Located roughly in between Johannesburg and the Eswatini and Mozambique borders in northeast South Africa, Mpumalanga province is the country’s second smallest. However, it packs a serious punch with world-famous game reserves, historic gold rush towns, and some impressive highland scenery. Mpumalanga is divided into two halves by the Drakensberg escarpment, with the high-altitude grasslands of the Highveld to the west, and the Lowveld savanna to the east. Its diverse landscapes make the province a playground for adventure-seekers, with opportunities for hiking, fishing, whitewater rafting, and more.
Go on Safari in Kruger National Park
A vast expanse divided between Mpumalanga (in the south) and Limpopo, Kruger National Park is often considered the ultimate South African safari destination. It’s home to the Big Five, including both species of rhino, and 142 other kinds of mammal. Birders will be in their element as well, with more than 500 avian species to spot. The park offers self-drive safaris, guided game drives, and accommodation that ranges from public campsites to five-star private lodges. Entry costs 372 ran per adult and 186 rand per child, per day.
Look for Leopards at Sabi Sands Game Reserve
The Kruger is surrounded by private game reserves, of which the most famous is undoubtedly Sabi Sands–with which it shares an unfenced border. A more exclusive destination than the Kruger itself, Sabi Sands offers guided game drives and excellent Big Five sightings. In particular, it’s renowned as one of the best places for leopard spotting in Africa. If seeing these spotted predators is at the top of your bucket list, head to the Londolozi area where rangers have been studying the cats for more than 40 years.
Marvel at the Blyde River Canyon's Incredible Scenery
Part of the Drakensberg escarpment in northeast Mpumalanga, Blyde River Canyon is the third-largest canyon in the world. It meanders for 16 miles and has an average depth of 2,460 feet. Over the millennia, erosion has created some extraordinary geological formations in and around the canyon, and people travel from all over to admire its scenery. Some of the best lookout points include Three Rondavels, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and God’s Window. Contact Blyde River Safaris for ways to experience the canyon, from hiking and rappelling to hot air ballooning.
Get Your Adrenaline Flowing at Graskop Gorge
To the south of the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve lies picturesque Graskop Gorge. Here, the Graskop Gorge Lift Company runs a series of adrenaline-inducing activities, including the world’s highest cable gorge swing (a 230-foot free fall in under 3 seconds). You can also cross the gorge on a highwire zipline or ride 167 feet down its face in a glass-fronted viewing lift. The lift takes you into the indigenous forest below, where a network of walkways and suspension bridges await.
Ride Hazyview's Aerial Cable Trail
If the Graskop gorge swing gives you a head for heights, continue your aerial adventure with a visit to Skyway Trails in nearby Hazyview. The attraction boasts the province’s longest aerial cable trail, which takes you on a thrilling journey through the trees on eight different zip lines. Alternatively, you can take on the Tree-Top Challenge, an elevated obstacle course with 19 challenges that’s suitable for all ages. Skyway Trails is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
View Majestic Falls on the Sabie Waterfalls Route
To enjoy the Sabie area’s beautiful riverine scenery at a more sedate pace, plan a drive along the Sabie Waterfalls Route. There are more waterfalls in this region of Mpumalanga than anywhere else in South Africa, and most of them are easily accessed via a short hike. Some of the highlights include Lisbon Falls (the province’s highest falls at 308 feet), misty Bridal Veil Falls, and double-plumed Mac Mac Falls. The route runs for approximately 30 miles along the main road to the north and south of Sabie town.
Take a Drive Along the Panorama Route
The best way to see the highlights of the Mpumalanga highlands is to take a drive along the scenic Panorama Route. It follows the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment from Nelspruit to the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, stopping at many of the province’s top natural and historic attractions on the way. These include the Sabie waterfalls, the gold rush town of Pilgrim’s Rest, and the iconic Blyde River Canyon lookout points. You can hire a car from companies like Avis, Europcar, and Hertz at Nelspruit’s Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport.
Descend Underground Into the Sudwala Caves
Mpumalanga’s Sudwala Caves are over 240 million years old, making them one of the oldest cave systems on Earth. That’s still young in comparison with the 3-billion-year-old Precambrian rock that surrounds them, however. Descend 490 feet below the surface on a guided tour, stopping to admire illuminated rock formations including stalactites and stalagmites en route. Keep an eye out for horseshoe bats, and for the Stone Age tools displayed at the entrance. The caves are open every day and are located a 30-minute drive from Nelspruit.
