The Panorama Route | Mpumalanga Self Drive | Part 1
Mpumalanga’s Panorama Route offers a wealth of attractions which make for one of the most spectacular self drive routes in the province and indeed, the entire country.
Well known for attracting scores of breakfast-run bikers and meandering through pine forests, sweeping grasslands, sub-tropical bush and beautiful mountain ranges, the Panorama Route along the Mpumalanga escarpment is both pleasurable and picturesque to drive. The smooth tar roads are a welcome convenience, enabling you to enjoy a trouble free passage through the high-lying areas of the region.
There is so much to see on the Panorama Route, we have divided the route into two parts which can be done on two different days in order to spend enough time at each place. This is part one!
Departing from Nelspruit – first stop, Sabie.
Travellers will either turn left onto the Brondal Road close to Riverside mall, which after 52 kilometres funnels you straight to Sabie, or can take the R40 north towards White River. The road (R537) leads you past Witklip Dam and a distinctive hill named Spitskop on your left hand side.
Through the extensive pine forests you go (these are the third largest man-made forests in the world) until you arrive in Sabie from the south-east.
The R539 from Nelspruit and Johannesburg enters Sabie from the south-west, taking you past the sawmills on the outskirts of the town. As if the massive pine plantations weren’t evidence enough, the forestry legacy of Sabie is evident as soon as you enter the town from the R537. On your right hand side you will see the famous Woodsman Pub and Restaurant, a huge log cabin with large decks outside overlooking the lush hills and a stylish interior with bucket-loads of character.
This is a reflection of the town as a whole, which has the charming small-town qualities that provide enchanting surprises at every street corner. Little gems such as the second-hand book shop, the Wild Fig Tree restaurant and the renovated train diner, The Smokey, are highlights.
Sabie is therefore deserving of its title as Rapport’s 2012 Town of the Year.
For picnickers, the idyllic Merry Pebbles resort on the banks of the Sabie River is a perfect spot.
Onwards to Graskop or Pilgrim’s Rest
Following the signposts that point north towards Graskop, the R539 road snakes through more pretty forest and indigenous grassland and 9km along, a sign pointing to the right takes you to the first landmark sighting on your trip.
A spacious picnic site is tucked under pine trees alongside the Mac Mac River at this, your first essential stop along the Panorama Route. Quirkily named after the scores of Scottish miners who panned for gold in the gorge, the river flows over a rock ledge into a crystal clear rock pool where visitors can take a refreshing plunge in the chilly mountain water.
A backdrop of grassland and blue mountains completes this pretty picture. This is an ideal spot to have a breakfast picnic, with the soothing sound of the waterfall providing the perfect soundtrack.
Entrance: R10 per person
After turning right, back onto the R532, and travelling about two kilometres, day-trippers will see a cluster of thatched buildings and a sign for Mac Mac Falls, the first of many waterfalls along the Panorama Route.
With a rumbling audible in the distance, a walkway leads you past local vendors, along the Mac Mac River gorge and to a viewpoint which reveals the spellbinding source of the noise. This vantage point gives a bird’s eye view of the impressive twin waterfalls as they plummet 70 metres, meeting the pool below with a terrific thundering crash. The waterfall was initially one stream, but gold miners blasted it in an attempt to prospect the rich gold-bearing ridge over which it plunges.
It’s hard to get enough of this spectacle, but the Panorama Route has plenty of wonders still in wait.
Entrance: R10 per car
When continuing north along the R533 you will pass the Jock Memorial and the Maria Shrines waterfall which are both pleasant stop-off points before arriving at the T-Junction of the R534, where the road splits left to Pilgrim’s Rest and right to Graskop.
It is advisable to turn left here, as the village of Pilgrim’s Rest, 8km down the road, is an absolute must-see. The village is tucked away in the mountains and reached via a winding road through unspoiled wilderness.
Enter the Time Machine
Pilgrim’s Rest is one of few towns in South Africa that has kept its historical legacy completely intact. Its golden past is captured within the old buildings that line the village’s solitary street.
The town is split into two parts: Uptown, which is literally the highest and oldest part of the main road and contains most of the tourist attractions, and Downtown, which stretches below the turnoff into town.
