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The Panorama Route: South Africa’s Most Beautiful Road Trip

Panorama Route, South Africa
Panorama Route, South Africa | Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip
’In the northeastern corner of South Africa lies an underrated pocket of paradise – the Panorama Route. Visitors often flock south to the Cape or opt for a safari in the north, but sandwiched somewhere in between is the often-overlooked province of Mpumalanga.

Mpumalanga is one of South Africa’s nine provinces and is most famous for its epic wildlife and bushveld terrain. However, there’s plenty to see before you hit South Africa’s safari wonderland.

This road trip begins in Johannesburg and weaves its way from the big city up into cooler mountain regions, where you’ll find the small towns of Lydenberg, Graskop, Sabie and Hazyview. The total distance for a round trip from Johannesburg is roughly 2,000 km (1,242 miles), and it’s best enjoyed over three action-packed days.

Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip

The land of the rising sun

‘Mpumalanga’ literally translates to ‘the land of the rising sun’. The natural light weaves an undeniable magic into the area and being positioned so far east, Mpumalanga is the first place in South Africa that light touches each morning.

Mpumalanga is home to the highest concentration of waterfalls in the country, the world’s largest green canyon and South Africa’s most majestic drive. The aptly named Panorama Route promises endless views, plunging waters, crystal rock pools, abundant pine and indigenous forests, all making for a breathtakingly beautiful road trip between Johannesburg and the Kruger National Park.

Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip
Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip
Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip

South Africa’s best waterfalls

The perfect Panorama Route road trip starts with a climb up the scenic Long Tom Pass, situated smack in the middle between the towns of Sabie and Graskop. The area is home to swirling mists, and the road cuts through seemingly endless pine plantations.

Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip
Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip

Once over the pass and into the riverside town of Sabie you’ll find yourself in waterfall heaven. There are almost 10 in the immediate area, with some viewpoints ranking higher than others. Lone Creek Falls is located an easy 9km (5.6mi) from Sabie and a short walk through indigenous forest. The waterfall has been declared a National Monument and although the pool below looks enticing, save your swimming for the next stop, Mac Mac Pools, which are deeper and better for paddling.

These gorgeous natural rock pools are formed by a fast-flowing stream that eventually coasts down into a large gorge. The deepest pool can get busy over the weekends, but there are a series of pools further upstream that are less popular with the crowds.

Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip
Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip

From here, hop back into the car for one last stop. Glide down the Graskop gorge and watch the waters plummet off the opposite cliffs from safely within the new Graskop Gorge Lift. The glass elevator cuts through the treetops as you descend 51 metres (167 feet) down into the valley. Below, you can stand underneath the Motitsi waterfall and explore the surrounding indigenous forests with the help of a series of boardwalks and suspension bridges.

Go back in time at Pilgrim’s Rest, a living museum town

Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip

Add a bit of history and culture to your Panorama Route road trip with a stop off at Pilgrim’s Rest. Dating back to the late 1800s, this village has been preserved in the style of the gold-rush era. Wander the quaint main street to get a taste of what life was like when mining magnates ruled the area. Many buildings have been perfectly maintained, so you can still have a beer in the old pub, send some mail from the functioning post office or poke around in the old general dealer to travel back in time. The entire town of Pilgrim’s Rest was declared a National Monument in 1986, and is known as one of the most beautiful towns in South Africa.

Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip
Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip

Follow along this scenic drive you’ll find God’s Window, a place where the world seems to open up. From a height of about 700 metres (2,297 feet), this incredible viewpoint allows visitors to see out from the escarpment right over the Lowveld, where South Africa’s wildlife roams across the Kruger National Park. Climb through the cooling forest mist to reach the highest lookout point and undoubtedly the best view.

London, New York, Berlin, Liverpool and Lisbon are some of the names of the farms found along the Panorama Route. The names reflect the origins of the many miners who flocked to the area in search of riches. Another place inspired by its early settlers is Lisbon Falls. This waterfall is the highest in Mpumalanga reaching a staggering 94 metres (308 feet). What most visitors don’t know, however, is that it’s best appreciated from below. If you have the time, take the hour-long hike down to the water to swim in the crystal blue pool at the bottom.

Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip

In just a few days you’ll have tackled majestic mountains, driven over panoramic passes, swum below waterfalls and experienced the magic of the forests that characterise this landscape. There’s just one last stop along the route and it is arguably the best.

Explore the beauty of the Blyde River Canyon

Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip

The most famous point of the Panorama Route is the Blyde River Canyon and the picturesque Three Rondavels viewpoint. ‘Rondavel’ means ‘hut’ in Afrikaans, and from the viewpoint you can easily spot three of them climbing up towards the sky.

Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip

Legend has it that Mariepskop (the highest peak in the canyon) was named after a local chief in the area. As chief, he was required to pick one of three beautiful sisters as his wife. Impatient for his bride to become available (she was the middle sister and could not marry until the eldest was married), he decided to allow all three sisters to join his clan and live in the three rondavels.

The Blyde River Canyon is the largest green canyon in the world with a dam at the bottom. Glide across the waters of the Blydepoort Dam – a great way to appreciate the enormity of this natural attraction. The canyon is 26km (16.2mi) in length and around 800 metres (2,625 feet) deep. It’s at its most beautiful in the early morning or at sunset when you’ll be able to spot the hippos, crocodiles and trumpeter hornbills that live there.

Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip

Tips for a self-drive along the Panorama Route

This self-drive adventure is best for nature-lovers and the adventurous at heart. Think wide open spaces, a little off the beaten track and, in places, a lot of potholes. Keep your driving to the daytime, so you can see the potholes and any other obstructions in the roads.

Make sure you have some cash in South African rands to pay the nominal entry fees at each site and waterfall. Each of the viewpoints costs between roughly 1 and 5 rands and the boat trip costs about 11 rands per adult. You’ll also find craft markets and vendors at many of the stops. Expect to pay roughly 5 rands for a bag of locally grown avocados, macadamia nuts, mangoes and more depending on the season – all available for sale on the side of the road.

Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip
Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip
Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip
Panorama Route, South Africa Melanie Van Zyl / © Culture Trip