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The Panorama Route: A first-timer’s road trip guide

The Panorama Route in Mpumalanga is so named for its unbelievable views at just about every turn. The route traverses the Great Escarpment all the way down to the Kruger Lowveld via a number of mountain passes, including the famous Long Tom Pass.

In the past, a section of the Panorama Route was used as a transport road between Lydenburg and Mozambique. The area also saw its share of Anglo-Boer military conflict, the scars of which are still visible on the landscape to this day. However, most people who came to this area in the past were coming in search of gold!

These days, visitors flock to the Panorama Route from far and wide to find a somewhat different kind of treasure.

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Panorama Route highlights:

  • Waterfalls – lots and lots of waterfalls.
  • Beautiful mountain passes.
  • A plethora of outdoor activities including hiking, cycling and canyoning.
  • Stunning views over the Kruger Lowveld.
  • God’s Window.
  • The Blyde River Canyon and the Three Rondavels.
  • Access to the Kruger National Park, South Africa’s biggest game reserve.
  • Fascinating historical and cultural sites.

The Panorama Route is an amazing destination for nature lovers, with countless waterfalls, hiking trails and adventure activities in every town. It’s also a perfect route for a good old fashioned road trip. So lets dive on into some of our favourite stops along the famous Panorama Route as well as a few outliers that are certainly worth a visit.

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Panorama Route quick facts:

  • Summer (November-February) weather is generally very hot, especially in the Kruger area and on the lowveld, with some rain.
  • Winter (April-July) is the best time of year to visit when the weather usually consists of mild, clear days and cool nights.
  • Closest international airport: O.R Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg, approx. 300km away).
  • Main city: Nelspruit.

Panorama Route road trip map

Suggested Panorama Route road trip route for flying in and out of O.R Tambo International Airport.
Map Key: Points of interestTowns/stop over sites.

Stop 1: Discover treasures of all kinds in Barberton.

On top of the Makhonjwa Mountains with Dusty Tracks
Exploring the Makhonjwa Mountains.
Thomas in the convoy of 4x4s in the Makhonjwa Mountains
4x4ing the Makhonjwa Mountains: one of our favourite activities in Barberton.

While technically not on the Panorama Route, Barberton is still worth a visit when you find yourself heading through this area. It’s quite a bit off the beaten track, and as such, is not as well known as the more famous stops on the Panorama Route. This does not, however, mean that there is nothing to see and do here. On the contrary. From gorgeous mountain trails to geological wonders and fascinating historical sites, Barberton has something for everyone.

One of the big drawcards to this area is the Makhonjwa Geo Trail on the R40 from Barberton to the eSwathini border. This road is home to some of the most incredible rock specimens and volcanic ash sites. There is even an ancient beach situated at 1400 metres above sea level. The Geotrail is not only for geological enthusiasts mind you. With stunning views over the Makhonjwa mountains and eSwathini, the Geotrail can be enjoyed by all.

Makhonjwa Geotrail
Views over the Makhonjwa Mountains from the Geotrail.
Jasper Barberton Geotrail
Pieces of Jasper along the Barberton Geotrail.

And if it’s mountains you like, then the Makonjwa mountains surrounding the town are a great playground to go and explore. Just be sure to go with a guide as there are still a number of concealed, open-cast mines from its gold-rush past still laying around the place, and you don’t want to end up down one of those. A guided tour of the mountains will also take you to an old, abandoned city called Eureka City. During the 19th century, gold prospectors from far and wide rushed to Barberton in the hopes of striking it big – and there were certainly some who did. It’s still possible to explore some of the old mines with a guide, or try your hand at gold panning in the rivers around town. You never know…

Gold Mine Barberton
Jill exploring one of the riches gold mines in the world.

Recommended length of stay: 1 full day (two nights).

Route suggestion: Barberton is roughly a 4 hour drive out of Johannesburg. Depending on what time you’re able to leave the airport, either overnight in Johannesburg or head out right away along the N12/N4 to Barberton.  Click here to check out available accommodation in Barberton. (We stayed here: La Fortuna Guest House, and Fountain Baths Guest Cottages).

Stop 2: Surround yourself with forest and waterfalls in Sabie.

Water plunges down Lone Creek Falls into the pool below
Water plunges down Lone Creek Falls just outside Sabie in Mpumalanga.

