to tie a knot with plastic bags or even danger tape!

To get to the various lookout points you walk through a dark and green Tropical forest, with its cool air and damp smells. Lovely! We learned a new word here: petrichor: the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil! It’s that smell that stops you in your tracks when rain starts falling on the pavement, street or a garden path. It’s difficult to describe what it smells like, but I’m sure everyone knows what I’m talking about. Now we know what its name is!

Our last stop of the day was the Pinnacle: a rock formation standing solitary in a valley surrounded by the thick forests of the Driekop Gorge. 

As we had seen no further road signs pointing towards Graskop, we turned around and drove the R534 back to the T-junction. En route, we made a last stop at Wonderview with the same awesome views as God’s window: a perfect spot to stare into the distance and contemplate that retirement is not so bad!

By then it was late afternoon and the souvenir stalls were closed. Although it was now deserted we were quite surprised that:

  • all their goods were packed and locked in crates in situ for an overnight stay.  Obviously they didn’t worry about theft? 

  • even though it seems that government supports/pushes the local communities to sell at tourist stops this one was definitely not on the same level as e.g. Mac Mac Falls, Motsitsi or Gods Window: the stalls were rather makeshift constructions with wooden poles and tarpaulin, while at other tourist stop the stalls are housed in properly built infrastructures. 

Eventually arriving in Graskop, we went looking for a place to sleep. The town looks a bit arty farty like Dulstroom, Barrydale and Clarence and, after a quick drive around, we ended up at the Loco Inn Coachman Village: a pub restaurant in an vintage railway station. Very cool! When we asked the manager why the railway station wasn’t used as station anymore, he explained that trucks have now taken over the transport of ore and minerals. We did indeed see an enormous amount of heavy haulage trucks on the road (also in the Rustenburg area with the mines) and Stefaan, being a civils and road man, always points fingers to these heavy trucks as the main culprits who damage the roads so badly that some are just a quilt of potholes instead of road.

Stefaan tried some traditional local fare on the menu: cows head stew (skopa on the menu board)! He ate it but said he would prefer a “smiley” (sheep’s head) or tripe any day! I kept to a more mundane supper of fish and chips. We met Cameron and Paige and chatted away over number of beers. Cameron has been traveling into Africa with vintage vehicles and we hope to pick his brain once we’re ready to venture outside South Africa’s borders.

After a few beers and a full tummy, we retreated to Trokkie on the station’s parking lot and went to bed.

When we left Graskop the next morning we decided to quickly make a hop back onto the R532 to see  the Lisbon Falls, for which it had been too late the previous day.

The falls were beautiful and we were again amazed that the river on top seemed too low key to produce such a magnificent waterfall !

As we planned to enter Kruger National Park for our second visit via Phabeng Gate, we had to keep in the general direction and returned to and passed through Graskop with the idea of doing the other waterfalls in this area. 

We took a wrong turn in town, ended up on the R533 instead of the R532 and quite unexpectedly bumped into the Motsitsi waterfall with its fairly new, exhilirating Graskop Gorge Lift attraction. (Note at the end of our Panorama tour: this was definitely the most amazing and modern tourist attraction of aIl). I thought I had read about it in a pamphlet some 5-6 years ago, but I wasn’t sure. We parked and went to have a look.

WOW! That was really magnificent and we could understand why the cars were queuing to come in.  The Graskop Lift Company has developed a whole experience around the Motsitsi waterfall. It is just exceptional and can definitely compete on a global scale. We only opted for the lift and subsequent gorge and forest walk (no freefalling or bridgeswing for us) and that was so worthwhile. Easy walkways, lots of explanatory signs, some artwork here and there and fantastic views on the waterfall and the bravehearts who take the jump! (The picture just above the butterfly is a “butterfly bar”: the bright flowers attract the butterflies and they feed off sugarwater that flows over the steel structure.)

The rest of the development (craft stalls, shops, restaurants) are top notch!

From Motsitsi falls we turned towards Pilgrims Rest. We had seen on the map that just outside Graskop on the other side was another touristy spot that we would pass on our way to Pilgrims: the Natural Bridge. 

We nearly missed it (poor signage once again) and when we parked we immediately got the impression that this rock formation didn’t seem to have made the shortlist of worthwhile touristy spots in the area. The souvenir and craft stalls were not manned and in a serious state of disrepair and the area around the natural bridge was messy with rubbish and even clothes lying around on the rocky river bank. We could figure out very quickly why there was no-one charging any entry fee here.

That was a very quick visit, we took our leave and continued to Pilgrims Rest.

We parked “down town” and took a leisurely walk through town. As we wanted to see some more of the pass beyond town, we left, but returned a few hours later. This time we parked right in front of the Royal Hotel, had the “compulsory new visitor” beer in the church pub, had a great meal in the restaurant and shared a few beers and shooters with a few other couples in the church bar. We slept where we had parked.

