Drakensberg Mountains

Jackie, Cameron, and I left St. Lucia this afternoon and headed for, what we hope will be, the less hot and humid Drakensberg Mountains. We took the N2 highway south, then turned east on the R74. We called ahead to Graceland Guest House and booked accommodations.

The drive was pleasant, some hills, but flattened out eventually. After a few hours, we began to see the jagged peaks of the mountains on the horizon. These are not sharp, triangular peaks, rather, it's like we're approaching the edge of a plateau, and the land just drops off.

Drakensberg Mountain tours

Drakensberg Mountain stops.

We arrived at Graceland just in time for sunset. We found the gate—everything in South Africa is gated—buzzed ourselves in, and drove down the long driveway, which seemed to go nowhere. This driveway was surrounded by a sprawling field of grass, and the tiny shrubs that meticulously lined the drive seemed ludicrously out of proportion.

We stopped as soon as we drove through the gate and took a bunch of photos of the sunlight spilling over the mountains. It was magnificent.

Having navigated the driveway to the office, we came upon the caretaker, Carol. We talked to her by the office, but our attention was diverted to the sunset and the mesmerizing view. We could not help but snap some photos while we spoke with her. At the end of the driveway sit three houses, which are perched upon mountain's edge. Okay, it's not really a mountain, but it's a hell of a hill.

We unpacked and settled in when the owner of the cottage arrived. He happened to be staying here tonight. In fact, we booted him out of the cottage, so he was relegated to the other house they have up the street, with the less superior view. He approached me straight away and asked me, in Afrikaans, if I spoke Afrikaans. Grasping his question as if I did, I said no. He regaled us with his story of visiting America. It was 1976 and he was in Montreal viewing the Summer Olympics.

We headed out for food, but the pickings are slim here, particularly at the late hour of 7 o'clock. We tried some country club, but they were under locked gate and it was not trivial getting in. Guards had to radio someone to get permission, plus we didn't even see the menu. After we were given permission to dine here, we decided to move on. Instead, we ended up at the buffet at the Drakensberg Sun, and everyone else in the Champagne Valley was here too.

After we returned to our cottage on the mountaintop, these three astrophysicists looked to the brilliantly clear sky. And the photographers among us got our tripods.

Today we are planning to do some hiking in the mountains. We planned our day while gazing upon this awesome view.

Hike in the Champagne Valley section of the Drakensberg Mountains

Hike in the Champagne Valley section of the Drakensberg Mountains.

We drove down to the bottom of the hill and stopped off at the shops. No food—the cafe was closed—so it was bird food for breakfast: raisins, nuts, and fruit from the small grocer.

On the road outside the parking lot were a group of five boys who performed a little synchronized dance number in hopes of earning some rand. A look of severe disappointment washed over them when we drove by.

We examined the maps and trails at the Monk's Cowl office and decided to hike to Blind Man's Corner. It's about a six-hour hike round trip according to the rangers.

The bulk of the elevation occurs in the first part of the hike, while the second part is mainly along a flat, grassy mountaintop. Along the way we saw the Sphinx, a rock outcrop; Crystal Falls; and a small stream from which we filled our bottles.

We reached Blind Man's Corner at about 2:30, after two hours of hiking. It was warm, but not hot, and the air was comfortable. After some lunch, Cameron and Jackie decided to take a little side trip up the mountain a little further. I decided to take the opportunity to sit and admire my surroundings while I wrote in my journal.

While I sat beside the trail, I began to hear voices in the distance. Blind Man's Corner is situated such that we can see the just-hiked trail for quite a distance. And, there are no trees here, only grass, so there's nothing to obscure the view. I heard the voice for awhile before I could see where it was coming from. At first, it was a blur, moving in the distance, too far to discern. As they approached, they were still talking loudly, messing up my out in nature mojo. While I sat meditating on this wonderful scene, I was thinking to myself, Who are these people? Don't they respect the solace of the outdoors at all? How rude!

As they came close enough for acknowledgement, I realized they were soldiers, and they were carrying some mighty big guns. We are near the Lesotho border, where there is a lot of smuggling apparently, so I guess its customary to see patrols here. The soldiers were jolly and we talked for a moment before they continued over the mountains and on to the border.

We got back to the car at about 5:30, an hour before the park closes. I pitched the idea of cooking at our luxurious house, but Jackie and Cameron didn't seem moved by that idea, so we went into Winterton in search of food instead.

We ended up at The Bridge Lodge, a pub of sorts. Food was okay, and, more importantly, the Hansa beer was cold.

This morning we will leave our beloved Graceland. Why is it called Graceland? Grace of God, of course. Hearing that took the shine off a bit, but the view is still spectacular.

Today the band is splitting up. Cameron is off to do an overnight hike into the mountains before heading to Jo'burg for his flight back to New York, while Jackie and I have several more days before flying out of Cape Town.

Tonight, our destination is farther north in the Drakensberg Mountains near the Royal Natal National Park. On our way, we drove to Cathedral Peak. Cameron took to the trail here, and Jackie and I hiked a short trail into the Rainbow Gorge.

Rainbow Gorge is in the Cathedral Peak district. It's a relatively flat trail along the Ndumeni River that promises to get gorgey toward the end. Along the way, we transitioned from grassy meadows into the narrow strip of forest that lines the river.

We came upon an access point to the river and we left the trail to wade in the water. We had so much fun here, we stayed for about an hour and did not make it any further into the gorge. It was a refreshing break.

We made it back to the car around 3 o'clock and got an ice cream before we ventured north to Royal Natal. Along the way, we passed through a few towns, coped with a long gravel road, and navigated our way to the deluxe cottage waiting for us.

We made it just in the nick of time—the office was about to close. We settled in and asked them about food. We had to venture out of the park, so we needed an exit pass in order to get back in. Once we returned from dinner, we took some shots of the night sky with the Amphitheater as our background. We took in this beautiful scene as we sipped some wine from our porch. At one point, two large animals ran right by our cottage and off into the grassy fields in front of us. I could hear them take a U-shaped path and run off into the distance. We were not as freaked about this as one might expect, but I still wonder what that was.

The following morning we woke up with the Sun, determined to get some photos of this spectacular scene. The Thendele Camp is perfectly situated for viewing the morning sun on the Amphitheater. Jackie was outside and I stumbled out in my underwear and began snapping photos. Our only company was a flock of guineafowl and, later, a baboon.

We took a short hike this morning, but we needed to get on the road fairly early today since we had some ground to cover. Including today, we have four days until our flights from Cape Town. On our way, Jackie took some shots from the road.

By tonight, we're planning to get to Graaff-Reinet. Before then, we will leave the mountains behind, drive across the plains, and head into the Karoo, the semidesert region.