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South Africa: Following the gold

A female leopard cub waits for her mother in a tree in Sabi Sands Game Reserve
Photographer: Jonathan Gregson

Follow the trail of fortune-hunters through the mountains of South Africa and end with animal encounters on one of the country’s original safaris



In the gathering wind, the bride is struggling to retain her modesty. As guests gather round her and her new husband for a photo, her full skirts billow up and it takes four people to battle them back down. The desired shot is not to be: a fat slug of low cloud squats over the mountain they’d chosen as their backdrop, and there is no hint of the famed canyon that lies beneath it. The wedding party gives up, piles into a convoy of minivans, and drives away.

Patience, though, has long been a virtue up on the Drakensburg Escarpment. With alarmingly long-toothed baboons prowling the plateau around me, I perch on a boulder and wait, joined occasionally by entrails of mist that slink in and away like mildly curious ghosts. After an hour, the grand unveiling takes place. The clouds part, and the bulbous rock pinnacles of the Three Rondavels are revealed, sheering up from the canyon floor 400 metres below, the dark green coil of the Blyde River winding its way between them. For a brief moment, and one that surely deserves an operatic burst from a choir of angels, the Mpulamunga plains far to the east are illuminated by golden beams of sunlight. Then the weather sets in, and their fields of orange, mango and avocado trees are lost to sight once more.

The Three Rondavels mark the starting point of a canyon 26km long, traced by a road named the Panorama Route that links the many sights along it – waterfalls so high that rainbows form at their base; a lone spike of quartzite rock that spears the sky like an absurd skyscraper; deep, thickly-forested chasms roamed by klipspringer antelopes and leopards, and that go by the grandstanding names of Wonder View and God’s Window. And yet the phenomenon of coming for the simple enjoyment of the view is a relatively recent one; up until the latter half of the 20th century, rewards of a more material persuasion were what drew people here.

Thomas Bourke, whose family had come to South Africa from Ireland, is one man whose patience never  paid off. Suspecting that gold lay in the rocks surrounding the Blyde River, he set about digging by the banks halfway along the canyon. He never struck lucky. All that remains of his endeavours are loose piles of rubble, and a sign warning people not to venture further into the unstable scree. He did eventually get recompense of sorts: the site took his name. A series of cascades tumbles over the smooth, orange sandstone of Bourke’s Luck Potholes, whirling through bowls and tunnels worn in the rock over the centuries. Blue starlings nest in crevasses in the low cliffs, and anorak-clad visitors now toss coins into the deepest pools for good luck – perhaps unwisely given the fortunes of the site’s namesake.

Bourke’s fellow fortune-hunters had better success at a spot at the end of the Panorama Route. Gold was discovered in the area in the 1850s, prompting an influx of prospectors from around the world. Mac Mac Falls – a single plume of water dropping 70 metres into a shaded crater – is named after the perception that every second man arriving to stake his claim was a Scot. Today, market traders are the only ones doing business, their stalls selling clay pots, wooden hippos and hide drums. A mile downstream, activity is subdued further still. The waters form a series of natural bathing pools, in which families and groups of teenagers lounge before emptying bags of sausages onto public BBQs. It’s hard to imagine that the gentle grassy slopes surrounding the falls were once home to 1,500 people who’d swept in hoping to make it rich.


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