Mpumalanga Escarpment in a weekend
- This article is an itinerary.
This itinerary includes quite a bit of driving, but all roads indicated are paved and no special vehicle is required. Attractions are all close to the main roads and clearly indicated with signs.
The itinerary is broken up over 3 days:
- Friday, get to the Escarpment.
- Saturday, a self drive tour of the most prominent attractions.
- Sunday, return to Gauteng.
If you are traveling by car, rent one with an air conditioning as this area can get very hot.
Book accommodation for Friday and Saturday night in or around Lydenburg or Sabie. In off-peak periods it is possible to find accommodation without booking beforehand, but having your accommodation sorted before you leave gives you more time to enjoy the weekend, rather than look for a place to sleep.
Have some cash on hand for toll fees. You will encounter 3 toll booths on the way, Diamond Hill costs R32, Middleburg costs R53, and Machado Plaza costs R78.
Therefore you will need R163 each way, or a total of R326. All toll booths now accept most common credit cards for payment.
You will also need cash for entry fees to most of the sights along the Panorama Route.
Bridal Veil Falls: R10 per car
Lone Creek Falls: R10 per person
Horseshoe Falls: R10 per car
Three Rondavels: R10 per car
Bourke's Luck Potholes: R30 per person + R10 per car
Berlin Falls: R10 per car
Lisbon Falls: ?
Wonderview Lookout Point: free
God's Window: R10 per car
Pinnacle: R5 per car
Mac Mac Pools: ?
Mac Mac Falls: R10 per car
You are going to spend your time either driving or enjoying the outdoors, so take comfortable shoes and a hat. Don't forget to protect yourself from the harsh escarpment sun, a high protection-factor sunscreen is essential, even in winter. Most sleeping establishments will have a swimming pool and you might want to cool down when you return there in the evenings, so remember to pack your swim wear.
The escarpment offers some dramatic scenery and you will definitely want to take photos. Make sure the batteries are charged and you have ample recording media. Also see Travel photography.
You may get in either by car or motorbike. Getting to the Mpumalanga Escarpment by motorbike can be boring as the road is very uninteresting, but once you are off the N4 highway, you are definitely in bikers´ country.
Leave Gauteng around midday on Friday in order to avoid rush hour traffic.
Follow the N1 towards Pretoria. Make sure you stay on the left just after exit 112 (Brakfontein/Old Pretoria road) as the N1 and N14 will meet and you need to keep following the N1 through the Brakfontein Interchange.
For some unknown reason the speed limit between exit 128 (John Foster) and exit 136 (Rigel Ave) is 100km/h rather than the usual 120km/h. There are static speed cameras, so make sure you don't exceed the limit.
Continue following the N1 until it meets the N4 at the Proefplaas Interchange, shortly after exit 141 (M6 Lynwood Rd), keep to the left and follow the N4 Witbank signs. From here, follow the directions as from Pretoria.
There are numerous e-toll (open road tolling) gantries on the N1 between Johannesburg and Pretoria, to fully understand the cost and methods of payments, it is advisable to visit the tolling authority's website for full details. SANRAL - http://www.sanral.co.za/e-toll/
Take the N4 east towards Witbank. This is a toll road in very good condition and average driving time will be around 1 hour. Toll cost is R32 at the Diamond Hill toll gate (about halfway between Pretoria and Witbank). Keep an eye open for an impressive swallows nest construction (thousands of nests build from mud) covering the underside of one of the overpasses on this road.
You will reach the Middelburg toll gate shortly after passing through Witbank. Toll cost is R53.
Stay on the N4 and pass by Belfast on your way to Machadodorp. If you need to take a break from driving and stretch your legs, stop at Milly's just before Machadodorp. You will also notice that the speed limit is reduced as you enter Machadodorp, so make sure you keep below the posted speeds as there are always speed traps.
Shortly after passing through Machadodorp you will reach the Machado toll gate. Toll cost is R78.
Within 2km from this toll gate there will be an exit to your left marked as R36 Lydenburg/(N4) Nelspruit via Schoemanskloof. Take this exit and follow the R36 for about 15km until you see the old Bambi Hotel on the right. This portion of the R36 has been newly rebuilt and is in excellent condition.
At the Bambi Hotel you need to turn left onto the road marked as R36 Lydenburg and drive the last 50km to Lydenburg. The road condition on this portion of the R36 is not very good, so slow down and watch out for potholes.
You are now in the Mpumalanga Escarpment, check yourself in, have a drink and relax. Tomorrow there will be some more driving to see all the sights in this area.
If the establishment you are staying in does not serve breakfast early, ask if they can pack a take-away breakfast for you to use as padkos (road food) tomorrow; alternatively, plan to have a breakfast in Sabie.
Total distance between 270km and 300km. Total time required depends on how long you spend at each attraction along the way, but 7 hours is generally about average.
Set out early on Saturday morning. 7AM to 8AM will do fine.
Fill up with fuel and have some cash on hand for entrance fees (nominal at the couple of places that do require it) and curios.
