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A South African Road Trip: Part 1 – The Escarpment

by in Africa, Home, Places, South Africa.

This is the first part in the series. You can read the next articles here:

A South African Road Trip: Part 2 – 19 hours in Swaziland

A South African Road Trip: Part 3 – Dundee and the Battlefields

A South African Road Trip: Part 4 – Champagne Castle, Drakensburg

I love it when a lack of a plan comes together

You may remember that in April I used frequent flyer points to fly to Johannesburg where I would meet the rest of the group for our Botswana safari. As is often the case when redeeming points for flights the choices were limited – there simply wasn’t availability on the exact dates I wanted to travel so I had to compromise. The outbound part of the journey would give me two nights in Johannesburg before flying to Maun; this was great as I wanted to get a taste of the city and stay at the fabulous Peech Hotel. Getting back after Botswana was trickier; but eventually I snapped up a seat back on the 28th. This left me with five days to fill – which I was sure would not be a problem.

Initially I considered staying in Jozi and really getting to know the city – this would have definitely been great but I wanted to see more. A road trip beckoned…

Car hire turned out to be very reasonably priced so I went ahead and booked a set of wheels for collection on my return from Botswana. As for the route, I decided to wing it.

What I mean by this is that I had nothing arranged when I first landed in South Africa. While I was at the Peech Hotel I did book an airport hotel for the first night back in the country – we were due to land at 1600 at OR Tambo (Johannesburg airport) so I wanted to collect the car and go straight to a nearby hotel to repack and recharge after safari. I would plan the route and accommodation over dinner with a cold beer, I decided.

Grown-up Travel Guide Beer Diary Day 110: Carling Black Label from SAB Ltd of Sandton, South Africa

That was the cold beer.

While in Botswana I asked the South African members of our group for tips and read my Rough Guide to get some ideas. My overall goal was to do something different – after a week in Botswana there seemed little point in going on another safari right away. I wanted to see the mountains, perhaps do a little walking and maybe fly Dennis the Drone in the wilderness.

Durban sounded amazing but I wasn’t really after the urban experience either. I started to narrow it down a little and decided that I’d make for the area known as the Escarpment on the first day or two, then perhaps go into Swaziland, back into SA and blast on to the Drakensburg mountains. I might be able to fit in Lesotho too and possibly another national park area before returning to the airport for my flight home.

As you know I had an amazing time in Botswana but I was really excited for my road trip too. It felt like an extra holiday and a good chance to see a little more of this enormous country called South Africa.

We landed in Johannesburg on time and after reclaiming bags and passing immigration I said my goodbyes to the rest of the gang. I then trundled my trolley down to the left luggage area to retrieve a bag I’d left in storage before moving on to the Hertz office.

It didn’t take long to go through the formalities and soon I had the keys to my ride in my hand.

Car

I found my vehicle, a rather anonymous but perfectly acceptable KIA something-or-other and transferred my luggage.

Now to find my hotel for the night…

Ah, the fun you can have with a SatNav

I had my own SatNav with me from home and mounted it on the dashboard before keying in the address of the Holiday Inn Johannesburg Airport. This gave no results, which was a little unsettling. I tried using the address I had but still nothing – so I bit the bullet and switched on mobile data to consult Google. Luckily I managed to find the information I needed before running up a bill the Pope couldn’t pay – the hotel had only just become the Holiday Inn. It was still shown on the map under its former guise as the Grand Hotel, and when I put that in I got a result. Phew.

I started the engine and made my way out of the car park, rather surprised to find that it was already getting dark – things always take longer than you expect at airports. Anyway it was supposed to be about twenty minutes away and I followed Garmin’s lead. It was good to be driving on the left again and traffic was not too heavy, but I still managed to get a little lost. I won’t go into details suffice to say that it took me nearly an hour to finally arrive at the Holiday Inn due to a combination of my stupidity, a lack of signage and what appeared to be a malicious attempt by the SatNav to mislead me.

I made it in the end, only briefly cursing the fact that I didn’t have a paper map…

Holiday Inn Johannesburg Airport

The Holiday Inn Johannesburg Airport is a decent place to spend the night near OR Tambo. It is a short drive from the terminal and a shuttle bus makes the journey if you don’t have a car. The hotel is in fact directly at the end of the runway, give or take a few hundred metres, and planes fly right over. I only heard them in the morning and I did have the window open – so if you do the same and need to sleep longer than 6 a.m. when the first ones roar overhead you might want to consider a different location.

