On the westernmost boundary of KwaZulu Natal remnants of age-old Gondwanaland rear into the sky and form the Drakensberg. Sheer ramparts of dark basalt tower over the crumpled folds of high valleys. Eagles soar, completely at home, and those who do manage to scale these peaks stand breathless… not with effort, but with sheer exhilaration.
In the winter, a crackling log fire is the perfect counterpoint to its snowy slopes. In the summer… well, it’s a good thing most places have good braai facilities as you won’t want to cook indoors, but make the most of the big views.
Views also feature hugely at the local golf courses, especially at Monks Cowl and Champagne Sports, which is ranked in the top 30 championship courses and has received such accolades as ‘South Africa’s most beautiful golf course’.
And it’s in the enchanted valleys that most are content to while away the days. Relatively untouched, Champagne Valley is home to over 150 species of bird and is a wonderful place to hike, horse ride, river raft, quad or mountain bike, abseil, glide and fish for mountain trout. Or simply lie back and relax on a grassy plateau, perhaps catching the sound of the Drakensberg Boys Choir as it soars on by.
See if you can catch the Tutukhani Zulu Dancers in their weekly rehearsals; if you’re a birdwatcher, make a point of going to the Vulture Restaurant where, every winter, bearded vultures and other endangered species are fed animal carcasses supplied by local farmers. More accessible and open year round, The Falcon Ridge Bird of Prey Centre has regular, thrilling displays.
The bold hues of Ardmore Ceramics evoke Africa in countless homes around the world and many of the Zulu artisans work in the warm winter sunshine outside their stone artisan cottages. Even older are the ochre hues of San Bushman paintings, for which this area is famous.
The caves and overhangs are covered with San art, though many are only seen by intrepid hikers. Most accessible are the Battle Cave and the Main Caves Museum in Giant’s Castle, where audio-visual and standing displays depict the life of these nomads whose lives ended so tragically.
Giant’s Castle National Park is also home to Africa’s largest antelope, the eland, and is a treasure trove of nature. Grab a hiking map from EKZN, join a group or hire a guide whose wealth of knowledge regarding local history, fauna and flora will make the fee well worthwhile.
Climbers, blocky Cathkin and Champagne Castle peak at 3,149 and 3,248 metres respectively. Even higher is the demanding Monk’s Cowl at 3,234m. The Injusuthi Dome between Champagne Valley and Giant’s Castle is the highest peak of them all. On the opposite end of the scale are the relatively easy Eastman's Peak, the Litter and Intunja, where Zulu herd-boys were reputed to look through at their herds.
If you prefer four wheels, take a 4x4 drive up to the top of Little Berg for breakfast with awe-inspiring views of mountains, lowlands and cape vultures. The two mammoth boulders that are wedged across Rainbow Gorge make for breathtaking viewing.
Then there’s Cathedral Peak. On a blue-sky day you’ll see clear across to Cathkin Peak in the south and Eastern Buttress in the north. Look down and you’ll see the deep valley carved by the Mlambonja River. Have a swim in the pool beneath Doreen Falls’ silvery cascade.
Close by, tube in the Sterkspruit River or climb to the top of Sterkhorn for more great views. No matter where you go, there’s no shortage of good fishing. Bell Park Dam has black bass; Sterkfontein has tiger and yellow, carp and catfish; Spioenkop has barbell, carp, scalies, bluegill and tilapia. And rememer the river trout in the countless mountain streams!
Hike, ride, 4WD; take a hot-air balloon, helicopter or canopy tour. However you do it, you simply must get out and about in this breathtaking part of the world. Though it might be difficult, tear yourself away for a couple of daytrips.
If you’d like to find out more about the Basotho culture, go to Phuthaditjhaba’s replica village. Sample the local beer and consult with a witchdoctor, watch dancers and buy curios. To make the drive worthwhile, stop at Retief’s Klip (stone), commemorating the spot where the Voortrekkers entered Natal, and the nearby Kaalvoet Vrou. The underground power station at Woodstock Dam will be extremely interesting to some. Others will simply want to get lost in the beautiful Ukahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site.
At the top of Van Reenen’s Pass, you’ll find the tiny Llandaff Oratory, a church that only seats 8 people! Come back via the Ladysmith Museum, where you’ll find out all about the pivotal siege and relief of this town during the Anglo-Boer War. Colenso also has an interesting museum and the story of the numerous graveyards and battlefields are especially interesting with a knowledgeable guide.
One of the bloodiest battles was at the foot of the rugged Spioenkop Mountain, now a dam and Nature Reserve. Many go there just for the watersports. Yet others are drawn there by the game and there is nothing like riding on horseback through its thorn savannah, spotting white rhino, wildebeest, giraffe, zebra and antelope.
If game is your thing, go to the Weenen Biosphere, a nature reserve stocked with antelope, giraffe, zebra and more. On your way back, find the spot near Frere where the train Winston Churchill was on was ambushed. Also stop at the pioneer settlement of Winterton. Its museum has an AmaZizi replica homestead, agricultural implements, displays on local history and an excellent library on the South African War. Otherwise, just go to the curio shops, crafts, restaurants and pubs. Or carry on to Thokozisa’s arts and crafts village.
Your footprints won’t be the only thing you leave behind in the Central Drakensberg. There will be a little bit of your heart, too. Luckily, the sight of the spears and walls of rock piercing the ever-so-blue sky will be so imprinted in your memory that all you’ll have to do is close your eyes… and the intensity of this awesome part of the world will come rushing back, as intoxicating as it was while you were here.