Driving the Panorama Route
This drive takes you past the Blyde River Canyon, the largest canyon in the country, as well as the sheer 1,600m (5,248-ft.) drop from the Escarpment to the warm lowveld plains shimmering below. Hot air rising over this wall generates the heavy mists and high rainfall that, in turn, create the unique montane grasslands and riverine forests of the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, which starts just north of Graskop before broadening out to include the Blydepoort Dam, 60km (37 miles) north. To complete the Panorama Route as a circular trip (approx. 160km/99 miles), stopping for most of the view points and returning to either Sabie or Graskop, set aside a day.
To drive this route, take the R532 north out of Graskop before turning right on the R534. The first stop is the Pinnacle -- a thin, tree-topped, 30m-tall (98-ft.) quartzite rock that juts below the view point. God's Window, 4km (2 1/2 miles) farther, which offers the first view of the open lowveld plains, is more impressive. (Wonderview is a variation of this and can be skipped if you're pressed for time.) The looping R534 now rejoins the R532. Turn left and look for the sign if you want to visit Lisbon Falls, which drops 37m (121 ft.). To continue on to Blyde River Canyon, turn right onto the R532, taking in the 48m (157-ft.) Berlin Falls on the way.
Back on the R532, head north for Bourke's Luck Potholes (tel. 013/761-6019). Here gold-digger Bourke predicted that he would strike it lucky, but he found nothing in these large scooped formations, carved by the movement of pebbles and water in the swirling whirlpools created by the confluence of the Blyde and Treur rivers. Bourke was not the last person to be disappointed by the Potholes -- it's a long walk to look at them, and they reveal very little. Nor does the visitor center, which, in addition to some dry displays on the geology of the area, features a few dusty stuffed animals that look close to decomposing. The lichen trail is very easy and good for children. Gates open from 7am to 5pm; admission is R25.
Some 20km (12 miles) north is the lookout for the Three Rondawels, by far the most impressive stop of the entire trip. The name -- which refers to the three circular hut-shaped outcrops that are more or less opposite the lookout -- does nothing to describe the humbling size of what beckons. A sheer drop threatens to pull you off the precipice; thousands of feet below, the Blyde River snakes its way through the canyon to the tranquil Blyde Dam, embraced by green mountains. Beyond, the great lowveld plains shimmer in the distance.
Tip: If you're feeling thirsty, drop into the Forever Blyde Canyon Resort (the turnoff is a couple of miles north past the Three Rondawels and clearly signposted; tel. 013/769-8005), which offers another angle on the Three Rondawels from its terrace; however, much beyond a toasted sandwich is not recommended. (To take a look at its budget self-catering lodging, go to www.foreverblydecanyon.co.za -- and ask for a cottage with a view.)
From here, you will descend the Abel Erasmus Pass before passing through the J. G. Strijdom Tunnel. Approximately 20km (12 miles) from here is the turnoff for Monsoon Gallery (tel. 015/795-5114), off the R527. Monsoon carries a fine selection of African crafts, but stock is often limited; you can also enjoy a light meal at the adjacent Mad Dogz Café (tel. 015/795-5425).
At this point, you can stay on the R527, heading east for Hoedspruit, if you wish to enter the Timbavati private game reserve, or head for the airport. If not, take the R531 southeast to Klaserie -- look for the turnoff to the Forever Swadini Resort (tel. 015/795-5961; www.foreverswadini.co.za). From here, you can take a 90-minute boat trip on the Blyde Dam to see the mouth of the canyon and look up at the Escarpment towering above (R85 per adult, R50 children under 8). The R531 takes you to Kruger to enter via Orpen Gate (the closest to the Satara Rest Camp), or to travel to the Manyeleti or northern Sabi Sand reserves via Gowry Gate. Turn north on the R40 to Kapama, a fenced private reserve and site of the popular Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (tel. 015/793-1633; www.wildlifecentre.co.za), also known as the "Cheetah Project." This is also the pickup point for Kapama's exciting elephant-back safaris. The latter is well worth considering. For R1,350, you get to be transported through big-game country on the back of one of these lumbering giants and learn more about this most intelligent of species. The Cheetah Project is equally educational but less exhilarating. Guided tours (daily every hour 8am-3pm; R120 adults, R50 children under 12) kick off with a video presentation, after which you are driven through the center by a ranger, sighting cheetahs, wild dogs, rhinos, and various bird species. At 90 minutes, the tour is a tad long, and although several of the cheetahs raised here have been successfully released into the wild, it still feels a little like a large, comfortable zoo. However, it is the one place where you can see the so-called king cheetah, a rare variant whose striking semistriped coat is associated with an unusual recessive gene.
To return to Graskop, take the R40 south from Klaserie, then follow the R533 from Bosbokrand, climbing Kowyn's Pass to Graskop. (Note: The R40, between Hazyview and Acorn Hoek, is unsafe to travel at night, when animals wander at will, and a few travelers have been ambushed. During daylight, you're more likely to be pulled over for speeding, so take it easy.)
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.