But I enjoyed my very brief stay here – the room was comfortable, if a little small, and having both a bathtub and a shower was a bonus. I didn’t take any pictures but this brief video at least shows you the room – and the crazy amount of gear I had with me…

Holiday Inn Johannesburg Airport, 100 North Rand Road, Bardene, Boksburg, Johannesburg, 1462 SOUTH AFRICA

Website: http://www.ihg.com/holidayinn/hotels/us/en/johannesburg/jnbja/hoteldetail

Tel: +27 11 8231843

 

After a welcome shower and change I had dinner in the restaurant – an excellent steak and a cold beer. Just what the doctor should have ordered. In line with my ‘plan’ I consulted my guide book and the internet to decide on where exactly I would be staying the next night.

Graskop seemed like an ideal base to explore the Drakensburg Escarpment and the Graskop Hotel looked perfect. I booked a room online through the hotel website which was a painless experience and very good value – for a double room, dinner and breakfast the charge was just ZAR 800.

That was enough planning – now I needed some sleep.

The adventure begins

I slept like the proverbial log and was miles away when the alarm rang. It took me a little while to realise where I was – a sure sign of insufficient rest, but what the hell – but once everything fell into place I was really keen to get behind the wheel. First came breakfast, though – at least 375 km of driving would not be a good idea on an empty stomach.

The buffet at the Holiday Inn was excellent and service friendly – I will definitely come back here next time I need to book an airport stopover.

After checking out and loading the car, I entered the information into the SatNav – no problems finding the Graskop Hotel, thankfully – and fired up the engine.

I’ll be writing a separate article on my experience of driving in South Africa for the first time; what I will say here is that it is an absolute pleasure. The main roads and highways are in excellent condition – especially the toll roads – and you can cover long distances in a relatively short time.

From the Holiday Inn it only takes a few minutes to reach the N12 motorway which heads east out of Gauteng province and eventually turns into the N4 that will take you all the way to the border with Mozambique.

I wasn’t going quite that far; my route entailed turning off the N4 to take minor roads into the hills of Mpumalanga.

The motorway is fast but the views aren’t particularly interesting – the first 100km or so passed quickly without any stand-out moments. The landscape was flat and wide open – I did get a sense of just how vast South Africa is as I shot through Gauteng at a near-constant 120 km/h.

As I drove on the weather changed; the blue skies of Johannesburg gave way to grey ones and a storm was in the air. Lightning flashed on the horizon but I avoided the worst of it – a brief shower was as bad as it got.

Things got more interesting on the N4 – the mountains of the Drakensburg Escarpment emerged in the distance and before long I was climbing steadily higher.

Escarpment 1

A mix of thick forest, huge plantations and open fields greeted me as I turned north onto the single-lane R36. The car began to struggle with some of the inclines and was clearly relieved on the downhill sections, but coped nevertheless.

The road surface became a little more challenging at this point too – potholes are clearly a long-term problem if you need to erect a permanent sign by the road…

Potholes

But any reduction in speed was more than compensated for by the scenery. I passed the impressive Kwena Dam and drove through Lydenburg, a medium-sized town which is the site of one of the country’s major archeological discoveries – ceramic masks from the fifth century.

I didn’t have time to visit the museum on this occasion so continued onwards and ever higher into the mountains. The R533 snakes its way through stunning scenery and there are a number of wonderful viewpoints along the way.

Escarpment S Bends

Hard not to stop and take a pic here, right?

The next town of note was Pilgrim’s Rest, a restored gold-mining town and quite frankly, a bit of a tourist trap. The restoration is all-too-perfect and just driving through I found the place to have a bit of a theme park atmosphere – it could almost be a Disney version of old South Africa.

It’s a fixed stop on the tour bus route but I kept on going, leaving the souvenir sellers a little perplexed at why this white guy didn’t park up and join in the ‘fun’.

Pilgrim’s Rest does have real historical value – gold was discovered here in 1873 before the huge deposits in Gauteng and the news spread fast. In the first year more than 1500 miners had come to seek their fortune and conditions were rough, to say the least. There is a museum here and a recreated digging area and miner’s village with guided tours bookable at the tourist office.

My final destination for today was just 16 kilometres from Pilgrim’s Rest continuing on the R533 – it took me about twenty minutes given all the S-bends.

Graskop

If you’re looking for a place to stay from which to drive the Panorama Route and visit the Escarpment (about which more later) then I don’t think you can do better than the relaxed hill town of Graskop. It is popular with travellers – as evidenced by the number of tour buses that stop here – yet the atmosphere is friendly and there is no hassle or hustle. Away from the main drag it’s a sleepy place and the setting is wonderful, surrounded by green hills. There are a number of good accommodation options and you won’t struggle to find a place to eat well, either.

Like Pilgrim’s Rest, Graskop sprung up due to the gold rush in the late 19th century but today there are three main reasons for its ‘fame’ – it is encircled by the world’s largest man-made forest of pine and eucalyptus, it is the home of Harrie’s Pancake Shop and as mentioned it is a starting point for the drive along the edge of the Drakensburg Escarpment with its stunning views over the Blyde River Canyon gorge.

