The small towns of Graskop, Sabie and Pilgrim’s Rest in the Kruger Lowveld region of Mpumalanga, are all situated in close proximity to each other. While there isn't much distance between them, each town does have its own unique charm and appeal. Much like Sabie, Graskop has a plethora of beautiful natural sites like walking trails and waterfalls that are worth a visit, while Pilgrim’s Rest is all about the gold and the ghosts.
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The Fanie Botha Hiking Trail
The Fanie Botha Hiking Trail is a multi-day hike from Sabie to Graskop that passes through sections of beautiful indigenous forest, plantation and grassland. Hikers overnight in a number of different stone huts that have no electricity but are comfortably equipped and in scenic settings. Over the years the Fanie Botha Trail has earned a spot as one of the premier overnight hiking experiences in South Africa, so we thought we'd see what all the fuss is about.
There are a number of options to chose from when it comes to completing the Fanie Botha Hike. More avid hikers will enjoy the 5 day trail, which starts in Sabie and ends in Graskop, while others might decide to go for the shorter circular routes that start and end in Sabie. Bevan and I opted for one of these shorter sections, overnighting in the Stables Hut and ending at Ceylon. Our 21 km circular route took us through beautiful indigenous forest and past spectacular secluded waterfalls. Even the misty, cold weather couldn't dampen our enjoyment of the trail. We had some really fantastic bird sightings along the way while breathing in the fresh damp air inside the forest sections. If we could give you one piece of advice it would be to leave plenty of time to cover each day's trail because there are plenty of lovely spots for a refreshing swim or a picnic lunch along the way. We learnt this the hard way. Carrying all of our camera equipment, it was hard to just walk past a good photo opportunity. From searching the canopy for the Narina Trogon we heard calling nearby, to pausing for a photo shoot, to examining flowers in the forest undergrowth on our hands and knees, we dawdled and we did it properly! It was only the distance marker at the end of the ascent through the forest that told us we were a lot further behind than we had bargained and the mist that settled in and obliterated any views from the top that finally spurred us on into making any kind of steady progress for camp!
Camp itself was a stone hut called Stables Hut set in a clearing amongst the pine plantations. Seeing it appear after the last curve in the path was incredibly welcome, considering that it was by now 4.30pm and the misty evening chill had started to settle in. With no electricity, it was early to bed, and what a good night's sleep that was! In the morning we gathered our things and our tired bodies and set off in search of the path to the Ceylon hut. As it turns out, we're not quite the orienteering masterminds we thought we were, and we managed to miss the trail altogether. We ended up on one of the main forestry roads which got us back down towards civilization where we had to call in for a pick-up. Not the most incredible story; possibly made more embarrassing by the fact that we discovered we were only 800m away from the hut when we finally stopped to call. We made our way sheepishly to the car and slunk off quietly.
Ghosts and Gold in Pilgrim’s Rest
Pilgrim’s Rest was the second of the Transvaal gold fields of the 1870s. It allegedly got its name when, on the discovery of alluvial gold, one of the fortune-seekers announced “This pilgrim is at rest”. It is a very unique town. The whole town is in fact a provincial heritage site and operates as a living museum – all of the original buildings have been preserved and restored, and walking down the street one can almost imagine how this town must have been in its gold rush heyday. To complete the picture, we had visited Kuzzulo’s Emporium where we got to dress up as characters from the 1800s for a themed photoshoot! After all of Bevan's mutterings about gold back in Barberton, I was surprised when he chose to dress up like a country gentleman rather than the gold-digging fortune-seeking ruffian I had expected! Like any old frontier town worth its salt, it is full of ghost stories! Bevan and I were shown around Alanglade House, built in 1915. This was the former residence of the Transvaal Gold Mining Estates (TGME) mine manager and like the rest of the town, has been completely preserved right down to the interior furniture and family photographs. For the brave, there are after-dark tours through the house, but Bevan and I chose to visit during the daylight hours. Even though we don’t really believe in ghosts, there is no denying the creepy air that hangs around this large estate. Walking around the house but especially in the children's’ playroom and the master bedrooms, you definitely get the sense that you are somehow intruding in someone else’s space.
For visitors just wishing to take in this historic town, there are plenty of shops to stop and browse and lovely restaurants to enjoy a cup of coffee or a meal. Of special note is Ponieskrantz Arts and Crafts where 95% of everything in store, from the pottery to the stained glass and weaving, is made on site by local craftsmen and women. It is just as well Thomas is already so fully packed with all our trip gear because at least that meant Bevan could let me browse in peace - peace for me and peace of mind for him!
Taking in the scenic beauty of Graskop
Graskop has a well-deserved place on Mpumalanga’s Panorama Route. Like Sabie, there are plenty of waterfalls to visit. They all have interesting names that allude to the history of the area. Mac-Mac Falls for example supposedly got its name because of the high concentration of Scotsmen living in the area at the time!
Bevan and I loved Lisbon Falls in particular. Each of the falls in the area has a view site that overlooks the main spout, but in the case of Lisbon Falls we decided to hike down to the bottom. Wow, what an incredible spot! The water cascades down the rocks in two different sections into a huge pool below. There are great sections for rock jumping and swimming, although it was too cold on the day we visited for either.
As well as the waterfalls, there are plenty of scenic view sites to take in. Graskop is situated at the top of an escarpment which overlooks the low ground towards Hazyview and on towards Kruger National Park. This drop-off creates spectacular sights. Some of the best known are the aptly-named God’s Window, and the Three Rondavels and Bourke’s Luck Potholes inside the Blyde River Canyon. The Jock of the Bushveld hiking trail which leaves from the Graskop Holiday Resort takes in some of these elevated views too and is a great way to enjoy Graskop's surrounds on foot. Bevan and I attempted the route as a trail run instead of a hike. We somehow managed to lose the path (again) at the furthest point out on the trail... and I can promise you it's not because of the great speed at which we were running (let's just say the altitude got to us)! To find our way home we cut straight across what appeared to be a grassy field. Turns out it was criss-crossed by small streams hidden in the long grass and it was a more testing route than we had expected. Nevertheless, we got back safely and felt all the better for our morning's exertions.
The town of Graskop itself is on the main tourist route because of the high number of scenic attractions in the area. As such the town is well-geared towards tourists and there are plenty of great restaurants and interesting curio shops to browse.
Goodbye to the high grounds
We have taken in as many panoramic scenes and explored as many waterfalls along the Panorama Route as we can. Next it's on to another of this area's great attractions - South Africa's wild animals! We will be journeying on down off the escarpment towards Hazyview and on into the Kruger National Park, and we can't wait! We'd like to thank everyone who made this leg possible. Thanks again to Nomkhosi from Kruger Lowveld Tourism for being our go-to girl and arranging so many great experiences for us. We were overwhelmed by the hospitality shown to us along the way, so thanks to the following: The Graskop Hotel, Graskop Holiday Resort and Graskopies Restaurant, Canimambo Restaurante and God's Window Restaurant in Graskop. The Royal Hotel, Brummer Tours, Kuzzulo's Emporium, The Vine and The Pilgrim's Pantry restaurants in Pilgrim's Rest. Stella and Komatiland Ecotourism, part of SAFCOL for a great time on the Fanie Botha Trail.