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Mpumalanga and Limpopo travel guide

Extending northeast from Gauteng to the borders with Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga are dominated by the charismatic wilderness of Kruger National Park, which runs for a full 350km (190 miles) along their eastern borders. This game-rich area is larger than Wales or Massachusetts and abutted by private sanctuaries to the west, and by the Zimbabwean and Mozambican components of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park to the north and east.

Driving routes

Most Kruger safaris stick to the southern fifth of the park. In part, this is because the southern Kruger has better facilities than the north and offers better game viewing, but another factor is relative proximity to Gauteng and ease of onward road travel to Swaziland and KwaZulu-Natal. Similarly, Mpumalanga’s southerly Panorama Route can become rather crowded in season, yet comparably scenic parts of Limpopo Province in the north feel decidedly remote. Logistically, sticking to the south makes sense within the time frame of a standard holiday, certainly if you also intend to visit Cape Town. Nevertheless, with sufficient time – ten days, say – you could travel the full loop out of Gauteng described in this chapter, heading east to Mpumalanga, then driving right through the Kruger Park to the far north, and returning via off-the-beaten-track Limpopo Province.

Places to visit in Mupumalanga and Limpopo

The Panorama Route

From the beautiful town of Mashishing, it’s 56km (35 miles) east across the Mauchberg mountain range via the scenic Long Tom Pass, once used by transport riders, to the forestry town of Sabie. Timber plantations cover the surrounding hill sides; most of the country’s major paper mills are situated here. So dramatic is the road north from here along the Escarpment’s edge that it’s been named the Panorama Route. For once the tourist-board tag is no exaggeration. This is also waterfall country and numerous short drives lead from town to picnic and viewing sites such as Sabie Falls, Horseshoe Falls, Lone Creek Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and MacMac Falls (so-called after the Scots prospectors who camped in the area during the gold rush). Photographers should note that most of the waterfalls face east and are best visited before midday.

The 86km (54-mile) drive northwards from Sabie via Graskop to the Blyde River Canyon should be taken at a leisurely pace: the views are exceptional. At Pinnacle Rock, Jock’s View and God’s Window, you can stop to look out from sheer cliff outposts over the expanse of the lowveld. Other sights include the Lisbon Falls and the Berlin Falls before the road reaches Bourke’s Luck Potholes 5, 66km (41 miles) from Sabie. Here, paths and footbridges take visitors to viewing sites overlooking an extraordinary series of water-eroded cylindrical potholes at the confluence of the Blyde (Joy) and Treur (Sorrow) Rivers.

Northwards, the Blyde River has carved a magnificent gorge through the mountains. Viewing sites have been created at points along the canyon, providing superb views of the winding river 800 metres (2,600ft) below. Dominated by three peaks known as the Three Rondavels, and by Mariepskop, one of the highest points in the region, the canyon is a nature reserve (daily; free) and much of it is accessible on foot only.

Pilgrim’s Rest

An alternative trip from Sabie is over Bonnet Pass along the R533 for 35km (22 miles) to Pilgrim’s Rest, one of the oldest gold-mining towns in South Africa. Legend ascribes the discovery of gold in this valley (in 1873) to Alec “Wheelbarrow” Patterson, so called because he roamed the hills pushing all his possessions in a wheelbarrow. He stumbled across what was, at the time, the richest known deposit of alluvial gold on the subcontinent, and within no time at all a large and motley assortment of fortune-seekers had flocked to the area.

Yet within a decade, most of the alluvial deposits had been worked out and mining operations were taken over by larger companies. In 1883, the independent diggers migrated south to the new fields at Barberton. Underground mining continued at Pilgrim’s Rest until the 1920s, but today the entire town has been restored as a national monument and living museum.

Kruger National Park

Tel: 012-428 9111

The Kruger National Park has an extraordinarily rich and diverse animal life, which together with its tremendous size makes it one of the world’s great game reserves. Some 147 mammal species have been recorded (the second-highest tally for any African national park), including lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog, spotted hyena, elephant, black and white rhino, hippo, zebra, giraffe, warthog, buffalo and 21 antelope species.

