South Africa’s roads less travelled: Johannesburg & the Panorama Route

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When British families come to South Africa, they normally default to the beaches of Cape Town and the wine and whales found along the Garden Route, perhaps with a micro safari thrown in for good measure. This of course, is an amazing itinerary, but there is much more to see in this incredible country. Hence for the more intrepid, or perhaps the return visitor like myself, it’s good to get out there and see some of the rest. Ready and waiting for families is the major city of Johannesburg and its famous townships in Soweto, and the lesser known, but equally awesome ‘route’, the Panorama Route.

Johannesburg isn’t usually considered a tourist city, playing second fiddle to the more Instagram-able Cape Town. However, South Africa’s largest city, and economic hub, has lots to offer and is a good place to start any African adventure.

Jo’burgh, or Jozi, as the locals call it, was founded in the late 19th century as a result of the gold rush. Like most gold rush towns, it has a very colourful history and was once one of the fastest growing cities ever, fuelled by the prospect of unearthing a fortune from the mines.

As Johannesburg grew it required cheap, low-skilled labour to support its expansion. Most were housed in townships that in the 1930s collectively became known as Soweto. Now home to 1.5million people (a third of the total population of Johannesburg), Soweto became known for the uprisings that took place in the 1970s and as the home of Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton

Children playing in the water fountains

Nowadays it’s a vibrant and positive community. It’s still shocking to see the level of poverty, but it is no worse than you might find elsewhere around the world, and is an eye-opening education for school-age children. The best way to get around is on a bicycle tour with Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers. The two-and-a-half hour tour is ample and easy going for kids (little ones can be towed along in a mini trailer). It is a fun way to get into the heart of the townships and really feel the vibes and culture. I was concerned it would feel uncomfortable and a bit ‘empire-ish’, but the locals are engaging and genuinely pleased to see you there.

The tour takes in Nelson Mandela’s former home in Vilakazi Street, Orlando West, where he lived from 1946 to 1962 and briefly returned to after release from prison in 1990. The house remained in the family until the 1990s then became a museum. Mandela eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize, as did Desmond Tutu, Bishop of Johannesburg and antiapartheid activist, who remarkably lived across the street, although his property remains a private residence.

There is a rich history and tapestry of culture in the townships which together provide a great way to try and understand the apartheid era and to be able to look forward with a positive approach. I would recommend it as not ‘too heavy’ a history tour for kids of all ages.

Having taken in the hustle and bustle of Jo’burgh, it’s off to explore the Panorama Route which is in the region of Mpumalanga, and is fun for the kids just in name alone! This region is one of the most dramatic on the continent and makes for an amazing road trip. The roads wind through the Lowveld with mountains rising high in the distance. The whole journey is pocketed with stunning waterfalls and points of historic local interest dating back again to the gold rush era of the late 1800s. Perhaps the best waterfall is near the town of Sabie, the Bridal Veil Falls. At nearly 500ft drop and an easy walk to the foot of the falls, it’s well worth the detour

One of the amazing Mpumalanga waterfalls

Summerfields Retreat Gin Bar

After a full day’s drive, we pulled up at the Summerfields Rose Retreat and Spa. This is a sumptuous oasis of tented suites nestled under a canopy of natural vegetation alongside the Sabie River where hippos bathe at night. Kids under 13 are not allowed to stay in the main part of the retreat, there is a dedicated self-catering Summerfields Stonehouse farm-stay available on Airbnb where all ages can stay and enjoy all the food and activities of the retreat. Parents will be pleased to hear Summerfields produces its own award-winning Duke Gin. Take it from this writer that sipping one of those from your open-air bath in the bush is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

From your base at Summerfields you can easily reach the Blyde River Canyon. Widely considered to be the third largest canyon in the world, it is a truly spectacular natural landmark. Driving to the public viewing area is easy and provides an amazing vantage point. However, the baller way of seeing this canyon is naturally to take to the air. Mpumalanga Helicopter Company operates a ‘Cascade and Canyon’ tour which is truly breathtaking. This 60-minute flight swoops low over waterfalls, natural vegetation and then brings you in high over the canyon itself. At £315 per head it is pricey, but it would be a shame to miss, especially for teens.

Be amazed with Mpumalanga Helicopter Company

The beauty of the Panorama Route is its proximity to the iconic Kruger National Park. Kruger is one of the largest and most easily accessible and family-friendly game reserves in Africa, boasting a ridiculous abundance of wildlife. There are a multitude of lodging options in the park, but the one that I keep returning to is MalaMala Game Reserve.

Elephant spotting on safari

MalaMala is the largest privately owned Big Five game reserve in South Africa. It is more than 33,000 acres in size with few guests, so there is ‘no queue to view’ and often you won’t see another Land Rover during an entire game drive.

MalaMala has long been environmentally focussed, which has resulted in the entire area remaining relatively undisturbed – the right sort of grasses are there and the wildlife has followed.

MalaMala embraces kids and has a Junior Ranger Program aimed at children from four-12 years of age. Each child is given a backpack with interactive check lists and animal colouring books. Rangers create dedicate activities such as tracking adventures, survival skills, bush breakfasts and radio skills. Back in camp, children are well-catered for with movies and board games, whilst parents get an evening off with babysitting on offer.

MalaMala Junior Ranger Program

The infinity pool at sunset

The accommodation at MalaMala has recently been upgraded. Whilst I enjoyed the rustic nature under the previous ownership, the overhaul is a big improvement without losing the earthy, safari charm of the place. The main camp has a stunning lounge area and a vast deck which offers constant game viewing as elephants, monkeys and an array of antelope casually go about their day just metres away. The infinity pool is a welcome option after a sweaty game drive. Here too, you’re often joined by some of our four legged friends which is a magical experience.

All in all, the Panorama Route and MalaMala combination makes for a world-class experience and should be added to any shortlist when considering a family trip to Africa. Go, you won’t regret it and the kids will love you for it.

The lowdown: South Africa

How to book

Africa Collection offers a seven-night family holiday to South Africa from £3,995 per person (2 x adults and 2 children aged 13+) including one night at African Pride Melrose Arch, two nights at Summerfields Rose Retreat & Spa (tented suite), three nights at MalaMala Main Camp (suite), all meals and game activities, internal flights, private transfers and international flights.

When to go

Johannesburg & Panorama Route: The spring months of September and October.
MalaMala: May-September

Entry requirements for kids 

The South African Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Tourism have recently announced the relaxation of some international travel requirements for children. This means that children who are from countries where visas are not required, such as the UK, are no longer required to bring unabridged birth certificates which show the details of both parents for all international travel to and from South Africa. Check-in desks at the airport will not be checking for supporting documents from foreign travellers.

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