“Wow, that’s a nice entrance,” I say as we arrive at Bushman’s Nek hotel. It’s our first time here although we are regulars in the beautiful Southern Berg. The bubbling sound of the waterfall welcomes us in, but that is nothing compared to the pools inside. Soon we are oo’ing and ah’ing at the hotel’s huge rim flow rock pool, complete with waterfalls, a slide and even hidden heated pools and coves. The pool ushers in the view across the green valley below, dotted with horses grazing, to the majestic Drakensberg mountains. It looks like we’ve found another reason why we love the Southern Drakensberg. We are going to enjoy wiling away our days in these pools.
What we don’t take into account is that there is just so much to do here, and so pool soaking time will have to fit in with cycling, running, hiking, putt-putt, paintball, tennis, bowls, archery, squash, coffee-shops, sundowners, horse riding, bingo, games, exploring. It reminds me of Basil Faulty’s quip in response to the brash American tourist boasting about all they could do in a day, “Sounds exhausting!” But this is the exhausting we just love!
“The roof is still the original roof, and the buildings are all over 100 years old,” says the elderly lady taking her dogs for an early morning walk. Nicky and I have headed out for an early cycle along the beautiful gravel road that runs from the hotel towards the mountains and the Lesotho border. We’ve stopped at an old stone building that houses a store and quaint coffee shop. “You must come back later when we’re open,” she says, “our carrot cake is delicious.” Friendly locals, stunning vistas, historic buildings, and fresh air – with the promise of tasty treats – this is a stunning place.
Sunday lunch. It’s one meal that holds a special place for millions of people around the world, and today we’re going to enjoy it in this beautiful mountain paradise. The smell draws us in, as only the smell of roast beef can. Unlike many hotel restaurants Busman's Nek restaurant is intimate and cozy but with beautiful views through huge glass windows of the majestic mountains outside.
“This is how Yorkshire Pudding should be made,” I say as I sink my teeth into the puffy, crisp on the outside but airy-soft in the inside, Sunday roast delicacy. Paired with perfectly done roast beef and the full ensemble of Sunday vegetables I'm reminded why Sunday roasts have an aura of joy about them.
Josh has chosen paintball as his outing of choice for his birthday, much to the horror of some of his siblings. Just below the hotel is a stunning horse farm, which also boasts a lovely coffee shop offering everything from Oreo milkshakes to BarOne waffles. It’s here amidst the tall trees of a forest that the action unfolds.
Thud, thud, thwat.
The sound of paintballs striking the trees harmlessly, leaving a trail of blue paint running slowly down them, like the promise of pain. As I run from tree to tree letting off a volley of bullets for cover I get closer to the flag poking enticingly out from an old car discarded amongst the tall forest trees.
OK, now I know why there was some reticence about this. It’s not paintball, its painball…but fun nonetheless, as we proudly compare bruises and share stories once the paint has dried.
The hotel is putting on an evening braai on the lawn, and so we grab our meat and go and join in. The sun is setting in dramatic beauty behind broken clouds, transforming the valley below into golden green. A spectacle we enjoy sitting on a cushioned swing bench hanging between two huge oak trees. Sipping a glass of wine and watching the stunning display unfold on this grand scale again affirms why this part of the world is one of my favorites.
Hannah and Josh braai our meat and soon we are enjoying it together with pap, sauce, salad and other extras the hotel has provided. What an epic spot to end an epic day…well, it’s not quite ended.
“Come on dad,” Hannah urges. “It's warm and you'll like it.” The children have decided that night swimming is a fitting end to our day. After leaping in the cold pool they are now luxuriating in the blue ethereal glow of the heated pool. Seeing the family all floating happily in the pool I steel my resolve and decide to join them. I’m immediately enveloped in lovely warmth as I float beneath an endless dark sky stretched above. It feels like a dream…but I suppose that is what this stunning place is - a dream destination.
