With its stunning views of Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Town regularly graces the lists of the world’s best places to visit. Indeed, most visitors to South Africa will spend time in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and maybe even Durban. But while each of those places offers its own unique attractions, “those in the know” know that Mpumalanga is not to be missed.
Mpumalanga (a Zulu word meaning “the place where the sun rises”) is a province in eastern South Africa, bordering the nations of Swaziland and Mozambique. Just a one hour plane ride or four hour drive from Johannesburg, Mpumalanga is a nature lover’s dream with big game animals, a bounty of flora and fauna, mountains, canyons, caves, rivers, and waterfalls. Aptly known as “Paradise Country”, Mpumalanga will treat you to some of the most breathtaking scenery you’ve ever seen. Here are my top 8 things to do there:
1. Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is South Africa’s premier safari destination. Covering more than 7,523 square miles and extending over two provinces, it’s one of the largest game reserves in Africa. All of the Big Five game animals are found at Kruger, as well as 336 species of trees, 49 species of fish, 34 species of amphibians, 114 species of reptiles, 507 species of birds and 147 species of mammals. Most visitors to Kruger self-drive, but park rangers also offer morning, sunset and evening game drives. Guided nature walks (with armed field guides) are also available. Kruger has numerous rest camps, private lodges, and several restaurants, allowing visitors with reservations to stay overnight inside the park. Park accommodations should be booked well in advance to ensure availability.
2. Private Game Reserves
Set alongside Kruger’s unfenced western boundary, Kruger’s Private Game Reserves – Thornybush, Sabi Sand, Kapama, Timbavati, Manyeleti, Klaserie, and Balule – offer some of the most exclusive safari experiences in South Africa. These luxury accommodations don’t come cheap, but the expense is well worth it. Most offer morning and evening game drives with experienced rangers and trackers in private 4-wheel drive vehicles. Their ability to engage in safari activities not permitted in Kruger, such as off-road driving and spot lit night drives, increase the likelihood of closer and more frequent animal sightings. And after long mornings and evenings of game viewing, you’ll be treated to gourmet meals and other amenities, like private butler service, spa treatments and private suites with magnificent bush views. Everyone should have the experience at least once.
3. Blyde River Canyon/Panorama Route
Blyde River Canyon is one of the largest canyons on Earth and considered by many to be the largest “green canyon” due to its lush sub-tropical foliage. Also known as Motlatse River Canyon, it is part of the Panorama Route, a scenic road covering nearly 240 miles and connecting several waterfalls, mountain passes and natural vantage points. Some of the popular natural landmarks include God’s Window, Bourke’s Luck potholes, the Pinnacle, the Three Rondavels, the Lisbon Falls, the Berlin Falls and the Mac Mac Falls. There also several historic and tourist towns along the route, including Pilgrim’s Rest, a restored gold mining town, and Graskop, reportedly home of the best pancakes in the southern hemisphere.
4. Shangana Cultural Village
Located midway between Kruger National Park and the Blyde River Canyon, the Shangana Village gives visitors a firsthand view of the way of life of the Shangaan people. The Village offers a variety of daytime and evening tours, some of which include traditional meals and/or performances by local dancers and drummers. The Marula Market allows craftspeople from all over the region to showcase and sell their traditional handcrafted art. The market is open daily from 9am to 5pm and entrance is free.
5. The Sudwala Caves
The Sudwala Caves are said to be the oldest caves in the world, formed about 240 million years ago. The Caves are open daily for tours from 8:30am to 4:30pm and the standard tour lasts one hour. Visitors will observe a variety of interesting stalagmite and stalactite formations, as well as primitive plant fossils and stone age tools from early inhabitants. Visitors will also be surprised to see a functioning amphitheater inside the Caves. For the truly adventurous, the 4-hour Crystal Tour takes visitors more than 6,500 feet inside in the Caves, on an excursion that involves wading through water, climbing up and down rocks, and crawling through small tunnels to see the amazing array of aragonite crystals. The Crystal Tour is offered on the first Saturday of each month or by arrangement for groups of 5 or more. Advance booking is required.
6. The Jane Goodall Institute South Africa Chimp Eden Sanctuary
If you ever watched the Animal Planet television series “Escape to Chimp Eden”, then you’ve seen the amazing work of Chimp Eden, the first and only chimpanzee sanctuary in South Africa. The sanctuary rescues chimps that have survived the bush meat trade, been orphaned, traded in the illegal pet market, or traumatized to provide entertainment in circuses, beach resorts or night clubs. Chimp Eden is open daily from 8:00am to 4:00pm and offers guided tours three times per day at 10:00am, 12:00pm and 2:00pm. The chimps are quite fascinating to watch in their semi-wild enclosures and their varied personalities and temperaments are readily seen. One chimp in particular, Cozi, is sure to entertain with his playful antics.
7. Elephant Sanctuary – Hazyview
The Elephant Sanctuary provides a safe haven for young African elephants in need of a temporary home. Visitors are able to touch, feed and get to know the animals while learning all aspects of elephants and elephant husbandry. The sanctuary offers a variety of elephant interaction programs, including hand-in-trunk walks, elephant brush downs, elephant rides and elephant keeper for a day.
8. Extreme and Adventure Sports
Those hooked on extreme and adventure sports and activities can certainly get their fix in Mpumalanga. Mpumalanga provides both beautiful surroundings and a myriad of activities to spike your adrenalin levels. The gorge swing, white water rafting, tubing, hang gliding, sky diving, zip lining, hot air ballooning, quad biking, mountain biking, hiking, abseiling, and rock climbing are among the many activities offered in the region. And as an added plus, many tour operators focus on eco-adventure, which involves minimizing impact on the land and increasing environmental and cultural awareness.