The southern part of Africa presents a lot of fantastic landscapes, formed by mountains, gorges, savannas, deserts, forests, lakes, and rivers. Among all of them, a magnificent mountain range attracts travelers and explorers, called the Drakensberg. A river called Blyde starts its journey from the Great Escarpment- the “mother range” of Drakensberg. This river curves through the mountainous region and forms the most spectacular canyon in Africa- the Blyde River Canyon. Let’s go to explore and get the best impression of it!
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Basic facts about Blyde River Canyon
Let’s open the physical map of South Africa. As you can see, most of the country consists of highlands, and most of these highlands are plateaus. But there are some more rugged areas, with mountains and valleys. One of these areas is located in the northeastern part of the country, and north of eSwatini (former Swaziland).
Many rivers cut the mountains here, curving on beautiful valleys. Blyde River (called also Motlatse or Umdhlazi) is one of them, and curves on its valley too. But from a certain point, its valley suddenly changes into something more spectacular.
This is the Blyde River Canyon– a 26 km section of the Blyde River valley that forms one of the largest canyons in the world, the second largest in Africa. Its maximal depth is about 1400 m, between the highest point near the river- Mt. Mariepskop (1947 m), and the bottom of the canyon at 570 m.
Yes, with these parameters, Blyde River Canyon doesn’t look so large (there are canyons about 3000-4000 m, deeper, and much longer), but its terrain is much more “canyon-like” than many other deep valleys in the world. And unlike other canyons of this type that are arid and treeless, this one is covered by lush subtropical forests.
Everything starts from a mountain, called Mount Moodie (2062 m). Tiny streams descend on its northern slope and at about 1500 m altitude merge into a small mountain creek that gradually grows into a river.
It flows in the northern direction. And when it reaches 1110 m altitude, its valley suddenly changes- the slopes of the valley become steeper and the river cuts the mountains, forming spectacular bends. There is a dam lake in the lower section of the canyon, called Blyderivierpoort, and finally, near the village of Swadini, the river goes out of the canyon.
Then, Blyde River proceeds further north on a much softer terrain until it merges with Elephants River. The Elephants River joins the Limpopo River, and finally, the waters of all these rivers reach the Indian Ocean at the southernmost end of Mozambique.
History and local culture
The area around the Blyde River Canyon has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Various people have lived here, many of whom are still here today. Among them, we can mention Swazi, Pedi, Ndebele, Zulu, and Mapulana.
Before the coming of the Europeans, the local people have already created agrarian societies. And when the Dutch-speaking Boers came, they established colonial rule. As a result, there were a lot of revolts and wars between them, and the local people- in other words, the 19th and 20th centuries were a time of suffering.
The Republic of South Africa was established, and in 1948- the system of Apartheid. Many black locals were deported from the area of Blyde River Canyon. But when the Apartheid was over (in 1994), the locals back and took their lands.
Today, the whole country of South Africa has developed a unique society with its pros and cons, and the lands around the Blyde River are not an exception. But at least, the area around the canyon is peaceful, people are friendly, and despite the tourism development, you can still feel the authentic culture, combined with the stunning landscapes around you.
How to explore Blyde River Canyon
First, if you want to explore the Blyde River Canyon, you have to think about it as a part of something larger. This larger thing is called Blyde River Canyon Natural Reserve, and it includes not only the canyon itself but also the best natural phenomena, located south of the canyon- the best of the Drakensberg Escarpment.
The Escarpment has a specific terrain that features highlands (some like plateaus, some like sharp mountains) that end in edges and cliffs below them, descending to the lowlands. And the Blyde River Canyon is just a part of this. So, the best way to explore the canyon is to include it in a larger itinerary focused on the whole Blyde River Canyon Natural Reserve.
Blyde River Canyon Natural Reserve
The natural reserve is about 50 km long and just several km wide. It is prolonged from Graskop in the so to Swadini in the north and is divided into two parts. The southern part follows the edge of the escarpment and the Treur River, and the northern part follows the canyon itself.