The bird checklist of 517 species is particularly strong on raptors, along with several other large birds now rare outside of protected areas, such as ground hornbill, saddle-billed stork and kori bustard. Of the other vertebrate classes, 114 reptile, 34 amphibian and 49 fish species have been recorded, while the more conspicuous invertebrates include the dung beetle (often seen rolling elephant dung along the road), a variety of butterflies, and – somewhat less endearing – significant numbers of mosquitoes in summer.

Most of Kruger’s game is spread fairly evenly throughout the park, but the frequency of sightings will obviously be determined by topography and vegetation. Game densities are generally highest in the south and hippo, elephant, crocodile, buffalo and small herds of giraffe are often spotted around rivers and watering holes near camps such as Skukuza, Pretoriuskop, Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bridge. The central parts, around Satara, Olifants and Letaba camps, are inhabited by large herds of antelope and zebra, which in turn attract the larger predators such as lion and cheetah. In the north, around Shingwedzi and Punda Maria, large herds of elephant and buffalo are often spotted, as well as leopard and the elusive nyala.

Kruger is among the largest reserves in Africa, extending over 19,000 sq km (7,340 sq miles). The park’s effective area has increased significantly over the past two decades, thanks to the dropping of fences with several private reserves, and the creation of Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which amalgamates Kruger with Gonarezhou in Zimbabwe and Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park to cover a total area of 35,000 sq km (13,670 sq miles). An important practical landmark in the development of the Transfrontier Park, the opening of the Giriyondo border post, 45km (28 miles) northeast of Letaba, in 2006 allows for direct access between the Kruger and Limpopo National Parks.

Although the park is served by an extensive network of roads and rest camps, this infrastructure barely affects the natural wildness. Some of the regulations governing activities may seem onerous, but they are directed mainly at the well-being of the wildlife. For example, the strictly enforced speed limit of 40km/h (25mph) on dirt roads and 50km/h (30mph) on surfaced roads is designed to limit the number of road kills (and wrecks) that might otherwise result from collisions between traffic and wildlife – in any event, even at these speeds it’s difficult to spot well-camouflaged wildlife, and you’d see nothing if you went any faster.

Mapungubwe National Park

Tel: 015-534 3545

In medieval times, the Limpopo Valley lay at the centre of a wealthy empire that supplied gold, copper and ivory to Swahili merchants on the east African coast, following a set of ancient trade routes whose cultural and economic impact is only now beginning to be understood by historians. The district is rich in archaeological relics, none more significant than Mapungubwe Hill, which lies near the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashi rivers in Mapungubwe National Park, some 75km (45 miles) west of Musina.

Proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 2003, the flat top of Mapungubwe Hill served as the royal capital in the 13th century, when some 5,000 people lived there, and it formed the precursor to the more impressive stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe to the north. Many interesting artefacts have been unearthed, among them a pair of gold-plate rhino sculptures. Guided visits to the hill leave daily from the park headquarters and a network of internal roads offers great views over the Limpopo and the surrounding baobab-studded hills, as well as the opportunity to see large mammals such as elephant, kudu and klipspringer, as well as numerous birds.

Top hotels in Mpumalanga and Limpopo

  • Hamiltons 1880 Tented Camp

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50km (30 miles) from Orpen Gate, Kruger National Park

Mpumalanga and Limpopo

tel: 011-516 4367

This stylish camp in the Imbali concession consists of just six en suite canvas-walled units that combines Edwardian decor with modern facilities. Set in lush riparian woodland along the seasonal Nwatsitsonto River, it offers access to the the game-rich acacia woodland between Skukuza and Satara.

  • Lukimbi Safari Lodge

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25km (15 miles) from Malelane Gate, Kruger National Park

Mpumalanga and Limpopo

tel: 013-635 8000

Set in the far south, overlooking a permanent pool on the seasonal Lwakhale River, this camp enjoys exclusive traversing rights on a concession that supports good populations of lion, elephant, black rhino, white rhino and regular African wild dog visits. A split-level dining and sitting area, decorated in African style, is connected by wooden walkways to the spacious suites.

  • Mount Sheba Forever Resort

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Lydenburg Road, near Pilgrim’s Rest

Mpumalanga and Limpopo

tel: 013-768 1241

Situated in the mountains above Pilgrim’s Rest, this four-star thatched lodge boasts wonderful views, walking trails through forested slopes alive with small game and superb four-course meals by candlelight.

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