Words by Ben Starkey
Staring at the mountains, I always think that if there is such a thing as Heaven, then surely this is it. Reaching skywards into the clouds and the sunlight, these high-up realms are a paradise reserved for the lucky few. Entering their peaks and valleys, I always feel like an intruder, breaking into Heaven for a short stolen time in a world that is not mine.
The Drakensberg, in southern Africa, is exactly such a place. The name alone conjures wonderful imagery. Translated from Afrikaans it means ‘Dragon Mountains’; early Dutch explorers believed the range to resemble a dragon’s scaly spine. The Zulu name, uKhahlamba, means ‘Barrier of Spears’, giving an insight into the bloody history of the Zulu lands.
The mountain range cuts north through eastern South Africa, its foothills reaching as far as Blyde River Canyon, close to the iconic Kruger National Park. It also marks the border with Lesotho, a small but wildly different country enveloped within South Africa.
I recently spent some time travelling through the Drakensberg, experiencing some of its scenery, people and ethereal atmosphere.
A short drive but a million miles from Durban, the road wound into the southern berg, the mountains rising to form the spectacular Sani Pass, the gateway between South Africa and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. The Sani Pass is a legendary, boulder strewn road that hairpins steeply through an eight kilometre no mans land before it reaches the Lesotho border post.
In contrast to the sweltering lowlands of Africa, the air was cool and crisp and local men were dressed accordingly; common shepherd’s attire in Lesotho is a heavy woollen blanket, wellies and a balaclava, usually worn whilst riding a horse or donkey. Cresting the Sani Pass, I reached a plateau encased within a crown of peaks, the land dotted with sheep and goats. The shepherds spend the summer months in makeshift stone huts, allowing their animals to graze, before heading to the lower, warmer climes when April comes. Although Lesotho is economically undeveloped, its people, the Basotho, value education and equality, and society is based around peace and cooperation.
The Sani Pass can only be traversed in a 4x4; for those without access to such a vehicle, tours can be arranged through companies and accommodation in South Africa, including Sani Lodge, which sits at the foot of the pass.
After descending the Sani Pass back into South Africa, I headed north to the Champagne Valley in the central Drakensberg. This region is host to a number of peaks, including Monk’s Cowl, Champagne Castle and Cathkin Peak. The national park is accessible in any vehicle and accommodation is available both inside and around the park. There are a number of hiking circuits to choose from, varying in difficulty and length.
I opted for what I was told was a leisurely shaded walk through the woods; this actually turned out to be a gruelling up and down trek through blazing heat. It started off easily enough, exchanging greetings with pensioners whilst strolling through meadows on the way to Sterkspruit Falls, but as the day warmed up I found myself slogging up long sweeping rises and wading back and forth across the meandering river. Of course, the exertion and furious sweating was worth it to be immersed in the mountain splendour. The whistling grasslands swept into valleys that crept between the rocky towers of the mighty Drakensberg, looming over all. The sunny morning gave way to an afternoon that threatened to pour with rain, the cloud adding drama to the peaks as I raced them back to the car.
For those wanting longer treks, this area offers overnight options, as well as longer day hikes including the trail to Blind Man’s Corner for close up views of the higher peaks. Accommodation is available inside the park, and there are numerous lodges in the surrounding areas, including Inkosana Lodge, which has a freshwater swimming pool, round rondavel chalets and a camping area, all the set against a picturesque backdrop.
My time in the mountains saw a pattern of glorious sunny mornings followed by heavy rain in the afternoon. To compliment my morning’s hike in the Monk’s Cowl region, I headed to the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School for the weekly performance, which takes place every Wednesday afternoon during term time. The prestigious school recruits boys aged nine to fifteen from across South Africa and beyond and regularly receive international accolades.
Although an anomaly in the usual itinerary of African travel, this was a unique experience. The first half of the ensemble ranged from Broadway numbers to tribal songs, including several languages. The second half comprised an extended piece of musical theatre, performers playing the parts of animals to tell the story of a hunt and express a message of wildlife conservation.
The level of talent on show was so high that it was easy to forget that some of the boys were only nine. Tickets can be booked in advance and cost 160 Rand (approximately £10).
Driving further north, I reached possibly the most spectacular and iconic section of the range, Royal Natal National Park and the Amphitheatre. Soaring tall and straight into the sky, nothing encapsulates the name ‘Barrier of spears’ more than the Amphitheatre, a row of jagged peaks reigning over lesser pinnacles below.
Royal Natal is home to a number of trails, including those incorporating The Cascades and both the base and summit of the Amphitheatre. It also has campsites for those wishing to stay within the park, and is easily accessible by car from Johannesburg.
Parking at the entrance to Royal Natal, I walked the Tugela Gorge trail into the shadow of the Amphitheatre, a five hour return hike. Skirting the valley side, the path initially rose high above the Tugela River, before descending to meet its boulder strewn bed. I clambered over the rocks to the soundtrack of baboon calls, tiptoeing across the water on the sturdiest inhabitants, and arrived at a tunnel, from where I could pass no more. Carved through the rock by the river’s flow, the tunnel was curvaceous and smooth sided and represented an impasse, the closest I got to the foot of the Amphitheatre.
On the descent, I was again chased by the clouds, cascading over the peaks and shrouding them from sight. And with that, my intrusion into the heavens was over; I left the jagged peaks and returned to the realms of men. Driving away, I noticed a group of children playing football in the shadow of the mountains and stopped to chat to them. Absorbed in their game, I doubt that they realised the beauty that surrounded them.