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On the edge of the Great Divide – Graskop Mpumalanga

Text and pictures: Sue Adams. Article from the September 2014 issue of Country Life Magazine.

For a hundred years, the little town of Graskop has stood on the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment that separates the Lowveld from the Highveld. This means spectacular views and waterfalls, but don’t forget the pancakes!

Pinnacle Rock protrudes from the surrounding escarpment

Graskop (grassy peak) couldn’t be a better name. Surrounded by vast stretches of grassland, this tiny Mpumalanga town is offered a new palette of wild flowers each month. In winter, aloes light up the landscape, in March come the St Joseph’s lilies and the watsonias arrive in spring. Tree ferns abound in the small waterways and gullies, and the endangered Blue Swallow has chosen this area in which to nest. It’s a town for all seasons, is Graskop, one of the great stop-off points for those wanting to enjoy the countryside.

Mac Mac Pools is a great place to swim and picnic.This is the Great Divide - the escarpment that divides the Highveld from the Lowveld.

With geological wonders and sensational views, it makes sense that Graskop is found in the renowned Panorama Route. With this comes Pinnacle Rock, Three Rondavels, Mac Mac Falls, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, Berlin Falls and the incredible Lisbon Falls, at 92m the highest waterfall in Mpumalanga. And then there’s God’s Window and Wonder View. (But do be careful. Last year a visitor scaled the fence here to get a better look and slipped. God must have been on his side. All he needed after falling 90 metres was a new set of teeth).

Plan to spend time at the spectacular Three Rondavels. It is wise to be a little careful at the view sites as it's a long way down.

Many a writer and artist has found immense inspiration from these landscapes. Manie Connoway, artist and owner of Flycatcher Castle, chose Graskop because of the mist, the ferns and, yes, the pancakes. “This is my biggest sculpture,” he says, gesturing at the castle-cum-art-deco-work-of-art he has built on the outskirts of town, with its gilt eagle on the roof, its turrets, and old London lampposts in the garden. Louis Audie, known for his Karoo landscapes, is another of the number of artists who have chosen to retire here. Louis is so inspired he now paints every day.

The walkways and bridges of Bourke's Luck Potholes allow for spectacular viewingThe first written history of the area seems to be of the Voortrekkers in the 1840s, looking for a way down this great escarpment to Delagoa Bay (Mozambique). In 1843, Andries Potgieter left most of his party outspanned near present-day Graskop and went off in search of such route. Eventually he found a steep animal track on land belonging to Chief Koveni, a track that is the Kowyn’s Pass of today.

By the time Potgieter returned to his people, the waiting party had given up hope and begun the long trek back to the Transvaal, having named the river they camped beside while waiting for Potgieter the Treur River (River of Sorrow).

However, not long afterwards they were reunited with Potgieter and his men on the banks of what they promptly called the Blyde River (River of Joy).

From the 1870s, the discovery of gold brought change to the surrounding area but Graskop’s hills proved disappointing. Tom Bourke thought he would find his pot of gold in the late 1800s when he staked a claim at what is now called Bourke’s Luck Potholes. He was convinced the holes contained incredible alluvial gold but there was almost nothing. Nevertheless, for people today there’s always a great thrill in using the many paths and bridges to get the best bird’s eye view of these extraordinary ‘potholes’ sculpted by mountain water. And perhaps catch a glimmer of gold.

Around 1885, this area also became the stamping ground of transport rider Percy Fitzpatrick and his dog, Jock, who ran supplies to the goldfields. In the heat of summer, when the risk of malaria and tsetse fly sickness made the trip to the coast impossible, Percy would camp on the edge of the escarpment to gather indigenous timber for mining supports.

Winter Aloes in the mist along Jock of the Bushveld Trail An old photo of the railway and Berlin Falls

About 100 years later, a group of passionate historians devoted six years to finding the site of this Paradise Camp, as it was called in Fitzpatrick’s book Jock of the Bushveld, and placed a brass plaque marking Jock’s trail through this area. I followed the paw prints of the circular 8km Jock of the Bushveld Trail that leaves from the municipal campsite to the edge of the escarpment, and could see why the adventurer fell in love with this place.

A certain Max Leibnitz arrived in South Africa from Germany in 1889 and chose to build a small hotel and store in the cool, malaria-free mists outside Graskop, at the top of the Kowyn’s Pass of today. Back then the pass was just the footpath of Chief Koveni, so Max set upon making a road out of it, with help from the government.

He charged a fee for its use and, as such, it became what appears to be the first toll road in the country. Mind you, the term ‘road’ is somewhat generous considering the two-day sweat and grind it took an ox wagon to surmount the pass. Nevertheless, Max had managed to wangle a liquor licence for his hotel from the local magistrate (rather clever) and there was always a most welcome drink awaiting travellers at the top.

