Mountain MeanderingI have to admit I was nervous. I have an innate fear of road trips, yet I was setting out alone into the mighty Drakensberg mountains in South Africa.
The fear’s quite rational – I have absolutely no sense of direction, dreadful night vision, and a low-slung 15-year-old sports car with an aversion to untarred roads, hairpin bends and sheer cliffs.
So why was I going? To conquer fears, build self-confidence and gawp at some of the country’s most spectacular scenery, that’s why.
The Drakensberg is an arc of adventure spanning 200kms (124 miles), with stunning panoramas, gorgeous rambles, challenging hikes, zip lining, mountain biking, rock art and historic towns.
It’s a land that makes you feel very small and insignificant against the immensity of the mountains, and a place where it’s easy to lose yourself - or find yourself again.
This is serious hiking territory too, but even city slickers can have fun. Turn down any random road and you’ll probably find a picturesque stream or languid lake to stroll by. It’s also ideal for romantic or raunchy weekends away, with all that invigorating fresh air and not a lot else to do once the sun goes down. On a more intellectual note, the Drakensberg is a World Heritage Site blessed with Africa’s most important collection of rock paintings by San bushmen. There are roughly 20,000 individual paintings spread across 500 sites dating from 2,400 years ago to the late 19th century.
How quickly you reach the mountains from Joburg, Durban or Cape Town is a subject of hot debate, and there’s always some Smart Alec who did it in half the time. The first time I went a few years ago it took a ridiculous eight hours, because we chose a long weekend when everybody was leaving Joburg and traffic was bumper to bumper.
So allow more time than you expect, which gives you the freedom to divert down enticing side roads or pull over to buy produce at the farm stalls. And take a Garmin, because once you leave the main arteries those smaller roads can be confusing.
Anticipation builds when you first spot some imposing peaks in the distance. Then you notice that one or two peaks have appeared in your rear view mirror as well, and the GPS is telling you to turn off the N3 and head for the hills where adventure awaits.
The Drakensberg comes in three sections: the northern slopes are hiking heaven; the central region has most of the adrenaline attractions, and the south tails off into gentle undulations studded with interesting artsy towns.
There’s so much to do that you risk spending half your time dashing from one place to the next, so I kept reminding myself it was perfectly fine to sit with a glass of wine and admire the view rather than tick off every attraction.
For utter isolation the Cathedral Peak Hotel is perfect, although the hotel itself can be brim full of guests. I felt rather incongruous dining alone in a restaurant full of families, so once I’d taken my fill at the buffet I sloped off to the comfortable bar.
The hotel has magnificent 360-degree views over the mountains, and daily free guided tours to explore them. My guide Happiness Hlongwane led me on a gentle stroll to a waterfall, then the trail morphed into a vigorous hike up a steep path. We were hunting the bushmen, and found their legacy in a cave used as a holy place 1,000 years ago. Happiness told me stories about the paintings, which showed male and female shaman and some spindly little bushmen fleeing from a hungry lion.
Cathedral Peak Hotel is at the end of a long, winding mountain path so once you’re there, it’s wise to stay put for a few days. To help you do that it runs a plethora of activities for kids and adults alike, including horse riding, golf, a spa and quiz nights. Serious hikers can conquer Cathedral Peak itself, in a nine-hour guided hike that runs twice a week. (www.cathedral peak.co.za)
Other attractions in the northern slopes include Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfalls in the world at 947m; Winterton Museum, telling the history of the people in the area; and Fort Durnford, a museum based in a frontier post built to quell a Zulu uprising in 1873.
I turned south instead to Champagne Valley in the central Drakensberg. I reluctantly ignored the signposts to Cathedral Peak Wine Estate where award-winning cellarmaster Flip Smith produces red and white wines from vineyards in the mountain foothills. You can visit for tastings and a lunch. (www.cathpeakwines.com)
I had to stay sober for zip lining on the Drakensberg Canopy Tour, and I was soon trussed up like a turkey ready to swing. You whizz across beautiful gorges and tree-covered slopes on 12 wire lines that offer exhilaration in various lengths, speeds and heights. It was enormous fun with brilliant views, although on a busy day you may sit for a while on the sturdy treetop platforms waiting for your turn to fly. (www.drakensbergcanopytour.co.za)
Further up the road is Falcon Ridge Bird of Prey Centre, where Greg and Alison McBey give impressive hour-long falconry displays with birds they’ve rescued or bred. They tell you about each of the feathery stars in the show, and afterwards you can admire the other injured birds of prey they’ve rescued. This education and rehabilitation centre is badly signposted, so call them on 082-774-6398 and set your GPS to S 29 02.415, E 029 25.927 on the R600 road.
Late afternoon saw me back behind the wheel heading for Nottingham Road. Technically this little town is out of the Drakensberg and in the midlands, but cheat and include it anyway, because it’s well worth adding a few miles to the tripometer.
I drove the last stretch in the dark, squinting to see a signpost for the Granny Mouse Hotel against the blinding headlights of a lorry behind me. With huge relief I spotted a sign and turned down the driveway to this lovely rambling hotel of thatched roofs and country gardens. (www.grannymouse.co.za). It was too cold to try the two swimming pools, but I made good use of its Camelot Spa for a massage and a dip in the Jacuzzi.
Supper in the bistro was delicious, and the staff went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I was invited to join an impromptu wine tasting, and the gardener made sure I knew exactly where I was going when I set out again the next morning to explore.
He recommended Nottingham Road Brewery, the oldest microbrewery in KwaZulu Natal based in the attractive grounds of the Rawdon Hotel. (www.nottsbrewery.co.za). I don’t drink beer, but I popped in anyway and chatted to jovial manager John Morrow who told me its history and declared how chuffed he was that craft beer is finally becoming a serious niche. You can taste his range of Notties Ales in the Boar’s Head pub across the lawn, or totter off with a starter kit to brew your own.
Chocolate is more my thing, and I was literally in Chocolate Heaven when its owners Kereth and Cindeez Guilbride plied me with curried chocolate fondants and chocolate-coated biltong. Bizarre indeed, but surprisingly yum.
You’ll find them in The Junction, a small craft centre with unusual shops, a couple of eateries and an archery.
Chocolate Heaven doubles as a play area where kids get messy by dunking strawberries and more offbeat items like gherkins, olives and cocktail onions into bowls of melted chocolate. “It’s all about getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things,” Kereth says. (www.chocolate heaven.co.za.)
Since my whole trip felt like getting out of my comfort zone and trying new things, I dropped in the next morning to say goodbye. They sent me off with a bag of curried chocolate to keep me lively on the long road home.