* This article first appeared here in MzanziTravel Magazine
In the 1880’s the discovery of gold – and rumours thereof – sent brave explorers across South Africa in search of the golden wealth. Pilgrims Rest, a few kilometers from Graskop, was one of the hotspots, and as a result of the influx of hopefuls grew very quickly.
Over a century later the gold mongers are all gone and agriculture and tourism have taken over. Graskop is rather ideally situated as both a gateway to the Kruger National Park and also the start or end of the scenic Panorama Route – good reasons why the area has been a favourite destination for South African family holidays over the years.
Don’t forget it’s also Jock of the Bushveldterritory. The famous South African novel was penned by Percy Fitzpatrick in 1905, written as an autobiography of the author’s life as a transporter in the region decades before. The novel’s namesake was Percy’s faithful companion Jock, who remains a revered hero in the area.
Much of South Africa’s inland territory is located above 1500m, referred to as the Highveld. Moving Eastwards the escarpment rises to form the formidable Drakensberg mountains, and on the other side, you find the Lowveld. Graskop sits in the geographical buffer zone between the Highveld and Lowveld, offering astonishingly dramatic views.
I was encouraged to hear that despite some tourism challenges in the past years, Mpumalanga is starting to see an increase in growth of South African’s visiting the areas. Graskop is a town with quiet charm and a perfect base from which to explore the Panorama Route.
Where to Stay: Sleep in an Art Gallery!
The Graskop Hotel is one of the iconic lodgings of the area, with part of the current building even predating the official declaration of Graskop as a town in 1914. Over the past decades the hotel catered largely for groups but has now began to focus on more broadly on the public. This mirrors a travel trend that GM Marcus Tejessy was quick to point out – more international visitors are now taking self-drive options, preferring to carve out their own way than be part of larger group itineraries.
Around ten years ago the hotel took on its current persona as a fully-fledged art gallery. One of its owners is Harrie, proprietor of the famous Harrie’s Pancakes adjacent to the hotel. His love for art has meant that over the decades he has built up a substantial collection, of which some are now housed in the hotel. The art love-affair also meant that he had many fond connections in the industry, so when the hotel took on the art focus, he was easily able to get various artists on board to help.
Extra authenticity is given by the fact that each artist came to the hotel and decorated the room themselves. The art in the rooms overflows into the rest of the hotel, which is a treasure chest of artwork and interesting installations. I discovered that there are even visitors who come to stay for the artwork alone.
What to Do
- Graskop Gorge Lift
Minutes from Graskop is the towns shiniest new attraction – the Gorge Liftwhich drops several stories into the gorge below, where a one-kilometre boardwalk explores the forest floor. For adrenaline junkies there is also the Big Swing nearby.
- Following Jock’s Tracks
On Saturday mornings enjoy the Jock parkrun, leaving from the Graskop Horse Stables. To follow the actual route that the now-famous dog and owner would have taken, the Jock of the Bushveld Trail offers scenic views with a three- and five-hour option. The trail starts at the corner of Bloedrivier and President Street.
- Chasing Waterfalls
The hills and ridges around provide no shortage of waterfalls to explore. Three of the most opoular and accessible are the Lisbon, Berlin and Mac Mac Falls.
- Views for Days
For stunning views over the escarpment, the well-known God’s Window is a mere 10-minute drive, and half and hour’s drive further, the Three Rondavels View Point offers outstanding views of the Blyde River Canyon.
One of the most exhilarating ways to explore the surrounding hills may be by hurtling through them via ziplines withSkyway Trails. The course is in Hazeyview itself, a small town just over half an hour’s drive away.
Where to Eat
- Harrie’s Pancakes: now a thorough institution in Graskop, no visit to the town would be replete without a visit to the sweet eatery.
- The Glasshouse Restaurant: Lowveld dining hardly gets more tasteful or intimate than this, and your host Abe is every bit welcoming and charming.
- The Graskop Hotel Art Room Restaurant: Modernized South African cuisine in a well-sized a la carte menu and boutique wine list.