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Exploring the Highlands Meander

 
13 January 2017 by Katy Louise Johnson

With the exception of Dullstroom, the Highlands Meander region of Mpumalanga is too often viewed as the ‘Road to the Lowveld or Gauteng’. With people generally just passing through, rather than taking the time to see what the region is all about. 

Spend a moment here and you soon realise it is like stepping into a whole new world. One far removed from the hustle and bustle of the Gauteng metropolises, a region where fresh air is the only air and the silence is at times deafening. It is also a far stretch from the oppressive heat of the Lowveld, a place where mist and dew can still be seen caressing the ground on a mid-summer morn and where fireplaces rule supreme.

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Image credit: Ludwig Sevenster

 

Journey into the Highlands Meander and you will see vistas that appear to be straight from the pages of fantasy books, where rolling grasslands and lush riverine forests merge and hobbits should be found around every corner. It’s a place where the rocky escarpments, enchanting mists and lush green grasses remind travellers of distant Scottish shores, a place where lochs, castles and kilts might seem at home. For those who scratch beneath the surface even further and you will find sandstone landscapes that look like they belong on the moon, waterfalls that rival the Panorama Route, and towering escarpment walls that drop down into mystical yellow wood forests that will awaken your senses.

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Image credit: Ludwig Sevenster

 

Yet there’s more! Ancient monuments, the mystery of the Kruger Millions, the best rock-climbing region in Africa, the biggest whisky collection in the Southern Hemisphere, the Trout Triangle, a floral riot to rival Namaqualand. Mpumalanga’s Highlands Meander is a region just waiting to be explored!

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Image credit: Micheal Tellinger | Image credit: Michele Meacher

 

Perfectly situated, less than two hours’ drive from Gauteng and just over 30 minutes from Nelspruit, there is no excuse not to plan a day trip or weekend away to this fabulous Highlands retreat.

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Image credit: Frans Krige

 

The route itself is a 4.5 hour round trip, past the towns of eMakhazeni (Belfast), Dullstroom, eNtokozweni (Machadodorp), Emgwenya (Waterval Boven), Waterfall Onder and Schoemanskloof, with a little detour to the truly Highlands town of Tonteldoos. Tonteldoos was recently placed within the boundaries of Limpopo, but remains very much ‘Highlands at Heart!’

The beauty of this route is that you are able to start at either eMakhazeni (Belfast), for Gauteng locals, or where the N4 splits and the road goes to either Emgwenya (Waterval Boven) or Schoemanskloof, for people coming from the Lowveld.

The 284km drive might seem long when you look at it on a map, but with such wide ranging and wonderful scenery plus plenty of interesting as well tasty places to stop on route the kilometres will flash by!

There are so many things to experience along the way that my suggestion would be to make a long weekend out of it, staying at two or even three towns as you travel the route. With a wide range of accommodation suiting everyone’s budgets and activities that will keep the young, old, energy fuelled and those seeking rest and relaxation happy. There really is no better place to be!

1): eMakhazeni (Belfast) to Dullstroom

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Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

 

You know you are in the Highlands when you get out of the car in eMakhazeni (Belfast) and experience the town’s temperature drop. Thankfully, it is only the weather here that will give you a cool welcome as the people in this small Mpumalanga town are some of the most friendly I have met.

This is the start and end of the route for anyone travelling from Gauteng and also an area that during the summer months of November to late January boast one of the region’s biggest surprises! When the grasslands are brought to life with a thousand rainbow shades as the wildflowers spring into action – make sure you check out our ‘Riot of Colour’ blog coming later!

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Image credit: Ludwig Sevenster

 

The road between eMakhazeni (Belfast) and Dullstroom is short, only 35km, around a 30 minute drive and the moment your wheels start making their way down the R540 you know you are in Highland country. A region perfectly named for its high altitude, Scottish Highlands feel with meandering streams and roads it has a sub-alpine feel that will whisk you away to another world where the challenges of modern day life just seem to fade away!

Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for the Country’s National Bird, the graceful and threatened Blue Crane. Along with it’s even more endangered cousins, the Wattled Crane and Crowned Crane. While taking in the splendour of this truly magical region, where soft grasslands are often coated in mists and rocky outcrops appear like islands in a sea of greenery.

If you are doing this over a few days, Dullstroom is a must when it comes to stopover locations. Set in the middleof the ‘Trout Triangle’ that stretches from eMakhazeni (Belfast) to eNtokozweni (Machadodorp), make sure you read the blog, this angler’s paradise has a lot more to do than simply fishing. Artisan shops, Whisky Tasting, Hikes and Spas ensure there is something for everyone and a lot more beside!

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 Image credits: Michele Meacher

2):The Tonteldoos Detour – A gravel adventure

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Image credit: Ludwig Sevenster

 

While this detour means venturing out of Mpumalanga for a couple of kilometres, Tonteldoos is worth the trek. One of those interesting border towns, split between Mpumalanga and Limpopo, one thing is for sure Tonteldoos is definitely “Highlands At Heart”, make sure you check out the blog!

