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The Motlatse Canyon (old name is Blyde River Canyon) is located in the province of Mpumalanga (Eastern Transvaal), and is northern part of the Drakensberg mountain system running north-west from the Kingdom of Lesotho (the South Africa's enclave located somewhere 250 miles south of Johannesburg). Drakensberg (which means "Dragon Mountains") is not only the highest mountain range in Southern Africa, but it is also an escarpment, a geological formation representing a steep slope or long cliff (resulting from erosion or faulting) thus separating two areas of different elevations. According to geological findings, it was the line where Gondwanaland, one of the two ancient super continents, broke apart 200 million years ago with Madagascar and Antarctica separating from Africa .
The Motlatse Canyon stretches over 12 miles (20 km - although some tourist guides extend to over 30 miles or 50 km ) cutting across the Drakensberg Mountains with the Blyde River flowing through the canyon. The river is dammed at the mouth of the Canyon at the point called Blyderivierspoort (Blyderivierspoortdam) about two miles from the border with Limpopo (another South African province in the area). The highest point of the canyon is considered to be the mountain of Mariepskop (6378 feet or 1944 m above sea level). The elevation of the canyon at its lowest point is about 1840 feet (561 m) - this change in elevation makes Motlatse Canyon one of the largest canyons on Earth. It is the second largest canyon in Africa, after the Fish River Canyon (Namibia).
What makes the Motlatse Canyon very different from other large canyons is its lush subtropical foliage and forests. Despite the fact that the canyon consists mostly of red sandstone, it certainly does not look this way - everything is green as far as you can see with the exception of cliffs and huge, round rocks (called sometimes "rondavels" since they are reminiscent of the round huts of the rondavels, indigenous people). In fact, the Motlatse Canyon is a part of Blyde River and Mpumalanga Nature Reserves, home to more than one thousand flora species including many endemic ones. The whole area is very vast and beautiful with many dramatic cliffs, eroded into fantastical shapes; it enjoys very rich fauna as well.
While Motlatse Canyon is a destination by itself, most travelers make their visit to the canyon a part of a larger itinerary which often include the Kruger National Park and other nearby areas interesting both, as natural wonders as well as historic and cultural perspective. Although the scope of the article is limited to the canyon, please see below Directions to destinations, Activities and Useful Visitor Information sections for additional details that may help you plan your trip and facilitate the research.
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What Makes It Special
Comparing canyons is not an exact science; however, according to the widespread opinion, the Motlatse Canyon is the third largest canyon worldwide, after the Grand Canyon in the United States and the Fish River Canyon in Namibia. In Africa, it is known as one of the great wonders of nature on the continent. Motlatse Canyon is a part of the Drakensberg, the highest mountain range in Southern Africa offering incredible mountain scenery, panoramic views and unique geological formations. The geology and rainfall plateau climate have formed numerous waterfalls. The area has rich fauna and flora.
Motlatse Canyon is one the most important segment of the famous Panorama Route in South Africa - in fact, the name of the Route originates from impressive views opening from edges of the canyon where many viewpoints are named according to the scenery they offer and impression on our imagination they produce.
The entire Mpumalanga area around the canyon offers exceptional opportunities for many types of activities from simple observation points hopping to hiking, fishing, horse-riding, boat trips, etc.
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Directions To Destination
From the U.S.A the only direct flight to South Africa is with South African Airways (SAA) and Delta Air Lines with SAA flights departing from New York (JFK) and Delta Airlines from Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL). Both airlines fly to Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport (IATA: JNB). From most other USA Destinations (such as Washington D.C., New York L.A., Miami or San Francisco) you can fly via a European capital with United or Continental (operated by SAA) or a European carrier such as British Airways, KLM, Air France. Flying time from the US east coast airports is about 15 hours.
There are nonstop flights from a number of European cities; for example, from London, Frankfurt and Munich to Johannesburg is about 11 hours (nonstop). Form Cairo, Egypt (CAI) nonstop flight is about 8 hours. From Australia, Qantas and South African Airways offer direct flights from Sydney to Johannesburg (14 hours). From Hong Kong (HKG) South African Airways flight to Johannesburg is about 13 hours.
Once in Johannesburg , you have a variety of transportation options to travel - South Africa is a country with a good and developed infrastructure. For example, if you want to use a bus, you can research the following companies that serve national routes: Greyhound, Translux, Intercape, SA Roadlink, Baz Bus.
I have to disappoint train enthusiasts - although the railway system in South Africa is quite developed, most of passenger routes cover Pretoria and Cape Town area. There are also several luxury trains offering scenic trips and tourist itineraries; some of these trains are real moving five-star hotels. If you are interested in one of those, you may check the Blue Train. Unfortunately, services like this have nothing to do with Motlatse Canyon - railway passenger service in Mpumalanga area is essentially nonexistent even if there are branches of railways.