In this enchanting village visitors will be transported back to the bygone gold mining era of the 1800’s, unearthing spellbinding pieces of history at every turn.
An admission ticket from the information centre gains you access to a variety of museums which showcase everything from untouched late Victorian households to antique cars.
The town has a distinctly Wild West feel, and the Robber’s Pass road on the R533 just past Pilgrim’s was the scene of a famous stage coach robbery in 1899, when masked highwayman made off with 10 000 British Pounds worth of gold.
The Diggings Site just outside the village is an authentic reconstruction of what the whole valley looked like during the gold rush. Visitors can go gold-panning in the creek, hopefully leaving with one or two small pieces of the precious metal that caused the feverish prospecting of the past.
Be sure to visit the Royal Hotel, amble through the cemetery with the opposite-facing Robber’s Grave, and walk around the engrossing offices of the Pilgrim’s and Sabie News. Don’t forget to drink a draught at the delightful Church Bar and have a vintage photograph taken at the Drezden Shop and House Museum. The town also has a spooky side, hosting ghost tours through the old buildings and the cemetery at night.
Allocate at least two hours for your visit to Pilgrim’s Rest, as its treasure chest of history is bottomless.
At this point, it should be around lunchtime, so you can choose to enjoy a meal at the Royal Hotel, Scott’s Café, The Vine, Pilgrim’s Pantry, Peach Tree or Digger’s Den, depending on your preferences and hunger levels; or you may decide to save your appetite for the famous Harrie’s Pancakes at your next stop, Graskop.
To reach Graskop, turn right onto the R533 from Pilgrim’s Rest and travel 10 kilometres, passing the turn off back to Sabie. This road will lead you past the Natural Bridge (which traverses a trickling section of the Mac Mac River and was used as a crossing point by the gold prospectors and their ox-wagons) and straight to Graskop.
Graskop does not quite have the same charm as Sabie or Pilgrim’s Rest, but a poke around some of the small shops may reveal some hidden gems.
The ever-popular Harrie’s Pancakes, on the main street, is certainly not hidden, but is most definitely a gem. You won’t find better pancakes in South Africa than at this iconic restaurant and a mouth-watering array of sweet and savoury fillings are on offer at very reasonable prices. The menu lists sweet combinations such as black cherries in liqueur, banana and caramel, and fig preserve with pecan nuts, while the savoury fillings include South African favourites such as biltong, lamb bredie and bobotie, along with exotics such as Dutch Bacon and Thai-Style Chicken. Tasty vegetarian options such as Butternut and Feta and Creamy Spinach are also available.
Once you leave Graskop, it’s time to set your cameras to panoramic mode!
Take the R532 north out of Graskop. Just 2km on, turn onto the R534, which takes you in a loop past three exceptional viewpoints on the edge of the Mpumalanga Drakensberg escarpment.
Firstly, you will arrive at the Pinnacle, a freestanding buttress of rock which rises vertically out of dense indigenous forest like a natural skyscraper. Two separate viewing decks give you different perspectives of this regal scene.
Entrance: R5 per car
The name sets high expectations, but God’s Window is an extraordinary place that truly lives up to this billing.
A steep footpath leads you to a 900m high viewpoint perched on the edge of the escarpment, where the entire Mpumalanga Lowveld stretches spectacularly out below you in all directions. On clear days, one can see all the way to Mozambique, over 200km away.
It is impossible to capture the breath-taking grandeur of this view through the lens of a camera, but a panoramic setting will get the closest to achieving this.
Entrance: R10 per car
Wonder View can be found 2km further along the R534. At 1730m above sea level, this is the highest viewpoint on the Panorama Route, and delivers a vista of the Lowveld that is just as sensational as the one at God’s Window.
No Entrance Fee
The R534 loop ends 4km on from Wonder View and travellers will find themselves back on the R532. If you would like to continue with Part 2 of the Self Drive the following day, a good place to spend the night would be in Graskop. Otherwise, you can drive back to Nelspruit via the R532 Sabie, R537 Hazyview and R40 Nelspruit.
Text & photographs by Dale Hes