Blyde River – the most spectacular canyon you’ve never heard of

Lowvelt View, Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

I’d never even heard of the Blyde River Canyon, let alone realised it was in fact the third largest in the world, after the Grand Canyon in the USA and the Fish River Canyon in Namibia. Located on the Panorama Route in South Africa’s eastern Mpumalanga Province, the canyon fits in perfectly with a visit to the Kruger or Sabi Sand areas.

Forming the northern part of the Drakensberg escarpment the canyon (also known as Motlatse Canyon) is almost 50 kms long, depending on who you’re talking to. The rock is varied, from red sandstone to slate and even quartzite, and the canyon is known as the largest ‘green’ canyon in the world thanks to it’s lush subtropical foliage. The name Blyde, meaning ‘happy’ in Dutch, was given to the river in 1844 when several voortrekkers (pioneers) returned safely from an expedition to Delagoa Bay after the rest of their party had assumed them dead. Think I’d be happy as well, having somewhere so spectacular to return to.

You can easily visit the main sights along the panoramic route on the western rim of the canyon in a day, although a bit more time in the area will allow you to stop at lesser known features, especially if waterfalls are your thing. There are lots!

Canyon highlights

Travelling north to south down the western rim, these are the stops you really don’t want to miss.

The Three Rondavels

This was the most spectacular viewpoint, overlooking the Blyderivierpoort Dam and the colourfully majestic rock formations that look like rondavels, the traditional African beehive huts. Definitely my favourite part of the canyon, and one which we also enjoyed from above when we had a go at microlighting.

Three Rondavels, Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

Three Rondavels, Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

Unsurprisingly this is one of the most popular stops for coach tours, so it’s best to visit early morning or late afternoon if you want a bit of peace. There are plenty of great vantage points for those all important photos, although that didn’t stop a coach load of ignorant tourists from descending on our exact spot and spending 20 minutes standing right in front of where hubbie was setting up his tripod. He was not amused.

Hubbie is not happy at the Three Rondavels

Hubbie is not happy at the Three Rondavels

I was itching to express my frustration but he reminded me I had on my CT t-shirt so I had to behave myself.

Showing off the CT t-shirt at the Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

Showing off the CT t-shirt at the Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

Entrance: R10 per car

Facilities: toilets, souvenir stalls

Wow factor: 5/5

Lowveld View

Just around the corner from the Rondavels, the Lowveld View isn’t quite as spectacular but still worth a stop to stretch your legs. You can go for a bit of a scramble around here as it isn’t fenced off for safety like the Rondavels, and enjoy the peace (coaches don’t tend to stop here). Perfect for finding a rocky perch to sit quietly and contemplate life.

Lowvelt View, Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

Lowvelt View, Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

Entrance: free

Facilities: none

Wow Factor: 3/5

Bourkes Luck Potholes

These strange water-eroded formations had fascinated me from afar so I was really excited to see them for myself. Being one of the main stops on the tourist trail the entrance is built up and more work is currently underway, making it a bit of a hub. Yet the potholes themselves are a 10 minute downhill walk (uphill on the way back!) from the entrance so ultimately the construction and buildings don’t detract from the experience.

The cylindrical rock features are basically the result of decades of swirling water eddies at the point where the Blyde and Treur Rivers meet. The soil in the water gives the potholes their remarkable colours, whilst the name comes from a chap called Tom Burke, a gold digger who staked a claim nearby.

Bourkes Luck Potholes

Bourkes Luck Potholes

There are several bridges over the gorge so you can admire the potholes from different angles, and you can scamper over the rocky clefts below if you’re feeling adventurous. Some say tossing coins into the pools will bring good luck, but we resisted adding to the coffers of the Trevi Fountain when in Rome, so we weren’t about to begin throwing money away now.

Again this place gets busy, but being located about half way down the panoramic route it’s difficult to see it without the coach loads, unless you stop first thing en-route to your starting point at one end. Hubbie was once again plagued with tourists, despite having to scramble some way to get his perfect photography perch. One minute he was alone, but when he turned around there they were. Some even rudely peering right over his shoulder to see what photos he had taken.

