Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of the Blyde River Canyon. I hadn’t either, despite it being the third largest in the world (after the Grand Canyon in the US and Fish River Canyon in Namibia). The Blyde River Canyon in South Africa’s eastern Mpumalanga Province isn’t far from Kruger National Park or Sabi Sand Game Reserve. So if you’re heading in that direction from Johannesburg, it would be easy to break the journey with a day admiring some of nature’s miracles at the canyon.
At nearly 50 kms long, the Blyde River Canyon is part of the northern Drakensberg escarpment [Drakensberg post], and takes its name from the Dutch word for ‘happy’ (blyde) thanks to the Voortrekkers (pioneers) who resided here in the 19th Century. It’s a pretty spectacular place so I think I’d be happy living there too.
The best way to see the sights is to spend a day driving along the panoramic route on the western rim of the canyon. So what shouldn’t you miss? Here’s what you’ll come across whilst travelling from the north to the south:
A ronadavel is a traditional African beehive hut, but the ones at the Blyde River Canyon are rather unusual. They’re made of rock! This was my favourite viewpoint over the canyon, overlooking the vast Blyderivierpoort Dam and the imposing cliffs of colourful rock, that look uncannily like rondavels. We went microlighting over here after our road trip (best scenic flight ever!), but that’s a story for another day.
This is understandably one of the most popular stops for tourists, so plan on arriving first thing in the morning or late afternoon if you want to avoid the crowds.
A little further along the panoramic route from the Three Ronadavels is the sweeping Lowveld View. It plays second fiddle to the ronadvels but is a great place for a bit of a scramble and explore, and the colours in the landscape are really prominent here.
Bourkes Luck Potholes
This place is wonderfully bizarre, and a fascinating lesson in nature and what she can achieve. The deep and unusual potholes here are the result of years of erosion from water eddies where the Blyde and Treur Rivers converge.
The rich earthy colours come from soil in the water, and the name is thanks to gold digger Tom Burke who staked his claim not far from here. People often believe that by throwing coins into the potholes they will have good luck in the future. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but for anyone foolish or desperate enough, there must be a gold mine down there in those holes.
Yes, these waterfalls do take their name from the Portuguese capital, thanks to the European miners, like Tom Burke, who came here in the late 1800s to hunt for gold. Just down the road you’ll find Berlin Falls too!
There are dozens of waterfalls around the Blyde River Canyon area, and it’s difficult to decide which to visit, but we reckon that Lisbon Falls are the most spectacular and least crowded of them all.
It’s often the most impressive sounding sights that are the most disappointing, and this was certainly the case here. Thanks to the name we had great expectations for this viewpoint, yet after scampering up the narrow stone steps we discovered a couple of tiny platforms overlooking a wide expanse of green. Sure, the valley is fairly impressive, and on a good day you can supposedly see as far as Mozambique (it was hazy when we were there), but it wasn’t a patch on the other vistas along the canyon.
The best place to stay in the area is Graskop, a delightful settlement to the south of the canyon, famed for its antiques, guest houses and the most inventive range of tasty pancakes that we’ve ever seen (we made it our mission to research them all!). You can arrange a tour of the canyon from here, but we recommend self-driving so you can go at your own pace.