Go Whitewater Rafting on the Sabie River
The Sabie River Valley is a another must-visit destination for thrill seekers, with operators offering all kinds of activities from quad biking and horse riding to paintball, archery, and more. However, the area is best known for whitewater rafting on the Sabie River. Induna Adventures (based near Hazyview) offers half-day trips down Grade 2 and 3 rapids in rubber inflatables. You’ll be accompanied by qualified rafting guides, while calm periods in between rapids afford the opportunity to enjoy gorgeous forest scenery. The rapids are at their fastest and most fun from October to March.
Learn About Gold Rush History in Barberton
The historic town of Barberton was founded after the discovery of gold in 1883 inspired prospectors to rush to the area in search of fortune. Their camp grew into a thriving town with its own mining companies, stock exchange, and railway. Barberton’s golden years were brief and prospectors soon moved on to new reefs. To experience the excitement of those years for yourself, start at the Barberton Museum. Then, take a stroll along the Heritage Walk which connects period buildings, a steam locomotive, and other gold rush points of interest.
Drive the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail
There’s more to Barberton than gold. In 2018 the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because at 3.6 billion years old, they represent one of the world’s oldest geological structures. The Barberton Geotrail (a 24-mile self-drive route) introduces visitors to Archean period rock formations, which can be seen in very few other places on Earth. There are 11 geosites and viewpoints, each with an information board explaining how the landscape shows what the planet was like at the very beginning of early life.
Explore Nelspruit's Lowveld National Botanical Garden
Recently rechristened as Mbombela, Nelspruit is the provincial capital. There are many reasons to visit, one of the foremost being the beautiful Lowveld National Botanical Garden. The garden is characterized by the Nels and Crocodile Rivers, which form cascading waterfalls before converging inside the reserve. On their banks, natural riverine vegetation flourishes; while the landscaped section of the garden includes manicured lawns and a profusion of indigenous plant species. The garden offers guided tours and facilities include a nursery and tea garden. Entry costs 35 rand per adult.
Visit Jane Goodall's Chimp Eden
From Nelspruit, drive 20 minutes south to Chimp Eden. Set within Umhloti Nature Reserve and run by the Jane Goodall Institute, it is the only chimpanzee sanctuary in South Africa. It continues the famous primatologist’s work by providing a home for chimpanzees that have been rescued from the bush meat and illegal pet industries. These endangered animals are man’s closest living relative, and you’ll be surprised by how human-like their behavior is as you observe them in their semi-wild enclosures. Tours cost 210 rand per adult and 95 rand per child.
Discover Ndebele Culture at Kghodwana Cultural Village
Located in the far west of the province near the Gauteng border, Kghodwana Cultural Village offers an immersive insight into the lives and traditions of the Ndebele people. The Ndebele are known for the striking geometric patterns that adorn their houses and clothing, thanks to painting and beadwork skills that are passed down through the generations. You can purchase their handiwork, take a tour of the village, and even visit one of its royal kraals. The village is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday.
Head to Dullstroom for World-Class Fly Fishing
The highlands town of Dullstroom is known as the fly-fishing capital of South Africa, with excellent still water and river fishing to be found throughout the surrounding area. Most of the local dams and streams are stocked with both rainbow and brown trout. Some can only be accessed via private lodges and guided tours; however, there are two town dams that are open to the public. Permits can be purchased from the Dullstroom on the Dam caravan park. Remember that the lower dam is strictly catch-and-release only.
Go Birding on the Lakes Around Chrissiesmeer
Chrissiesmeer, a small town in Mpumalanga’s Lake District, is surrounded by pans and wetlands. These include Lake Chrissie, one of the largest freshwater lakes in South Africa. The lakes attract no fewer than 287 different species of birds. Many of them are seasonal waders that visit between September and March. In particular, the region is famous for the huge flocks of flamingos that arrive during the summer breeding season. Head to the Chrissiesmeer Information Centre to pick up a birding route map with details of the best spots in the area.
Tee Off on Mpumalanga's Top Golf Courses
Mpumalanga is also a great destination for golfers, with several high-quality courses to choose from. Two of the best are Leopard Creek (on the edge of Kruger National Park) and Highland Gate (near Dullstroom). The former is an 18-hole, par-72 Gary Player course that adds another level of excitement with water hazards inhabited by crocodiles and hippos. The latter was designed by Ernie Els to make the most of the magnificent highland scenery, and earned 15th place in Golf Digest’s ranking of the top 100 courses in South Africa.
Plan a Day Trip to Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre
Although it’s part of Limpopo province, Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre is well worth a trip across the border. Through rehabilitation, breeding programs, and education, the center aims to ensure the future of some of South Africa’s most vulnerable species. Day visitors can take part in a 2-hour tour, stopping to meet resident animals along the way. You can also watch cheetahs being taught to run and marvel as rare African vultures come to feed at the Vulture Restaurant. The center is just over an hour’s drive from Graskop or Hazyview.