The falls above Bourkes Luck Potholes

The falls above Bourkes Luck Potholes

Tip: there is no shade once you have passed through the entrance, so take water and your sun hat. It gets extremely hot out there, especially on the walk back up!

Entrance: R80 (2 adults and 1 car)

Facilities: toilets, small snack shop selling drinks and ice-creams (the biggest range of Magnum ice-creams I’ve ever seen, so naturally I had to sample the pink champagne one with silver sparkles, yum!).

Wow Factor: 4/5

The road south from here is heavily pot-holed, and add in several cows and bimbling tourist cars it’s not a quick drive. Just as well the scenery is stunning.

Lisbon Falls

There are so many waterfalls in the area, it’s difficult deciding which to visit. So we enlisted the help of Hendry, owner of the exquisite Dar Amane guesthouse where we were staying in Graskop, for his advice. Which is how we ended up at Lisbon Falls, truly some of the most spectacular waterfalls we’ve ever seen, and found just outside the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve. And as a bonus we were virtually the only ones there!

The majestic Lisbon Falls

The majestic Lisbon Falls

The falls are indeed named after the Capital of Portugal, and continuing the European theme just a bit further down the road are the Berlin Falls. The names come from the miners who rushed to the area in the late 1800s when gold was discovered nearby at Pilgrims Rest and Baberton.

It’s a great place for picnics and to take photos without the coach loads to contend with. Although with all the space available, I wasn’t impressed that hubbie decided to set up in the most precarious position on the edge of the gorge. So to stop me fretting about his safety I went to admire the African print table cloths being sold in the car park. Luckily for hubbie, the ladies weren’t interested in haggling (thanks to all the tourists who naively agree to pay top dollar) so the tablecloths stayed put.

Hubbie in the pursuit of the perfect photo at Lisbon Falls - can you spot him?

Hubbie in the pursuit of the perfect photo at Lisbon Falls – can you spot him?

Entrance: R10 per car

Facilities: toilets, souvenir stalls

Wow Factor: 5/5

God’s Window

Now with a name like this we were expecting great things, perhaps even a miracle. So after traipsing up the small stone stairway to heaven we were sorely disappointed to discover it was simply a couple of very tiny platform viewpoints over the valley. Sure, the view is far reaching and if you lean out far enough you might even see a bit of a not-particularly-impressive waterfall, but in the end it’s just a whole load of trees as far as the eye can see. Perhaps we would have been more appreciative had it not been so hazy (apparently you can see as far as the Kruger National Park and Mozambique on a good day) but as it was, we weren’t convinced.

Gods Window, Blyde River Canyon

Gods Window, Blyde River Canyon

Entrance: R10 per car

Facilities: souvenir stalls

Wow Factor: 3/5

Where to start

The best thing to do is check the weather forecast and plan accordingly, making sure you see the best sights during a sunny window! It makes sense to start at one end and work down (or up!), and whilst we drove north to south, it is worth noting that we felt the view of the 3 Rondavels was the most impressive, so you might want to do it the other way around and save the best till last. Although if you’re staying in Graskop (which we highly recommend) it feels more natural to start further away and get nearer to home with each kilometre.

Weather

The best weather is during the Summer, from October to March, when the drier conditions mean fewer clouds and excellent views. Having said that, we visited during November and experienced quite a bit of bad weather in Mpumalanga, so were rather lucky to even see the canyon, let alone catch it on a cloudless day.

Where to stay

Driving along the panoramic route there really were very few settlements, and most didn’t look like the sort of places with tourist guest houses. So it really does make sense to stay in one of the small towns in the south, like Graskop which has plenty of accommodation, eating and tour options. We highly recommend a stay at Dar Amane in Graskop, read my review about it here.

How to do it

The best way by far is to self drive. Failing that you’ll be able to pick up a tour in one of the local towns.

Alternative ways to experience the canyon

By air – as I’ve already mentioned, seeing the canyon from a microlight is an experience second to none. Read about our airborne adventures here.

By water – you can also take boat trips on the river, highly recommended by our microlight pilots Deon and Rowena, though we didn’t have time during our visit. A reason to return!

