Kruger National Park
Very few places on earth can beat the unspoiled, natural beauty, expansive vistas and diversity offered by the Kruger National Park. Covering an area of close to 20 000 square kilometres and extending 360km from north to south, the park is the flagship of South Africa's national parks and is considered one of the largest and most diverse wildlife reserves on the African continent.
Kruger is home to an impressive number of species: 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals. Man's interaction with the Lowveld environment over many centuries – from San rock paintings to majestic iron age archaeological sites like Masorini and Thulamela – is evident in the park. These treasures represent the cultures, people and events that played a role in the history of the park.
With an extensive and excellent road network, supported by an almost endless supply of publications, most visitors can explore the park on their own easily and safely. For the not so adventurous and Africa novices, guided tours on open-sided safari vehicles are available. They are also available for visitors staying outside the park. For the more outdoorsy types, wilderness trails, back-pack trails and a guided 4x4 trail along the entire eastern boundary of the park are available.
There are numerous accommodation options scattered through the park to suit the needs of every class of visitor. There are 11 large national park-run rest camps, offering self-catering bungalows, permanent tents and campsites. Most of these have a shop, restaurant and swimming pool, and offer the guest guided drives, including night drives, and guided walks.
The park also has seven smaller bushveld camps, which forgo the larger camp amenities for greater peace and tranquillity. Most of these camps are situated at the end of roads reserved for use by camp residents only.
For those seeking the ultimate luxury, there are several privately-run, award-winning game lodges situated in exclusive-use, traversing areas within the Kruger National Park. Here your every desire is catered for, from privately-guided safaris and sumptuous food prepared by leading chefs, to an extensive wine selection and spa treatments.
The Panorama Route
The town of Lydenburg/Mashishing is the gateway from the west into this famous and iconic South African tourism destination – the Panorama Route. Renowned for its dramatic scenery and breath-taking views, the Panorama Route is a must visit for both domestic and international visitors.
For South African visitors, the region represents an intrinsic element of our heritage – an essential part of learning about and discovering our country. As an international visitor, it is simply an essential and not-to-be-missed component of any meaningful explore South Africa itinerary.
The essence of the Panorama Route is to drive the route and stop along the way at view sites and unique natural wonders. From Lydenburg/Mashishing you can enter the route from two roads: either the R36 via Ohrigstad and then right onto the R532, or via the R37 and Long Tom Pass, one of South Africa’s renowned mountain passes.
Taking the R36, you will pass the turnoff to Robbers Pass and Ohrigstad Dam and Nature Reserve and just after Echo Caves, turn right onto the prime section of the route. Here you can stop and see several iconic attractions - Blyde River Canyon and Blydepoort Dam, the Three Rondawels, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, Lowveld View, Berlin Falls, Lisbon Falls, Wonder View, God’s Window and the Pinnacle. It is for these natural attractions that the Panorama Route is famous.
If you take the R37 you can enjoy a prelude of the town of Sabie and its landmark waterfalls: Bridal Veil Falls and Lone Creek Falls. Then on to Graskop (perhaps for a pancake?), and follow the route from the lower side, starting at the Pinnacle and ending at the junction of the R532 and R36.
An interesting loop on the Panorama Route is Vaalhoek Road – a well-maintained gravel road suitable for almost all vehicles that run from Bourke’s Luck Potholes to Pilgrim’s Rest – a gem of a trip!
The Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail
One cannot visit the Kruger Lowveld without visiting what is likely the oldest mountain range on earth, the Barberton Mokhanjwa. The rugged Makhonjwa Mountains are perhaps the most complete portrait of the earth approximately 3.2 to 3.5 billion years ago.
The Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail tells an astonishing story of the earth soon after it had cooled sufficiently to have a crust and liquid water, but an earth unrecognisable to us – wholly different to the blue planet we inhabit today.
The 3.2 to 3.5 billion-year-old beach deposit is so well defined you can see tidal intervals; trace fossilised biomats in sandstone, the first signs of life on earth that you can see with the naked eye; piles of volcanic pillows formed by lava extruding on an ocean floor, or volcanic hailstones preserved in dove-grey chert sediments. All of these and more can be found at geosites along the scenic road to Bulembu, and on to Piggs Peak.
