A view from the old cemetery at Pilgrims Rest. Picture: Kate Turkington.

The steep hill leading up into the little village in the mountains is very busy. Two teams of 14 oxen each are pulling heavily laden wagons up the dirt road as diggers trudge slowly by, dog tired after their day’s exertions.

In Dredzen’s General Store, as one contemporary writer put it that night, never before had he seen “anywhere else in the world such an assemblage of people, drawn from such various elements of society”.

Although there were “not more than 20 people in the store, there were Englishmen, Scotsmen, Irishmen, an American, two Australians, a Frenchman, a German a Swede, a Jew and a Spaniard” buying supplies.

The bar of The Royal Hotel is still quiet, things will hot up here later on, particularly if someone has found a gold nugget today.

It’s the mid-1870s and the Pilgrim’s Rest gold rush is in full swing.

Relive those heady gold-rush days and visit one of South Africa’s most charming villages – now a national monument – tucked away in a valley amid some of Mpumalanga’s most spectacular scenery. The Blyde River Canyon, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, God’s Window and the Sabie waterfalls are less than 50km away.

Although 135 years have gone by since the Irish editor of the town’s first newspaper, Gold News (renowned for its scandalous tittle-tattle), kept a pair of loaded pistols on his desk, and a robber was tarred, feathered, shot dead and buried where he fell and unwittingly founded the little cemetery high on a hill above the town, you’ll find not much has changed.

You can even pan for gold with a grizzled old digger.

Apparently there’s still some left even after an estimated £2 million (then an astronomical amount) in alluvial gold was removed from the goldfields by the early 1880s. In October, the World Gold Panning Championships will be held here and hopefuls from 21 countries will take part.

Be sure to visit Alanglade, the 1916 home of the mine manager’s family. Palatial by the standards of the day, it’s set in a wooded glade on a cool bluff above Pilgrim’s Rest and is now a museum decorated in Edwardian style.

I’m staying at the eco-friendly Crystal Springs Mountain Lodge, at the top of Robber’s Pass, nearly 1 800m high in the mountains between Mashishing (Lydenburg) and Pilgrim’s Rest.

Over 100 self-catering thatch cottages and 42 suites – most with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside – cling to the sides of rocky outcrops.

Situated in a 5 000-hectare game reserve, the lodge offers everything you or your family could wish for – a restaurant, pub, coffee shop, four swimming pools (two are heated), a gym, sauna, jacuzzis, a squash court and floodlit tennis courts. And for the kids there is a games room, trampolines and jungle gyms.

Andrew Blackburn, one of the managers, typifies the friendliness, superb service and passion found in all the staff at the lodge. He tells me proudly that last year Crystal Springs was named one of the top five big resorts in the country.

It’s not only a favourite with locals but with international guests, and the guest book has entries from Dutch, German, American, British, Canadian and French visitors, often en route to Kruger National Park.

Most of them, like me, comment on the quality of the mountain water. Pure, invigorating and fresh from the multitude of springs dotting the area, it’s an instant tonic. Martin Du Venage, the enthusiastic and knowledgeable game ranger, takes my colleague Wendy and I on a four-hour game drive.

We see zebra, giraffe, mountain reed buck, klipspringer, blue wildebeest, waterbuck and kudu. There are leopards in the reserve but they are shy and wary of vehicles. The scenery is truly breathtaking – purple mountains, deep valleys, rocky slopes bursting with spring flowers and endemic flowering plants. Mpumalanga is often cited as having some of South Africa’s best scenery. When you come here you will see why.

Outside Crystal Springs, follow the Panorama Route, which will take you to the province’s scenic wonders. Even a hardened non-believer will find it difficult to challenge the spiritual and physical majesty of the outlook from God’s Window, while the truly awesome 20km Blyde River Canyon and the nature reserve of the same name, which stretches from Graskop right up to the Abel Erasmus Pass, is also breathtaking.

There are lots of short walks along the route where you can stretch your legs, and some lovely picnic spots.

I couldn’t resist revisiting the entire cluster of Sabie waterfalls – the Lisbon, Maria Shires, Bridal Veil, Horseshoe, Berlin and Lone Creek Falls – more waterfalls than anywhere else in the country and all easy to access.

Goggle at the mighty Mac Mac Falls, then rest at the Mac Mac Pools a short drive away.

Of course, this whole area is Jock of the Bushveld country and it seems there are memorial plaques wherever he cocked his leg. We drive to the little farming town of Sabie, in the heart of more rolling mountains in the middle of the world’s largest man-made forest – more than four million square kilometres of pine and eucalyptus trees.

We hunt around Sabie’s Market Square, discovering the lovely little Anglican church of St Peter’s designed by Sir Herbert Baker, and find the plaque between the church and FNB commemorating the arrival of Percy Fitzpatrick and Jock in 1885.

If you’re into forestry, then while you’re in Sabie pop in to the Sabie Forestry Museum, which brims with information on the timber and wood industry.

Then it’s back to Crystal Springs via Pilgrim’s Rest (hairpin bends galore) and a glorious sunset as baboons bark in the gathering darkness.

Getting there

Mpumalanga Tourism Information

Tel: 013 759 5300/1

E-mail: [email protected]

Web: www.mpumalanga.com

Crystal Springs Mountain Lodge

Tel: 013 768 5000