Put on your hiking boots and hit the trail to those waterfalls the Mpumalanga Lowveld is famous for…
Farm Falls is probably the least-known waterfall in Mpumalanga but must be one of the most spectacular. It’s a long fall, with a wonderful pool at the bottom where you can really enjoy a swim. If you want to get to the top of Farm Falls, where there are gorgeous rock pools, give yourself a couple more hours. It’s quite a walk to the top but you can’t find a walk better than this.
It’s a three-hour round trip on private land owned by the Laubschers (who also own Potluck Bush Kitchen) along the Treur River, between Graskop and Bourke’s Luck Potholes. Start at Potluck and wander up the river enjoying the spectacular rocks and geological formations along the way. This water is clean and clear so enjoy the swimming but it’s probably best not to drink the water.
The Treur River was so named when the Voortrekkers in the 1840s were looking for a way down this great escarpment to Delagoa Bay (Mozambique). In 1843, Andries Potgieter left most of his party outspanned near present-day Graskop and went off in search of a route. Eventually he found a steep animal track on land belonging to Chief Koveni, a track that is the Kowyn’s Pass of today.
By the time Potgieter returned to his people weeks later, the waiting party had given up hope and had begun the return to the Transvaal, having named the river where they camped the Treur River (River of Sorrow). However, not long afterwards they were reunited with Potgieter and his men on the banks of what they promptly named Blyde River (River of Joy).
This is the land of gold prospecting and there are still some claims from the 1970s. We took along an old cake tin or two and panned for gold in the sandy river bed. We didn’t have much luck and the shiny pieces we found are more than likely fool’s gold, but gold fever hit us and we will go back hoping for a nugget.
- Potluck Bush Kitchen is about 20km from Graskop on the R532 towards Bourkes Luck Potholes. Look for some flags and a sign that says African Food.
- Get to Potluck Bush Kitchen well before noon to allow time to get to the waterfall and back. It’s a pity to rush this.
- Or go early and then come back for lunch at Potluck. The food is simple, all cooked on open fires, but the setting is what makes it special, with the tables tucked in among high boulders and the river bubbling past.
Along the R532 to God’s Window is Pinnacle Rock, a 30m freestanding quartzite rock, like a sentinel guarding access to the Lowveld. One can only imagine the Voortrekkers and other explorers trying to find a wagon route down these tricky gorges.
The Pinnacle Viewpoint has two view sites overlooking Driekop Gorge and the Pinnacle, as well as the spectacular aloes and tree ferns that you find along this escarpment. But wander down towards the gorge (to the right as you look to the Lowveld) and follow a little dirt track to the top of a waterfall.
The small river has lovely ferns and rock formations but it doesn’t make a powerful waterfall and is easy to cross, although it drops about 20m into indigenous forest.
It’s an easy stroll of 300m, and it’s worth going a little further for a better view of the falls. Hop across the top of the waterfall before it plunges over the edge of the escarpment and wander further round so that you can look back at the falls.
Locals come here often as its close to Graskop. Griet van der Meulen owns the Sunlight Gallery in Graskop and is a descendant of Max Leibnitz, who started the first hotel and bottle store in the area. She told me about her uncle Gustav, who had just finished school, climbed Pinnacle Rock and fell off. Sadly a rock landed on his chest and killed him. A happier story is about Molly Richardson, a local Graskop beauty, who fell off a horse on the edge of the cliff near the Pinnacle and luckily landed in a tree and was just fine.
- Take binoculars and make time to look out for birds, particularly the sunbirds among the aloes.
- There are some steep cliffs so it’s not advisable to allow little children to run wild here.
- The tree ferns are a very special feature of the gorges along this escarpment.
Percy Fitzpatrick and Jock used to walk this escarpment in the hot summer months when the ‘fever’ made transporting goods down to the Lowveld too dangerous. They camped on the ridges near Graskop (before this town even existed) looking for timber in the gorges to sell to the mines.
More than 100 years later, some keen historians went looking for the ‘Panorama Camp’ that Fitzpatrick wrote about. This is now marked on the 8km circular Jock Trail that begins in Graskop town. In one of his books, Fitzpatrick wrote about crystal-clear pools and fantastical sandstone creatures made of rock. Look out for these and see if you can find the mermaid and the tortoise. There is a small waterfall along this route and the little streams are lovely for dipping your toes in on a hot day.
Then make your way through Graskop on the R535 towards Hazyview and stop at The Big Swing. This swing asks you to take a leap of faith over the Graskop Gorge but even if you aren’t that keen there is a good view of the Graskop waterfall. This fall can only be viewed from the top as it plunges about 80 metres down the escarpment.
A little further on is Panorama View Chalets with what must be one of the most incredible sites for a swimming pool that you can imagine. Take a walk from here down into the gorge, on a short loop of about 2km that takes you through some indigenous forest.
- Jock of the Bushveld Trail is an 8km circular trail leaving from the Graskop Holiday Resort. Ask for a map as the Ibis and Jock markers painted on the rocks are not always easy to find. On a misty day the walk is eerie and worth doing but you won’t see the views. If you want a guide, Thaba Tsweni Lodge and Safaris 013 767 1380.
- The Big Swing. If you are not keen to jump, then walk over to the far side where those who have taken the swing land, as the waterfall view is better.
