After our first night on the Shongololo Express we woke up early at 6:00am and admired the scenery as we continued along the tracks towards our next destination. We went for breakfast at 8:15am. We finished up in time to board the bus en route to Pilgrims Rest at 10:00am. Our tour was supposed to start at 9:15am, but because the train did not arrive at Nelspruit Station until after 9:30 we were late leaving. Nelspruit is the capital of Mpumalanga province and though it goes by its original name, the city is now officially called Mbombela. Mbombela is a city in northeastern South Africa situated on the Crocodile River, is 110 kms west of the Mozambique border and 80 kms north of the Swaziland border. Because of its location between Johannesburg and Maptuto, Mozambique on the Indian Ocean, Mbombela is a major route. The population is approximately 60,000 with a racial mix of 49% white, 42% black with the remaining 9% being coloured and Asian. The main industries are agriculture, coal mining, lumber (paper mill) and the export of Macadamia nuts.
Average summer temperature for this area is a high of 29C and low of -1C in winter. During the Apartheid period pre 1994, many indigenous Africans lived in homelands, which are similar to North American Reservation lands for indigenous people. Many of the new houses are constructed of brick with concrete tile roofs. Land is not privately owned but considered tribal land. Agriculture crops include avocado, citrus fruits, bananas, and papayas. There is a thriving forest industry in the province but many of the trees are not indigenous to the area. Pine trees were initially brought in from Mexico and hard woods, including Eucalyptus, were brought in from Australia. We passed dozens of empty lumber trucks on our 100 km drive north to Pilgrim’s Rest as they were going to load up at the various depots. As we continued on our trek we drove along the Panorama Route looking down at the huge forests that were blanketing the landscape. The scenery was spectacular as we wound around the mountains and climbed to 1700 metres above sea level.
We finally arrived at our first destination along the Panorama Route - Pilgrim's Rest - the first gold mine located in South Africa. This mine was established in 1873 by Alex Paterson, known as the “Wheelbarrow Man” (because he brought all of his belongings with him from the Cape by wheelbarrow - a distance of 1600 miles!). This started the biggest gold rush the world had ever seen It was a huge resource and the town grew up around the miners and their workers. The mine was officially closed in 1974 however the town has remained as a heritage site and the original buildings are still maintained for visitors. Due to the remote location, there is a high rate of unemployment in this town with the locals doing what they can to survive. Many individuals can be seen carrying macadamia nuts in boxes on their heads to sell to tourists. As well, residents will come and clean vehicles for a small fee. We strolled along the main street of town, visiting the museum and had a coffee and milkshake at a small cafe. Then were back on the bus to our next destination for lunch.
We left Pilgrim’s Rest and drove for 20 minutes arriving in Graskop where we went directly to the suggested restaurant for lunch only to find it was an overcrowded with the large group from the bus. We decided to walk around the town first and browse in the shops. We were convinced by a starving artist on the street to purchase one of his wood carvings - he was very persuasive. Much of the town has very lovely flowers along the sides of the streets and we admired their colour and varieties. Afterwards we found a pancake house to have lunch and shared a minced meat and cheese crepe and a cheese and tomato crepe.
The next location on our stop was the Blyde River Canyon that sits at 1730 metres above sea level. The area has 7 waterfalls with the tallest at 92 metres. The Canyon spanning 57 kms is absolutely stunning. The jagged rocks and ragged walls make for a wonderful sight. The canyon had a natural river at the bottom and even though it was quite hazy you could see the stunning natural sculptures of the canyon with the different coloured rock and the rounded shapes from years of windy weather.
Once we had admired the Canyon we boarded the bus again towards our next stop - Bourke's Luck Potholes. Another mining location - Tom Bourke found a small amount of gold in this area and staked a claim however someone else found gold on the other side of ridge which turned out to be a bonanza. So Bourke actually didn't have much luck. This area is an incredible natural wonder where crevices have been created by the natural erosion of the earth where the rivers Blyde and Treur converge. The setting is really beautiful with man-made bridges spanning from one side to another. The pools (or pot holes) at the bottom make for breathtaking scenery. It was a long walk down to the bottom but very worth it to see the rock walls with the variations of color and the waterfalls cascading from one level to another. We were informed that the Northern Sutu is the native tribe in this area and there were many women in their traditional dress wandering around the area as well.
Approximately 1/2 km away from Bourke's Luck is God's Window looking over the valley to Hazy View. While this would be an incredible view overlooking the valley, it was unfortunately very hazy with smoke rising from the villages below. We tried to capture the beauty of the rolling hills and grassy slopes but it was difficult with the hazy conditions.
After all our sightseeing for the day we had a 2 hour drive back to the train in the dark. It was a tricky drive along with winding mountainous roads and made even more difficult with the numerous lumber trucks that our competent driver passed along the way.
We arrived back at the train at 7:00pm and quickly rushed to get ready for dinner at 7:30pm. We enjoyed a sweet potato cake as an appetizer and springbok with vegetables and rice.
The train left at 7:30pm and travelled until 11:30pm. This provided a much more restful sleep than we had managed on our first night.
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