No trip to the Panorama Route is complete without a stop in at Sabie. It’s one of those places that is really hard to leave. Incredible mountain passes, friendly people and, oh so many waterfalls, is the best way to describe this little patch of paradise.

While the area surrounding Sabie is home to one of the largest hand-planted forests in the world, there are still a number of pristine indigenous tracts that make for some of the best hiking in the country. The famous Fanie Botha Trail is a multi-day hike that winds its way through gorges and along clifftops between Sabie and nearby Graskop. Hikers overnight in stone huts along the way, and get to explore some incredible patches of forest and concealed waterfalls at almost every turn.

Fanie Botha Trail Panorama Route
Jill on the Fanie Botha Trail.

I mentioned waterfalls, and boy are there a lot of those around here. Horse Shoe Falls, Lone Creek Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Mac Mac Falls are but a few of the many that can be found within easy access from the town and are definitely worth checking out.

Jill getting a different view of the Bridal Veil Falls.
Jill getting a different view of the Bridal Veil Falls.

The R37, better known as the Long Tom Pass is also a great road to explore for epic views over the Sabie area. The Long Tom Toboggan is also a must stop for kids, and the Long Tom cannon monument will give you a pause for reflection on your way back down the pass.

The town itself is a beautiful country village with all the charm and character you’d expect from a small friendly community. There are a number of excellent restaurants and cafes to try out and the Sabi Brewing Company is a local favourite for home brewed craft beer and delicious pub-style fare.

Recommended length of stay: A minimum of two full days (three nights) will barely scratch the surface of everything this area has to offer. It’s a great base-town, so if you don’t want to move around too much, you can base yourself in Sabie and head out on day-trips to all the attractions in the area. Click here to check out available accommodation in Sabie. (We stayed here: Sabie self catering apartmentsMisty Mountain and Floreat Riverside Lodge and Spa)

Route suggestion: From Barberton, Sabie is a 1 hour 30 minute drive via the R40 freeway to Nelspruit and the R537 to Sabie. Once in Sabie, you can explore much of the Panorama Route within a day’s drive.

Stop 3: Zip into Hazyview.

ziplining hazyview
Ziplining Hazyview.
The first step over the edge
Ziplining near Hazyview.

Hazyview is an excellent supply stop before heading into the Kruger National Park. There are a number of well stocked butcheries, bakeries, and grocery stores to make sure you’ve got everything you need for an extended stay in the park. There are also a number of fun activities to do around the town. If you’re looking for a bit of adrenaline, then check out the Skyway Trails and zip your way through the forest canopy.

Recommended length of stay: One stopover night is all you need in Hazyview. If you’re on a tight schedule, then you may want to think about pushing through to the Kruger National Park, however, you should definitely make a stop to top up your supplies before you do. Click here to check out available accommodation in Hazyview. (We stayed here: The Gecko Lodge)

Route suggestion: Hazyview is a short (and beautiful) 45-minute drive down the R536 from Sabie.

Stop 4: Explore the jewel of South Africa tourism: The Kruger National Park.

The most excitement we got from these young lions
Kruger National Park
Elephant mother and calf in the Kruger National Park
Elephant mother and calf in the Kruger National Park.
grey headed kingfisher in kruger national park
The Grey-headed Kingfisher is a rare summer visitor to the Kruger National Park.
Bevan looking over the Letaba River
The trusty binoculars are a must in the Kruger National Park.

The Kruger National Park needs no introduction. Every year it attracts visitors from all over the world to experience Africa’s abundant wildlife, including the famous Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, elephant).

At around 2 million hectares, the Kruger National Park is easily the biggest game reserve in South Africa and certainly the most well known. Visitors can explore the park in their own vehicles or book a game drive with any number of excellent operators throughout the reserve.

The best way to experience the Kruger National Park is by staying in the reserve for a few days. There are a number of private lodges, as well as the SAN Parks-managed rest camps which are excellent accommodation options. The two camps closest to Hazyview are Skukuza, which is very popular and tends to be a bit crowded, and Satara, which is further north and away from the madding crowds of the south. Both camps offer self-catering accommodation as well as camping. Satara even has an open-air cinema which is always fun and something different.

Recommended length of stay: Spend as much time as you can in the Kruger National Park. There is no place like it, so you’re going to want to savor as much of it as you can. Two nights should be your absolute minimum. Click here to check out available accommodation in the Kruger National Park.

