Scott Balson's trip to South Africa -
6th September 2006 - Pilgrim's Rest

Perth : Johannesburg : Pretoria : Pietersburg : Pilgrim's Rest : Ladysmith : Champagne Castle : Estcourt : Durban : Ixopo
Kokstad : Port Elizabeth : Plettenburg Bay : Cape Town : Victoria West : Griquatown : Mafikeng : Johannesburg : Perth

6th September - on the road to Pilgrim's Rest - 7th September - Pilgrim's Rest

I left Pietersburg quite early in the morning setting off to the east into a rising sun. The main road to Tzaneen was blanketed on either side by sprawling shanty towns that covered a parched and brown earth scattered with aloes and a few small trees (image right). Most of the trees had been cut for firewood. The road for over 30km was like an ant's net - crawling with Africans. It would not be an area I would drive along after dusk. They say that  large percentage of black Zimbabweans have settled in these parts - escaping the despotic reign of Robert Mugabe.

When I drove over a high range the whole environment changed. There was hill after hill of pine forests and the native locations melted away to be replaced by upmarket tourist lodges with scenic views.

The winding road to the small town of Tzaneen took me to my first destination - the Tzaneen dam - which was a bit of an anti-climax. A white settlement near the dam brought home to me the paranoia of the whites in this area. The road to the dam was blocked by a security gate where an armed white policeman and several security guards patrolled the streets of what was an obviously upmarket white suburb.

As I drove up to the wall I noticed that the entire area had been secured by high steel fences topped by live electrical wires - not a happy place for the birds to land.  

October 2008

Hello Scott

I have been looking at your pictures from Tzaneen to Pietersburg! A big thank you! I have been trying to remember it and not seen such good pictures before. I left when I was 14 years old. I am now 43 years old. Left in 1990 and started in Perth, Western Australia - and never looked back.... My father built the Drive-Inn, first one was in Messina and the second one in Tzaneen. I left Tzaneen when I was 14 years old and we moved to Durban. We lived on a farm just behind the Drive-Inn and used to watch movies from our Verandah.Thank you for these pictures! I have really enjoyed looking at them. Remember so much of my childhood memories in Tzaneen.

Kind regards
Sharon Persic

PS - My maiden name is Scott!

The road, the R36, then took me south past some of the most beautiful scenery in South Africa as I approached the imposing northern face of the Drakensberg - through which a tunnel had to be built to gain vehicle entrance. On the way I again passed large African townships many with half built concrete block or brick houses which had fallen into disrepair. The corrugated iron rooves of others kept in place by nothing more than bricks brought back many memories from over 20 years ago. The change to a black government had not impacted on the wider native population at all - except for the growing poverty and the blatant corruption of officials brought into the public spotlight by the trial of their deputy President Zuma on charges nd the building of a ZAR8,000,000 retirement home for their President Thabu Mbeki using taxpayers' revenue.

After approaching the amazing mountains torn from the earth whose sub-structure and layers were left pointing into the air at an awkward angle by an enormous shift I started climbing leaving the somewhat desolate area behind me. I should mention that along the west of this stretch were several game parks which bordered the Kruger National Park. All had fancy gates which were locked and barred a sign of the times. On the radio a white cattle farmer talked about the changing times and how a neighbour had been robbed blind and had to leave the farm because he could not change to the new environment they all faced. 

At the top of the hill was the J G Strijdom tunnel - a short tunnel just a couple of hundred metres wide which cuts right through the rock that once cut north from south. On each side lay the craft of dozens of African sellers - all selling exactly the same thing!

The scenery, once through the tunnel, changed immediately with my climb to the top of the Drakensberg escarpment where my elevated views were dominated by large rocky mountains and deep valleys.

The road from Pietersburg to

Tzaneen - African shantys

The changed environment once

you get over the range.


Security for whites

The Tzaneen Dam wall

The town of Tzaneen

in the background

The R36 south

Dry and desolate as I approach

the majestic Drakensberg

The J G Strijdom tunnel

The view once over the top

If you travel just 1km past the R532 (turn off to God's Window and Pilgrim's Rest) you get to a small dusty road and a few shops reflecting the word "Echo" - take this road to the right and you come across three very different attractions in the space of just 5 kilometers.

