Exploring the Bourke’s Luck Potholes in South Africa

Giant kettles at Bourkes Luck Potholes, in Moremela, South Africa

After lingering at Pinnacle Rock a little longer than we had intended, Bob and I pushed further north on the Panorama Route to check out Bourke’s Luck Potholes.  This landmark location in the province of Mpumalanga, South Africa, is the site of yet another astounding set of formations within the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve.

map of mpumalanga, south africa

We had lost track of time on this day trip and landed at Bourkes Luck Potholes at 4:59 p.m.  That is not significant until you realize that the attraction closes at 5 p.m.  Did the attendant turn us away?  Not a chance!  He gladly accepted the entrance fee, 55 Rand ($5.50 CAD), and admitted us to the controlled area of the site.  Located at the top end of Blyde River Canyon, the Potholes are a natural water feature carved into that section of the Drakensberg escarpment.

Bourkes Luck Potholes, in Moremela, South Africa

Before we descended a path to reach the bridges that would direct us on a self-guided tour of the Potholes, Bob and I paused to appreciate the warm golden glow afforded by the late afternoon sun.

Mocking cliff-chat bird at Bourkes Luck Potholes, in Moremela, South Africa

Next thing you know, a brightly-coloured bird diverted our attention when it lit in a small deciduous tree beside the protective railing.

Mocking cliff-chat bird at Bourkes Luck Potholes, in Moremela, South Africa

This Mocking Cliff Chat is a male.  Only a sliver of its white shoulder patch is visible, and in this second photograph…

Female Mocking cliff-chat bird at Bourkes Luck Potholes, South Africa

you see a female that flew in to join her mate.  She shows no sign of a white shoulder patch.  These birds are commonly found in pairs on rocky kopjes (small hills) in wooded areas, and as birds of a dry savannah habitat, their diet consists of an assortment of insects that are hawked aerially, or fruits and seeds that are foraged on the ground or from low perches in shrubs.  We paused for a couple of photos but were anxious to begin exploring.

Bourkes Luck Potholes in Moremela, South Africa

Bourke’s Luck Potholes are geological formations that have been formed over centuries by swirling eddies of water where the Treur River tumbles into the Blyde River Canyon.  Blyde River means River of Joy; Treur River means River of Sorrow We had no idea before approaching the lip of the gorge just what marvelous sights were in store for us.

Gorge at Bourkes Luck Potholes in Moremela, South Africa

We traveled to South Africa in November, and at that time of the year, the flow of water through the gorge is modest.

Canyon walls at Bourkes Luck Potholes in Moremela, South Africa

Still, given the constricted space between the canyon walls and the distance to the water below, Bob and I were relieved to have protective railings in place at most of the vantage points and bridges to ensure easy and safe movement from one overlook to another.

Pedestrian bridge over gorge at Bourkes Luck Potholes in Moremela, South Africa

When the vantage point afforded our first clear view of the river and gorge below, we began to understand the conditions that led to the extensive water erosion that has resulted in Bourke’s Luck Potholes.

Waterfalls at Bourkes Luck Potholes in Moremela, South Africa

During the rainy season, the flow of water in the Treur River far outstrips the mere trickle that Bob and I saw tumbling over the precipices to join the Blyde River far below.  Of course centuries ago, the forceful and untamed torrent of water made its way over the land and by the force of gravity found its way over any available drop off, gap or crack at the edge of the canyon to reach the Blyde River coursing along its own riverbed.

Waterfalls at Bourkes Luck Potholes in Moremela, South Africa

The sheer volume and power of the raging floodwaters carries ample amounts of water-borne sand and stones that initially began to carve out small depressions in the underlying sandstone.  Those depressions subsequently induced whirlpools of water within which pebbles and stones became trapped.  The continuous circular motion and abrasion by the swirling rocks accelerated the erosion.