You will be doing a bit of walking at the various stops, but most will not have a place to buy drinks and it can get quite hot, so buy some bottled water before you set out for the day.
Distance is around 45km
On your way, stop at the Long Tom on the right, a replica of one of the Guns used by the Boers against the British forces during the Boer war around 1900.
Just after the Long Tom, as you start descending the pass, you will find a viewpoint overlooking the valleys below. Photos from this location are often used in travel guides and you might want to take your own as well.
Waterfalls around Sabie
Distance is under 20km
There are a number of waterfalls on the Sabie River, Sabie Falls, Horseshoe Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and the Lone Creek Falls. The best one to visit is probably the 68m Lone Creek.
Follow the R532 towards Graskop. Just before leaving Sabie and crossing the Sabie River, you will find signboards on your left indicating Merry Pebbles and Lone Creek. Turn left here and follow the road for about 9km. A nominal entrance fee of R10 is payable per vehicle at a gate before reaching the parking area and open air curio shops.
Once parked you will need to walk about 200m through the forest to reach the bottom of the falls.
You may be tempted to spend quite a bit of time in these tranquil surroundings, explore further and even follow the footpath all the way to the top of the falls, but don't spend too much time here, because there is a lot more to be seen and a weekend is a short time to do everything.
Trace your steps back to Sabie.
Distance is around 33km
Cross the Sabie River and follow the R532 towards Graskop .
About 13km from Sabie you will find the Mac-Mac Falls on the right-hand side of the road. The short walk (less than 100m) to the view area is not paved and can at times be very uneven, so be careful not to slip and fall.
The falls have two streams that plunge 56 m deep into a gorge and got their name from the large number of Scots that dug for gold in the area during the gold rush of the 1870s. Unfortunately the only good views of the falls are from caged steel constructions on the edge of the cliff face. This makes it rather difficult to get any good photos.
As with most tourist attractions, there are stalls selling curious, local art and handcrafts next to the parking area.
A little further along the road, on your left, you will find a plaque commemorating Jock of the Bushveld.
Pilgrim's Rest is a small town preserved and restored as an gold mining village from the late 1800s, early 1900s. There are a number of Museums and interesting buildings, as well as places to eat and drink.
Pilgrim's Rest to The Panorama Route
Distance is around 18km
Follow the R533 back to where it joins the R532. Continue along the R532 and pass through Graskop. Shortly after Graskop you will find the R534 (marked Panorama Route ) turn-off to the right. Turn onto the R534. You are now on the very edge of the escarpment.
The Panorama Route
Distance is around 23km
The first attraction you will find on the Panorama Route is The Pinnacle, a 30m high outcrop of quartzite rock that has eroded slower then the surrounding rock and has become detached from the cliff face. There are no facilities and no fee is charged.
A little further along the road you will find God's Window, a lookup point with views over the Lowveld 700m below. It is often said that on a clear day one can see all the way to Maputo from here, but you might want to take that with a grain of salt. Paved walkways provide easy access to the edge of the cliff face where dedicated lookout points has been built in stone. Toilet facilities and a craft market is located at the parking area. There is a R10 entrance fee.
Wonder View is the highest viewpoint on the R534, providing arguably better views than God's Window. You'll find its little parking area approximately 1.3km north from the God's Window parking area.
Continuing further and the R534 will rejoin the R532, take a right turn onto the R532.
The Panorama Route to Bourke's Luck Potholes
Distance is around 35km
Shortly after rejoining the R532 you will see signposts on the left indicating Lisbon Falls and Berlin Falls. Both are located quite close to the roadside and are well worth stopping to see, especially after heavy rains in the area. No fees are charged at either.
Bourke's Luck Potholes
These rather big, cylindrical potholes were carved from the rock by water action. Pathways have been built across the potholes for visitors to walk on and get a view from directly overhead.
A take-away shop, restaurant and toilet facilities are located in the mail building. There is also a picnic area under trees. An entrance fee of R30 per person and R10 per vehicle is charged.
On the edge of the Blyde River Canyon
Distance is around 33km
The Blyde River Canyon is the third largest canyon in the world and for the next couple of kilometres the R532 follows along its top edge. There are a number of places where one can stop to view the canyon below, and the two most visited are the Lowveld Viewpoint and the Three Rondawels Viewpoint.
Distance is around 23km
The R532 will join with the R36 some 20km after you pass the Blydepoort Dam. Turn left into the R36 towards Ohrigstad.
Distance is around 40km
Continue following the R36 back to Lydenburg.
Crime in the area is generally quite low, but follow common sense safety rules. Don't leave valuables exposed in your vehicle. Make sure that your car is properly locked before leaving it unattended.
Take care when approaching the edge of the escarpment or canyon, because 700m is a very long way to fall.
Enjoy a leisurely breakfast, have a swim and generally relax on Sunday morning before retracing your steps to Gauteng.
On a short getaway like this there are many things one will not be able to see or do. The nearby Sudwala Caves is definitely something for which you may want to return.