Drive The Panorama Route, South Africa

The breathtaking Panorama Route in the Mpumalanga region of South Africa is best known for its cultural heritage and dramatic landscapes. The 18-km stretch of the R534 that loops along the top of the cliff, right at the very edge fo the escarpment, is a scenic marvel. My family enjoyed a jam packed day exploring this famous scenic route at the tail end of our G Adventures Kruger Safari tour. We had a blast on the first few days of the tour as we became animal spotting experts on our game drives in Kruger National Park.

Landscapes along the Panorama Route are jaw dropping and feature scenery that made me realize North American stereotypes of Africa are just as real as the hilarious notion that all Canadian’s live in igloos.  My entire family commented on how ignorant we felt about Africa as we drove along mountain cliffs covered in forests reminiscent of British Colombia. First stop of the day was at the Three Rondawels located in the Blyde River Canyon which were unfortunately covered in early morning cloud cover. We went on a quick walk around the site and strolled through a few market stalls before arriving at the impressive Bourke’s Luck Potholes.

The group spent a few hours exploring at Bourke’s Luck, pulling off our jackets and slathering on our sunscreen as we experienced our first sunny day of the trip. Grit and stones carried by the swirling waters at the confluence of the Blyde (“joyful”) and Treur (“sad”) rivers have carved potholes, from which early prospectors extracted large quantities of gold. The Potholes really are a photographers dream as the visit features several sprawling bridges, deep canyons and roaring waterfalls.

Once finished up at Bourke’s Luck we drove down the road for a vigorous hike to God’s Window lookout. More South African myths were dispelled as we marched through humid jungle to arrive at a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding rolling landscape. It took a good workout with several stops to huff and puff before we were back down in our van bound for the small town of Graskop. The town anticipates throngs of tourists stopping by every day so be prepared for local men selling bags of roasted macadamia nuts. A perfect snack for your next day of road tripping.

We enjoyed lunch at a local favorite, Harrie’s Pancakes. I enjoyed my first swig of local cider Savana Light and the rest of the group sampled the restaurants speciality, a home made ginger beer. I enjoyed a savoury crepe filled with chicken, leeks and covered in béchamel and finished off with a sweet crepe: banana sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, squeeze of lemon and covered in caramel. After lunch I spent an hour or so walking around town checking out local gift shops and poked around an art exhibit inside a boutique hotel just off the main street.

Back in the van we took a quick stop to a historical cemetery where many miners were buried hundreds of years ago. A quick drive down the road and we arrived at Pilgrim’s Rest. Prospectors struck it rich in 1874, ending their search for gold in a picturesque Lowveld valley. Their original village, today restored to its modest glory, is unique: the diggers built in “tin and timber” thinking that, once the gold was exhausted, they would move on. But the gold lasted almost 100 years!  My family had good fun poking about town which has a pioneer village “gold rush,” vibe.  If you are in need fo a quenching I suggest grabbing a drink at the eclectic Church Bar which is covered in memorabilia and filled with antiques.

Our final stop of the day was at Mac Mac Pools and Falls. We started down river at the pools where locals splash about to cool off (and the brave jump from a cliff for a refreshing plunge). MacMac Falls offered a stunning finish to our day as the sun was setting across the horizon. This 70 meter fall was named for the Scottish mineres who panned for gold in the area. At the entrance of the Falls there is a large market of artisans selling travel trinkets, as is it be expected at every tourist stop. I had good fun chatting with a group of local woman who had just finished their day. They were waiting in line for a mini bus to pick them up and take them home. My tour leader blasted some tribal beats from the van and in seconds the entire group was dancing in a conga line. Am constantly amazed and inspired by the rhythm, friendliness and warmth of the local people here. I wish more Torontonians would randomly dance with tourists while waiting for the streetcar. I won’t hold my breath.

That evening our group enjoyed our final meal together during a rather calamitous thunderstorm. It was good fun to listen to the sky crack open and lightening flash.

The following morning we hopped back on the highway for the seven hour drive back to Johannesberg. We enjoyed a few rest stops  along the way, most notable being our lunch at Spur Steak Ranches, the most famous fast food chain in South Africa. We spotted hundreds of these restaurants across the country. Spur specializes in burgers, steaks, ribs, roast chicken and salads. I found it rather hilarious that the most iconic restaurant chain in South Africa uses a Native American chieftan as its mascot. The restaurant interior was entirely decked out in steroetypical “Indian” decorum: think tee-pee’s, Pocahontas and blazing faux camp fires.

As I munched on a bacon burger slathered in guacamole I smiled across the table at my family. Four Canadians eating at a North American inspired restaurant had officially finished our G Adventures tour and were ready for a new adventure. That evening we would fly to Port Elizabeth for a two week road trip along the countries much loved Garden Route.

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