Striking and informative roadside panels have been installed along the 40km of tarred road between Barberton and Swaziland. A dozen attractively landscaped geological laybys and viewpoints have been built, illustrating how the earth evolved from a lifeless, hot steaming planet, to an environment that supports life.
The geotrail provides visitors of all ages with an enjoyable and educational outdoor experience, guaranteed to provide new and fascinating insights into how life on earth began.
Lowveld National Botanical Garden
The Lowveld National Botanical Garden in Nelspruit/Mbombela was established in 1969 after the local municipality resolved that a regional botanical garden would be ideal for the conservation of the diverse flora of the region, education and the promotion of tourism.
The garden was officially opened on 10 September 1971, on 169 hectares of land donated by the municipality and HL Hall & Sons. Only 30 hectares of the property is landscaped, with the balance retained as a natural or low maintenance area.
The garden is shaped by the Crocodile and Nels rivers that cut across it and form spectacular waterfalls which can be viewed at the Cascades and the Nels viewpoints. When the Crocodile River is low, interesting geological formations are visible.
The main area of the garden boasts a large selection of cycads, the oldest seed plants on earth with fossil records dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. Cycads are classified as an endangered species and trade in the species is prohibited. There are also 112 species of South African fig trees represented in the garden.
A unique braille trail for blind visitors; a medicinal garden showcasing edible and other useful indigenous plants; and the SAPPI aerial boardwalk which meanders through a recreated African rain forest are but three of the special interest sites that have been established in the garden.
The garden serves as an important conservation area where around 200 bird species have been recorded. Seventy-five reptile species call the garden their home, as do numerous mammal species, including different mongooses, vervet monkey and thick-tailed bushbaby.
The garden has wonderful picnic spots under large shade trees and is also ideal for functions, such as weddings and birthdays. A children’s play area with jungle gyms and a sandpit can keep kids entertained for hours. There are two restaurants in the garden, offering visitors food and drink in tranquil settings.
Lowveld National Botanical Garden is open Monday to Sunday from September to March from 08h00 to 18h00 and from April to August from 08h00 to 17h00.
Riverside Park offers an enormous variety of shopping, live entertainment, a host of restaurants and other leisure activities - such as the magnificent Lowveld National Botanical Gardens, Emnotweni Casino and the Mafunyane Riverside Water Park – all in one hub!
With all of this on offer it’s no wonder that so many international visitors, local tourists and Lowvelders opt to live or stay, work or play and shop here.
The Mafunyane Riverside Water Park has a plethora of slippery slides and pools and is great day out for a picnic or braai.
Nearby Riverside Mall has over 140 stores, a variety of restaurants and cinemas.
Emnotweni Casino offers a selection of cosmopolitan dining options, thrilling gaming and electrifying entertainment. The casino features large smoking and non-smoking areas and two Emnotweni Hotels are within walking distance. The multi-purpose 700sqm venue at Emnotweni – The Arena – is the hub for lifestyle events, exhibitions, shows, conferences, concerts and banquets.
The Sudwala Caves, situated 35km outside Nelspruit/Mbombela, is a popular tourist attraction in the earth’s oldest known cave system. Dating back over 3000 million years, the Sudwala Caves was formed by natural acid in groundwater, seeping through faults in the dolomite rock and dissolving over time to create massive chambers and narrow passages.
While only opened to the public in the 1960s the caves offered shelter to Homo habalis, an early ancestor of modern humans. In the mid-1800s the caves played a role in sheltering Somquba (brother to Swazi King Mswati II) and his followers during the struggle for power of the Swazi Kingdom. The caves were named after Sudwala, one of Somquba’s indunas and the appointed guardian of the caves.
More recently, during the second South African War (1899 – 1902), the Boer army stored ammunition, including shells for the “Long Tom Cannon”, in the caves. It has also long been believed that the mystical missing Kruger millions were hidden in the caves.
