A few hours’ drive east of Johannesburg lies the small province of Mpumalanga. This region is so different than the dry grasslands that usually come to mind when thinking of Africa. Instead, it is a region of verdant green valleys rising into barren, rocky mountains, where thick fog clings to the ridges. This is logging country, and the hills are covered in vast lumber plantations. Trout fishing, mountain biking, and hiking are the most popular activities here. If it weren’t for the occasional baboon crossing the road, you might think you were in the Pacific Northwest.
It is also a geologist’s dream. Luckily, I had my resident geologist along to talk me through it. What makes this area so special is how ancient the rocks are, and the stories they tell about the history of earth. The rocks here were formed over 3 billion years ago, as the planet was still cooling. Time, water, and the motion of the earth’s tectonic plates conspired to create in this region an incredible amount of unique geological sites.
The most magnificent of these sites is Blyde River Canyon, one of the largest canyons in the world. Over the course of one day, we drove along the edge of the canyon, stopping at various points for lookouts or small hikes.
One of the most interesting stops is the Bourke’s Luck pot holes. These unique formations were created by swirling pools of water traveling through the rocks over centuries. The whirlpools carved interconnected chutes and tunnels through the canyon.
Another vantage point along the drive is God’s Window, a lookout point from the top of a massive escarpment towards the grasslands below. When we stopped, the fog was too dense for us to see far, so instead we hiked up a ways and ended up in a rainforest. A living, teeming, breathing rainforest. It was absolutely Jurassic; I half expected a raptor to jump out from the trees.
In fact, the forest was so lush that we got just a little bit lost. But we eventually made our way back down, and were greeted by a stunning, clear view out the lookout (no pteradactyl sitings, sadly). It was discoveries like these that made our trip to Mpumalanga so interesting: in one day, we crossed at least 4 micro-climates, each with a distinct temperature and vegetation.
As our Blyde River Canyon drive came towards the end, we saw the gorgeous Mac-Mac falls. The falls are named for the number of Scottish miners who came to the area during the gold rush of the late 1800s, filling up the local register with their last names beginning in “Mac.”
A little further south and just before the descent into the town of Sabie, we swam around in the natural Mac-Mac pools, enjoying the warm African sun. We were the only people there, and it was like we had found a little piece of paradise.