“We’re off on an adventure,” I told my companion with more enthusiasm than I actually felt.
“It’s going to be fun, just you and me on a road trip.” My companion stayed ominously silent. I hadn’t expecting a reply, since I was talking to my ancient sports car, which is no better at road trips than I am.
I have no sense of direction, dreadful night vision and a fear of accidently driving off a cliff. My car has no luggage space, extremely low ground clearance and an aversion to untarred roads.
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. I was heading for the Drakensberg, a 200km arc of adventure with gorgeous rambles, challenging hikes, zip lining, mountain biking, rock art, historic towns and even a vineyard. Just driving along the twisting, scenic roads is an adrenaline rush, amid stunning scenery that makes you feel very insignificant in the immensity of it all.
The northern slopes closest to Johannesburg are hiking heaven; the central region has the adrenaline attractions, and the south tails off in 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 fine to sit with a glass of wine and admire the view rather than tick off every attraction.
For magnificent 360-degree views head for Cathedral Peak Hotel, reached up a long, skinny road and a final hairpin bend. This lovely old mansion offers horse riding, swimming pools, a gym, a small spa, a 9-hole golf course, archery, mountain bike trails, fly fishing and organised activities for kids.
I followed Happiness Hlongwane on one of the free guided walks, starting with gentle stroll to a waterfall. Then we followed a steep path to a cave used by bushmen 1,000 years ago, who left paintings of shamen and some ill-fated bushmen fleeing from a hungry lion. The Drakensberg is a World Heritage Site with about 20,000 San paintings at 500 sites.
Other hikes from here are the gruelling 9-hour challenge of Cathedral Peak itself, or up to Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall in the world at 947m.
The road south towards Champagne Valley passes signposts to Cathedral Peak Wine Estate, which produces red and white wines in the foothills near Winterton. I reluctantly ignored it, determined to keep a clear head for zip lining. The crew at Drakensberg Canopy Tour soon had me flying through the treetops on 12 lines delivering fabulous views of the gorges.
For a more elegant form of flying, Falcon Ridge Bird of Prey Centre further up the road is well worth visiting. It’s a rehabilitation centre for injured birds, and the owners Greg and Alison McBey give hour-long falconry displays, telling you about each bird, where it came from and hopefully, when it’s going to be released again.
Hours later I pulled into the Granny Mouse Hotel in Nottingham Road, a little town at the southern end of the Drakensberg. Its thatched roofs and wooden beams are newer than they look, so it has all the modern facilities including a spa, where I eased my road-weary bones with a Jacuzzi and a massage. Suppers in the bistro are delicious, or you can eat upstairs in Eaves, a fine dining restaurant with a 5-course tasting menu paired with wine.
The next morning the friendly gardener recommended a visit to Nottingham Road Brewery. I hate beer, but since I usually hate road trips and I was having enormous fun, I reckoned I’ll have a bash at beer too. This is the oldest micro-brewery in KwaZulu Natal and stands in attractive grounds at the Rawdon Hotel. Manager John Morrow has grown his hobby from an experiment in a cellar to a bubbling business, and you can taste his ales in the Boar’s Head pub across the lawn.
Chocolate is more my thing, so I was literally in Chocolate Heaven when I found the shop run by Kereth and Cindeez Guilbride in The Junction craft centre. They make quirky fondants like curried chocolate and chocolate-coated biltong, but the real attraction is chocolate dipping, where you make an indulgent mess by dunking stuff into melted chocolate. “Gherkins are fantastic in chocolate and cocktail onions are marvelous, although olives are an acquired taste,” Kereth said. “It’s all about getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things.”
Since my whole trip felt like getting out of my comfort zone and trying new things, I bought a bag of curried chocolate to keep me lively on the long road home.
Cathedral Peak Hotel is on the R394 near Winterton. Tel: 036-488-1888. www.cathedralpeak.co.za
Granny Mouse Hotel is off the R103 near Balgowan, KwaZulu-Natal. Tel: 033-234-4071. www.grannymouse.co.za
Cathedral Peak Wines, near Winterton. 082-378-4204 or www.cathpeakwines.com
Zip Lining: Tel: 036-468-1981. www.drakensbergcanopytour.co.za
Falcon Ridge Bird of Prey Centre: Call 082-774-6398 for directions. Falconry displays at 10.30am daily except Mondays and Fridays.
Nottingham Road Brewery is at Rawdon’s Hotel. Tel: 033-266-6728, www.nottsbrewery.co.za
Chocolate Heaven is at The Junction in Nottingham Road. Tel: 033-266-6870. www.chocolateheaven.co.za