Our visit to Pinnacle Rock in Mpumalanga, South Africa
On our first full day in Sabie, South Africa, a drive north of the town to investigate Blyde River Canyon had us putting three landmarks on our list of things to see. The first one up was The Pinnacle Rock. This massive freestanding rock towers over the deep ravine carved by the Ngwaritsane River.
Even to reach the area around Graskop, the drive took us through landscape so impressive that we saw ourselves pulling over repeatedly to snap photos. At one point, a monkey hopped up onto the road and promptly crossed it, a wildlife sighting that caught us off guard given the tall pine forests flanking the highway, an unlikely habitat we thought, and because we did not anticipate wild animal sightings everywhere we turned.
The Panorama Route is a popular scenic route that follows the Blyde River Canyon, the third largest canyon in the world. Situated in the South African province of Mpumalanga, the Canyon is speckled with natural formations that have become quite the draw for tourists. Each one, in its own right, is either geologically, historically or culturally relevant.
The massive quartzite rock that is known as The Pinnacle Rock is very impressive where it erupts from the earth’s surface. The freestanding tower-like “Needle” stretches to a 30-metre (98 ft) height making it quite a splendid sight where it rises above the dense indigenous forest of the Driekop Gorge.
From a different vantage point overlooking the Gorge, Bob and I had a view of the Ngwaritsane River where it flows through the lush fern-covered ravine 450 metres (1,476 ft) below.
As we had already observed in South Africa in our first two days there, it is common to see local people walking very long distances across the countryside through all sorts of terrain as they travel between destinations. Near the lip of the Gorge, where the River slows before plunging into the ravine, two women were making their way to and from, respectively, the craft market stationed near the entrance to the site of the protected natural feature.
Visitors to Pinnacle Rock had free rein to explore the rim of the Gorge,
but it would have been too treacherous to try descending the steep walls even though Pinnacle Waterfalls, the first of eight such waterfalls on the river, was enticing.
The gentle flow of water cascaded down the face of the rocks creating a gentle spray where it came into contact with rocky projections on the face of the gorge. The lure of the cool pool of aquamarine water was almost too much to resist as we sweltered in the torrid heat looking down.
Blyde River Canyon is the only canyon in the world that is abundant with old-growth native trees, and from our position at the southern end of the Canyon, we could see dense forests spreading outwards in all directions.
The Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, that includes The Pinnacle Rock, is known not only for its outstanding natural beauty, but also for the endemic and endangered flora and fauna of the Reserve. We took note of some outstanding Aloe Arborescens plants that had gained foothold in the quartzite of the canyon walls. Also known as Candelabra Aloe or Krantz Aloe, referring to the Afrikaans word krantz, meaning a rocky cliff, these stalwart aloe plants thrive on rocky outcrops and exposed ridges in mountainous regions.
Aloe arborescens may be a shrub, but it has actually been classified and assigned a national tree number because the plants typically grow to tree size, 2-3 metres (6.6-9.8 ft) high. It is for this reason that the plants were traditionally used to create a living fence around kraals (corrals). Long-abandoned African villages and/or livestock pens can still be identified today where the security hedges of aloe plants persist. We were too late in the season to catch the Aloe in bloom, but the striking orange spires would have been something to see against the lush green backdrop of the Canyon.
Millions of tons of rock have been eroded from Blyde River Canyon over the centuries and subsequently swept to the Lowveld and beyond towards the Indian Ocean by the sheer force of the raging rivers during rainy seasons. The Pinnacle Rock at one point in time detached from the main face of the Drakensberg Escarpment to create this noteworthy natural feature.
The original sandstone rock, over thousands of years, was compressed into Black Reef Quartzite, a durable rock that is resistant to erosion, but the stalwart “tower” has existing cracks that now allow bright aloes to gain a foothold.
As Bob and I explored the escarpment around the precipice,
this striking plant caught our eye…a Giant Fire Lily (Cyrtanthus obliquus) that was true to its name with the vibrant orange and yellow flowers glowing like embers in the intense sunlight. This evergreen member of the Amaryllis family thrives in a dry, rocky habitat where sloping ground and soil derived from sandstone provide good drainage.
The thick, grey leaves of Giant Fire Lily make it possible for the species to endure hot, dry conditions such as those encountered on the Drakensberg escarpment. From the base of the long, broad leaves, a 2-foot tall stalk shoots up and supports up to a dozen pendulous blooms, each about 3 inches long. Adding interest to the plant, the leaves become twisted as they stretch upwards lending a spiral effect to their habit that is quite impressive.
Another flowering plant eking out an existence there on the escarpment was this fuchsia-pink specimen that resembled a froth of downy feathers. It goes by the name Cyanotis Speciosa, or the more whimsical moniker Doll’s Powderpuff. Near the Ngwaritsane River, this perennial herb finds everything it needs to grow successfully: shallow soil amongst rocks, good drainage, and lots of sunshine.
One more point of interest was on our agenda that afternoon, so Bob and I soon got on the road again. With soothing sounds of cascading water fading into the distance, we made tracks next for Bourke’s Luck Potholes. It was going to be interesting to see how each of the three notable features that we visited that day differed, one from the other.