Exploring the caves on the one-hour cave tour is relatively easy, with no special skills or extreme fitness required. You will venture about 600m into the central chamber, 75m in diameter and 35m high, as large as a 500 seater concert hall, a purpose for which it is occasionally used. The chamber is naturally ventilated with its temperature a constant 17oC from an unknown source. The caves are open daily from 08h30 to 16h30.
For the more adventurous there is the four-hour Crystal Tour taking you 2000m into the cave system, to the crystal chamber with its amazing array of sparkling aragonite crystals. The tour is suitable for those of above average fitness who do not suffer from claustrophobia. Prepare to get wet and crawl through narrow spaces. The Crystal Tour usually only takes place on the first Saturday of each month. Children under 14 years are not permitted, neither are people weighing more than 115kg. Pre-booking is essential for the Crystal Tour.
The Kruger Lowveld is waterfall country, especially the escarpment part of the region. This is not surprising as the escarpment is the watershed from which the Lowveld part of the region receives its water. Many tourists spend days chasing waterfalls and to manage to see all of the well-known ones is quite an achievement. The list is long...
Sabie Falls: Under a bridge on the R532, when leaving Sabie and travelling towards Graskop. A short walk will take you to a viewing platform to see the water falling a staggering 73m.
Horse Shoe Falls: Just 4km outside Sabie, on the old Lydenburg/Mashishing road. It’s one of three waterfalls in the Sabie River that can be viewed along the same road.
An ideal spot for a picnic, a swim or a bit of trout fishing.
Bridal Veil Falls: Just 6km out of Sabie you will encounter the spectacular Bridal Veil waterfall. This 70m high waterfall resembles a veil due to its misty, almost translucent nature. Getting to the falls however requires negotiating a tricky 750m hike.
Lone Creek Falls: A 200m walk through the forest is worth it to view this 68m high waterfall. Situated approximately 9km out of Sabie on the Old Lydenburg/Mashishing road.
Forest Falls: 15km from Sabie on the Graskop road (R532). A 4km circular hike along the Mac Mac River and through plantations will take you to the waterfall. It is wider than it is high and almost looks like a small Victoria Falls. It has a big pool and picnic area.
Mac Mac Falls: This 65m high waterfall is below the average ground level as it falls into a gorge next to the R532, often creating rainbows with its water spray.
Maria Shires Falls: Although only 35m high, this waterfall is known for producing a thunderous noise after heavy rain. It’s situated on the R532 between Sabie and Graskop.
Panorama Falls: Just outside Graskop on the road to Hazyview. It’s a breath-taking sight after heavy rains.
Lisbon Falls: The highest falls in Mpumalanga measures in at 94m. Situated north of Graskop on the R532.
Berlin Falls: The 80m high waterfall runs through a carved out sluice before widening into the solid white body of the candle. There’s a pool to swim in and it’s lovely for a picnic. North of Graskop on the R532.
Cascades Waterfall: Situated in the Lowveld National Botanical Gardens, where the Crocodile River meets the Nels River, it’s a sight to behold.
Exploring South African history as a family is a rewarding experience and there is no better place to do this than the historical town of Pilgrim’s Rest, one of South Africa’s much-loved heritage sites and a major draw card for the Kruger Lowveld region.
Situated on the beautiful Panorama Route, Pilgrim’s Rest is a small village and a living monument to the feverish gold rush days of the late 1800s. For the outdoorsy family, there is fly-fishing on the Blyde River, golf at the nine-hole course and, of course, a visit to the diggings and panning for gold.
The town has seven museums that are open daily and offer insight into the great story of the town. There are several accommodation establishments, catering for most budgets, and cafés and restaurants, catering for all palates.
Kaapschehoop, a historical mining town with its history deeply rooted in the first discovery of gold in South Africa in the late 1800s, is well-known for its breath-taking beauty, free-roaming wild horses and rock fields. It is a charming village, situated a mere 30km from Nelspruit/Mbombela, and lies at an altitude of 1712 meters.
It is a popular tourist village and a haven of peace and tranquillity. With its often misty mountains and high rainfall, Kaapschehoop offers a cosy ambience and is a nature lover's dream destination.
