Our lodging for the first night in Johannesburg, was at the City Lodge Hotel, to which you can walk right from the airport terminal. As our plan was to meet our guide at 8 a.m. in the lobby and drive out into the country, this suited us well. The breakfast buffet at 7 a.m. also filled us up before starting our travels. Our African Sky guide, Mary-Anne, arrived early, we checked out, packed the minivan, and were on our way.
The first couple of hours would be a quick run out from the highveld and mining country near Johannesburg, east and north, to the middleveld, or transvaal region. Soon after leaving the suburbs and shantytowns, the country opened up into fields and grazing land, dotted with mine tailings and piles of coal. As we descended in elevation, the landscape became more forested and rolling with hills.
Off the main highway, we traveled north to Dullstroom, where the Birds of Prey and Rehabilitation Center is located. Birds which they can rehabilitate, they release into the wild again. Birds which have been accustomed to humans, they keep at the center. A couple of times per day, they exercise and feed the birds. We saw a Jackal Buzzard, Spotted Eagle Owl, and Minor Periguin Falcon in flight.
At the next town north, we stopped at the store to pick up a picnic lunch. By then the 90% chance of rain prediction was in command. We had intended to drive the Panoramic Route and take some hikes along the canyons, but the low visibility suggested that putting our feet up at the Mount Sheba Lodge was in order. The hot pot awaited us for afternoon tea. Dinner of beef or fish filled us up. As a cool rain had been falling, we had the lodge staff light fires in our fire places. Real coal chunks glowed as we attempted to stay up until 9 p.m. (3 p.m. EST).
The next morning, after breakfast, we took a stroll up the entry road to the lodge. We heard a grunting sound in the trees. A family of samago monkeys crossed from tree to tree overhead. Much of the area in which we had driven so far appeared to be cleared grass lands and plantation forests of pines. Around the lodge is a forest of mixed trees and lush undergrowth. This is one of a few forests in which the samago monkey live.
Our morning tour was at Pilgrims Rest, which is a restored mining town. The main street is lined with houses, the post office, printer’s office, garage, gas station, and many vendors selling curios (we later noticed that about every tourist stop had rows of vendor shops selling carvings, bags, scarves, etc.). Below the town is a re-enactment of a mining tent camp, though we did not visit this. On a hill above the town is Alangalde House, where the mine supervisor lived. Local residents provide guided tours and have furnished the house with items that would be consistent with the period.
We then headed to Graskop for a lunch of “pancakes”, which I would call crepe’s (mine was filled with Savory Mince and Cheese). Across the street was a shop, in which local women spin and weave silk. Rain fell heavily while we shopped and dined. Then the clouds lifted for the afternoon. We were off to try the Panoramic Route.
The Panoramic Route follows the escarpment between the middleveld and lowveld, and the Blyde River Canyon. God’s Window overlooks this region, though after lunch the clouds kept it shut. We drove to our furthest destination, The Three Rondawels. This over looks a wide section of the caynon where the Blyde River exits into the lowveld. Lookng up the caynon, the cliffs and alluvian slopes would remind one of our Grand Canyon for good reason. The Blyde River Canyon is the third largest canyon in the world, and the largest “green” canyon as vegetation grows right up the slopes. In case you are wondering, a rondewal is a circular house… all cultures appear to seek the familiar in their environments.
The clouds had given us spectacular views at The Three Rondawels. The sun came out at our next stop, The Potholes. Here the Treur and Blyde Rivers converge, across a region of sandstone, which cobbles and water have carved into circular pools and arches. The recent rains filled the channel with cool, swift currents. Our final stop, before the park gates closed was God’s Window. With the sun out and the clouds pulled back, we had distant views of the plantations thousands of feet below. The next day we would descend into this region to cross over to Kruger National Park. As we returned to the van, fog began to pour off of the plateau, filling God’s Window with a new layer of clouds.