Although this article, Mpumalanga Tourism for the Off-road Traveler, deals mainly with 4×4 trails in Mpumalanga, it is one of a series of fifteen articles that will briefly describe the geography, climate, terrain, must-do activities, must-see places, and much else besides, of all nine South African provinces, as well as some of the countries bordering on South Africa.
South Africa’s second-smallest province, Mpumalanga is marginally bigger than the Czech Republic. Only 76 495 sq/kms in extent, Mpumalanga takes up 6.3% of South Africa’s total surface area, and supports a population of 4 million persons, or 7.8% of the country’s total population, yielding a population density of 53 persons per sq/km.
Situated mostly on the elevated grasslands of the Highveld, the central region becomes mountainous towards the northeast, to terminate in the dramatic Drakensberg Escarpment that in some places plunges up to 700 metres into the Lowveld, a low-lying sub-tropical bushveld/savannah region that includes the southern portion of the Kruger National Park. The terrain of the Lowveld is mostly flat, with widely separated rocky outcrops that terminate in the Lebombo Mountain range which forms the border with Mozambique in the far eastern reaches of the province.
The climate of Mpumalanga varies as much as its topography: temperatures in the western Highveld ranges in a wide band of about 190 C between summer (October to February), and winter (April to August), with an average of 80 C. In contrast, the Lowveld summer temperatures can be as high as 420 C with very high humidity levels during the day, to around 19 C at night. Winter temperatures in the Lowveld vary between 23 C, and 6 C in mid-winter.
The wet season in Mpumalanga is from September until May with the most rain, (around 600 mm) of the average rainfall of around 1000 mm falling over the Lowveld region. The hot, wet, and humid conditions can be very uncomfortable during summer, which is also when the risk of contracting malaria is greatest. Standard anti-malarial precautions should be taken during this time. The best time to visit the Lowveld is during winter, when there are no temperature extremes.
The grassy Highveld is largely malaria free, and up to 15 C cooler than the Lowveld during the sum-mer months, which makes it a year-round destination, although late summer is the best time to visit the Cosmos Country, when the veld is carpeted with millions of blooming cosmos flowers.
The problem with the scenery of Mpumalanga is that there is so much of it. There is nothing else like it in South Africa; it is simply breathtaking, and it cannot be fully appreciated without seeing it firsthand.
A trip through Mpumalanga is best described as a long sequence of stunning experiences, from the vast rolling grasslands of the west that suddenly transitions into almost primeval, forested moun-tains, gorges and ravines that are further decorated by more sparkling waterfalls than anywhere else in the country; to the vast, flat, and game-rich plains of the sub-tropical Lowveld. At the risk of waxing lyrical, the view from God’s Window on the Panorama scenic route is probably the most aptly named lookout spot on the entire planet; it is here that one can be forgiven for thinking that this is the Creator’s favourite spot from which to enjoy His creation.
Lisbon Falls, the highest in South Africa, Mac Mac Falls, the pool of which one can swim in, Berlin Falls, the ethereal Bridal Veil Falls that can only be reached via a nearly one kilometre-long hike through lush indigenous forest; Lone Creek Falls; a National Monument hidden in a forest in which fairies might still live, beautiful Horseshoe Falls, and Forest Falls, a hidden gem that can be accessed only via a 3.5 km hike through spectacular forest scenery, all work together to make this area one of the most beautiful in the world, and in sharp contrast to much of the Highveld.
Much of the southwestern grassland has been irreparably damaged by virtually uncontrolled, and often illegal, coal-mining practices although rare pockets of scenic beauty still remain in areas far from the main routes, which the mining companies have not yet had the opportunity to cover in black coal-dust. Many of the wetlands, in the grassland area in particular have been destroyed by mine effluent, but it is still possible to find scenic spots off the beaten track in the many privately owned conservation areas, and fishing spots on private property that have been made accessible to the public.
Although most of the 55 National Parks, Reserves, and privately owned game lodges are concentrated in the north, and northeastern parts of Mpumalanga, there are some notable exceptions to this in the central region, where the mountain landscapes of the north are replaced by gentle, rolling grassland. The few examples of the Parks and Reserves listed here is representative of the scenic diversity of Mpumalanga.
Larger than the State of Israel, at slightly more than 2 million ha in extent, the Kruger National Park is the largest Park in South Africa, and one of the largest on the African continent. The at-mosphere of the Park epitomises the unpredictability and raw wilderness of Africa in a way that is not duplicated in any other game reserve in the world. This is the quintessential African experience; it defies description, and the only way to form an idea of what this vast area represents, is to spend at least three months in it.
The reserve is hosts the third largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon in America, and the Fish River Canyon in Namibia. However, it is the largest vegetated canyon in the world, and it contains the world-famous Bourke’s Luck Potholes, God’s Window, Three Rondavels, Pinnacle Rock, which is a 30m-high tower of quartzite, and a mountain named, “The Devil’s Window”.
