Visit South Africa’s Twin Peaks District

by Youlendree Appasamy

When the city gets to me a little too much, I usually find myself longing for home. As imperfect a feeling as it is, I find myself looking back to White River, a dorpie in Mpumalanga where I grew up, as a home of sorts. Gauteng’s country cousin is home to magnificent natural beauty, unspoilt and safe hiking paths as well as some interesting cuisine. Here’s a look at affordable ways to take a weekend break from the city and explore some gems in and along the Panorama Route in Mpumalanga.

Part of the joy of travelling is the journey itself, right? And en route to Mpumalanga is a welcome pitstop about halfway between Johannesburg and Mbombela – the Alzu Petroport on the N4. On one side is a swanky garage replete with a Mugg&Bean and pristine views of the highveld, and on the other, one can freely view rhino, buffalo, eland, blesbok, ostriches and an emu roaming on the adjacent game enclosure.

The first stop is White River, a charming area that offers luxury accommodation facilities with a small-town feel. The town is within 30-minutes to two-hours drive from most of the key points of interest in the region. Whilst in the town, visit Casterbridge, a quaint lifestyle centre that offers some of the best local craft and cuisine. Shautany Chocolatiers serve some of the most delectable artisanal chocolates with a local spin. Find Macadamia praline truffles, dark-chocolate dipped orange peel from Lowveld Valencia oranges and their iconic pecan nut clusters – the product that started the business. Also in Casterbridge is Gumtreez, a pub and grill cosily situated under huge Eucalyptus (gum) trees. The laid-back atmosphere is complimented by the affordable food and is a great place to suip with locals. Speaking of homegrown brews, the Sabie Brewing Company offers an exciting mix of craft beer made in the region and is stocked at most restaurants and pubs along the Panorama Route. The Long Tom Lager is a favourite with its strong malty taste.

A view into the Blyde River Nature Reserve which houses the stunning God’s Window.

Graskop is about an hour and a half drive from White River and is known as the gate to the Panorama Route. Another small town, Graskop is a scenic area animated by the forestry industry. Harries Pancakes, one of the best restaurants to get sweet and savoury pancakes in Mpumalanga, is located here. When stopping by, be sure to get a chocolate mousse pancake washed down with a cup of Sabie Valley coffee, or a tomato bredie pancake for meat-lovers. There’s plenty to do in the town too, a standout activity being the Big Swing, one of the world’s highest cable gorge swings. For those more faint of heart, try the 135m foefie slide across the gorge. A popular day hike that starts in Graskop is the Forest Falls trail. As you make your way through the forestry plantation, you’ll find a waterfall that’s wider than it is tall. Before you go, you’ll have to get a hiking permit from Komatiland forestry, and these only cost between R20-30 for day hikes and walks. A pleasant drive up north from Graskop leads one to the Blyde River Canyon. God’s Window, The Pinnacle and Bourke’s Lucky Potholes are some of the beautiful places you can explore once you’re there.

Bourke’s Lucky Potholes are an amazing display of rock formations through erosion.

Pilgrim’s Rest is an old gold-mining town turned living museum, and is about a 20-minutes drive from Graskop. When there be sure to visit the crumbling graveyard and find Robber’s Grave, take a ghost tour or indulge in some gold-mining nostalgia. The careful curation of Victorian kitsch makes it one of the province’s National Monuments, too. The town is surrounded by rolling green hills, that contain quartz veins which produced the gold the town was famous for, and some notable hikes in the area include the Prospector’s Hiking Trail that when done in full, is five days, but can be shortened for a weekend trip. The trail takes you through some historical mining sites such as Peace Tree Creek. The stunning indigenous forest around the Morgenzon Hut is another highlight of the trail.

Back in the day gold prospectors flocked to the rolling green hills of Pilgrims Rest and Graskop.

When the night-time fog settles over Sabie, the forestry plantations give the town a decidedly spooky feel.