The "Museum of Man" is nothing more than a large open cave in which Bushmen, Bapedi tribal warriors and, more recently, the first Boer settlers once found sanctuary. At ZAR20 per person it's expensive but interesting to me because of my interest in the Griqua. The "rock paintings" were hardly visible, a guide cost extra and the attraction once excavated by Dr Tobias needed to be renovated. 

The "Sculpture Garden" is on the right hand side about 2km from the entry. It was totally deserted and it felt a bit creepy walking around this extraordinary area which has religious engravings carved into a large natural rock.... for one second during my self-tour I expected to be ambushed by a black gang as I climbed stairs that seemed to go nowhere... now who's getting paranoid! I have to tell you I was happy to leave! The disturbed engravings certainly added to the creepiness!

The third is "Echo Caves" which is about 4km from the entry. It is an extraordinary labyrinth of caves and tunnels which extend over 16 kilometers right to a waterfall which lies just north of the J G Strijdom tunnel. It has only been explored once by a group of University students who took two days to get to the ed and back! Echo caves has three main areas - the Madonna cave where a remarkable stalactite and stalagmite have joined to create what looks like a natural 2 metre high religious symbol - located high above, possibly 10 metres above, on the wall of the cave. The crystal cave covered in large joined stalactites and stalagmites is quite special - but if you are not slim the very narrow doorway will ensure you cannot experience its wonders! 

My guide, Lucas, who is studying tourism, was excellent and knew the cave and all its quirky history. The caves had once been the hideout of the Bapedi when they were at war with the Swazis... there is a hidden entrance, a kitchen, death chamber and even sleeping quarters that have been identified by the past owner of the property who discovered Echo Caves in 1923. The name comes from the hollow stalactite in the centre of the main labyrinth which was used by the Bapedi to warn the people of any danger or any event. A hard object hammered against it creates a resonating noise that can be heard for a long distance.

The entry cost was just ZAR30 - although I happily paid the guide an optional ZAR100 for the hour he spent with me in this remarkable place. 

The Museum of Man sculpture

The open cave

and the greeting

A Bushman sleeping area

 "Atlas" holds the cave up

The Boer display

Bushman art

The deserted and creepy

"Sculpture Gardens"

Pathway to hell

Sculptures at the top

Looking back down


Echo Caves

The elephant chamber

The narrow tunnels

and big chambers

 Baby Jesus in the Madonna

And there's Madonna!

A natural lizard

My guide Lucas


A "river" of lime

Lucas and the Bapedi drum

The tunnel to the Crystal Chamber

The Crystal Chamber

It was about 1pm when I set off for the Blyde River Canyon, Bourke's potholes and God's Window.. some of the most stunning scenery in South Africa.

The Blyde River Canyon Viewing Station is a "must see" as you will discover...

The monument to Louis Trichardt and Potgieter who trekked through this rugged region in 1844 to secure a trade agreement with the Portuguese is poignant. Their pioneering trip resulted in the loss of all their horses and cattle because of the dreaded tsetse fly.

On the R532

Blyde River Canyon

The Blyde River at

Bourke's Potholes

Bourke's potholes

Well laid out at the potholes

The monument to Trichardt and

The road to Pilgrim's Rest

I took the side road off the R532 to God's Window... the views into Mocambique are quite amazing!

Pilgrim's Rest is very different to any place I have stayed at so far. It still has a white identity and there were only whites in the dining room where I ate. The blacks here are clearly impoverished and I paid a starving and desperate man money for his dinner. There are a large number of black stand holders with crafts on display - but again this is a very quiet time and not much business appears to be being done. The room was comfortable and set in the period of the early 1900s...  

Looking down towards

Mocambique from an outlook

The famous "God's Window"

Craft sellers at God's Window

Town of Graskop (grassy hill)

The road into Pilgrim's Rest

The road by-passing top of town

History abounds

The Royal Hotel where I stayed

My room

and bath

The courtyard at the Royal Hotel

Return to Home Page