In researching your transportation needs, consider Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (IATA: MQP), a relatively new airport in Mpumalanga located in Nelspruit (renamed recently to Mbombela). There are scheduled flights (mostly by South African Airways) linking Nelspruit to all major South African cities (including Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Livingstone). There are usually one or more flights between Johannesburg and Nelspruit every day (travel time about 1 hour) with ticket price around R1,000 - R1100 (around $160 - prices 2011). The airport is 14 miles (23 km) from the town of Nelspruit. From Kruger Airport to Graskop (see below for more details), one of the entry points and base town to the Motlatse Canyon is only 60 miles (95 km), a 1.5 hour drive. Also, if you consider flying, keep in mind that a lot of Mpumalanga's towns and game reserves have domestic airports or airstrips accepting charter flights (most notable in the area is the Kruger National Park's Skukuza airport).
Although public transportation offers some advantages (lower costs and no need to drive), for destinations like Motlatse Canyon we strongly recommend renting a car, an excellent vacation option, especially for families with children. Public roads in South Africa are good (no need for 4WD) and usually well equipped with location and direction signs. Driving is done on the left hand side of the road. To hire a car in South Africa, drivers must have an international drivers license and a minimum of 5 years experience.
There are several directions from which you can approach the Motlatse Canyon area by car. We recommend to choose Graskop, a small town where you can find a decent lodging and an ideal base to explore all the most important tourist destinations in Mpumalanga (see "Useful Info and Tips" section below for more details on Graskop). The town is located 236 miles (380 km) east of Johannesburg and 181 miles (291 km) from OR Tambo International Airport with 4.5 - 5 hours of driving time. It's easy to navigate from Johannesburg to Graskop: you take N4 to Belfast where you turn left onto the R540 and continue to Lyndenburg. From Lyndenburg you have two options: R37 (east) and R532 (via Sabie) to Graskop, or R36 (north) and R533 (via Pilgrim’s Rest) to Graskop.
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Best Time To Go
South Africa is a year-round destination with generally mild temperatures and pleasant climate; the best time for traveling depends on your specific plans. Spring and fall are the best for hiking, as summer can be hot in most parts of the country. (Remember that South Africa is in the southern hemisphere so that American or European summers are from November to February.)
Graskop, at the altitude of 1,400 m above sea level, has a moderate climate. The average high temperature is about 66 °F (19 °C) in June - July, up to 77 °F (25 °C ) in January. The average low temperatures are about 41 °F (5 °C) in July, up to 59 °F (15 °C ) in December - February. Average precipitation in the area is 0.3 inches (7 mm) in June and 8.2 inches (208 mm) in December. Graskop is located in the "mist belt" along the escarpment edge with misty cloudy conditions (especially in summer months) and a relative high rainfall; further west from the escarpment line the rainfall and mist diminish. Higher mountains around Graskop may see occasional snow in winter.
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Where To Stay
One of the reasons we recommend Graskop as your base for explorations of the Blyde River Canyon is the proximity of the town to all major attractions in the area and the variety of lodging options. We recommend:
- Flycatcher Castle (4 Hugenote Street, Graskop 1270, South Africa ), a self proclaimed five star guest house on the edge of Graskop town. The Flycatcher Castle is itself a work of art; it has five decorated suites named after classical composers. Rates are from R1,115 ($170) person/night (deluxe suites) to R1,390 ($210) person/night(royal suite).
- Zur Alten Mine (Farm Graskop KT 564, The Bonnit, Graskop 1270, South Africa with the rates of R400 to R550 per unit/night ($60 - $85). The hotel is located on the outskirts of Graskop and overlooking the eastern Mpumalanga escarpment; it offers self-catering or bed & breakfast accommodation and known for the good value for money. There are totally four chalets: a guest farm consisting of two chalets with one bedroom, a honeymoon chalet and a family cottage with two bedrooms.
- Graskop Hotel (3 Main Street, Graskop 1270, South Africa), offering a budget accommodations with rates from R380 to R420 ($60 - $65). Hotel has 19 rooms in the main hotel, and 15 rooms in garden wing. Hotel does not have air-conditioning.
Research and book hotels in or near Graskop, South Africa
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The tourist industry infrastructure is very developed in South Africa in general and in Mpumalanga in particular. As a result a great variety of activities are available in the area in most locations including many adrenaline pumping adventures. The following are the most popular ones: walking and hiking, horse riding, fly-fishing, 4WD trips, river and white water rafting, tubing, canoe and boat trips, mountain biking, hot air ballooning, bungee jumping, rock climbing, abseiling (controlled descent from rocks using ropes), gold panning, golf, helicopter flights, microlight (ultralight aviation) flying.
Usually, these activities are offered in most parks, game reserves as well as lodging facilities. So, do not hesitate to inquire (also at the time of booking). Here are several tips regarding mentioned above activities:
- For helicopter flights consider Sunrise Aviation based in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga. By the way, the company also offers air transfers in any area of Mpumalanga,
- For flying a microlight check Microlight Flying School in Hoedspruit, a small town north from the Motlatse Canyon,
- Consider canoeing in the lower Blyde River suitable for families (a relaxing activity that has nothing to do with white water rafting).