Arguably, the most Twin Peaks town of them all is Sabie. Besides Graskop, this is another town in the region that is centrally located to a plethora of waterfalls, streams and lakes. There are massive forestry plantations as far as the eye can see and when the fog settles in for the evening, the area is decidedly spooky. The constant low drum of logging trucks passing through the main road, and Sabie’s version of the R&R Diner, Smokey’s, lend the quiet town a Lynchian feel. Smokey’s Train Diner is a beautiful, albeit greasy eatery, that is located in an old train car – and if you’re traveling with kids it offers a fun mini-golf course round the back. The potjies are wonderfully spiced, and if you’re stopping by for breakfast, the putu pap and mince breakfast is delicious.

Smokey’s Train Diner serves hearty, meaty meals

Like any good Lynch film, there’s plenty of places to escape to the woods in Sabie, too. The abundance of natural water in the area means that the vegetation is bountiful nearly all year round – and dotted around the town are picturesque waterfalls and walks. Lone Creek, Bridal Veil and Horseshoe Falls are found just off the main road, and Mac Mac Falls and Pools are located about a 10 minute drive outside of town. Lisbon and Berlin Falls are also in the area and provide you with breathtaking views of the Lowveld escarpment. Be sure to pay no more than R20 to enter the viewing sites, or else you’re getting fleeced.

Above: The Berlin Falls reach a staggering height of 80m, making it the tallest waterfall in Mpumalanga.

Although these last two towns fall outside of the scope of the Panorama Route proper, they are a worthy addition to a weekend trip and are in close proximity to the other locations.

Battery Creek Falls are well worth the 20-minute steep decline into the canyon.

Kaapschehoop is a quaint little town that’s also built on the myths and legends of gold mining that took place there. The town itself is located on a cliff edge – and a 30 minute walk through the unusual rock formations on one side of the town will lead you to the cliff face. Besides that, wild horses have roamed the escarpment for decades, and if you’re lucky you can view these powerful animals up close. The Koek ‘n Pan is a great place for a leisurely breakfast, and the town is full of quirky vintage shops. Just outside of town is Adam’s Calendar, an ancient stone circle site likened to Stonehenge, and Battery Creek Falls, a natural waterfall hidden in a canyon. Get a walking permit from Salvador Pub and head to the falls with a picnic basket. The shallow pools around the waterfall are also a safe place to cool off in summer, and the natural forests that surround Battery Creek Falls are a great place for bird spotting. If you’re quiet enough, you may spot the endangered Blue Swallow, which resides in the area.

left: There’s an assortment of vintage finds and bric-a-brac in Kaapschehoop. right: The wild horses of Kaapschehoop roam free – try not to get too close as they bite!

When you take the N4 back, a sign pops up for Sudwala Caves. These are one of Mpumalanga’s most popular tourist attractions and offers some insight into the history of Swati politics as told through the lens of the Sudwala Caves’ function and formation. Just watch out for baboons on your way in! The one hour cave tour is well worth it, as is a visit to the adjacent Dinosaur Park. I’ve visited it as an awestruck child, and again as an adult and it hasn’t lost its charm or fun. Pierre’s Restaurant, just outside the cave entrance, gives one glorious green views of the Sudwala Valley, and the Dinoburgers are some of the juiciest I’ve tasted!

Sudwala Caves are made from some of the oldest rock in the world, and the cave itself formed 240 million years ago.

Mpumalanga is a land of immense beauty and will have you coming back again and again to experience the quirks you missed before, trying out new hiking trails and cuisine. Outside of South Africa’s most beloved game reserve, the Kruger National Park, there’s plenty more to see and do in Mpumalanga. The Panorama Route offers some of the country’s best kept natural beauty and is a welcome way to truly disconnect from the city for a while.

Footnotes: words by Youlendree Appasamy, images by Dave Mann

Panorama Route, Mpumalanga