South Africa - This is Africa, can you feel it?
In every country we go, we associate a certain smell with it, a certain feeling. The air is different, the sky is different, the dust ist different (if there is any), water tastes different. Did not Desmond Tutu talk about this in his opening speech of the FIFA World Championship in 2010? He sais: "Can you feel it? Can you touch it? This is Africa." By visiting the Northern Drakensberg we had exactly this feeling: "this is Africa". It was the dust, the smell, the smiles of the superfriendly people, the joy of life, the joy of love which we experienced. And well, also this mindblowing, amazing landscape. Of course, the Drakensberg is just one facette of South Africa. But it was exactly here, in the beginning of our trip that we really got it: we are back in the country we never wanted to leave.
When we returned from our last visit nearly 10 years ago we had a time in our lifes when we reorganised a lot of things. And yes, we were scrolling through the internet in search of a home in South Africa and in search of job possibilities. We were not naive and well aware of the downsides and the struggle a life in South Africa would bring. But also life in Switzerland has tremendous downsides. The people and the easiness in dealing with everyday's challenges and the mere beauty of nature were always fascinating us in this country. Life took its turn, we stayed in Switzerland and it is fine like it is now. But we were always longing to come back.
Now, driving towards the Drakensberg in the early morning hours with the windows open (and no, it was not dangerous and no-one put a gun at our heads) we looked at the landscape and took a deep breath while chewing on our rusks for breakfast in the car and sipping our rooibos tea (cliché kind of thing to do in South Africa). Yes, we are in South Africa - it is exactly this. To be honest, at 5 am in the morning we could hardly think - so the feeling came up without this bloody mind interrupting and telling us that South Africa is so unsafe, that it is tough to live in and so on..... Whatever, we enjoyed it tremendously while driving from the Golden Gate National Parc via Phuthaditjhaba towards the Royal Natal National Parc. In front of us the mountains were looking up like spears and clouds of the nights rain were slowly moving towards the sky. The road was already busy - people get up early here with the first spark of light.
We went up to the Witsiehoek Mountain Resort. By entering the area through a gate, one has to pay 50 Rand. But an employee was late for work (he is a waiter at the resort) and we were asked to take him with us. This was no problem for us and we got the entrance for free. The road up the hill is spectacular. We had to be there by 8 am because then, the transport for the Sentinel Car Parc was leaving. And this car parc was our destination. As it is impossible to reach it with a normal car (it is possible with a high clearance car and good driving skills, in the rainy season better with a 4x4), we had to take the transfer. It was an easy affair and one of the guides took us in his jeep. Up there, there is an office for hikers. To hike in the national parc it is 80 Rand per person. We paid the fee and of we went on a well marked path up the mountain. We could not believe it - we were actually on the famous Sentinel hike and the clouds had completely disappeared in the meantime. Pure sunshine, stunning views, few people and a really blue sky. What a day! The hike was easy. After 2/3 of the way we arrived at the chain ladders. Being climbers from Switzerland, these ladders did not really scare us (but many others were really scared). We just carefully walked up and then we were completely speechless. These ladders took us on top of the Drakensberg Plateau. Yes, we realised that we are high in the mountains and that we climbed up somewhere in
between these stunning rock formations. But standing in this kind of a platform was AMAZING. What a view! We continued the hike up there and after approx. 30 minutes (or even less) we arrived - the starting point of the famous Tugela Falls. We stood right there where this high and long waterfall starts to fall - on top of the amphitheatre. So beautiful. We took far too many pictures (sorry to bore you with them), had a lovely picnic, enjoyed the sun (and got burned) and the quietness of the place. The way back down was the same. It is a fantastic hike and we can recommend it - but only for people who have done some hikes in the mountains before. It is not difficult and can be done on your own easily, but you need at least a medium level of fitness. If you are unsure, better take a guide!
Early afternoon we were already back at the lodge and continued our drive further south along the Drakensberg. We passed by the vast Sterkfontein Dam with its amazing views, drove through Bergville, the jumping off point to the Royal Natal National Parc. After a lovely roadside coffee break at a farmers coffee shop we continued our trip. We crossed over from the Free State to Kwazulu Natal and the vast farmland, the veld, turned into a greener hilly countryside. Around Mooi River we had to approach the Drakensberg again for our next destination. We go lost a little bit and ended up on a long gravel road, passed through a small nature reserve till we finally reached Kamberg. There we stayed one night at the Kamberg Mountain Shadow. The guesthouse is beautifully located in the moorland, moscitos included. We arrived with the sunset which was stunning. It is low season now in South Africa and the guesthouse was merely empty. We were lucky that the owner made us a vegetarian pizza - there was no other option around and no self-catering possible. At night we slept with the sounds of millions of frogs. Early morning we packed the car again after a cooked veggie breakfast and drove up the road to the Highmoore National Parc. After 20 minutes we reached the parc office and the campground. It was a cloudy day. Nevertheless, we decided to make a short hike. We paid 50 Rand each for the hiking permit and went off to the Aasvoelkransgrot. It is an easy 1 hour hike which startet beautiful but a bit boring. You simply walk along grassy hills with no views of the Drakensberg. We were a bit scared with
the long grass - this is snake country and we were not so keen on meeting one. But we were fine in the end. After 60 minutes we came to a pooint where we could go up a little bit and enjoy the views of the Drakensberg. Bad luck for us, some thunderstorms were building up and the horizon was covered in dark clouds. So we walked down to the cave. The cave was simply amazing and worth the hike! It is possible to stay there overnight. A nice kloof with stunning views, a flat surface to ly on being covered from the rain. Actually, there are 2 caves, an upper and a lower cave. And a nice waterfall where you can swim. Unfortunately the weather was changing and it was too cold for a swim. So we went back. During the hike back we could here the thunder all around us. There were lightenings in a distant. It was really spooky. But were were lucky. We still could spot the path (which was not easy with the upcoming clouds and the fog) and only the minute we reached the car, the first raindrops started falling down.
We went in the car, drove on the gravel road towards the exit of the national parc and when we reached the exit, the real downpour started. The street turned nearly into a river and we could only drive realy slowly. There was nowhere to go or to hide so we just continued driving in the heavy rain. Finally we reached the city of Nottingham Road, in the middle of the so called Midlands, a farm region in Kwazulu Natal. We found a lovely café called Country Market with an art exhibition and a lovely arts craft nearby. We enjoyed a hot cuppa and the nice atmosphere, browsed through the shop before continuing our journey.
Our amazing time in the Drakensberg had come to an end. It was wonderful, with so many beautiful moments, stunning landscape and lovely people. Another facette of South Africa was waiting for us down at the ocean. And we were really looking forward to it.