32 Comments

  • Frank says:

    Wow, some fantastic photos. We’re off this week for 3 months in South Africa. I don’t know if we’ll make it to Blyde but I’d love to and if I can convince Spanky we’ll be going…love those views.
    Good tips on the highlights.
    Frank (bbqboy)

  • Sabine says:

    I must say, before travelling for the first time to South Africa, I also had never heard of the Blyde River canyon before, but indeed, the area is just stunning. It’s such a beautiful place to visit, glad you liked it 🙂

  • Corinne says:

    Wow! Something for the bucket list! Gorgeous views.

  • Roaming Renegades says:

    Oh wow! What an amazing place and yes… we had never heard of it either! In many ways that’s a good thing though, it must be a lot less crowed than other more well know canyons. America has some amazing nature to explore and we would love to return and spend more time in the US to this time see more of that side than the cities we have visited. Great find!

  • Brian Cummins says:

    You’re right Heather, I had never heard of Blyde River Canyon. It looks spectacular from your photos, especially the ones of Bourkes Luck Potholes. My list of things to see grows again!

  • Andrea says:

    Speechless! I need to get myself to this river canyon. I don’t think I could regret it with a view like that!

  • Aileen says:

    Oh wow… this is AMAZING! Great shots too, you guys! I would absolutely, absolutely, check this out once I get to that side of the world!

  • wtraveltogether says:

    Wow, what a gorgeous place with a stunning view!

  • Bailey K. says:

    Oh my gosh how beautiful! I love canyons, and have been to many of them, but not many have this pretty of waterfalls. I’d love to visit!

  • Revati says:

    As a photographer, I’m always always considerate of others trying to get their shots, regardless of whether they’re using their iPad or a serious camera. Hate it when others dont reciprocate. But the canyon really is stunning! ANd you’re right, hadn’t ever heard of it!

  • Rose says:

    Excellent post. I have heard about it, but I didn’t know it was this gorgeous. Really like your photos. This destination goes on the list 🙂

  • Brianna says:

    I hadn’t heard of Blyde River Canyon either but I’m certainly glad your shared it with us. It is beautiful!

  • Alli says:

    Wow! The Bourkes Luck Potholes are fascinating and so beautiful. Thanks for introducing me! Looks incredible.

  • Stephen says:

    Your title is spot on – I’m astounded that I’ve never read about this before. Good find!

  • Jessica Bowler says:

    Wow, what a spectacular place! And I’d actually never heard of this either. The potholes are really cool, I’ve never seen anything quite like that.

  • Nanette says:

    So, so pretty! Especially with the waterfalls and unique potholes. I certainly had never heard of this canyon.

  • Gabor Kovacs says:

    This canyon seems amazing, and the waterfall is simply breathtaking! I scrolled a couple of times up and down to revisit the images, absolutely stunning!

    • Heather Cole says:

      Hubbie has pointed out that the waterfall is his photo and therefore he wants all the credit! I argue that he wouldn’t have been there had I not suggested it in the first place 🙂

  • Samantha Hussey says:

    Love your pictures they are beautiful! I wonder why such a stunning place is hardly unheard of? I certainly never heard about it…!

    As for people getting in the way…I was filming in Munich last year and people could clearly see I was getting frustrated and they still continued to walk straight infront of my lens! AhHH!

  • Tim says:

    Well, you guys got some great shots of this canyon I have never heard of. I can understand your frustration when folks linger in front of your shot. I had that happen in Cambodia when a trio of Asian girls began the mid-air photo routine followed by a whole myriad of poses in front of the Angkor temple. I look back on it now and it’s funny but was not so amused at the time.

    • Heather Cole says:

      Glad it’s not just us! We were lucky at Angkor and just had scaffolding to contend with. I know we’re tourists too and shouldn’t really complain about others, but its the fact most of the time they are completely unaware of how their behaviour affects others. Grrrr.

  • Toccara says:

    Wow! I’ve never heard of Blyde River Canyon either! Thanks for introducing me! It sure is frustrating when hordes of people show up at once. Doesn’t exactly make for a peaceful experience. Sounds like you guys made the most of it and had a lovely time there. Love the waterfall!!

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