We’ve just had a wonderful visit to the Southern Drakensberg in Kwazulu Natal. This particularly beautiful section of the Drakensberg mountain range falls within the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, which was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in November 2000. If you’re a keen hiker, or just someone who loves spending time in the mountains, then this park with its kilometers of paths and trails, abounded by dramatic rocky buttresses and amazing scenery, is just the place to visit.
We stayed in a little fisherman’s cottage at a resort called The Old Hatchery (a trout hatchery in its day) just outside Underberg. Our comfortable chalet overlooked a small dam beyond which were vistas of beautiful farmlands where cattle grazed and clear streams ran over rocky riverbeds. Being winter, the air was crisp and we needed the cozy crackling fire in the hearth every evening. One always hopes for snow when visiting this area, but this time the weather was clear and we weren’t able to see the mountains adorned with their white mantle of snow. The misty mornings were a treat though.
Our first hike was in the Cobham Nature Reserve. If you prefer to hike in absolute solitude in unspoilt wilderness, then Cobham fits the bill in every respect. We started out on a path near the campsite and made our way through the indigenous Ouhout bushes that lined the Pholela River. Once out of the trees, Hodgson’s twin peaks loomed ahead, beckoning us to come closer. We decided not to overdo it on our first day as I had taken a tumble and hurt my wrist, so we only walked for a couple of hours. The river was close to the path at all times and if it had been a warm summer’s day we could have swum in any number of crystal clear pools. The campsite looked quite inviting, although this being the coldest part of the Drakensberg mountains, it must get pretty cold here at night and in the early mornings. Summer is lovely in this part of the world, but it too has its drawbacks in the form of heavy thunderstorms that come up suddenly in the afternoons.
On our second day we drove along the Drakensberg Gardens road to the Garden Castle Mountain Reserve. This is a spectacular drive as numerous peaks dominate the skyline. The highest, Rhino Peak (3051m) resembles a rhino horn, and Garden Castle (2356m) looks like a castle as its name suggests. It was named by Capt Allen Gardiner in the 1800′s when he travelled to the area and thought the peak looked a lot like Edinburgh Castle. I wish I could visit a place and give it a name that stuck. Wouldn’t that be nice?
We signed in at the Reserve office and set out on the trail to Sleeping Beauty Cave. There are a few busy resorts in close proximity to this trail, and because the scenery along the way is quite spectacular, this is a very popular hike. We came across many folks intent on getting to one of the caves along the way. Like the trail at Cobham, the path runs alongside a river, this one being the Mashai River. The path heads off in different directions along the way, taking hikers to other caves besides Sleeping Beauty Cave (Monk and Engagement Cave) that are big enough to be used as overnight shelters.
Many of the boulders in the Drakensberg are covered with ancient San rock art, but you have to know where to find them and a guided tour is the best way to do this. Previously we were taken to a rock art site in the Bushman’s Nek area and our group was given strict instructions to fan out singly across the hillside so that we didn’t make a path by too many feet depressing the grass in one place. This was to keep the site secret and preserve the art. It’s amazing how destructive people can be when trying to photograph the old rock paintings – they sometimes even put coke and water on them to make them stand out better for the photos.
We didn’t see many birds or animals unfortunately, and with it being winter the wild mountain flowers weren’t out either. In spite recent veld fires, the paths were still pretty with long waving grass, and the indigenous trees that filled the mountain crevices were quite beautiful. We’ll be back soon ….