Panoramic Route through Blyde River Canyon

Graeme kept telling us how incredible the drive was going to be today…but this? Wow. We haven’t even made it to our first stop yet and the views are already blowing my mind.


I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful in my life—except maybe in pictures. Gigantic mountains cascade into deep ravines, the Blyde River carving its way steadily through each valley. Towards the base of the canyons, we pass endless expanses of farmland, its fertile black soil punctuated by swaths of crops so fresh, they look like green paint slashed across the valleys. As we climb higher into the mountains, the sun struggles to break through the thick clouds, failing to shine down with its usual intensity. From here, enveloped in this blanket of fog and rain, it appears hardly more than a little white disk, sliding complacently in and out of a sea of gray.


As we get deeper into the canyon, the clouds morph, concentrating in a deep dark mass near the horizon that tapers off into an overcast sky above. The sun, ever battling, burns insistently behind the clouds, bursting its way through in small rivulets of light—a stream flowing out of the center of the sky.


After a while of watching all of this flash by from behind the bus window, we finally reach the first stop on our three-hour Panoramic Route through the Blyde River Canyon (which—fun fact—is the second largest canyon in the world behind the Grand Canyon). The site is called Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and though I was expecting a roadside viewpoint, we park and unload at what looks more like a tourist attraction than an overlook.


As we walk down a paved walkway to the site, Graeme tells us a little about the history of the place. The story of the goes like this: a South African man named Bourke decided that there had to be gold in these big beautiful mountains. It being the time of colonization—gold, God, and glory—he started to dig up the mountainside. What he found? Not a single speck of gold. What everyone else found when they started digging in other parts of the mountain range? Tons and tons of gold.


That’s just Bourke’s Luck, I guess.


That being said, Bourke did stumble across something truly spectacular in his gold-less adventure. Here, nestled between the looming mountains, the Blyde River flows softly across a pebbled riverbed and then cascades down a waterfall, carving out beautiful stone cylinders as it swirls beneath the falls.


PC: Daniel Dodero

PC: Daniel Dodero


When we arrive, we’re all in absolute awe of what stands before us. We shout excitedly to each other to “come see this,” scampering back and forth across the suspension bridges built between the towers of sandstone lining the chasm. The rock formations next to the bridges are all perfect for climbing, but a large sign reads “Do Not Go Past This Point” just to the left of where we stand. Though I think, internally, we all mischievously decide to take that as more of a suggestion than a command, we nonetheless obey the sign for the time being.


After some guessing about the height of the bridges (thirty to forty meters, we’re thinking) and a seemingly endless stream of group photos, Graeme calls for us to spread out, find our own spot, and take it all in. We can journal, think, simply lose ourselves in the endlessness of the waterfalls—whatever we want. He says we’ll spend an hour here, so we should go out and enjoy every second of it.


After a few more group pictures, we all scatter. Most people find spots to sit on dry rocks scattered throughout the bubbling river—just upstream of the falls where the water is still calm—or just beside that on the smaller stacks of sandstone nearer to the falls. Me, though? I have long had a rather over-the-top enthusiasm for scrambling over rocks, so this place is like heaven. Standing at the edge of the river, I look out and spot a tower of sandstone all the way across the falls. It looms precariously over the drop into the potholes with a panoramic view of the bridges, the waterfall…everything.


Target acquired.


Camera bag strapped to my back, I set off on my mission in my trusty Birkenstocks. The beginning of my trek isn’t too bad: I hop from rock slab to rock slab pretty easily until I reach the faster part of the river, right before it tumbles down the falls into the potholes. From here, I have to tread carefully. Leaving my shoes on, I step from rock to rock, boulder to boulder, the path getting slipperier the further I go. Though I never fall (thank goodness, that would make for an uncomfortable rest of the drive), I do stop before my last, huge leap over the last stretch of water to strip off my socks and throw my Birks ahead of me. Once finally on the other side of the river, I start to climb up the enormous stacks of sandstone on the far side of the river, smirking as I think of the nickname Jenna gave me on the last week of our volunteer project—“Billy Goat Gruff.”


Before long, I reach my destination and wow. It is unreal.


I have a perfect view of everything: the surging water dead ahead, the waterfall off to my left, the potholes lining the walls just beneath. I watch in awe as the river plummets endlessly down the staggered layers of rock into the pools below—soaring over the smoothed-out boulders, frothing and spitting in larger and larger streams before finally reaching its destination in the calmer waters downstream.