Route suggestion: It’s a very short drive from Hazyview along the R536 to the Phabeni Gate of the Kruger National Park, however, you’re going to want to leave as early as you can to get to the gate for opening time (usually 5:30 am). The reason for this is that there are hundreds of people who use this gate and it can get quite congested. The gate sometimes imposes a car limit if there are too many visitors, so make sure you get there early to avoid disappointment.

Stop 5: Peek over the edge at Graskop.

Gods Window on the Panorama Route
The spectacular God’s Window.
Jill at Gods Window on the Panorama Route
Hold on tight!

Graskop is the epitome of small country town living. Unlike the nearby Sabie, Graskop is surrounded by large, open fields on one side, and the rim of the highveld on the other. This makes for some excellent view sites all around the town, God’s Window and the Blyde River Canyon being two of the most famous. As with it’s forested southern neighbour, Graskop also enjoys an abundance of waterfalls with Berlin Falls and Lisbon Falls being the easiest to access.

Lisbon Falls on the Panorama Route
Bevan checking out Lisbon Falls near Graskop

If you’re up for a little holiday exercise, then the Jock of the Bushveld trail is a comfortable little hike with some great views. And if it’s views you’re after, then check out the Gorge Lift which takes you all the way to the forest below.

The nearby town of Pilgrim’s Rest is also a great day trip, or stop along the way to your next destination. The town is a national monument with gold rush history that dates all the way back to the 1800’s as well as a spooky haunted house to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

Recommended length of stay: One full day (two nights) at a minimum. Click here to check out available accommodation in Graskop. (We stayed here: Graskop Hotel and Graskop Holiday Resorts). If you want to overnight in Pilgrim’s Rest, click here to checkout available accommodation.

Route suggestion: From Satara, it’s quite a slog getting back to Graskop, but if you take it slow and stop along the way, the time will fly by. Exit out of the Orpen Gate of the Kruger National Park and head west onto the R531. Follow this road all the way to it’s T-junction with the R527 and then turn left. Be sure to stop at the Moholoholo Animal Rehabilitation Centre along the way! Follow the R527 (which merges into the R36) up the Abel Erasmus Pass – another stunning mountain pas. At the top of the pass, turn left onto the R532 and follow it all the way to Graskop. The famous Three Rondvavels, Blyde River Canyon and God’s window are along this route, so be sure to stop as much as you can along the way.

Pilgrims Rest, and old town on the Panorama Route
The historical town of Pilgrim’s Rest.
Alanglade House on the Panorama Route
Alanglade House just outside Pilgrim’s Rest.

Stop 6: Take it slow through Lydenburg or Dullstroom.

It’s almost time to head back to Johannesburg, but not before making one last stop along the Panorama Route to stretch your legs and take in some country calm. Lydenberg is lovely little town at the top of the Long Tom Pass and is home to a very interesting antiquities museum. Alternatively, if you’d like an even smaller town feel, then the little town of Dullstroom is as quaint as they come. Very much like the towns of Clarens in the Free State, and Nottingham road in KwaZulu-Natal, Dullstroom is home to some beautiful cottages, cafes, restaurants as well as a few art galleries to top off that country charm.

Recommended length of stay: One night should be plenty of time to recharge and get ready for the final push back to Johannesburg. Click here to check out available accommodation in Lydenberg, and here to check out available accommodation in Dullstroom.

Route suggestion: From Graskop, get onto the R533 through Pilgrim’s Rest (make a stop if you haven’t already). At the T-junction with the R36, turn left and follow the road to Lydenburg. If you’re pushing through to Dullsroom then get onto the R540 and keep going through Lydenburg.

A few things to remember on your Panorama road trip

  • South Africans drive on the left hand side of the road – you’ll want to come to grips with that as soon as possible.
  • Visitors can self-drive through the public game reserves, however, you will still need to be very cautious of wild animals and avoid antagonising them by getting too close with your car.
  • Avoid driving after dark in the more rural areas of Mpumalanga. There are a lot of people and animals in the road in some sections so do all your essential driving during the day.

Mix and match the destinations we’ve suggested to plan your perfect Panorama Route road trip and let us know what you chose in the comments below. And be sure to drive safely 🙂 

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