In the province of KwaZulu-Natal lies a vast mountainous area that stretches for over 1,000 kilometers and has some of the most magnificent scenery in South Africa, Africa and probably the world. Unfortunately I almost didn’t get to see any of this scenery when I went there on a too-short stay in late June. The mighty Drakensberg (it means Dragon’s Back in Afrikaans, and is called uKhahlamba -barrier of spears- by the Zulus) has a multitude of peaks over 3,000m and stretches for about 1,000 km and over towards Lesotho, which itself is the highest nation in the world, being virtually completely mountainous. Naturally it was one of the places I most wanted to go for my South Africa trip.
First I had to do some planning as it wasn’t easy to get there. Even though it is in the same province as Durban, and is only a few hours’ drive, buses don’t go there directly and I didn’t have a private ride. Searching around for any kind of tours to the Drakensberg, I found a few but they were very pricey and involved a lot of logistical back and forth. I then found out about the Baz Bus, a kind of shared inter-city taxi service for backpackers, and as it went directly to a lodge in the Drakensberg, chose it. It was kind of pricy and that morning, it came almost 50 minutes after it was supposed to, keeping me waiting for over an hour. Foolish me – since when should you come early for anything in Africa.
The Drakensberg is a World Heritage Site and boasts a series of peaks over 3,000m, San cave paintings and forests that are just great for hiking and exploring. For me, it was all about the Amphitheatre, a 5-km long escarpment regarded as one of the world’s most impressive cliff faces.
The Amphitheatre is located in the Northern Drakensberg where my lodge was also situated. The lodge was even named after the Amphitheatre, and the backyard provided a great view of the Amphitheatre in the distance, as it joined up with other peaks to form a long flat, imposing mountainous wall, see the above pic, that ran to the Central Drakensberg. To give you a sense of how long it was, I thought that the whole cliff wall was the Amphitheatre, until the lodge staff Adrian told me it was just a section at the right-most wall.
The lodge was off the side of a highway and the only nearby settlements were farms and fields. Coming to the lodge was like a trip into the Prairies in the US, not that I’ve ever been there but the scenery was reminiscent of what I’d seen in TV or magazines. Cattle, maize fields filled with a golden-yellowish hue and lonely flat-topped hills were what filled the surrounding scenery as we drove towards the Amphitheatre Lodge.
The lodge was a 4-star hostel (which they call backpackers) and it certainly lived up to that billing, with the exception of the showers. There was a main building covered with a thatch roof, as many traditional huts are, a funky bar area, and a pool in the back, while all the rooms were in several separate structures, some also thatch-roofed.
The entire backyard was a grassy field that opened up into a bushy area with some towering grass, traversed by a flat riverbed and several trails that ended at the barbed wire fences of the adjoining farms. The wide open surroundings and high grass gave me the feeling of being in an African plain, like the Serengeti.
The lodge, seen from the back as we were coming back from a walk. The silos are actually dorms.
The “Serengeti” and a flat-topped hill, left, and part of the Drakensberg.
The lodge ran day trips to the Northern Drakensberg and Lesotho, as well as a 3/4-day Drakensberg hike.
I did the Lesotho trip on the first full day, but I really looked forward to the hike up to the Tugela Falls, the world’s 2nd highest waterfall, which was in the Drakensberg.
Ominously the day started off with the skies very overcast, threatening to rain. When we drove up into the Sentinel car park, the mist was thick enough that we could barely see outside. Here, I have to explain that we weren’t actually hiking from the ground up, instead we were taking a “shortcut,” as the Tugela Falls was about 2 hours from the Sentinel car park. This didn’t mean it was a walk in the park because the trail was rocky, a little steep at parts, and I struggled a little at times, with the cold air and the altitude possible being factors (not surprising given my relative lack of fitness and high altitude experience). The air was cold and the mist thick, and there was even “clumps” of frozen snow along the trail. It was a notable sight not because I’d never seen snow (I’ve seen enough to last a lifetime in Toronto), but I just didn’t expect to see it in Africa.
The ascent consisted of a long walk, then a climb up a boulder-filled ravine Kloof Gully which took us to the top. Some more walking brought us to the falls, which given the ice, and the mist, gave me a surreal feeling of not being in Africa but somewhere in North America. I have to point out that by this time, though I had realized how diverse South Africa’s landscapes and climate were, I still couldn’t help contrasting this with my previous notions of how Africa and South Africa would be. On the day I arrived in SA, the temperature in Johannesburg was 7 degrees, colder than any day I’ve experienced in Taipei but absolutely normal in Toronto during autumn. At this point during the hike, I had to put on my thick Taiwan jacket which meant I was wearing 2 shirts, a fleece and a jacket. Four layers, which I’d never put on, even in the coldest days in Toronto. I also had on gloves, which I kept taking off from time to time to take pictures. Yet even wearing all this, I still felt chilly. I was even told I had frost on my hair, which was confirmed when looking through my pictures later.