The iconic Harrie's Pancakes is perfect for breakfast or lunch. A sketch of the original school in Graskop that opened shortly after Graskop was declared a town in 1914. Take a dip in one of the clear-flowing rivers like the Treur. If you look carefully you might find a glint of gold.

Towards the end of the 19th century, when Graskop town itself started developing, Leibnitz moved there and his daughter opened the Lucyano Bottle Store (named after her daughter, Lucy, and son, Ano). Max’s great-granddaughter Griet van der Meulen, whose mother was part-owner of the Graskop Hotel, owns the original bottle store building, next door to the hotel. She has converted this into the Sunlight Gallery, now a lovely, light space filled with her own works and those of other young artists she mentors. Look carefully at its front window and you will still see the old bottle-store name. Then look up and see the roof tiles imported from Holland.

Griet van der Meulen is a descendant of one of the original Graskop pioneers and owns the Sunlight Gallery. Manie Connoway works on a sculpture.The original plan was for Graskop to become a mining town but when that didn’t pan out (sorry), the idea was to turn it into a transport hub. As such, it became a railway town once the line from Lourenço Marques to Nelspruit and then Sabie reached Graskop in 1910, and people did the two and a half hour trip by wagon from Pilgrim’s Rest to see the great opening event. Festive railway trips were taken to Lourenço Marques and it is hard to believe that those journeys, that now take a few hours, once took an ox wagon a hundred days.

In 1914, Graskop’s status as a town became official, but expansion eluded it. There wasn’t the gold, and farming was never that good, what with too much sourveld, and the damp conditions caused foot rot in animals. However, in the Depression of the 1920s and 30s, the government began a job-creation project by planting vast swathes of timber around Graskop, which saw business boom and Mpumalanga become one of the country’s largest afforested areas.

Since those pioneering days the town hasn’t burgeoned but, as it turns 100, its welcome just gets bigger. And just as the surrounding landscape makes a stop over in Graskop a must, so do its very, very famous pancakes… 

 Warren Southey from Silver Spoon pancakes is one of the movers and shakers in Graskop. Louis Audie at work in his studio.
Where to Eat

Silver Spoon Pancake Place has every pancake you can imagine, such as the banana and cinnamon with ice cream. 013767 1039

Harrie’s Pancakes is famous – the black cherries and liqueur pancake is a dream but the savouries are just as good. 013767 1273

Canimambo is a good Portuguese/ Mozambican restaurant diagonally opposite the Graskop Hotel. 013 767 1869

Kruger’s Gold Restaurant on the edge of the escarpment at the Graskop airfield has a view as spectacular as its food. 0833251833

The Potluck Bush Kitchen, on the R532 between Graskop and Bourke’s Luck Potholes, has great boerewors and steak and pap. Look out for the flags and sign that says ‘African Food’. 073 705 4734

■ Tuck in to coffee and cake at Panorama Lodge just outside Graskop on the R535, in the most spectacular setting. 013 767 1377

Where to Play

■ There are excellent walks and hikes in the area, such as the Jock of the Bushveld Trail, an 8km circular trail leaving from the municipal campsite. 060 812 3581

■ A number of day trails, forest hikes, and hikes to Mac Mac Pools can be organised through Komatiland Eco-Tourism. 013 754 2724, website

■ Enjoy the magnificent waterfalls and rivers, some of them geological wonders, and superb places to picnic and swim – Pinnacle Rock, Lisbon and Berlin Falls, Mac Mac Pools, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, Blyde River. 

■ The Big Swing on the R535 will send you off at 180km/hour or zip across the gorge on a high wire. 072 223 8155, website

Where to Stay

■ An extraordinary, art-deco masterpiece, Flycatcher Castle is well worth a stay or just a tour. 013767 1114, website

The Graskop Hotel is a showroom for contemporary art and each room is designed by a different South African artist. 013 767 1244, website

Westlodge is a pretty, ‘gingerbread’ bed and breakfast on the outskirts of Graskop with good accommodation and excellent food. 013 767 1390, website

Log Cabin Village offers simple, self-catering, well-equipped chalets in the heart of Graskop. 013 767 1474, website

■ lf you want to be out of town,Thaba Tsweni Lodge is 300m from the Berlin Falls on Berlin Farm. 083 997 1034

Lisbon Hideaway offers self-catering chalets in beautiful surroundings on the banks of the Lisbon River, 7km from Graskop. 083 438 2714, website

For more info on Graskop 013 767 1886, email, website

More info on the town of Graskop More info on the Panorama Route area

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