There are a lot of great points of interest, located in different places in the natural reserve. So, to draw the itinerary, we have to identify these spots and connect them by a route. Fortunately, there is a good road (road No. R532) that connects Graskop with the northern exit of the natural reserve, called the Panorama Route.
When it reaches the canyon, the road follows it along its western edges. However, this road doesn’t have a connection to Swadini and the eastern slopes of the canyon- for this area, you have to follow other routes.
If you start from Graskop in the south when you reach the canyon, you don’t need to walk on its bottom, and in fact, there is no road or even a hiking trail that follows the river on the bottom. Of course, if you are well-prepared and enough adventurous, you can still do it, but the best views of the Blyde River Canyon can be seen only from above, not from the bottom.
Let’s follow the length of the whole Blyde River Canyon Natural Reserve (not only the canyon itself) and identify the best points of interest in it. We can divide it into four sections.
Graskop is a small town at the southernmost end of the Blyde River Canyon Natural Reserve, and it is the main starting point for exploring the whole area. As you can expect, it is a touristy place, with hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and other attributes of tourism. And here, only within a 10-15 min walk from the center, you can visit the first point of interest.
Graskop Gorge Lift Co
The town of Graskop is established at the edge of a plateau. Around the southern end of the town, the edge is “cut” by a gorge that leads you to another world. From the plain agricultural landscape around the town, you suddenly “drop” to a lush jungle with a waterfall. The waterfall is called Motitsi Falls, and it descends into the jungle forming a “creating of the world” type of paradise.
There is a lift station, established on the edge of the plateau. From here, you can descend by a lift to the jungle, then take a walk on the wooden trails that guide you to the best views around this site. Besides the lift, you can enjoy other attractions like a big swing and a zipline. For more information see here.
Entrance fee: for adults- R60; for children 4-16 years old- R30, under 4 years old- free.
Lift and forest experience: for adults- R240; for children 4-16 years old- R155;
Big swing and zipline: zipline- R250; big swing- R650; combo ticket- R750
If you like Motitsi Falls and fall in love with them, you can also visit two more waterfalls near Graskop (but already out of the natural reserve): Forest Falls, about 3 km southwest of Graskop, and Mac Mac Falls- further south, about 7 km from Graskop.
The Pinnacle Rock
About 5 km northeast of Graskop, the edge of the Drakensberg Plateau is cut again. This time, there is another attraction- a 30 m tall quartzite rock rising like a tower on the steep slope of the gorge between the local plates of the plateau. In addition, there is another waterfall here too. Its waters come from the fields of the plateau and fall to the bottom of the gorge, covered by lush subtropical rainforest.
The Pinnacle Rock is located on Road R534. There is small parking beside the road. From there, you can walk on a short trail, established around the Pinnacle Rock and the waterfall, enjoying more fantastic views.
Entrance fee: R20 for adults; R15 for children
Follow Road R534 further north, and soon you will reach one of the most emblematic points in the Blyde River Canyon Natural Reserve. This is God’s Window. Why is it called this way? Because this is probably the best place where you can feel “the dawn of creation”- one of the most beautiful landscapes created by God.
This place has become famous for one more reason. Have you watched the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy”? At the end of this movie, Bushman Xi came here, reached the edge of Drakensberg at this spot, and threw the Coca-Cola bottle from above, in the hope of “returning it to the gods”.
And why is it a “window”? Because when you arrive here, you have to walk through a rainforest that grows at the edge. Then, while you walk, the rainforest suddenly opens like a window, and a fantastic view reveals in front of your eyes.
There is a parking lot at the spot with souvenir shops and stalls. From here, you take a walk on the short trails through the rainforest to the Window.
Entrance fee: R20 for adults; R15 for children.
Only about a kilometer and a half further is the next panoramic point, called Wonder View. Again, it is located at the edge, providing the same spectacular views from the edge of Drakensberg. It is not as famous as God’s Window, but it is still worth visiting and taking photos there, and it is the highest viewpoint of Drakensberg at 1730 m altitude. Again, there is a small parking lot.