- Panorama View Chalets is a good place to stop for coffee and cake.
On the R532 between Sabie and Graskop, the 70m-high Mac Mac Falls are named after the Scottish miners who joined the gold rush of the 1870s in the area. One version of how these falls were named is that President Thomas Burger was visiting in the 1870s and every second person he was introduced to had a name beginning with Mac so he named the area Mac Mac.
The falls itself are beautiful but many say the fenced walkway along the edge of the gorge makes it hard to get an unobstructed view and you don’t get close to the falls. But it’s worth a visit and there are a wide range of curios for sale if you have overseas tourists with you. The falls used to be a single stream but miners blasted the river to get to gold reef and so now there are two falls.
If you want to walk and swim rather visit Mac Mac Pools about 2km further on the R532 towards Sabie. The Mac Mac River bubbles over granite and has created a small waterfall and some lovely rock pools dripping with ferns, and it’s a great spot for swimming and picnics.
The Secretary Bird Trail is a 3km circular route starting at the Mac Mac Pools. It’s a great bird-watching and flower-spotting trail. Look out for turacos, robins and cuckoos and maybe even a Secretary Bird. But be warned there is little shade on the open grasslands.
- Wander away from the madding crowd at Mac Mac Pools if its busy and slip and slide up or downstream.
- Most of the falls in the area have a R10 or R20 entrance fee.
You can make a day of visiting waterfalls in the Sabie area but I think Lone Creek Falls is the most fun and the prettiest. The walk from the car park to the falls is only 200m but don’t rush it. There is lush indigenous forest and the river downstream from the falls is wonderful for exploring.
The 68m falls have a huge icy-cold pool at its base and a gravel beach that is perfect for kids and picnics. We swam right up to the falls but the spray is strong and only the brave and hardy get right underneath or go around the sides of the pool.
You might see some local people collecting water from under the falls. They say that the water collected from where it falls has special healing properties.
- Lone Creek Falls is excellent for swimming so try to be there at midday for sunshine.
- If you want to get to the top of the falls there is a path from the top.
- Lone Creek Falls, Bridal Veils Falls and Horseshoe Falls are all on the old Lydenburg road as you drive north out of Sabie towards Graskop. Look for a sign to Merry Pebbles resort and follow the signs to the falls.
- Merry Pebbles Resort is central to all these falls and is a good place to stay and/or eat – if you stay, take tubes and float down the river.
The Lowveld National Botanical Garden in Nelspruit is a surprising gem in the middle of Nelspruit town, hiding behind a mall and car dealerships. After a heavy rainstorm everyone rushes to see the local ‘smoke that thunders’, Cascades Waterfall with its mist seen from far. Even the local restaurant can get a little damp.
Two great rivers run through this garden, the Crocodile and the Nels, and converge at a spectacular viewpoint. Percy Fitzpatrick leased this land from the government in the 1890s and wanted to name his farm The Cascades after the beautiful waterfall. Many years later the land was donated to create this botanical garden.
The Riverside Trail in the Botanical Garden goes past the waterfall and along the river. This is a shady walk but take your own water as the river’s is certainly not potable. A section of the path is a bit of a scramble but the plants and bird life are magical.
Close to the waterfall is the African Rainforest. A stroll along the walkway high in the tree canopy always makes me feel I could be in deepest Africa and I love the possibility that I might see a hippo making its way back to the river.
- The Lowveld National Botanical Garden is accessed off Madiba Drive in the suburb of Riverside in Nelspruit, 013 7525531.
- At the entrance to the botanical garden, buy a guide booklet to the trails you want to walk. They are full of information.
- There are two places to eat – a tea garden in the middle of the gardens and a restaurant that looks across to the waterfall. Both are good, or take a picnic.
- The garden is pretty throughout the year as it has been designed for all seasons.
Other Falls in the Area
- You can walk right down to the base of the 95m Lisbon Falls – There is a lovely pool where diggers used to pan for gold in the old days. The water is icy but great on a hot day. Behind the smaller falls you can climb up to an old gold mine but be very careful as it’s slippery.
- Berlin Falls (named after the farm it is on) is close to Lisbon Falls, with a good viewing platform to see the 45m high falls.
Falls near Sabie town
- Bridal Veils is a 70m high thin falls that sprays out in a fine film – hence the name. It’s a 750m walk though indigenous forest to get there so wear some decent walking shoes.
- Horseshoe Falls is a horseshoe-shape cascade and great fun for kids. It’s a gentle walk from the car park and a good place for a picnic.
- Sabie Falls is hidden under the bridge as you drive out of Sabie towards Graskop. In 2010, a local named Eric Mkhatshwa cleared the area and tidied up the Williams Memorial Park. For a small fee you can wander the tidy garden and get right to the edge of the waterfall. If you want to get even closer Kestell Barnard will take you abseiling down the falls. Kestell Adventures 072 351 5553
- Thaba Tsweni Safaris offers walking tours of the Jock Trail as well as other day hikes. 083 9971034
- To find out about the walks contact Komatiland Eco-Tourism on 013 754 2724
- Graskop Conservancy 060 812 3581
- Lowveld National Botanical Garden 013 752 5531, www.sanbi.org/gardens/lowveld
- Merry Pebbles Holiday Resort in Sabie
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Words and Photography Sue Adams