Doing It In The Drakensberg

Doing It In The Drakensberg

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For a mountain adventure near Durban, South Africa, take a car and head north of the city to the Drakensberg Mountains.

The range is over 600,000 square acres and forms the boundary between South Africa and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho and offers some of the country’s most inspiring landscapes. The park extends from the Royal Natal National Park in the north to Kokstad in the south. It’s said that J.R.R. Tolkien, a native South African, was inspired to write Lord of the Rings after visiting the Drakensberg. We chose the northern region as our destination.

After a 4-hour drive from Durban with our ears popping along the way as the elevation rose, we finally arrived at our mountain oasis, Tendele Camp Lodge. The Lodge is situated in one of the most picturesque settings in the country, with a view of the world-famous Amphitheater (a natural rock formation) from every bungalow.

Wonderfully rustic, do-it-yourself cabins are sprinkled atop the mountain just steps from some of the most fantastic trails for hiking or horseback. After quick-passing summer storms, visitors can often hear the rumble of boulders in the Tugela River below. Cottage-like accommodations are simple and clean, set up for cooking indoor or out. Just be sure to stock up at the grocery store either on your way to Thendele or in the gift shop at check-in. WARNING! The campgrounds are crawling with baboons that will take advantage of any opportunity to pilfer from you. Keep doors locked and prepare for a showdown if the baboons find a way into your abode. Foolishly, we left a door ajar and within moments, a large male had found his way to our countertop and was sifting through the garbage. My shrill cries echoed across the mountain range and deemed loud enough to scare this boundary-crossing baboon away.

The next morning, we woke at 6am to start our 6 hour hike. Don’t bite off more than you can chew… unless it’s a power bar. You will need plenty of these on your hike to Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall in the world. This trail requires a strong heart, some upper body strength, time and plenty of water/snacks and patience. If you have all of the above you will have an extraordinary experience. The paths can be simple and not “well trodden” so be cognisant of this. Fortunately, you will pass others who are happy to point the way to the hidden entrance or best and safest route. Anticipate your clothes getting wet. At these altitudes you can be enshrouded in mist for most of the time so it’s truly a walk in the clouds. As refreshing as the cool mist can be, it makes for a muddy walk and slippery surfaces, so wear appropriate foot wear and layers that can be shed. Also, remember to sign in/out when you enter a trail. If you get lost, it’s much easier for a ranger to track you and offer assistance.

After our hike, we’d spent enough time watching the monkeys and birds soar effortlessly above our heads. It was now our turn to experience flying through the canopy. Driving south about 2 hours to the Central Drakensberg, we found the largest canopy tour in South Africa at Drakensberg Canopy Tours. A matrix of newly installed cables zips you across a ravine up to 12 times, about 150 feet above the base of the canyon. After a light rain, the cable’s speed increases by 10%, and take you on a journey that not only speeds up the heart but opens it to the natural wonders around you. Skilled professional guides hook you, unhook you and make sure the experience is a safe one, while explaining the natural flora and fauna around you. Pay attention, there is a quiz at the end!

Nothing creates bonds with strangers faster than team work. Four Rivers Rafting in the Central Drakensberg is a prime example. Within minutes of boarding and reviewing safety measures, the conversation and excitement transcends the cultural and social barriers. The rapids down the Tugela River were intense. Safety drills had us prepared for what lie ahead. As the water became swifter, our excitement boomed. The terror of churning rapids tests both your inner and outer strength.

Water levels were high this time of year, and we had to portage a couple times. Fortunately it was a beautifully sunny day so all was not lost on these down times. There was a healthy balance of work and play. When the river widened we were allowed to jump ship and take a dip in the swift rivers. If nothing else short of wonderful, this is truly a friendship making, character building experience.

A day packed with adventure, be it hiking, canopy tours or white water rafting can only be topped with a fantastic meal. Our host, The Drakensberg Sun Resort had a buffet fit for a king (or queen!). The hotel is an excellent choice for the Central Drakensberg, situated high in the dramatic landscape of the Cathkin Peak. It offers breathtaking views and fresh mountain air. Extensive use of natural materials, polished wood and rich earthy colors make the Resort one of the most striking country resorts in South Africa.

With the accent on comfort, the luxury rooms and suites offer uninterrupted mountain views. Sadly, we could only stay one night, then back to Durban to continue our adventure on to Victoria Falls the next day. For an overnight stay in Durban, enjoy the Southern Sun Elangeni Hotel, situated on Durban’s North Beach with breathtaking views of Durban’s Golden Mile and the warm Indian Ocean. The hotel has three superb cosmopolitan restaurants which provide a choice of cuisine from authentic Japanese to ethnic Indian.