Herds of wild horses roam the rocky surface of the grasslands, where Blue Swallows come each year to nest, and eagles, hawks and numerous other birds celebrate their freedom in the crisp mountain air. You may also be lucky enough to see buck, baboons and other smaller animals.
The village is rich in history and local art and offers various leisure activities, such as horse riding, hiking and browsing in the quaint shops. Numerous restaurants and tons of accommodation establishments make Kaapschehoop an ideal stop-over between Gauteng and Nelspruit/Mbombela.
Kaapschehoop Horse Trails, situated 7km outside the village of Kaapschehoop, is a peaceful retreat for both horse and nature enthusiast.
Private Game Lodges
The private game lodges in the Kruger Lowveld region are world-class. Situated primarily within the world-renowned private game reserves, along the western boundary of the Kruger National Park and some inside the Kruger National Park itself, these private game lodges are often thought to be the playground only of the rich and famous. While many of them are award-winners in the five-star and upward luxury categories, in reality, these lodges offer a variety of accommodation options in different price ranges.
The proximity to nature and the unrivalled feeling of “being in the bush” is the consistent theme of these reserves, whether you are staying in one of the best hotels in the world or a rustic bush camp. A visit to one of these private game lodges in the Sabi Sand, Timbavati, Thornybush, Klaserie or Manyeleti reserves or within the Kruger National Park is a once in a lifetime experience.
A trip to a private game lodge within the Kruger National Park cannot be compared to most other private safari experiences in the country, because the game experience is completely authentic, the reserves are vast and unfenced, guides and trackers are extremely experienced and knowledgeable, the game viewing is unrivalled, the hospitality is extraordinary and meaningful memories are made.
A true safari experience should be more than chasing the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and African buffalo). It’s also about seeing the interaction between all the creatures and their environment and appreciating it. This deeper understanding is what you will be afforded in the private game lodge environment. And moreover, safari and bush lodge getaways are not only about exploring nature and coming face to face with Africa’s wildlife. They are also about sitting back, putting your feet up, enjoying fantastic food and service, and taking the time to unwind from life’s stresses. Enjoy this and more, while you are absorbed into a place where a constant parade of African wildlife passes by.
Jock of the Bushveld
In many parts of the world, you may stumble across stories of famous dogs that have touched the hearts of people in particular ways. But of all the dog stories in the world, Jock of the Bushveld, immortalised in the book by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick published in 1907, is the one that lies closest to the hearts of those who live in the Kruger Lowveld.
This is not only because Jock's plucky spirit speaks to the dog lovers among us, but also because it tells the story of a time when the Lowveld was still frontier country, and young men headed east to seek their fortunes.
Just such a young man was Sir Fitzpatrick (not yet knighted) who had gravitated towards the Lowveld as a young 22-year-old when he needed to find a way to support his mother and family after his father's death. First he headed for the gold fields, then he worked as a transport rider on the ox-wagons that were heading across the Lowveld to Delagoa Bay on the coast.
It was in 1885, during one such trip, that Fitzpatrick ended up adopting the tiny pup that appeared to be the runt of the litter. But Jock was to grow into a fine specimen of a dog and repaid Fitzpatrick with fierce loyalty.
Later in life, Fitzpatrick would entertain his four children by telling them the stories of his young life on the road with brave Jock at his side. It was Fitzpatrick’s close friend, the writer Rudyard Kipling, who persuaded him to commit these stories to paper. Thus, the rollicking tale of a man and his best friend that was to capture the hearts of readers around the world, was born.
If you visit the Kruger National Park, you can follow the H2-2, also known as the Old Transport or Delagoa Road, that traces the original route these transport riders used in the winter months and which was the setting of many of Jock's adventures. Jock was born at a spot between Pretoriuskop and the Afsaal (literally 'saddle off') picnic spot within sight of Ship Mountain, a landmark in the area.
If you drive this road, look for the plaques along the way… You can almost hear the cries of the transport riders as they crack their whips and urge the oxen ever onwards.