It was a massive disappointment to not be able to see clearly, because the highlight was supposed to be the view from on top, not so much the waterfall which was frozen, and was just a trickle, this being winter. “This is what we came here for- to see snow in Africa!” was my weak attempt at humor, but it got a few laughs. Moving on, we walked past a meadow and crossed a stream bed, until reaching the first set of steel chain ladders. These were to be our means of descent and it was a little nerve-wracking, as the ladders weren’t bolted onto the rock face so each step down resulted in some shaking. It must be mentioned that there was a Mexican family in our group (2 parents, 2 kids), and each parent climbed together with one kid each. They did this with each parent straddled over one child while both held onto the ladder and climbing slowly but steadily in sync. They did well. It was over 20 feet, maybe more like 30 feet, and at the bottom was a ledge from which another pair of ladders awaited.
After the ladders, it was a climb down a boulder-strewn ravine, and a clear walk on a narrow trail back to the car park that took maybe an hour. I felt quite disappointed because really, the sight was amazing in normal, clear weather as evidenced by looking through the Internet.
While I walked at the rear, busy taking a few pics of the cloudy, obscured surroundings, one of a pair of English guys who’d hiked up behind us and were now walking back with us, suddenly pointed out that the weather seemed to be clearing up a little.
Indeed, the weather did clear up, and gradually, the mist dissipated, revealing reddish vegetation-filled bur treeless slopes alternating with charred blackness, a distinctive conical hilltop that extended downward and outward from part of the trail, and a vast valley floor with a lake in the near distance. The sky was still overcast but the greyness of the skies added to the color of the scenery. I did wish we were back on top but I was still immensely grateful for this.
The thick mist lifted as we walked towards the car park after descending from the top. It continued to clear up as we continued, and I couldn’t help thinking, why couldn’t this have happened while we were on top?
The walk back from this point was quite nice, and at several vantage points, there were great scenic views, including the looming flat-topped quadrilateral-shaped Sentinel Peak and a valley on the other side of our hill where clouds actually floated below. For some reason, there was barbed wire strewn across below a part of the trail. It certainly couldn’t be a barrier to catch people who fell off the trail, could it? I took a lot of pictures and I suppose this made me seem either obsessed or somebody who never gets out too much, or both. But I was determined to get as much as I could out of this trip, which in this case means taking a lot of pictures.
The drive back was relatively uneventful but still remarkably scenic. We did pass a raging fire that was engulfing a side of a slope along the side of the mountain road coming back, as well as passed a troop of baboons milling on the road and on a high rock wall overlooking us.
The next day was the last day. In the morning I took a walk through the back again with one of my lodge buddies and the lodge dog. When we came across a herd of cows, numbering about 15, the previously friendly dog took off like a psycho and ran right up to the bovines, placidly chewing grass and watching us, all barking mad. Well I never realized cows could be so cowardly because the entire herd just took off and literally stampeded, luckily not in our direction but in the other direction. I then saw that the 15 cows had multiplied to more than twice the number, because there were other cows who were hidden by the tall grass and on lower ground.
The cows stopped at what they deemed a safe distance from us, and looked at us warily while we just moved on. We crossed a dried stream, climbed up the other side, and went right up to the outer boundary of the lodge’s field, which was marked by barbed wire.
After the walk, we said goodbye to our other friend who was going to Jo’burg and back to Singapore, and I went on another short walk out on the side of the highway.
I walked to the neighboring farm and took more pictures; as cars and pickup trucks (bakkies) drove by I felt more and more like a hitchhiker at the side of a desert highway, as you’d see in movies or tv shows.
I had come by the Baz Bus and I left by the Baz Bus. Along the way, we listened to the Brazil-Netherlands quarterfinal match on the radio and by the time we arrived in Durban 3 hours later, it finished with Brazil, somewhat shockingly, beaten by the Dutch in a comeback. Good for Brazil, I thought. They’ve won enough World Cups so getting knocked out early, and by a worthy European opponent with its own strong, albeit underachieving footballing pedigree, was good.
Of course, this was before the final when the Dutch decided to get dirty and play like thugs.
So, Drakensberg mountains, I will be back whether it takes 5 or 50 years from now.