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Travel: Exploring the Drakensberg

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My daughter, Carmen, has been hearing stories about the Drakensberg since she was a little girl. Apparently, I gave my two girls a small backpack with an Ezbit stove for Christmas, at an age when all they wanted were dolls. Even now their voices rise as they say, ‘Dad, we were only five and seven years old, for goodness’ sake!’

Words & pictures by Richard van Ryneveld

Well, here we are at last, at the Dragon Mountains, as the early Trek-Boers called them. It seemed these towering spires wished to prove me a braggart and a liar, as the mountain peaks were totally blanked out with mist. We were driving up the narrow winding road at the top of the Kamberg Valley to Highmoor Nature Reserve, when suddenly the mist lifted and Carmen burst out, ‘Oh my God, Dad!’ She didn’t say another word, but almost fell out of the VW Amarok to gaze speechlessly at the mountains which the Sotho people call Quathlamba, the Barrier of Spears.

Carmen and I were towing our borrowed Jurgens Penta caravan behind our borrowed VW Amarok.

Initially, we’d based ourselves at the Glengarry at the top end of the Kamberg Valley, and decided to head out to Kamberg Rock Art Centre. Although the weather never played its part, I would humbly suggest that the Drakensberg should be at the top of the list – bucket list, that is – of every South African. It’s at the Kamberg Rock Art centre where you can access the soul of southern African rock art.

Waterfall Shelter, now on a guided walk from the Centre, is seen as the ‘Rosetta Stone’ of southern African rock in Scientific America for the first time in 1915, and it was the documenting of this find that moved archaeologists to theorise that the paintings were symbolic in nature. ‘At first thought to be reproductions of everyday life and hunting… many of the mystical images are now seen as ‘therianthropic,’ or images seen by shamans or healers while in a dance-induced trance*. There are more than 550 sites, containing some 40 000 San Bushman rock art drawings, in the Drakensberg. Fortunately, the UKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park has been declared a World Heritage Site.

But the berg doesn’t just offer great rock art opportunities; there’s fishing, too. I now have two mantras that I end up muttering on every trip: ‘I will never travel without ultra-light fishing gear,’ and perhaps the loudest lament of all, ‘I need more time; I must come back here.’ The second is given with an imaginary childish stomp on the ground!

I had thought we could take the Jurgens up to Highmoor. Luckily, I phoned first, and the answer was, ‘No, the road is too narrow, and the crosswinds can be very dangerous when you descend.’ It’s a beautiful drive winding up to where you actually ‘sit’ on the lower Berg, and I would certainly take an off-road trailer and 4×4 (with low-range) up to Highmoor. There are 7 designated camping sites and an ablution block with hot and cold water. Visitors can also overnight in Aasvoël and Caracal Cave if they want to.

Our comfy Jurgens ‘cave’ was swishing along quietly behind as we left Glengarry, heading back on the tar road to Rosetta. About a kilometre away, we took the gravel road back to the Kamberg Rock Art Centre. As we crossed over the Mooi River, we headed left; straight on would have led us past the small settlement of Thendele and on to the Rock Art Centre.

We had taken the advice of a very experienced couple we’d met in the Midlands, to take this route skirting the foothills of the ‘Berg and on to the camp at Loteni. From here, we would go on to Himeville, Underberg and on to the Drakensberg Gardens Resort. Later, we realised that our ‘route planners’ travel in a 4×4 bakkie with a rooftop tent, which is a very different kettle of fish from towing a caravan designed for tar. Hindsight is an exact science!

Rule number one for travelling: check your intended route with at least two sources before heading into the hills. But, on the other hand, it was the most beautiful part of our trip; and we managed it safely by travelling ultra slowly and carefully.


Drakensberg Images


On that first part of the journey, we saw only the occasional farmhouse, and one bakkie, all the way to the Loteni turn off. The road winds sinuously up hill and down dale in the foothills of the Drakensberg. We had one of those perfect Berg days – warm sun, blue skies, and that velvet green grassland rolling away like a giant billiard table.