Harrie’s Pancake Shop

Harries

Harrie’s is the home of the stuffed pancake. This restaurant started a major trend in South Africa and it was soon copied – even in Graskop there are several competitors on the same street unashamedly aiming to steal the crown from Harrie – but it’s unlikely they’ll succeed if my experience is anything to go by.

I popped in for coffee and a pancake and was blown away – although my advice is to go when seriously hungry as I couldn’t even finish mine.

Pancake

Harrie’s offers an eclectic range of sweet and savoury fillings; check out the pictures on their website and you’ll see what I mean.

Harrie’s Pancakes, Corner of Louis Trichardt & Church streets, Graskop, 1270 SOUTH AFRICA

Website: http://www.harriespancakes.com

Tel: +27 13 767 1273

 

The Graskop Hotel

Graskop exterior

The Graskop Hotel may not look much from the outside, but step inside and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Stylishly decorated with both retro and contemporary furniture, fittings and artwork, this is a boutique style hotel on a grand scale. Service is friendly, relaxed and personal and rooms are of a high standard.

Ideally located in the centre of town, the Graskop has beautiful gardens with a swimming pool. I had booked a garden room and would recommend you to do the same. On checking in I was given a remote control for the gates at the back where my room was situated and a car parking space awaited.

Being able to park right outside the room was a nice bonus as I had quite a lot of luggage – and I was very pleased with what I found when I unlocked the door:

Graskop Hotel 1

A huge, comfortable bed with a ceiling fan – I don’t ask for much more. Having said that, a garden view, terrace, fridge, TV, coffee and tea-making facilities etc. are good too…

Graskop Hotel 2

I liked the light and airy feel of the room and the simple but stylish decor.

Graskop Hotel 4

The bathroom was small but well designed with an excellent shower.

Graskop Hotel 3

It can get cold in the winter up here in the hills so the underfloor heating in the bathroom is a welcome feature.

Graskop Hotel 5

As you can see the gardens are well-kept and very attractive.

With the half-board option that I chose a superb dinner was included. All I needed to pay for was my wine, which cost a very reasonable ZAR 25 a glass.

At dinner I decided on the next part of my journey – after exploring in the morning I would head for Swaziland. I booked a beautiful-looking place called the Mantenga Lodge (again, easily done on the hotel’s website) and was all set.

I slept like a baby and woke up feeling refreshed. Walking through the grounds on my way to the main building I filled my lungs with the clear Graskop air.

Breakfast was amazing too, a full English fry-up (if you want, of course) as well as a sumptuous buffet. I was clearly not going to starve on my road trip…

All in all the Graskop Hotel is an excellent property and I wish I had stayed more than one night. I’ll be back and will stay longer next time – it’s amazing value, too.

Here’s a video of my room and the gardens as well as the bar area:

Graskop Hotel, 3 Hoof St, Graskop, 1270 SOUTH AFRICA

Website: http://www.graskophotel.co.za

Tel: +27 13 767 1244

 

The Escarpment

The main attraction of the Mpumalanga Drakensburg – better known as the Escarpment – is the Blyde River Canyon. A number of public access points offer breathtaking views into one of the largest gorges in the world.

A 15km loop off the main R532 road is called the Panorama Route (or rather less enticing, the R534). This starts a few kilometres outside Graskop and photos taken here are justifiably featured in practically every tourist brochure for South Africa.

As most guide books will tell you, a mere picture does the experience no justice.

Nothing quite prepares you for the 300 metre sheer drop at God’s Window, where you can walk in thick mist forest which is often literally in the clouds.

Gods window 1

Many of the viewpoints are free but God’s Window charges a nominal fee – it also offers clean toilets and a bunch of stalls selling curios.

Gods window 2

Like I said, hard to do it justice with a photograph. But he tried, as did I.

I returned to my car to continue along the Panorama Route – and drive through low clouds, which was quite something. I rejoined the R532 and motored on. There are several waterfalls reached by leaving the road but with rather limited time I kept going for 45 minutes or so, enjoying the journey.

Back on the R532 and about 50 km further up the canyon is perhaps the most spectacular viewpoint, Three Rondavels.

Three Rondavels 1

The reason for its name is not immediately apparent when gazing north towards Blydepoort dam in the distance. But after walking to the other side and looking east all becomes clear:

Three Rondavels 2

They do indeed look like rondavels (traditional thatched African huts).

I was also confronted by a somewhat smaller wonder of nature, the very rare Sekukhune flat lizard:

Sekukhune flat lizard

There are plenty of other attractions in the area and when I come back I would like to drive all the way to the dam and take a boat trip to appreciate the canyon from the water.

Make sure you visit the Escarpment when you are in the area – it’s an awesome experience (in the true, rather than American, use of the word).

For me, Swaziland was waiting – a long drive to the south. I’ll tell you all about it in the next article in the series, never fear 🙂

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