The route from Dullstroom’s main road, Naledi Drive (R540) is relatively simple. Turning left onto Lesedi Drive, before turning left again onto Blue Crane Drive. At almost the end of the road you turn right on to Bosman Street and take this out of town and past the famed Dunkeld Country and Equestrian Estate.

Dunkeld Equestrian Centre

 Image credits: Michele Meacher

 

Leaving Dullstroom the road to Tonteldoos is a gravel one, although it is more than drivable for most cars. There are a few parts where you have to drive slowly and if your car is really low slung you might want to give this a miss, although you will be missing out!

In total, this section of the route should take around 30mins to drive and is really worthwhile. You travel through typical Highland scenery that is made for any weather, even the miserable spitting rain we had to endure during our visit didn’t put a dampener of what was outside.

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Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

 

Waiting for you at the end of the gravel road, is that hamlet of Tonteldoos with its curiously named shops and quirky guest houses. Give yourself at least two hours to explore this tiny village as you will want to see everything from the Thirsty Walrus General Store to the vintage motorbike collection found in the Tavern. I would highly recommend stopping for a cheese platter before you leave!

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Image credit: Ludwig Sevenster

 

3): Back via Dullstroom to Schoemanskloof

The longest section of the road trip, the 95km route from Tonteldoos to Schoemanskloof, takes around an hour and a half to drive. Although 30 minutes of that is retracing your steps on the way back from Tonteldoos to Dullstroom.

You leave Dullstroom on the R540 heading towards Nelspruit, and take unmarked roads before turning right onto the R36 and then continuing on the road as it changes from the R36 to the R539.  For the less adventurous, and those who don’t have cars with high ground clearance, an alternative is to take the R36 back to eMakhazeni (Belfast), before heading to eNtokozweni (Machadodorp) and onto Schoemanskloof from there.

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Image credit: Ludwig Sevenster

 

The unmarked roads are gravel and add to the sense of adventure. While they are passable, although we suggest you have a GPS with you and don’t do them on days that follow heavy rainfall. It is however a wonderful part of the country to get lost in, as long as you find your way back out and don’t get stuck! So be adventurous and take on the Highlands!

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Image credit: Ludwig Sevenster

 

While this route means you will miss the beginning of Patatanek Pass that takes you from eNtokozweni (Machadodorp) to Schoemanskloof, there are still a number of wonderful mountain climbs and steep descents to enjoy through the Kloof. A wonderful mix of subtropical scenery, tumbling waterfalls, enchanting forests and of course meticulously planted orange orchards awaits you as you pass down into the Lowveld. Thanks to the thriving citrus industry, even during the driest winters this area looks lush, green and bursting with colour thanks to the vibrant oranges.

4): Elands Pass Back to eNtokozweni (Machadodorp), via Emgwenya (Waterval Boven).

The journey home begins when the Schoemanskloof road meets back with N4, taking you right along Elands Pass to eNtokozweni (Machadodorp).

For scenery this is one of the most unforgettable major roads in the province, with more than its fair share of fantastic vistas, colossal waterfalls and show stopping mountain scenery. Though beware of the heavy-duty commercial traffic that seems to prefer this route to the mountainous passes of Schoemanskloof.

The Elands Pass begins at the Sycamore rail siding, where the road almost seems to disappear into the impressive towering mountains. It takes you over 5 bridge crossings and past National Monuments, like the 5-arch sandstone bridge that was used in the 1900’s to cross the river along with the fascinating Krugerhof Museum and an Anglo-Boer memorial grave site. There is also the ZASM tunnel and the viewing platform for the spectacular Elands Valley waterfall. So make sure you give yourself a lot of time for various stop-offs along this route. If you want more details check out the pass on:http://www.mountainpassessouthafrica.co.za/find-a-pass/mpumalanga/item/330-elands-pass.html

Image credit: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

 

Do make sure you stop at both Waterval Onder, where Paul Kruger took up residence just before his exile to the Netherlands and the focal point for the hunt for his lost millions! As well as it’s more famous ‘big brother’ above the waterfall, Emgwenya formerly Waterval Boven that has numerous great attractions including the Stone Circle Museum and Bistro, Roc ‘n Rope Adventures waiting to be explored. I really would suggest making this another overnight stop, before following the N4 to the eNtokozweni (Machadodorp) Toll.

 

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Image credit: Ludwig Sevenster

 

5): eNtokozweni (Machadodorp) to eMakhazeni (Belfast)

The final leg of the journey takes you from the Toll Plaza back to eMakhazeni (Belfast), but a quick stop to admire the beautiful town of eNtokozweni (Machadodorp) is a must. With a number of interesting historic buildings and an eye-catching church, it is definitely worth spending an hour taking a look around this highlands’ town and perhaps stopping for a quick bite to eat here before continuing on the route. That is if you are not planning to stop at Millys on the way home!

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Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

 

The road to eMakhazeni (Belfast) from here is surprisingly short, 27km, and should take no more than 25minutes. It is surrounded on either side by picture perfect Highland’s scenery, to give you one last dose of this glorious region. If you want to explore eMakhazeni (Belfast) again, we suggest taking the R33 turn off into the town and for those heading straight back to Gauteng stick with the N4 and travel safely!