A Kruger Adventure: A Guide to Graskop’s Blyde River Canyon
A sheer drop followed by a green forested valley and fields as far as the eye could see grabbed our attention.
Like any great adventure, our time exploring Blyde River Canyon was filled with a few surprises and bumps along the way.
After months of somewhat careful planning, we landed at the single terminal Mpumalanga’s Kruger International Airport shortly after 12 and were immediately charmed by the rugged country-side and thatched roof airport. Within a few minutes we’d collected our luggage and were making tracks in our rental car, on our way to Graskop. Once a gold-mining camp and now a small forested town, Graskop sits on the edge of the canyon and seemed like the perfect stayover enroute to the Kruger Park.
With only one stop along the way to pick up some food, we arrived in the town just after 3pm and made our way to our Airbnb. Unfortunately this is when disaster struck, or so we thought.
Upon arrival, there was no one to let us in, the owner who was currently away had arranged for her cleaner to welcome us. We were directed to Divine Foods At The View where we could grab a drink and use the facilities while we waited for the situation to be resolved.
We pulled into Panorama Chalets & Rest Camp where Divine Foods is located and eagerly exited the car, scrambling to take in the sweeping canyon view that lay before us. A sheer drop followed by a green forested valley and fields as far as the eye could see grabbed our attention. We quickly threw caution - or was it money - to the wind and asked the owner if by some small chance they had any space available for us that night.
Not only did they have room but it was a canyon facing chalet for two. We quickly booked it and cancelled our Airbnb (which the owner was kind enough to refund us for the inconvenience). So by 4pm, we’d checked into a new accommodation, dropped our bags and were starting our first adventure.
About Blyde River Canyon
Forming part of the Panorama Route, the Blyde River Canyon is a 26km “green” canyon in Mpumalanga and is one of the world's larger canyons. The Panorama Route starts near Graskop at Long Tom Pass and ends near Echo Caves on the Limpopo-Mpumalanga border. It follows the Great Escarpment to the lowveld and includes many well-known waterfalls and viewing points including God’s Window, the Pinnacle and the Three Rondavels.
Exploring Blyde River Canyon in 24-hours or less
Knowing that we’d arrive in Graskop in the later afternoon and would leave quite early in order to get to the Kruger Park before lunchtime, I started planning. First, I made a short list of the places I’d want to see knowing that I might only be able to visit one of them.
Top of my list was Lisbon Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in the region. It was only a 10-minute drive from Graskop which meant there was a good chance we’d be able to see it on the day we arrived but if unforeseen circumstances meant we only arrived in Graskop at sunset, we’d then be able to whiz-past it and snap a few pictures on our way to the Kruger. Next, I narrowed down what else I’d like to see if time allowed and came up with two options: God’s Window and the Three Rondavels. (Pinnacle had been on my list but we were told by our Airbnb that it wasn’t safe to do alone).
After a bit of research, Three Rondavels won out over God’s Window which seemed too touristy for my liking but was also seemed like somewhere you could spend a few minutes to a few hours exploring, something we wouldn’t have been able to do.
Only a few metres from the parking lot, the Lisbon Falls viewpoint hangs over the gorge where a dark blue river cuts the lush emerald landscape in two. We spent a few minutes, captivated by the 94-metre drop before deciding we had just enough time to make the short, but steep hike to the base.
Following a worn, straight path down, we half walked, half climbed down to the bottom where we walked alongside the river. We didn’t go all the way to the base, as we could already, from a few metres away, feel the strong spray cooling our flushed faces. We marveled at the beauty and might of the never-ending cascade of water over the cliff edge.
Many photos later, we scrambled back up, huffing and puffing our way to the top just in time to catch the sun dipping between the gorge.
Bourke’s Lucky Potholes
While we had planned on stopping to see the Three Rondavels, a quick chat at Panorama's Rest Camp reception had our minds changed. And so after watching the sunrise between the valley - a spectacular feat in itself - we set off on our second adventure.
If we were blown away by the might of Lisbon Falls, we were bowled over by the potholes which were only 35km from Graskop. After exiting our car at about 8am, we were met with the less than astonishing view of flat, earthy surface with hills in the distance. But following the short 700m path, we came face to face with one of the most incredible sites I’ve ever seen.
Small waterfalls punctuate the gorge where the Treur River meets the Blyde River. The resulting force and eddies have caused the most astounding rich reds, whites and golden cylindrical rock sculptures to form. We watched in wonder and awe as the pale green pools ran into the deep blues as they escaped the potholes and plummeted into the river.
To think, this most surprising of stops wasn’t even on our itinerary to begin with and I now wonder how any one could possibly consider leaving it off of their Blyde River bucket list. I’m not sure who Bourkes was (a gold digger apparently) but we felt like the lucky ones.
- Where possible plan ahead. Know how long you’ll have to explore, how much time you’ll have at each site and how long it’ll take you to get from one site to the next.
- Make a list as I did with your Must-Dos and your If-Possibles to avoid disappoint, and ask around.
- Each, or most of the sites as far as I can tell from my research, have a small entry fee. Bring cash so that you’re not caught out.
- Take your time. Rather than squeezing in an extra site, fully immerse yourself in the sites you can visit.
- Enjoy the journey. We could have taken the quick route from Graskop to Orpen Gate but we chose the scenic one and it paid off with gorgeous views that our eyes greedily gobbled up, especially along the Abel Erasmus Pass with its tall yellow hued rocky peaks and the Olifants River below.
The accommodation: Panorama Chalets & Rest Camp
The domino effect of our last-minute accommodation change was not lost on us. Had the cleaner for our Airbnb let us in, we would never have gone to Divine Food, we’d never have enquired about staying at Panorama Chalets & Rest Camp and the owner would never have told us about Bourke’s Lucky Potholes.
When checking in, we told the friendly man at reception our plans to travel the longer-yet-safer route to Kruger’s Orpen Gate and that we wanted to stop along the way to catch the sunrise over the canyon. He informed us that many of their guests claimed that the view of the sunrise from their chalets were the best. We were quickly persuaded into sleeping in a bit longer, watching the sunrise from our private stoep and then hitting the road. But instead of stopping at Three Rondavels, he suggested we pay Bourke’s Lucky Potholes a visit.
The 2-person chalet we stayed in was simple but homely, fitted with everything we could possibly need including towels, an equipped kitchenette, comfortable and firm mattresses and a small lounge area. All in all, it was perfect for our one-night stay over in the town. We couldn't have wished for a more idyllic location. Simply put, it was perfect.
We stored our snacks and the small amount of food we’d purchased on our way from the airport to Graskop in the fridge before heading out to Lisbon Falls. When we got back, hot from our short but awesome hike, we changed into our costumes and walked to the reception area where a bright blue infinity pool beckoned us into its icy depths. While we didn’t stay in the water long, we watched the valley below transform from a burgundy glow into deep blue.
A quick, hot shower and a change and we were ready - and exhausted from the day’s travels - for a hot meal we didn’t have to prepare ourselves. With Divine Foods At The View on our doorstep, we decided it was the perfect place for a bite to eat. Our pizzas hit the spot and the leftovers made for a nice easy lunch the next day. While neither of us regretted our ice-water swim, we couldn’t help but think how incredible sundowners on the restaurant’s terrace must be.
The next morning, we rose at dawn to catch the sun rising over the canyon before setting off.