A friend had recently driven this route, so I thought I knew what to expect, knew that the last of the informal settlements and mountains of tailings piles would give way to miles and miles of empty scrub land. But there is a texture and beauty to the land that I wasn’t expecting. Nor was I expecting to find that we would pass through an area noted for its trout fishing, but the waters around Belfast and Dullstroom are famous for their fishing.
These towns sit at the foot of the Drakensberg Range, which was a gold mining center for nearly 100 years, beginning in the 1870s. The small mining towns of those days are celebrated at Pilgrim’s Rest, a well-preserved example where most buildings were constructed between the 1880s and 1950.
In Pilgrim’s Rest, I had an absolutely lovely lunch of local smoked trout at the Royal Hotel.
I would have liked a lot more time to explore and shop in this little bit of living history, (we had an hour, so time to eat or shop, but not both). The town is definitely worth a few hours stop for a meal and some shopping and it would be a fun spot to spend a night.
From Pilgrim’s rest we headed into the mountains above the Blyde River Canyon. We were given time to wander and explore at the wonderful Bourke’s Luck Potholes, where bridges link the cliffs and allow visitors to roam all over the rocky ledges.
The Pothole area is also where the main visitor center for the park is located. There is also a crafts market on the site, just in case one would rather shop than take in the magnificence of nature.
The Panorama Route runs along the canyon, providing numerous scenic viewpoints, with names like “God’s Window” and “Wonderview.” However, good lighting is crucial to getting the best view, so time of day and weather are key. Time your visit accordingly, if you can.
We just drove through the Blyde River Canyon, with brief stops to see a few of these key sights. However, the area would be gorgeous for hiking and there is much more to see – including enough dramatic waterfalls for a complete tour – making it a worthwhile area to spend a few days exploring.
The other side of the canyon (to the east), is heavily wooded (planted with non-native species, including eucalyptus) and managed for wood production. Be prepared for completely denuded hillsides due to clear-cutting. It’s really not very different from what you would see in other parts of the world, including the western U.S., but it’s still depressing – there are better ways to manage forests.
We spent this evening and the next near Hazyview, at the Protea Hotel Hazyview. This attractive older-style hotel has wonderful courtyards, gardens, and other common spaces. The pool area was beautiful, with views over the lowlands in the distance. Many guest rooms faced a central garden (as ours did), and all featured large, comfortable rooms with high thatched ceilings and a sitting area, European and South African outlets, and windows that opened to let in the evening breeze. Free internet and wifi was available in the lobby. Evening entertainment included local musicians and dancers.
The hotel is not very near town, located instead for proximity to Kruger National Park. This means we were reliant on the hotel for meals. We aren’t big buffet fans, but the two buffet dinners we ate here were really good, with a broad, interesting selection of well-prepared dishes. On the other hand, the safari breakfast packs were not at all to the American taste and we found the sandwiches packed in them to be largely inedible. Bring your own safari snacks.
The location worked fine, but it would be much better to actually stay in the park.