Entrance fee: Free
A small river starts flowing near the edge of the escarpment to the west. It is called the Lisbon River. And soon after it crosses Road R532, it reaches a spectacular canyon that looks like a crack in the plateau. Here it falls from 92 m, forming the highest and one of the most beautiful waterfalls around Graskop- Lisbon Falls.
Lisbon Falls are located on the left side of Road R532, and there is about a 2 km side road (well-paved), leading to the site. There is a parking lot with souvenir shops and stalls. And the waterfall is right beside the parking lot.
Entrance fee: R15 per person.
A few kilometers further north, another small river comes from the edge of the Drakensberg, called Sabine River. Like Lisbon River, it flows on the plateau, and suddenly drops… however, this time not in a crack-like canyon but into something like a semi-circle bowl with a pool on the bottom. Thus, it creates a different picture, with different beauty.
Again, like Lisbon Falls, there is a parking lot with souvenir shops and stalls, with a short trail leading to the waterfall.
Entrance fee: R15 per person.
Further north, the Panorama Route leaves the area around Graskop and reaches the valley of the small Treur River. For the next 20-25 km, the road follows this river. In fact, this is the section that connects Graskop with the beginning of the Blyde River Canyon.
Treur River Waterfalls
On its course, in two spots the Treur River drops as waterfalls. They are not as spectacular as the Graskop waterfalls, but if you have time, they are still worth visiting. At least, they are not developed as tourist sites like the sites around Graskop, so, you wouldn’t face tourist crowds.
They are Amber Treur, and Treur Falls. There is a dirt road that starts from the right side of R532 and descends to the river. From here, there are trails following the river to the waterfalls- one upstream to Amber Falls, and one downstream to Treur Falls.
Blyde River Canyon on the west
Finally, the Panorama Route reaches the spot where the Treur River joins the Blyde River. This is the beginning of the Blyde River Canyon. And it starts with a fantastic site- Bourke’s Luck Potholes.
Bourke’s Luck Potholes
At this point, the Blyde River flows in an amazing crack with cylindrical holes, formed by the whirlpools of the river waters. Here the crack is more like a slot canyon.
The name of this phenomenon comes from Tom Bourke- a gold digger who searched for gold in this area. Although he didn’t find anything, he correctly predicted that there must be gold deposits nearby, which were indeed found later.
Today, this is one of the most spectacular points in the Blyde River Canyon Natural Reserve. The site is located just on the right side of the road, near the village of Moremela. It is a well-developed tourist attraction with a small museum-informative center, presenting natural and historical facts about the area. From there, a well-arranged 700 m long trail leads you to the Potholes, crossing the canyon twice on two bridges.
Entrance fee: R65 for adults; R25 for children.
Belvedere Day Hike and Digi Falls
This is an extra activity to the Bourke’s Luck Potholes. A 10-km trail starts from the Potholes and curves at the eastern side of the canyon. It leads you to Digi Falls- they are not so high, but combined with the canyon terrain around, the landscape with the falls is fantastic.
To try this activity, you must get a permit from Graskop Tourist Information Center, pay the entrance fee at the Potholes, and go hiking. And you must start the hike no later than 11:00 am.
Proceed further north on Road R532. About 9 km from the Bourke’s Luck Potholes you will reach another panoramic viewpoint- one of the best in the whole natural reserve- Lowveld View. It is located on the right side of the road, and there is a short trail from the parking lot, leading you to some of the most fantastic views of the canyon, including the Blyderivierpoort Dam.
Entrance fee: Free.
Three Rondavels Viewpoint
This is the next amazing point of interest- a panoramic view of another emblematic phenomenon- the Three Rondavels. The rondavels are a typical local type of houses that are traditional for this region. They are round, with conical roofs. And from this viewpoint, you can see three spectacular quartzite peaks that look like rondavels. Each of them has its own name- Magabolle, Mogoladikwe, and Maseroto, named after the three of chief Maripi Mashale’s wives.