Waterfalls at Bourkes Luck Potholes in South Africa

With the passage of time, the powerful torrent of the rainy season’s high water levels caused extensive erosion because the plunging waters of the Treur River creates powerful vortices called kolks where the rushing water meets with underwater obstructions.  Once small depressions were soon enlarged by small boulders that were buoyed by the water’s current and manipulated in a circular motion to grind out even larger rock basins. 

Giant kettles at Bourkes Luck Potholes in South Africa

The rapidly rushing water of the Treur River is constricted by the narrow channels it has carved into the rock walls over which it flows.  This increases the velocity of the water’s movement.  Therefore, in the Treur’s plunge pools, the kolks rotate violently and, like a tornado, they have the power to pluck monstrous chunks of rock from the walls and riverbed, even moving them downstream for thousands of metres.

Giant kettles and rock walls at Bourkes Luck Potholes in South Africa

That action leaves behind huge pits where pools of water collect, giving rise to the term rock-cut basin.  This phenomenon is most often seen where a river flows over hard rock with a softer substrate underneath such as the sandstone that is prevalent on the Drakensberg escarpment.

Red sandstone walls of the Blyde River Canyon. in South Africa

All along the Panorama Route, the red sandstone of the escarpment was evident in the walls of the Blyde River Canyon.

Giant kettles and rock walls at Bourkes Luck Potholes in South Africa

The circular erosion of the depressions has become magnified over time, and the result is these marvelous cylindrical potholes or giant’s kettles.  Bob and I were mesmerized by the perfectly circular creations that more resembled art than some of nature’s handiwork.  You can see that many visitors to Bourke’s Luck Potholes toss coins into the pools of water for good luck.

Rock walls at Bourkes Luck Potholes in South Africa

Over thousands of years, the friction caused by rotating boulders has continued to erode the natural rock substrate so that the concavities grow deeper and wider.  In some cases, the potholes merge, new ones are formed, and always the process results in an intricate landscape of deep hollows and outcrops of resistant rock.  Equally impressive are the towering walls of the potholes that have been sculpted to reveal layers of sandstone in shades of amber, aqua, taupe and ochre.

bob films bourkes luck potholes, Moremela, South Africa

We were so excited to have Bourke’s Luck Potholes to ourselves.  Those few people touring the landscape when we arrived had soon departed so it was just me, Bob and the occasional critter moving amongst the rocks.  We came across another Common Flat Lizard and the prettiest butterfly that refused to be photographed.

Bourkes Luck Potholes in South Africa

At the outset of our explorations, the attendant informed us that there is a defined perimeter yet no fences restricted our movements at the periphery of the designated area.  The Treur River ambled across the escarpment, and flat rocks extended into the stream just begging us to explore further, but we resisted temptation.

Jean at Bourkes Luck Potholes, South Africa

All looked safe and sound but based on our few wildlife sightings already, we weren’t about to take any chances.  We began to navigate the maze of pedestrian bridges back to the entrance of the protected site, pleased that the Golden Hour was transforming the landscape into a series of gilded features.

River at Bourkes Luck Potholes, South Africa

Perhaps the reference to gold is apropos given how Bourke’s Luck Potholes came to have its name.  In the late 1880s, a gold prospector by the name of Tom Bourke staked a claim and began panning for gold at this location.  Earlier signs that there might be gold in the canyon led him to believe that he would strike it rich, but his gold mining was fruitless.  Ironically, other prospectors did grow rich with the discovery of gold just south of there.  The only riches found on site are the thousands of coins tossed into the potholes when visitors make a wish.

Waterfalls at Bourkes Luck Potholes in South Africa

Strolling back across the rocky escarpment, Bob and I contemplated the power of water and its ability to shape a landscape.  There at Bourke’s Luck Potholes it is spectacularly displayed in the dramatic and intricate series of waterfalls, potholes, sculpted cliffs and reflective pools.

Bourkes Luck Potholes in South Africa

What we had observed at Bourke’s Luck Potholes was truly remarkable and fantastical at the same time.  The power of the elements is always intimidating and reminds us of our vulnerability and our place on this Earth.


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