Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Drakensberg mountains

A trip to the Drakensberg mountains was one more pending travel from my previous trip to South Africa. And this time, we finally made it:). Drakensberg is a hilly region South East of Johannesburg, near Lesotho and is quite a popular mountain region close to Johannesburg. Our weekend trip there was quite relaxing and uneventful, where we walked on a couple of small trails and drove around the hills, taking in the green environs and relaxed aspect of South African life:).

The drive to Drakensberg is about 4-5 hours from Joburg, covering a distance of about 400 kms, depending on which part of the Berg you are going to. We left quite early in the morning to beat the traffic and reach there with enough free time for the weekend. The traffic while going wasn't much, so that was good. There were loads of service stops (garages as they are called) on the way and we stopped at one for a quick meal.

We drove across 4 different SA states - Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Free State and KwaZulu Natal - to reach Drakensberg. But I must say, this was one of the most boring drives I have done in South Africa! It was like driving through bare lands where not much is grown, its all yellow, there are no changes in the landscape and all you can see are flat lands till where the eyes can see. And it was also very hot that day, which doesn't help on a long drive! We were just very bored and tired on this whole drive.

There wasn't much habitation on the way, except a couple of small villages but with very few people. Harrismith, Ladysmith and Winterton were the bigger towns on the way, but they were more townships that towns. It appears that these were places where the blacks who worked on the farms lived. And then you again see the divide between the rich and the poor of South Africa. All these villages had small temporary houses with tin roofs. And clearly was inhabited by the not-so-rich of the country. There were also lots of people hitchhiking on the way. That made me wonder, who if anyone offers a lift to people in SA? Especially given all the concerns about safety that we hear about the country all the time. My guess would be - very few.

Though thankfully, the landscape did change suddenly when we started climbing some of the hills, in the last half an hour of the drive. Out of nowhere came hills and lakes and greenery. And then it was a different world! The road was good all the way till Winderton and after that, there were a lot of nice farmlands and farm estates on both sides of the road.

Lake in the Berg area
We drove towards the Drakensberg Sun/Champagne Sports resort and were staying in a B&B - Cathkin Cottage - in a gated estate next to it called the Cathkin estate. This area is located right at the edge of the Bergs. We were so tired after the long travel that we just crashed for two hours as the sun was very strong and we were not feeling up to any activity at that time. We finally got out around 3 pm, when the sun felt lighter and spent time at a couple of places nearby - the Dragons Peak, the Champagne Valley and then the Sun.

Dragons Peak Park
The whole place was all about beautiful green hills everywhere you see and the road was laced with resorts for all budgets. Our first stop - the Dragons Peak Mountain Resort - had a trailer and camping location with a picnic area right in the middle. There was a lake in the middle for kids to boat and adults to fish in, and a nice little cafe for snacking. And all around was just lots of greenery - it would have been a nice place to stay if we had more appetite for camping ;-). There was also a nice little school called Drakensberg Boys Choir School right next to the resort, which my guess is would be a whites-only school.

View of Champagne Valley
After a quick stop there, we kept on driving inside the Bergs. On the way, we stopped at a couple of local artisans selling bamboo handicraft products which were pretty. The view from this drive of the entire valley and the cottages dotting the landscape next to the lakes was very refreshing. As we drove on and crossed a couple of resorts, we reached the end - the Champagne Valley park. This was again a picturesque camping ground, plus a nice place to stop, take pictures and relax.

By this time, it had got dark and we started driving back. And suddenly out of nowhere came a storm and it started raining very heavily. We had just reached the local supermarket by that time, which was a line of about 10 stores selling necessary wares, with a restaurant, a super market and couple of handicraft stores. We bought a giraffe leather purse from there which I am sure was a rip-off but the saleswoman was so convincing that I don't think we stood a chance;-). We also tried eating in the local cafe but because of the rain, the power had gone off and they were wrapping up already at 530 pm!!

Outside the Sun at night
Anyways we went to the Sun Drakensberg for dinner, as that was the only option open in the storm. And what a wonderful hotel that was! We spent some time admiring the views outside, which still looked pretty in the rain. And we ate at the buffet there - thankfully it had some quasi-Indian options available which worked for us. We had a quick dinner at 7 pm itself and drove back in the storm to our B&B. Thankfully, there was electricity in our B&B so we were not left in the dark. We did stay up a bit, but I think in places like this so close to nature, staying up late feels unnatural, so we also slept off quite soon as it looked like the whole area was fast asleep by then!

View from the Sun
The next morning, we were there for half a day and again had a leisurely day. This trip turned out to be a lot more about taking in the fresh air and greenery rather than doing a lot of activities. We walked around a bit around our B&B and estate. There were loads of monkeys and baboons around which were a bit scary. And then we went to the Sun again. We walked to the lake and around to the canopy tour hill. There were a couple of trails around too but we were not in the mood as the sun was already out. So after a couple of hours enjoying the outdoors, we were ready to call it a day and come back to Joburg.

Even though we did not do much, there are loads of activities here for an active weekend - quad-biking, ziplining, wildlife tours, eagle watching, fishing, boating, trekking and so on. Maybe in the next trip, it would be good to try them out. Also Lesotho is about a 2 hour drive from here. I have heard, its a pretty rural country and very different in its culture from South Africa. Would be good to visit it sometime.

Anyways our drive back was quite different. Felt a lot more alive and we noticed a lot more things that the way in. We first stopped at a handicraft shop close by, making and selling leather rugs. And the guy was selling Brazilian leather bags, which were smarter, lighter and cheaper than the one we had just bought:).

We noticed a lot more lakes and water bodies on the way back, even though it was the same road. And so the drive back felt prettier and greener, also because it was less hot that day and the recent rains had made it all fresher. We noticed lots of cows, some sheep and donkeys on farms on both sides which somehow were all hibernating when we were going in ;-). There was also a LOT more traffic while coming back which wasn't fun.

And as we drove, there was suddenly a downpour of summer rain accompanied with a lot of dust in the air. To the point, that at one place, I reduced to driving at 20 kmph as I could not see anything in front of me! But the rain and the clouds did give us many beautiful views as we drove back. Also, the first view of Joburg from afar was amazing - a line of high rises skyline up on a hill, with menacing clouds behind it. I wish I had taken a photo of that, it was quite a view to remember!

All in all, the weekend out to Drakensberg was nothing spectacular, but a very relaxing weekend out. It felt almost like we were in Europe - it felt so much safer and relaxed. Lot of people were just walking around which is not as common in Johannesburg. It definitely would be more fun if it was for a longer period. I think we spent a lot more time in the car, than in the mountains. It would be nice to spend some time trekking and experiencing all the activities around.


Cathkin Cottage
Cathkin Cottage B&B was very nice; small, cute and comfortable. It was very well maintained and had a very nice feeling of living there. It was next to a group of holiday homes which were manned 24 hours with lot of security controls. It felt a bit weird, but I am guessing that's usual for this part of the world? In front of the B&B, we had a garden with panoramic views of the peaks in front. There were also a couple of cute living rooms where you could relax. These were left open for residents to use whenever. And there was a small pool right outside for tanning:) which we did not use much. The hosts were also very helpful and knowledgeable about the places around. I would recommend staying here to anyone visiting. Makes for a great experience!


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