Although the Dullstroom Nature Reserve receives little publicity, or recognition as a viable tour-ist destination, it is nevertheless a seamless construct of rolling grass-clad hills, lush valleys, and spectacular views of near-unspoiled sub-alpine habitats and ecosystems. Apart from its inspiring scenic beauty, the main attraction of this little reserve is its obscurity; the enterprising Mpumalanga off-road road traveler is almost guaranteed to have the entire reserve to himself, since the tourist hordes have mostly never heard of it.
Another well-kept secret is the incredibly scenic 50 000 ha Songimvelo Game Reserve deep in the heart of the Barberton Mountainlands. Although the gently rolling hills, lush, forested val-leys, deep ravines, and vast, open plains support an unbelievably diverse amalgam of wildlife, plants, and ecosystems, this reserve also boasts some of the oldest volcanic rocks, caves, and fossilized bacteria colonies in the world. No doubt, the scientists that flock here to study the 3.5 billion-year-old Barberton Greenstone Belt also take time off to view the herds of zebra, buffalo, red hartebeest, and blue wildebeest on the grassland, and the giraffe, kudu, and impala in the more wooded areas, as well as the incredibly rich birdlife that occur right through the Reserve.
Bordering on the scenic Long Tom Pass this small, yet stunningly beautiful reserve that is domi-nated by the Mauchsberg and Mount Anderson, lies on the Sterkspruit River, allowing trout angles to practice their passion amid thick riverine woodland, towering quartz cliffs, deep, forested gorges, and rolling grassland. This is also an important birding spot, with more than 150 recorded bird species, among which are the ground woodpecker, black-winged plover, Cape rock thrush and bush blackcap.
Located in the Mpumalanga grass and wetlands region, this reserve includes the entire wetland ecosystem around the Nooitgedacht Dam that consists of lakes, pans, and streams that makes this reserve a place of exceptional scenic beauty and a nationally important bird breeding and watching spot with more than 200 recorded bird species that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world.
This route is widely regarded by international touring companies as one of the most scenic drives in the world, and although there is no clearly defined beginning or end, it is generally ac-cepted that the route starts at Graskop, and includes small towns like Hazyview, Malelane, White River, Dullstroom, Lydenburg at the foot of the Long Tom Pass, and Sabie, which is located in one of the largest man-made forests to be found anywhere. Some of the scenic attractions include the Blyde River Canyon, which in turn hosts some of the most spectacularly scenic spots anywhere in South Africa.
Although this meandering drive through the stunningly beautiful Highland region is sandwiched between the cultural heartland region and the Panorama route, and may share some destina-tions with the Panorama Route, its overall character is distinctly different and unique.
Situated on the higher elevations of the Escarpment, and including towns and districts like Bel-fast, Elands Valley, Dullstroom, Kwena Basin, Lydenburg, Skurweberg, Machadodorp, and Waterval Boven, this route offers some of the best mountain and forest hiking, mountaineering, and trout angling opportunities in all of South Africa. Here is also the home of all three of SA’s endangered crane species, as well as the only known breeding colony of black leopards outside of Asia. The spectacular scenic beauty of this route makes it worthy of a place on the list of the most scenic routes of the world, especially in late summer, when the wild flower displays rival anything the Cape provinces have to offer.
In addition to the fact that at 250kms long, the Blyde River Canyon is the largest vegetated can-yon in the world, it is also among the most spectacularly beautiful geological structures in the world. Everything here is in the superlative: the view from God’s Window, from which the Indian Ocean has reportedly been sighted, the convoluted and elaborate erosion patterns of the Potholes that seem to be hand-carved, the Three Rondavels, quartz outcrops that resemble traditional huts, and even the sheer number of waterfalls- more than in any other part of Southern Africa.
Even in terms of geological time, some of the rocks around Barberton were already old when bacteria, the first life forms on Earth, started forming colonies around 3.2 billion years ago, and while the 1.5 km walk on the Fortuna Trail through these ancient rock formations does not do much to help one appreciate just how long 3 400 million years is, the more than 100 species of trees on the trail goes some way towards helping one appreciate the incredibly diverse life forms that followed on the bacteria that once lived here.
Think of blooming wild flowers and you will likely think of Namaqualand first. However, in late summer the southwestern grasslands of Mpumalanga offers a display of white and pink cosmos flowers that rivals the best wild flower displays in the world.
The “Lake District” of Mpumalanga is often overlooked as a must-see attraction, but this vast area around the town of Chrissiesmeer that consists of 270 inter-connected lakes and pans is a favourite breeding ground for both the Lesser, and the Greater Flamingo. The sight of up to 20 000 flamingos in one spot is a remarkable one, and it rivals just about anything the rest of the province has to offer.
Explore the oldest cave system in the world. The Sudwala cave system was formed around 240 million years ago, and it contains some of the most impressive rock formations known. While daily tours through the caves only last about an hour, a six-hour tour through the deeper parts of the cave is offered on the last Saturday of every month. Some of the fossils preserved in these rocks are of the earliest oxygen-producing bacteria that ever lived n Earth.
Elephant-back riding has been described as the ultimate wildlife experience, and the Kapama Private Game Reserve now offers this subliminal experience by having 12 fully trained African elephants available for safaris though 13 000 ha of pristine bushveld. The vantage point from atop an elephant to view game beats anything that can be had from a wheeled conveyance, and the experience is highly recommended.