After a hearty breakfast at the hotel the next morning, we left Pilgrims Rest under a blanket of mist shrouding the surrounding mountains.

Today was to be our “waterfall” day. On the R532 between the R533 Pilgrim’s split and Sabie the Mac Mac Falls are the most well know. They sit quite spectacular amidst the green and lush hills and pine forests!

There is a walkway down and even though you can return to the parking area the same way, there is also a foot path that ends up on the tar road just up the road from the entry to the falls. Two yellow footprints are painted on a rock, which we assumed indicated a walking trail. We crossed the road and went for a short walk in a pine forest across the road enveloped by the damp forest smells with butterflies flitting around and puddles reflecting trees and skies.

When we returned, we drove a little bit further up the road where we turned off at a sign indicating Mac Mac Pools. The dirt road was quite horrible but we could see the odd sedan bravely taking on this bad road. The entry fee was higher than on the other tourist places and when driving in we could see why.

Because there are pools with small waterfalls, it has been developed for family time: lots of braai and picnic facilities, toilet facilities and walking trails. And of course the pools to splash and play in! The water was icy cold so we decided to skip that and rather go for a walk through the endless grasslands beyond the pools.

As we had no idea how long these trails were, we turned back after an hour or so walking. Back at the pools we saw that it was already much busier than it had been when we had arrived. Stefaan did the macho thing and got into the water… up to his middle… no further. Obviously age makes us more aware of comfort and ice cold water doesn’t fall in the category of comfort. (Although we saw many people totally not fazed by the cold water and jolling around in the pools and taking selfies in front of  the small waterfalls)

When we walked back to the truck, the parking was overflowing, the picnic areas were all occupied and the dirt road back to the R532 looked like the highway with the stream of cars coming in.

A short while after leaving the Mac Mac pools we passed through Sabie on the Old Lydenburg Road that would take us to another few water falls. At the York timber saw mills, we turned right onto the dirt road at the sign indication Bridal Veil falls. The road was rutted and potholed and the further we drove the darker the skies became. We heard the first far away rumblings of thunder and saw a sporadic lightning strike flashing in the indigo sky.

We finally arrived at Bridal Veil Falls and the skies had turned even darker, but we thought “hey, it’s most probably just a short walk towards a lookout point”, so we walked. It turned out not to be just this short walk and as we started the climb up through the forest, the first raindrops started to fall. We realised that we needed some speed and my breath took a bit of a beating. But we made it, in the midts of falling rain, lighting and thunder reverberating between the rock faces. We took our photos and video in the clearance where the waterfall tumbles down and hurried back to the protection of the forest.

We bounced our way back on the bad dirt road and at the intersection with Old Lydenburg Road, we could see how the storm had created havoc on the road with washing away even more sand, stone and whole sections of tar road.

We turned right and continued towards Horseshoe Falls: another lengthy and gouged dirt road. Arriving at the Horseshoe Falls, it gave the impression of being a private development with little A-frame chalets, but we saw nobody except the ladies who sell tickets and souvenirs.

We walked up to the main falls, which come down on both sides of a rock formation in the middle. It’s short walk up and it’s very quiet and peaceful. We could see however that the stormy weather of late had uprooted lots of trees and the river banks were piled up with driftwood and vegetation (we had seen the same in Kruger Park).

The ongoing and regular heavy rainfalls have seriously damaged dirt roads all over (like our Magaliesberg crossing over Breedsnek Pass) and this area was no different: heavily cracked roads with deep gullies washed away on the side of the road.

We negotiated our way back on the dirtroad to Old Lydenburg Road and turned left towards Lone Creek Falls, the last waterfall on our list for the day. As we again paid more than on other tourist places like we did at Mac Mac Falls, we sort of expected the social environment and we were not wrong: definitely also a venue that’s developed for weekend visitors with ample braai and picnic facilities.

Unfortunately not all families that come to unwind come there to really enjoy the solemnity and tranquility of nature and respect their fellow visitors. There are always those who need to play loud music or shout to hear their own echoes reverberate against the cliffs. The waterfall was beautiful, the noisy and boisterous visitors not so much.

The pathway going up and around had a surprising little forest retreat corner in store and you almost felt as if you were in fairy land!

By the time we left Lone Creek, it was late afternoon and seeing that Sabie was the closest town, we decided to go in search for a place to park and sleep. After a few twists and turns, a friendly local hailed us and when he heard that we were looking for a safe place to park, he didn’t hesitate to invite us to park in the street right in front of his house. Thank you Johan!

When we chatted to his wife the next morning, we promised we would try to come back after our second visit to Kruger. And that’s what we did…  (read here).

From Sabie we took a lazy drive to Hazeyview, took in petrol and slept at the petrol station. It was a sleepover with a difference: loud music for the whole night. Luckily it was only hip hop or rap in the early evening and changed to jazz and gospel throughout the night. We left early next morning and were at Phabeng gate at about 5:30am and by then vehicles were already queuing!

We were ready for our second Kruger visit! Yeah!

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