The sky is alive, but not how it usually is. Thick coils of smoke rise in dark plumes in all directions. Molten rock leaps high into the air as I bank sharply to avoid it. My huge, leathery wings lift my body above the carnage below. It's as though the earth is throwing its own mantle off. I look down. All I see are plumes of orange and red and gold. Too late I look up. A thick fountain of molten rock spews over my body. I roar in fury as I am forced down, bearing the weight of the rapidly solidifying rock.
The way to wake up in the mountains...actually the way to wake up wherever you are, is with an espresso. Its for this reason that after we've packed the kids in the car we pack the espresso machine. Or is it the other way around? Either way, we travel with our portable machine. And so it is that I roll over, just as the light begins to paint the tips of the distant Drakensberg mountain peaks in an orange glow. Aah, that first sip. It sends life straight to the soul. Normally after restarting the brain in this way we would reach for our phones and sift through the new, weather, emails, and any other content that takes our fancy. Not today. Today we reach for our water bottles, and a few minutes later, while the house is still quiet, we are off. We are headed to the mountains.
It's a short drive from Eagles Lodge in the Central Berg, where we are staying, to Monks Cowl Park, which is the gateway to the majestic mountain range in this area. After parking our car and filling in the mountain register we are off. It's only about a 3km hike to the first stop point, The Sphinx. This iconic rock protrudes from the side of the mountain, looking pensively down like a giant Sphinx. It's a steep climb to the Sphinx, and if the espresso had not woken us up, the walk sure would. We are full of energy and so we reach the Sphinx in just 30 minutes. It's a great spot to take a break, slurp some water and look back over the incredible vista that the Sphinx provides.
On one side the mountain climbs another thousand meters up, while one the other side it drops off towards the distant valley and the quaint town of Winterton in the far distance. If the first part of the walk wasn't enough to wake one up, the climb from the Sphinx to the escarpment above sure will. Once more we set off with much enthusiasm and another 30 minutes later we have reached Breakfast Stream. What a view. From here it looks as though you're standing on a huge open field. The valley behind is shielded by a hill, while before us a rolling grassland stretches out into the distance, as though it were some grand green carpet, leading the hiker to the majesty beyond. For at the end of this green carpet rises the majestic peaks of the Central Berg - Sterkhorn, Cathkin, and Champagne Castle towering over them all. We are drawn towards these majestic mountains, rising over 3,000m high to touch the azure blue sky above.
“It looks like a dragon,” I say to Nicky as we walk almost like somnambulists drawn towards a distant dream. In fact it is called the Dragon's Back, the series of sharp peaks that fall away from the towering peaks before us. “Yes, it does,” she replies. “Maybe in some ancient time a dragon was buried beneath all this rock,” she jokes. Anything seems possible, especially as the grandeur of this place overwhelms your senses.
We stop finally at Blind Man's Corner. It's here that all serious hikes begin. Heading off left will lead one to the Hidden Valley. Heading right will take the hiker to Gatberg (translated Hole Mountain) or around to the torturous Grey Pass up to Champagne Castle. Or simply just keep walking straight UP, rising a thousand meters almost vertically, and you can summit the amazing Sterkhorn. It's not a peak for the fainthearted, as quite a few people have died on this peak if the weather turns. Today we are simply satisfied with lying in the grass at the base of Sterkhorn. The sky is a blue canvas that God is dabbing with fluffy white spots. A bee flies over me and does an abrupt U-turn to return and see what this strange animal is lazing in the grass. After a cursory sortee it moves on - there seems like few pollination options here. The air is clean and clear. There is not another person around. It's as though this entire mountain belongs to us. It's as though we are alone on a canvas of green and blue. Living in a symphony of fragrant smells and a gentle breeze.
Reluctantly we arise to return home. The price of a short walk and we have witnessed God's iMax - where the visual clarity stuns the eyes, where the sound embraces you and where the seating lives around you. This is a show we want to see again, and again, and again.
I'm sitting under the cool shade of a huge oak tree while before me the beautiful berg river rushes over a weir before racing on its long journey towards the sea a couple of hundred kilometers away. A cool breeze rising from the river brings relief from the summer sun carrying with it the scent of the nearby pine forest and the shrill song of a million Christmas beetles. A flock of sheep leisurely eat the leaves from the plants on the water's edge while we await the children to return - it will be our turn soon.The river is calling. It beckons us with is cool arms to enter and experience it's adventurous, free spirit, as we ride its rapids on a tube and live the adventure. It has begun!