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Useful Visitor Information and Tips
There are several must-see attractions associated with the Blyde River Canyon area you should be aware of:
- Bourke's Luck Potholes, a series of cylindrical holes in rocks resulting from result from thousands of years of abrasive action of sand, stones and debris carried by whirling water. Potholes are located north from Graskop (about 25 miles on your way to the canyon) at the point where Treur River meets the Blyde River. There is an entrance fee of R20 per person (about $3) at the tourist complex adjacent to the potholes.
- God's Window, a location offering breathtaking panoramic views of the Lowveld (lower level area of Mpumalanga) from the escarpment cliffs as high as 2,300 feet (700 m). God's Window is located about 7 miles (11 km) north from Graskop. The main attraction facility has a parking lot with entrance fee of R10 ($1.50), but you can find other observation points if you explore the rain-forest away from tourist crowds.
- Three Rondavels, three round mountain tops similar to the shape of traditional round homes called rondavels. Three Rondavels are arguably the most iconic landmark associated with Blyde River Canyon (perhaps because opposite to other attractions it is a part of the canyon itself). To enjoy best Three Rondavels, you need to reach a viewpoint at the southern end of the canyon accessible via a small road off R532. It's about one hour drive 30 miles (48 km) north from Graskop.
- There are several spectacular waterfalls in the area of Graskop. Two of them, Berlin and Lisbon Falls are to the north from the town near the village of Blyde (about 10 miles or 15 km from Graskop). Berlin Falls is 262 feet high (80 m) and the Lisbon Falls is 295 feet high (90 m). Berlin and Lisbon Falls are close to each other (about 2 miles or 3.5 km). There are many picnic sites close to both falls. It is easy to combine visits to these falls with an excursion to God's Window. There are several water falls south from the Graskop - in this area the closest is Mac-Mac Falls (213 feet high (65 m) waterfall named after Mac Mac river and Mac Mac village, the site of the gold rush of 1873); Another one is Lone Creek Waterfall is situated about 6 miles (10 km) west of Sabie (35 miles or 56 km from Graskop). There are more waterfalls along the Sabie River: Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls.
- Gustav Klingbiel Nature Reserve: strickly speaking it's already outside the area of the Blyde River Canyon since it is located not far from the town of Lyndenburg. The reserve is known for the scenic views along the Long Tom Pass and bird watching opportunities.
- Pilgrim's Rest, the historic mining town declared as a National Monument in a living memory of the early gold rush days in South Africa (late 19th early 20th centuries). There are several museums, historic buildings and sites revealing the vivid gold-mining history of the village. Visit to Pilgrim's Rest can be easily combined with a trip to God's Window. From Graskop to Pilgrim's Rest is 19 miles (31 km).
Also attraction mentioned above are often included in an itinerary known as Panorama Route. Its total length is about 80 miles (130km); it can be completed in one day (including time to enjoy its attractions). If you use Graskop as your base, you start the route with visiting the Pinnacle (a tower-like freestanding rock close to Graskop) and then continue to God's Window, Wonder View (the highest viewpoint in the area about 2 km north of God's Window), Lisbon Falls, Berlin Falls, Bourke's Luck Potholes, Lowveld View and finally Three Rondavels with returning back to Graskop. Many visitors extend the Panorama Route visiting Ohrigstad and surroundings and returning back to back to Graskop via Pilgrim's Rest. This route extends further to the west from the Blyde River Canyon area. It is longer but allows for sightseeing such real gifts of the nature as Echo Caves (extending over 25 miles and still not explored completely).
The area around Blyde River Canyon is so rich in natural wonders that would like to encourage you to research and create your own routes. For example, you may quickly realize that if you visit Blyde River Canyon, you should also see the largest game reserve in South Africa, the Kruger National Park. The park is huge - its territory is about 8,000 sq. miles or nearly 2 million hectares (more than some countries).
Beware of the anopheles mosquito (in particular, Anopheles gambiae), which carries malaria, a disease endemic in the Lowveld of Mpumalanga. The risk of malaria increases significantly during steamy summer months. Few areas like Graskop are practically malaria-free. However, you should research your itinerary and consult a heath-care professional for the latest advice on malaria prophylaxis. Symptoms of malaria include fever, shivering, arthralgia (joint pain), vomiting, and convulsions. Other than Malaria, South Africa is a healthy destination.
Long-sleeved shirts and trousers will help protect you against the sun and insect bites. Use closed shoes and light shirts at night, always use mosquito repellent and sleep under a mosquito net in endemic areas; remember that mosquitos that cause malaria in humans operate almost exclusively after dark.
All major credit cards, especially MasterCard and Visa, are widely accepted with AMEX and Diners Club being less popular. In smaller towns and rural villages have cash ready.
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