Situated in the northeast of South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, the Blyde River Canyon is thought to be the third largest canyon in the world. Measuring 16 miles/25 kilometers in length and averaging around 2,460 feet/750 meters in depth, it’s also the world’s largest green canyon. It is part of the Drakensberg escarpment and follows the route of the Blyde River, which tumbles over the escarpment cliffs into Blyderivierpoort Dam and the lush lowveld below. For many visitors to South Africa, it is both one of the most recognizable and one of the most beautiful natural landmarks the country has to offer.
The Canyon’s Background
Geologically, the canyon’s history began millions of years ago when the Drakensberg escarpment was formed as the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana began to break apart. Over time, the initial fault line that created the escarpment tilted upwards as a result of geological movement and erosion, forming the towering cliffs that make the canyon so impressive today. More recently, the canyon and its adjoining lowveld have provided shelter and fertile farming and hunting grounds for countless generations of indigenous people.
In 1844, the Blyde River was named by a group of Dutch voortrekkers who camped there whilst waiting for members of their party to return from a trip to Delagoa Bay (now known as Maputo Bay, in Mozambique). The name means “River of Joy” and refers to the happiness with which the expeditionary party were welcomed home. They had been gone so long that they were feared dead - which is why the Treur River, which connects to the Blyde River, was named the “River of Sorrow”. In 1965, 29,000 hectares of the canyon and its surrounding area were protected as part of the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve.
Wildlife of Blyde River
This protection has allowed indigenous fauna to flourish, supported by the incredible range of different habitats found at various altitudes along the canyon’s length. Lush vegetation and an ample water supply help to attract a large number of antelope species, including klipspringer, mountain reedbuck, waterbuck, blue wildebeest and kudu. Blyderivierpoort Dam is home to hippos and crocodiles, while all five South African primate species can be seen within the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve.
Avian species are particularly prolific here, making the Blyde River a top destination for birders. Specials include the elusive Pel’s fishing owl and the vulnerable blue swallow, while the steep cliffs of the canyon provide the ideal nesting conditions for the endangered Cape vulture. Most famously, the reserve supports South Africa’s only known breeding site of the rare Taita falcon.
Blyde River Canyon is most famous for its remarkable geological formations. Some of these have attained legendary status in their own right, including the canyon’s highest peak, Mariepskop, and the Three Rondavels. The former has a summit of 6,378 feet/1,944 meters and is named after the 19th-century Pulana chief Maripe Mashile. The latter refers to three circular, grass-topped peaks that resemble the traditional houses of the native people and are named after three of Maripe’s wives. The lookout point at Three Rondavels is considered one of the area’s best.
Other notable lookout points include the one at Bourke’s Luck Potholes, a series of cylindrical wells and plunge pools carved out by the swirling waters at the confluence of the Blyde and Treur rivers. This geological phenomenon is named after prospector Tom Bourke, who believed gold could be found here (though his efforts to find it were never successful). The most famous lookout of all is undoubtedly God’s Window, so named for its supposed resemblance to God’s view over the Garden of Eden.
Located at the southern edge of the reserve, the viewpoint’s plunging cliffs overlook the lowveld, providing an unforgettable vista over Kruger National Park to the distant Lembombo Mountains on the Mozambican border. Other highlights include the reserve’s many waterfalls. One of the most famous is the Kadishi Tufa Waterfall, the second-highest tufa waterfall in the world and home of the “weeping face of nature”, created by sheets of water falling over rock formations that resemble a human face.
Things to Do at Blyde River
The best way to get a sense of the canyon’s splendor is to drive along the Panorama Route, which connects the area’s most iconic viewpoints—including Three Rondavels, God’s Window and Bourke’s Luck Potholes. Start at the picturesque village of Graskop and follow the R532 northwards, following the signposted detours to the lookouts. Alternatively, helicopter tours of the canyon (like those offered by the Kruger’s Lion Sands Game Reserve), provide an aerial spectacle that can never be forgotten.
Numerous hiking trails within the reserve also allow you to explore on foot. For a truly immersive experience, consider tackling the multi-day Blyde River Canyon Hiking Trail, which traverses half of the nature reserve as well as tracts of private land. It takes three to five days, with overnight accommodation provided by a series of huts along the way. Although you can walk the trail by yourself, the best way to do so is with a guide like the ones offered by Blyde River Safaris.
The same company can also arrange a multitude of other activities, including mountain biking, horse riding, abseiling, fly fishing, hot air ballooning and even altitude scuba diving. Whitewater rafting and boat trips on the Blyderivierspoort Dam are also popular.
Where to Stay
Visitors to Blyde River Canyon are spoiled for choice in terms of accommodation, with options ranging from affordable guesthouses to luxury lodges. Some of the best options include Thaba Tsweni Lodge, A Pilgrim’s Rest and umVangati House. Located within easy walking distance of the famous Berlin Waterfall, Thaba Tsweni is a 3-star option with self-catering chalets and South African meals available for pre-order. This lodge is especially popular for its ability to arrange activities for its guests, many of them in association with Blyde River Safaris.
Replica 1800s guesthouse A Pilgrim’s Rest evokes the region’s fascinating past with its nostalgic colonial-era decor and convenient location at the heart of historic Graskop. It’s a great base from which to start your Blyde River Canyon adventure, and offers free WiFi and parking. For a touch of unadulterated luxury, consider umVangati House in the north of the Blyde River area. Here, mountain view suites provide private decks with stunning vistas, while the main house features a swimming pool, a patio for al fresco breakfasts and a wine cellar for private dinners.