Just two hours west of our base camp in the leafy suburb of Cowies Hill rise the mighty uKhahlamba Drakensberg mountains. The Zulu name means "barrier of spears" as their majestic peaks stab proudly into the vast blue skies of Africa. Their Afrikaans name, Drakensberg, captures their ancient living presence - Dragon mountains.
From where we are staying at Eagles Lodge, in the aptly named Champagne Valley of the central berg, we look out at the giant peaks of Cathkin, Champagne Castle, and Sterkhorn dropping off towards the jagged crags of the Dragon's back. This beautiful barrier of spears is framed by an azure blue sky above and rolling green hills below. It's here that we will begin out AfricaTour warmup.
For 10 days we will explore the wonders and adventure of this majestic area. It's sort of a test of our Africa Tour as we see if we've packed the right things, how cleaning and cooking duties pan out (pun ;), how routine in the random works, and so on. We need to trial things before our first leg in mid Jan. And what a great place to begin.
The weather in this area of KwaZulu-Natal in summer can vary from intense heat to endless humid wet days to even a surprising hail storm or snowfall. We are blessed with the former as the berg delivers endless long blue sky summer days. The abundant rains from prior weeks have turned everything into a beautiful vista of velvet green punctuated by splashes of colour from the wild flowers that are springing up everywhere.
The mountain seems to weep as temporary runoffs drip down cliff faces. The cool shady forests that huddle around the rivers in the valleys are alive with the shrill cacophony of thousands of Christmas beetles singing their welcome of sun, summer, and fun.
It's late afternoon and the sun lances down with a lava like intensity from the sky effectively keeping everyone indoors or under shade. However while most holiday makers hide in their cool sanctuaries, we decide to head to our river swimming spot higher up in the mountains. While the sun's intensity is undiminished we bravely set out hoping the fact that it is now late afternoon will provide some respite.
Arriving at Monks Cowl we are surprised to find the parking lot nearly empty - testimony to the effectiveness of the sun's purging. However what the sheltering average person does not realise is that closer to the mountain a cooling shadow is cast by some gathering clouds. Are they the portent of a coming storm? With excitement we descend towards the river, luxuriating in the silence of a mountain all to ourselves.
Arriving at our swimming spot we are rewarded with some unexpected cooling shade as the early afternoon sun dips behind a copse of tall trees straddling the river's edge. We quickly discard our gear and leap off the high rock on the river's edge into the refreshing embrace of the crystal Berg water. In seconds all memory of the day's heat are washed away as we emerge laughing and energized. This is bliss!
After our swim in the cool river we sit drying on the large rocks on the river's edge. Here we soak in the palette of brilliant colours that compete for attention - the velvet green hills dotted with a few horses giving way to the majestic grey mountains rising to touch the deep blue sky. All the while the smell of the grass and fynbos mingle with the sweet smell of the river to rejuvenate our soul.
We head back to our car and the children decide that the weather outside is better than inside - and so perched on top of the car's roof carrier they get to ride high enjoying the view from on top as we slowly negotiate the road back home.
Back at Eagles Lodge we move our chairs outside under some shade so we can drink deeply of the stunning beauty of the early evening, and of course of the fruit of the vine too. No evening is quite complete without the soothing effects of fine wine tasting even finer in these champagne surrounds.
However the mountains many seasons are not yet complete. Out of what looks like a blue sky comes a sudden downpour, causing us to hurriedly scuttle under cover. Yet the inconvenience is far outweighed by the reward.
Minutes later as the downpour moves on further down the valley, God's hand paints a majestic double rainbow of striking beauty across the grey sky behind the house, its colours seemingly dripped from heaven itself. The rich smells of early evening intensify as the fresh aroma of the rain on the grass fills the air. It reminds us of God's blessing - for witnessing God's beauty in places like this is a blessing that words can never capture -
“Let my teaching fall like rain
and my words descend like dew,
like showers on new grass,
like abundant rain on tender plants.” (Deuteronomy 32:2)
This is our Africa Tour...let it begin in earnest!