I had no plans. My flight was booked – and that’s where my itinerary ended. My first ever trip to explore this part of South Africa was going to be an unscripted escapade into (for me) the unknown. I’d landed at Kruger Mpumalanga International in the afternoon, got the keys to my rental car, sat behind the wheel… and then wondered whether to turn left or right as I blindly drove off into the sunset. Nelspruit was 25kms to my left and so that’s the direction I took. I found an AirB&B on my phone, followed “Lucy” (the GPS voice) and arrived at a smart little gated complex on the edge of town. Met the owner, grabbed the keys, shut the door, plonked down on the couch and switched on the telly. My next move would only need to be thought about the following morning so I shut off for the night. So far so good.
Morning came and for me, the Kruger Park was the first obvious stop on my unplanned to-do list. The Malelane Gate in the extreme south of the park was just 70km’s up the track and so I hopped into my trusty little rental and set off. It was during this short drive that I got my first taste of this province – and I must say that my mind’s eye couldn’t have been more shut in the years leading up to this moment. Mountains and valleys and lushness and rivers were just not what I’d been expecting. An hour later I stopped at a BP garage in the farming town of Malelane, grabbed a toastie, meandered my way through a crowd of 5 000 ANC supporters who were holding a rally in the parking lot, and arrived, two kilometres further on, at the Malelane Gate. Ninety-five South African Rand later and I was inside the fences of the world-famous Kruger National Park (probably one of the few South Africans who haven’t been to Kruger – but I was quite excited at being there none-the-less).
I’d arrived early so as to get the best possible sightings, and I wasn’t disappointed – all the usual suspects seemed to be out in full force that morning and so I spent hours exploring side roads and enjoying unique encounters. If nothing else, make your way to Skukuza for something to eat and plenty of Park memorabilia at the huge curio shop. I had a beer, stretched my legs, decided I couldn’t afford to stay in the lodgings here, and so drove out at the Numbi Gate and headed for Hazyview.
Hazyview, for those who don’t know, is a very quirky little sub-tropical paradise surrounded by banana trees, fruit orchards and macadamia nut farms. It’s also the gateway to the much talked about Panorama Route with its rivers, waterfalls, forests and canyons – and so my mind was made up. I’d find accommodation here for the night, then continue north the next day.
B&B’s and guesthouses are not hard to find in Hazyview – there are 10 signs on every street corner pointing you towards accommodation. I drove into a particularly leafy suburb just off the main drag, turned left then right then left again, and by pure chance came across The Essence – hidden away at the end of a purposefully-overgrown cul-de-sac. There were no signs or clues alerting me to the existence of The Essence, but I was completely blown away by its idiosyncratic appeal. The 10 wooden cottages are all hidden away from each other in what can only be described as a tropical jungle. Also within this jungle is a pub and swimming pool area with music and a TV, and you’d swear you were a million miles away from anywhere. For the first time on my trip I’d wished I wasn’t alone – I needed to share this little piece of Bohemian heaven with somebody! My cabin had an outdoor shower and toilet, as well as six million ants which had decided to finish off the pizza I’d left in an open box on the balcony (I wish I had seen them before I’d bitten into the remainder of that pizza – but in my defence it was dark and I’d had a couple of beers at the bar).
For a totally unique stay in Hazyview, have a look at www.theessence.co.za. I was sorry to have to check out the following morning, but excited to see where I’d end up next.
By now I knew that I wanted to see Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and to get there I would need to head toward the small town of Graskop and then keep going. Cue my trusty rental. Less than an hour later I was driving into Graskop, when an out-of-place-in-the-middle-of-
That done, I carried on into town and stopped in at the Graskop Tourist Office. The lady inside told me that the best way to do the “Panorama Route” would be to drive all the way up to Bourke’s Luck Potholes first, then do a u-turn and come back down, by which time the mist at the scenic lookout point at God’s Window would have lifted. So, I followed her advice and began the half-hour drive up the R532 towards the potholes that I’d always wanted to see, but didn’t really have any great expectations of what I’d find. Happily to say the Bourke’s Luck Potholes exceeded my somewhat sceptical expectations – and I can tell you that photos really don’t do this phenomenon any justice. Over many years, the Treur River has plunged into the Blyde River causing waterborne sand and rock to grind out huge, cylindrical potholes into the bedrock of the river. It’s an incredible spectacle (sadly though, a few idiots have thrown bits of litter down into the chasms – and they’re pretty much irretrievable!
With the potholes now firmly bored into my brain, I did the u-turn back towards Graskop. Midday temperatures were now soaring and the Blyde River to my left looked too good to resist a dip. Pulling down a dirt road, I stripped off and slid down a smooth rock and into the cold and gently flowing water. An invigorating pit stop. Floating naked in the Blyde River on a scorching hot day and surrounded by nature is a wonderfully liberating act of unlawfulness.
A sign 10km’s further down the highway pointed to a side road leading God’s Window. Again, I had no idea what to expect. I took the turnoff and arrived at a parking area humming with curio shops. Now out of my car, I walked the stony trail to the lookout point. God’s Window is just another testament to the spectacular scenery offered in that part of Mpumalanga, and being a humble soul who absorbs and appreciates dramatic viewpoints, I was happy to sit and gaze over forests as far as the eye can see. I also wondered how many bodies were lying in the inaccessible denseness below – apparently, the sheer cliff in front of me is a favourite suicide spot. There’s a walk up a stepping-stone path into a Rain Forest here too. I hugged the heavily mossed trees and then carved my initials into one of them using my car key (off the path and out of sight – so no damage done).
Saying goodbye to God’s Window I drove back into Graskop, and walked back into the Graskop Tourist Office. The lady inside welcomed me back and suggested I drive in the other direction, this time to the old museum town of Pilgrim’s Rest. And so I did. The drive from Graskop to Pilgrim’s Rest is somewhat of a scenic wonderland, and one can just imagine what a rough ride this would have been driving the ox-wagons of old. I drove into this time-warp town and was lovingly accosted by a car-guard who began washing my car before I’d even switched the engine off. The six-car parking area on the main street of Pilgrim’s Rest’s “old town” has 12 car guards – and each car that enters the town (approximately 1 per hour) gets treated in the same special way. Anyway, alluvial gold was discovered here by prospector Alec Patterson in about 1870-ish and a gold rush ensued. The town was officially declared a goldfield in September 1873 and all of a sudden there were 1,500 inhabitants searching for gold. And many of the original tin houses that sprang up still stand.
A visit to the town’s museum gives a great insight into the history of Pilgrim’s Rest, and the “new” side of town has plenty of guest houses so a stay here is easily do-able. My flight back to Cape Town was leaving the following day from Kruger Airport and so I grabbed a late afternoon bite to eat at the “original” Royal Hotel on the main street, bade farewell to this quaint little settlement, and began the two-hour drive back to Nelspruit.
I found a hotel in Nelspruit (a sprawling metropolis compared to where I’d just been), flopped down on my bed, contemplated where and what I’d done in such a short space of time over the last 3 days, and then walked down to the hotel’s pool and threw myself in. A fitting end to one of the best-unplanned getaways I’ve ever had. Well worth doing.