The Three Rondavels are located on the other side of the canyon. So, you can’t reach them from here, but you can observe and enjoy them. Here you can make some of the best photos of the Blyde River Canyon because these formations are probably its best-known symbol.
To reach the Three Rondavels Viewpoint, you have to travel about 4,5 km from the Lowveld View, then turn right on a side road to the parking lot. From there, you just follow a well-established trail that leads you to the best panoramic points.
Entrance fee: R35 for adults, R20 for children (the ticket can be used for A Forever Resort)
Blyde River Canyon- A Forever Resort
This is the last point on the western side of the Blyde River Canyon. Before Road R532 turns westward and leaves the canyon, it reaches one of the best places with panoramic views in the area. It is located around a left tributary of the Blyde River- Kadisi River that digs the ground deeper and deeper until it reaches the bottom of the canyon.
There is a resort established here- Blyde River Canyon A Forever Resort. Here you can spend a longer time and enjoy the stunning views of the area. And if you do it, don’t skip the two main activities here- the hike to the Upper and Lower viewpoints, and the Kadisi Tufa Waterfall.
Upper and Lower viewpoints hike
This hike is on a well-established network of trails that starts from one point and ends at another point. The main trails here are Leopard Trail, Guinea-fowl Trail, and Tula Trail. They lead you up and down on the Kadisi Valley slopes through rainforests and rock formations, including the Upper Lookout and Lower Viewpoint- the best spots for observing the Blyde River Canyon. The whole hike normally requires a full day.
Kadisi Tufa Waterfall
One of the main attractions here is Kadisi Tufa Waterfall. It can be reached by a small detouring trail through a dense jungle. The trail leads you to the second-highest tufa waterfall in the world- Kadisi (Kadishi) Falls. It falls from about 200 m into a hidden pool in the forest, forming a fairy-tale picture.
A Forever Resort is located about 5 km from the Three Rondavels View Point. You have to turn right on a side road to the resort, and there is a checkpoint at the beginning.
Entrance fee: R35 for adults, R20 for children (the tickets can be used for Three Rondavels View Point)
That’s all from the Panorama Route- Road R532. But there are more places to see around the Blyde River Canyon, however, you have to access them from other roads. They are located on the eastern side of the canyon.
More of the Blyde River Canyon
From A Forever Resort, the only way to reach the eastern side of the Blyde River Canyon, you have to make a big round tour on roads R532, R36, and R527, around the northern end of the canyon and its surrounding mountains. That’s about an 80-100 km drive- about an hour and a half. But it is worth traveling, and also you can see some interesting spots on the way. The best of them is Echo Caves.
This is a really interesting site- one of the oldest caves in the world. They are a system of caverns with stalactites and stalagmites, organized in tunnels and chambers with a total length of more than 40 km. The caves were discovered in 1959 and made a tourist attraction, but centuries before that they were used by ancient people (Pedi people among them) as a shelter- we can see their traces in Samson Chamber.
Echo Caves are located about 27 km west of A Forever Resort, on Road R532, and shortly on R36, then from a detouring road to the ending point. Today, there is a small resort (with accommodation) established here, as well as some souvenir shops and a restaurant.
When you arrive, you have to buy an entrance ticket and join a tour. The tours are 45 min long and you walk 2 km inside the caves.
Working hours: 8:30 to 16:30
Entrance fee: R80 for adults; R60 for pensioners; R50 for children from 13 to 18 years old; R30 for children from 5 to 12 years old; free for children under 5.
Swadini and around- wildlife centers
From Echo Caves, you can proceed further on Road R36, then on Road R527 until you arrive at the resort town of Swadini, located at the lower end of the Blyde River Canyon. Swadini is just a nice tourist place, and while you are there, you can visit several wildlife sanctuaries nearby:
- Khamai Reptile Park (called also Hoetspruit or Kinyonga Reptile Center). A haven for various reptiles, including the deadliest snakes in Africa and the world. Entrance fee: R110 for adults; R55 for children. For more information see here.
- Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. An ecological project for helping animals in need, presenting their natural habitat in this place. Here you can join various tours for educational purposes (each tour has its own tariffs- for more information see here.
- Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center. This is another ecological project, a wildlife farm, specially designed for the protection of endangered species like cheetahs, leopards, sable antelope, and more. Again, here you can join an educational 2-hour long tour. Price: R600 for adults, R500 for pensioners, R300 for children (6-12 years old), and free for children under 6. For more information see here.
Let’s back to the Blyde River Canyon again, this time from its lower end, from Swadini. There is another resort with the name A Forever here. And from this resort, there is a road that enters the canyon, following the river to the Blyderivierpoort Dam.
Blyderivierpoort Dam is a reservoir, established inside the canyon. Yes, it is artificial, but the result is a beautiful lake that creates fantastic landscapes in combination with the canyon landform.
The road ends in a “peninsula” with a parking lot. Here is the Visitor Center. You can just walk around and relax, but also you can join an activity: a boat trip, a quad bike adventure, paintball, or even a helicopter ride. For more information, take a look here.
About 3 km from the Visitor center, you can go on a short hike to a beautiful waterfall with a pool (follow the trail with the sign “Waterfall Trail”). And a little further downstream is the starting point for another exciting hiking trail- Hippo Trail.
This is an exciting trail that curves at the eastern coast of the Blyderivierpoort Dam. It reaches the bottom of the canyon under the Three Rondavels View Point, and it is about 13,5 km long. But if you want to try this hike, you have to get a permit from A Forever Resort in Swadini and start early morning, because you have to go and back within the same day.
Finally, something more adventurous. Again, you have to back from the dam reservoir to Swadini, then proceed to the southeastern side of Mount Mariepskop. Here is the town of Brooklyn. A narrow road, about 30 km long starts from Brooklyn to the west. It gradually ascends with endless curves to the mountains of Drakensberg.
The first 20 km is a dirt road, not proper for “weak” cars, but great for 4×4 vehicles and mountain bikes. And at the 20th km, you reach a left detouring dirt road that leads you to the eastern bank of the Blyde River, to a place called Picnic Point– it is wild, non-touristy, and great for relaxing after adventures.
If you proceed further, at the 23rd km you will reach another side road, this time on the right. It leads you to a series of small waterfalls, called Claserie Falls– a wild, off-the-beaten place.
From here, the road is paved (but very narrow). It proceeds to ascend until finally, it reaches the highest point of the Drakensberg and the Blyde River Canyon Natural Reserve- Mount Mariepskop (1947 m). The panoramic views that you can enjoy from here are fantastic and breathtaking!
By visiting all of these points of interest described above, you can make a complete and in-detail exploration of the Blyde River Canyon.
How to get to Blyde River Canyon
Blyde River Canyon Natural Reserve is located northeast of the nearest large city- Johannesburg. And, as mentioned above, the best way to explore it is to start from the town of Graskop. So, how to reach Graskop?
Transport for independent travelers
The best way to travel to Blyde River Canyon is by car (but have in mind that in South Africa traffic is on the left, like in the UK!). You can rent a car from Johannesburg, or travel by bus to one of the towns on the road- Mbombela or Hazyview, and rent a car from there. There are buses once daily from Johannesburg to Mbombela, and then to Hazyview- for about 5 hours and a half.
From Hazyview, you can explore Blyde River Canyon by car, making a full circle through Graskop, along the western side of the canyon, Echo Caves, to Swadini and Brooklyn, and finally back to Hazyview. And of course, you can combine it in a longer tour that includes the nearby famous Kruger National Park.
Blyde River Canyon itineraries
How many days would you need to enjoy the Blyde River Canyon in full, visiting and exploring all of its points of interest, by driving from Hazyview to Hazyview? I would say at least a week! There are several hiking trails that require at least a whole day each. And, to enjoy it fully, don’t rush it, travel slowly, and take some time to relax at the best spots!