Quad Biking at Idle & Wild
It would be a mistake to discount the capabilities of these diminutive 4×4’s; after a short training course offered by experienced instructors and guides, you will experience the ride of your life on a quad bike through dense riverine bushveld that is inaccessible to normal 4×4’s. Although there are several obstacles on the route, training, and safety equipment are supplied. No licence is required, which makes this a must-do activity for the whole family.
At a total length of 1.2 kms, this is the longest aerial cable trail in Africa, and takes you over one of the last remaining indigenous forested valleys in the Kruger national Park area, taking about 3 hours to complete. All equipment complies with South African civil engineering standards and all participants are guided by experienced and qualified guides. Parties of up to eight persons are welcome, but the maximum weight per person is 120 kgs.
It is rather surprising that despite Mpumalanga’s mountainous terrain, only a few of its 46 mountain passes offer serious driving challenges to the off-road tourist. While there are a few gravel passes with steep gradients over short sections, the mountain passes in Mpumalanga are mostly tarred and on main tourist routes, a circumstance that seriously detracts from their scenic beauty since avoiding trucks, busses, and pedestrians takes up as much time as can safely be spent admiring the spectacular scenery of the areas they pass through. Below are a few examples of the best passes that Mpumalanga has to offer.
This is without any doubt the most famous pass in Mpumalanga- and with some justification too.
It loses 682 vertical metres over a distance of some 22 kms, via a series of convoluted twists and turns down the Escarpment between the towns of Lydenburg and Sabie. Since this pass is part of the Panorama Route, expect heavy traffic and dangerous, low visibility conditions during the frequent heavy mists to which this area is prone.
Ranking among the Top 5 passes in Mpumalanga, this pass wends through an area of unsur-passed scenic beauty, which in Mpumalanga, is saying a lot. Its altitude loss of 512 metres over a distance of only 7.8 kms yields an average gradient of 1:15, although some sections have gradients that exceed 1:4. Although this pass is worth traversing for its own sake, the surrounding area abounds with outdoor activity options.
This pass holds the SA record for the largest altitude gain/loss- 1100 vertical metres over a dis-tance of just 13.7 kms, which yields an average gradient of 1:14, but with some very steep sec-tions with 1:5 gradients. Starting at Klaserie on the Lowveld the pass wends up the dramatic Es-carpment via a mix of tarred and gravel sections, all the way to Mariepskop, the highest peak in the Northern Drakensberg at 1942 metres above sea level. On clear days, Maputo and the Indian Ocean are visible from the summit, which makes this a must-do pass.
This pas is one of only a handful of passes in Mpumalanga that may offer serious driving chal-lenges, and even that depends on whether the gravel track is wet or dry. Although this rough gravel track should only be attempted by proper, high ground clearance 4×4’s, it is only in wet conditions that it becomes challenging. Since this track hardly ever carries traffic, the entrance may be difficult to locate, so a careful study of Google Earth imagery may be required to locate this pass.
Purely as a curiosity, this pass, that is less than 1 km in length, gains less than 45 metres in alti-tude, and has no curves or bends over its entire length!
Although Mpumalanga has a large number of small towns, almost none of them are off the almost worn-through and tourism-beaten track, with the inevitable result that they have lost much of their appeal, especially from the off-road tourism perspective. While the hardy, if not persistent, Mpumalanga off-road traveler might find some attraction in the small towns that have survived the tourism storms, these towns are best appreciated against the backdrop of their magnificent scenic surroundings.
With only 1800 permanent residents, Pilgrims Rest is fighting a losing battling to retain at least some of its glory days, which reached their peak during the Gold Rush of the 1870’s. Although the entire town is a National Monument, it does not have much to recommend it as a historical destination due to the extent to which it has been allowed to go to ruin.
While the town of Sabie is worth a visit, its main attraction lays in the fact that it is a hub from which a vast variety of outdoor activities such as fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking, horse riding, white water rafting, mountaineering, abseiling, and birding can be explored.
White River is probably the only small town in Mpumalanga that has not been overrun by tour-ists, and its atmosphere of serene obscurity, in addition to the large number of artists’ studios, make this little town the perfect hide-away. It’s almost perfect year-round climate, and scenic beauty should place this town at the top of the list of destinations on any Small Town Tour.
Located at the foot of the Mokhonjwa Mountains, which rank among the oldest in the world, Barberton lies in the heart of a geological and biological area that is unique in the world. Barber-ton is also at the centre of the Barberton Mountainlands, one of the seven main tourist areas of South Africa, and the area that has suffered the least amount of human intervention through the ages. The town and surrounding area is also free of malaria, due to its high elevation at 877 metres above sea level.
The off-road tourist in Mpumalanga, who wishes to step back into the days of the Gold Rush, would do well to visit this hamlet that is virtually built into the rock face of the escarpment, and often completely hidden from view by the frequent rain and mist in the area- just like Brigadoon, in the film of the same name. Gravel roads, old-style lanterns for streetlights, and a herd of wild horses make it easy to believe one is in another time.