Monday, 29 July 2013

29.07.2013 The Drakensberg Escarpment - Mpumalanga

(click on photos to enlarge and view gallery)

After four months on the continent, this week we finally took our first long holiday in South Africa. My husband's parents were here from Europe to visit, so it was a family holiday. I was really determined to do something special, to see a wide variety of things and prove the 'South Africa has it all' claims, whilst also relaxing and staying in quality places. I made a lot of demands for myself for sure. Was it stressful to organise? You bet! Having not yet had any personal experience of safaris and long South African road trips, nor knowing much about the places I wanted to visit - I was putting my best hopes into tripadvisor and the blogosphere, generally working the internet to help make it the best possible holiday.

I've certainly learnt a lot already from organising this trip and seen a lot too. Venues aside, this trip really made me realize that, no matter where you are heading or what your budget is, it is the South African people themselves who really make the holiday. These are some of the friendliest, most cheerful, relaxed and helpful people you can meet anywhere in the world. After 6 plus years of living in Russia where the people are not generally described using those same adjectives above, I can wholeheartedly say that the people really can make the place.

So, back to the trip. Here was our itinerary for a week in North-Eastern South Africa:

 -- 3 nights in Sabie in Mpumalanga Province at the Drakensburg Escarpment
 -- 3 nights in Phalaborwa, Limpopo Province at the gate to central Kruger National Park
-- 1 night in Haenertsburg, Limpopo on the drive back to Johannesburg

Sabie and surrounds

We arrived after a 4 hour drive to Sabie in the early evening. My navigation skills unfortunately let me down whilst trying to leave Joburg and I accidentally took us through the Alexandra shanty town (instead of around it). Here the tiny narrow streets are thronged with people, goats, potholes, heavily laden telegraph poles, tightly packed shacks and no street signs whatsoever. It was an eye-opening experience and I really want to go back and have a guided tour. But, at the time, it was pre-etty stressful.

In Sabie we checked into the Sabie Townhouse guesthouse, which is a lovely relaxed place with a nice (but freezing) honesty bar and lovely spacious (but also chilly) rooms. Our hosts made us a huge breakfast spread each morning with homemade banana bread and muffins, fruit and the full cooked breakfast too. Plus they also prepared a packed breakfast for the days we got up early to drive to Kruger, which was much appreciated. We then set off the next day to see the sights.

Another epic game of Who Wants to be a Millionaire at the bar

Blyde River Canyon

The Blyde River Canyon is the area's biggest attraction. For the adventurous types there's white water rafting, hiking, mountain biking and canopy trails (where you zoom across gorges on those zipline thingies), while for the more sedate visitor there are the views.

First stop on the Escarpment tourist trail about 40 minutes before you reach the canyon proper is God's Window, where you can peer over the massive cliffs which marks the end of the Highveld and the beginning of the Lowveld some 900 metres below. They say that if you are here on a clear night you can see all the way to the lights of Maputo in Mozambique. Nearby there are also many waterfalls which you can stop at, we chose the Berlin Falls, for no reason other than it was recommended by our townhouse.

God's Window
Berlin Falls

Further on up towards the mouth of the canyon you reach Bourke's Luck Potholes, an area of fantastic rock formations carved by the Blyde river. The area is named after a local prospector who found gold here, but failed to get rich as the actual gold seam was located a short way south of his claim.

From here you drive on another half hour to reach the big canyon view at a point called Three Rondavels. The Three Rondavels are three round rock formations which were each named by the local Pedi tribe after one of the chief's wives (I don't remember the names now). The canyon itself is said to be the third largest in the world (after the Grand Canyon and Fish River Canyon in Namibia) - whether that statistic is based on depth, width or length I have no idea. Regardless, it is pretty spectacular.

Echo Caves

Another half an hour beyond the canyon we also stopped at the Echo Caves near to Ohrigstad. This was my favourite attraction in the whole area. Not really well marked on the tourist trail, the caves attract few visitors meaning it was just us and our guide wandering through this strange underground world.

These ancient caves were re-discovered in the 1920s by a local farmer who kept mysteriously losing his cattle. After much head-scratching he eventually found that the cows had wandered into this massive system of caves and perished. In recent years miners have been sent down to explore the area and find where the caves lead. So far they have reached 19kms (for lack of oxygen in their tanks they couldn't continue any further) although it is believed the caves may stretch for 40kms!

They were named echo caves by the local Pedi tribe who used to hide here in the 19th Century while they warred with the Swazis. The Pedis lived out on the hot plains during the winter and retreated to the cooler mountain areas to escape the summer heat. At some point they started to find that thieving Swazis had been through their villages while they were away and destroyed their land and stolen crops. Thus the troubles began. During the worst times the Pedi tribe would hide in the caves from the marauding Swazis with their animals and belongings. A lookout man was sent to the entrance and if he saw trouble he would start beating one of the hollow stalactites near the entrance to the caves making a loud booming sound which would act as a warning message echoing for kilometres telling his people to hide.

The tour was not real potholing per say, but did require much more athleticism than we had first guessed. In the end we only did one half of the two kilometer tour as our guide warned us that in the second half of our journey we would be required to crawl and that in some areas there was very little air. Definitely not for claustrophobes.

Pilgrim's Rest

Pilgrim's Rest is a classic old fashioned mining town about 35 minutes from Sabie. The whole town is considered as a national heritage site and so feels more like a museum than a real 'living' community. That said the buildings are very pretty, there are plenty of cute craft shops and little tea rooms and you can also go down to the stream and try your hand at panning for gold. There are an unusually high number of people selling African crafts here which we felt were overpriced compared to what we had seen elsewhere. If you are looking to buy African crafts (and I recommend you do) you will find better prices at the waterfalls or up on the canyon view point.

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