But, if you don’t have enough time, skip some hiking trails. Or, focus on Road R532 only. And if you are really in hurry (yes, many people just try to include as many as possible destinations within the limited and short time of their vacation), you still can get some impressions within a single day. Just drive on the Road R532, visit the most notorious spots: God’s Window, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and Three Rondavels View Point, and if you have time- one or two more spots.
There are a lot of accommodation options. They include resorts, hotels in the towns, and lodges- from splurge to budget, as well as some Airbnb properties (mainly in Swadini). And there are even camping opportunities, but only within the resorts. The independent campsites near Graskop are beyond the boundaries of the natural reserve.
Blyde River Canyon tours
This is the easiest way to explore Blyde River Canyon, for those who are in a hurry and don’t want to drive (or cannot drive). There are many tours to the natural reserve, and most of them start and end from Hazyview. They are 1 day long (5 to 10 hours). Let’s see some of them:
- From Hazyview: Full Day Panorama Tour. This is a 7-hour tour that is focused on the main points of interest in the national park- God’s Window, Lourke’s Luck Potholes, Three Rondavels View Point, as well as the two waterfalls Berlin and Lisbon. In addition, you will also visit Pilgrim’s Rest (an old settlement related to the Gold Rush from the beginning of the 19th century, today outside of the natural reserve).
- From Hazyview: Blyde River Canyon Highlight & Boat Cruise. This is an 8-hour tour. It will guide you basically to the same spots as the first tour, but without Pilgrim’s Rest. Instead, it will proceed to Swadini and Blyderivierpoort Dam, where you can enjoy a boat cruise. Finally, from there, it takes you back to Hazyview.
- Hazyview: Blyde River Boat & Reptile Park Tour. This is a different tour, focused only on the Blyderiverpoort Dam, and Khamai (Kinyonga) Reptile Park. It is 8 hours long. You will visit fewer spots but will enjoy the ones you visit for a longer time.
- From Hazyview: Full-Day Panorama Route & Gorge Lift Tour. This is like the first tour, but one hour longer. And you don’t visit Pilgrim’s Rest, but instead, you will enjoy the Gorge Lift for a longer time.
- Hoedspruit: Panorama Route Private Day Tour to Blyde River Canyon. This tour starts and ends from Hoedspruit. It is 10 hours long and takes you to the Panorama Route with its best points of interest.
For those that want to combine Blyde River Canyon with Kruger National Park, there is a Pretoria: 3-days Kruger Park and Graskop Luxury Tour. It starts and ends from Pretoria, and includes 2 days around Hazyview and Kruger National Park, and one day in the Blyde River Canyon.
And for those who are more adventurous and have a longer time, there are two good options to try:
- South Africa Walking Adventures. This is a 10-day cycling tour in the northeastern part of South Africa. Besides the Blyde River Canyon, the route includes various famous destinations like Kruger National Park, Mapungubwe National Park, National Park, Letsitele, and more. Traveling by bicycle is an exciting way to sense the local nature, culture, and the air in this part of the Earth, combined with stunning views everywhere.
- South Africa Walking Adventures. This is a 14-day tour around the same region, including one more country- eSwatini (Swaziland). Basically, it focuses on the same destinations, including Blyde River Canyon. The trip consists of many hikes on the route, and moving by private vehicle to their starting and ending points, from trail to trail.
The best time to visit Blyde River Canyon is the transition seasons between summer and winter- from March to June, and from August to November. During these periods, the weather is nice, not too hot, and with less rain.
Winter (June to August) is cool, especially in the high-altitude areas on the Drakensberg plateau. And when it rains, the rain is cold, which is not so pleasant.
Summer (December to March) is hot and wet. It is the rainiest season, especially in January. Yes, the whole landscape is very fresh and green at that time, but you have to be ready for rain.
This is the Blyde River Canyon. It is not just one of the largest canyons in the world, but a harmonious combination of landforms, greenery, local culture, wildlife, and atmosphere, united in a fairy-tale kingdom. It is one of the symbols of Africa, and planning a journey to this place will give you a life-changing impression.
Take a look at this video for more impressions from Blyde River Canyon
Check some travel books about South Africa:
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.