The potholes themselves are equally enigmatic. They’re enormous multicolored cylinders of ancient stone, carved by eons and eons of these never-ending streams of churning water. Their walls are so smooth you can see each individual band of rock—it’s any geologist’s dream.


PC: Ali Palmer

PC: Ali Palmer


As I scan my view proudly, I notice a sheet of metal popping out of the top of a rock structure about ten meters to my right. It’s the back of the sign that says “Do Not Go Past This Point” that we saw next to the bridge earlier.




I grin sheepishly and shrug it off . I technically did listen to the sign: I didn’t go past it…I went around.




I wiggle onto my stomach and push myself forwards until I have a perfect view of both the falls and the river below. I snag my camera and start shooting away, soon coming to the realization that (a) I have no idea what I’m doing and (b) I have better things to do with my hour here. So I put the camera away, set my bag aside, and just take it all in, losing myself in the splash of the river over the falls and swirl of the water in the pools below.


The sky above is still an unemotional gray, but the feeling is not mutual. It’s hard not to feel truly at peace with yourself—to really think, and feel, and reconcile everything you’ve ever seen or done—when you’re sitting in front of something so big, and so powerful, that anything you’ve ever fretted over seems entirely insignificant.


I stare up at the soft glow coming through the low-lying clouds and draw my hands over the rough stone, its little formations drawing up from the face of the boulder like water droplets in zero-gravity. It’s unbelievable that I’m here, right now, in Africa, eight thousand miles away from home. After more than a decade of daydreaming about all of the open stretches of wilderness and the incredible wildlife and the unbelievable beauty, I’m actually here. I’m literally, physically, living the dream.


I look out at my new friends—all scattered out around the falls, all lost in their own thoughts and dreams, all equally awed at the view around them. As if just being able to come here wasn’t enough, I’ve also been able to get to know the most amazing people on this trip—people I’d otherwise never meet. Every once in a while, I’ll make eye contact with someone, and they’ll wave at me on my tower of stone. Broken from my emotional little reverie, I’ll wave back, grinning proudly at my scampering skills—nobody else has got the mad skills to reach me in my goat home…


…nobody except Jake, that is. Damn those long legs, he makes it look so easy.


I’m actually pleased to have the company, though, and once Jake makes his way over, we sit together and enjoy the view, relaxing in the white noise of the rushing waterfall. After a few minutes, a hummingbird swoops in, landing on the flowers to my right. I point the little guy out to Jake and quietly slip my camera out of its bag.



IMG_6941 - Version 2

Got him!


We sit there for what seems simultaneously like an eternity and like a split-second, talking every once in a while but mostly just enjoying the atmosphere. After what has apparently been over an hour and a half, Graeme calls to us that it’s time to go.


On to the next mind-blowing view.


We all pile into the bus again and drive higher into the mountains to a dead-end area with grassy, rocky slopes and a surprising number of street vendors.


The viewpoint itself, though, is the most surprising part. After the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, we knew this would be incredible, but we grossly underestimated the beauty of it. Then again, how could we not? It’s hard to imagine a place like this.




Even with the clouds hugging the mountaintops, blocking out the sun, the range of mountains that stands before us is astonishingly gorgeous. We’re at a dizzying height, standing up against a flimsy black fence with the cliff faces plummeting down for miles in front of it. Unlike the rough, red sandstone of everywhere else we’ve seen, the rock here is smooth and gray, the mountains a perfect mixture of jagged, rust-colored rock and chiseled gray precipices. Green-brown vegetation carpets the canyon in uneven swaths, life only capable of creeping up so far with these steep cliffs.




The most incredible part of it all, though, is the lake to the left of the range. Ragged peaks swing together around the water, encircling it protectively. The air is crisp and damp, and the light seeping through the clouds makes the river glow like freshly burnished silver. The water looks still from up here, but if we really focus, we can see the movement caused by each gust of wind whipping through the valley.




I could stay here forever, ogling at the dull shine coming off the lake and the river winding its way through these tree-wrapped monuments of ancient stone. Sadly, though, we have to get going—we still have a ways to drive, and we want to get into our new accommodations early, since we have a big day tomorrow. Despite the short time we’ve had, though, I know this view will be burned in my memory forever.


Paradise is not an easy thing to forget.




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