We stopped to photograph the two sandstone-boulder columns welcoming us to the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Park World Heritage Site. ‘What are you doing, Dad?’ my daughter asked. I was dancing around, doing my imitation of a Zulu war dance; it was one of those days! Some ruminating sheep took off in fright.

I realised that one of the unknown benefits of being an impecunious hack is the fact that we are used to travelling dead slow. The bank balance dictates it! But, easing along, the motor idling at about 1 200 rpm and with the windows wide open, no billionaire could have been happier than the pair of us. As we trundled up to Loteni, Carmen came up with the idea of starting a Slow Travel Movement, similar to the Slow Food Movement.

Now committed STM’ers, we trundled along to Himeville. A mandatory stop at the magnificent Himeville Museum was called for, before moseying on to nearby Bergville, a mere five-and-a-half kilometres away. The Grind Café next to the Senqu outdoor clothing shop was the right place for a pizza and a great cappuccino.

It’s a beautiful drive down to the Drakensberg Gardens Golf and Spa Resort from the hamlet of Underberg. Passing the rivers and streams, we could easily see why this is the premier troutfishing area of KwaZulu-Natal. The Caravan Park is on the right before you enter the resort; Carmen and I walked up to the reception, where the staff couldn’t have been nicer. We then took a long walk along the river that runs alongside the golf course. Perhaps because we were the only people at the caravan park, it seemed a little dark and claustrophobic after the Midlands, Kamberg and Loteni.

But, we agreed that judging caravan parks is a subjective thing – and we also had to get our Jurgens Penta back to its home at Natal Caravan and Marine in Pinetown, so that also played a role. We then had to get our faithful Amarok auto back to Joburg.

So we muddled the game plan up a bit. We headed back to Pietermaritzburg and took a side route to the Albert Falls Dam and Game Reserve. We could see the distant Karkloof Mountains from our campsite.

It was a Friday afternoon when we arrived at Albert Falls; and the caravan park, with its huge tree-shaded campsites along the edge of the dam, filled up rapidly. A lot of the caravans and tents had boats, as fishing is the name of the game at this reserve, which is only a half-hour’s drive from PMB. We loved it. With the call of a Fish Eagle hanging in the still air, we watched a pair of zebra, followed by some impala, wander unconcernedly up to our campsite. We constantly heard the plop of fish rising next to the grassy shore. Our only complaint was that the ablution blocks needed an upgrade and quite a bit of TLC.

Sadly, we had to take our (by now) familiar home back to our kind sponsors, Natal Caravan and Marine in Pinetown. Now homeless orphans, we decided to see, at least, what we had missed in the northern Berg. We had missed a lot, I can tell you. But we did stay, firstly, at Inkosana Lodge near Champagne Castle, at which superb place I have put up my backpacking tent in the past. I wasn’t in the least surprised to see that, in 2014, Lonely Planet had rated Inkosana’s accommodation as third in the world, in terms of value for money.

But camping at Backpacker establishments, where you have access to excellent ablution facilities, and a well-equipped kitchen, and a comfortable lounge, is certainly an easy and cheap way to travel. We stayed over at Nkosana, but drove the seven kilometres up to Monks Cowl, where we would have stayed had we still had our Jurgens Penta. Lying in the shadow of the towering Champagne Castle Peak, this must be one of the truly stunning campsites in the Drakensberg.

We also didn’t get up to Mahai camp at the Royal Natal National Park.

I have had the privilege of hiking across the Drakensberg – the so-called Grand Traverse; and the first time we started in the south at Bushmansnek, ending at the Amphitheatre with the Mont-aux-Sources Peak holding court above the five-kilometre-long Amphitheatre wall with its near 500-metre drop to the valley below.

I had read a quote on the Kamberg Rock Art Centre website, which went like this:

“No more do we Bushmen hunt in these hills.
The fire is cold.
Our songs are quiet.
But listen carefully.
You will hear us in the water.
Look carefully; you will see us in the rocks.”

I searched everywhere to find the author of these words. Perhaps all the unknown author asks of one is to arrive, be still, look and listen. Then, you too, will once again hear their song.

 

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