Finally it's a sunny day - I would never have thought I would start with those words. There was a time when we would say, "wow, look a cloud." We are currently at one of our favourite spots in the Berg - Southern Berg, Drakensberg Gardens. The last few days have been fresh, but today the majestic golden orb shines majestically into this special valley.
We are headed to Underberg to replenish supplies and check out the area a little. "I want us to pop into this coffee shop," Nicky says as we arrive at a sign on the road from Drakensberg Gardens that says "The Olde Duck".
On our travels we love exploring and discovering new places. We've been staying at Drakensberg Gardens resort for many years but we have never been to this coffee shop. I suppose it's due to a combo of two things. Firstly, our "coffee snob" issue - we can't handle bad coffee. Secondly, our suspicion about coffee shops tucked into the back rooms of farms. Hey, but we enjoy adventure.
So it is that to our tyres crunch along the gravel road as we drive towards the coffee shop. I'm surprised to see a couple of other cars parked here. It's a Monday. It's a little coffee shop on a farm road. They have customers...why? I'm about to discover.
"Let's pop into this shop first," Nicky says as her voice trails after her vanishing form. The Vanilla Rose is a gift shop next door to the coffee shop. It's not your typical farm store shop, with a few preserves and pickled onions on wooden shelves. Whoever put this shop together certainly has style. It's full of gifts, tasteful decor items, clothes and other accessories.
However...I'm bored in 2 minutes. It's not my kind of shop - where's that coffee shop. I'm feeling a lot more optimistic. As we enter the Olde Duck my anticipation begins to rise. The same tasteful decor welcomes us into the warm interior where the sound of a crackling fire mingles with the chatter of patrons and the tantalizing smell of coffee in the air.
We are ushered in with a friendly welcome to our table by Di. We sit at a table near the huge glass windows that afford us views of the green fields, awash in the golden glow of the morning sun, stretching towards the magnificent mountains in the distance.
"So how's your coffee?" I ask Di. It's our standard question, although I'm not sure why we ask it. Everyone always answers, "great!" - yet few are. Normally I look to see what their coffee machine looks like, and then I ask to meet the barrister so I can ask them a few questions. Our motto is simple - "If in doubt have tea." However my trepidation is about to vanish.
"We just won second place in the Top 100 coffee shops for Pietermaritzburg and the Midlands," Di says proudly pointing at the new award hanging on the wall. Now I'm getting excited. However we have been to places that have won awards and not been impressed. After all, every coffee is a single work - and if the barrister is off his or her game or it's another barrister, it's just not the same.
It's then that we get to meet Siya, the barrister. He beaming with pride about their win and I can already sense that he loves what he does. That's a good sign. And I'm about to discover why he looks so proud. "I learned most of what I know from watching YouTube videos and then practicing," he says. Wow, that is impressive. It's time to taste what he can do.
Soon the welcome hiss of Flat Whites being crafted fills the air as we wait in eager anticipation. Moments later our carrot cakes are delivered followed by four works of art. Wow! Without taking a sip I can normally predict if the flat white will be good. This is looking fantastic. The foam looks dense, the cup size is perfect and the temperature feels just right. What's really amazing are the four animals perfectly painted atop our coffees in the foam - an elephant, beer, pig and rabbit.
Flavor, smooth, rich, explosion. That's what the first sip is. I've found one of the best flat whites I've ever had. Accompanied by a delicious, moist carrot cake, stunning views, and warm atmosphere we've stumbled upon the secret of the Berg, and I can't wait to come back again. It just shows, you never know what might lie at the end of a little farm road.
Our travels are not only about the places we visit but the adventures that can be experienced. And so we've been up-close and personal with elephants, kissed a hippo, battled giant spiders, slept under the stars, paraglided off mountains, rafted rapids, skied snow-clad Africa slopes, canoed with hippos, swum with crocs...so of course we need to party with the monkeys next! And what better place to do it than with Drakensberg Canopy Tours situated next to the Drakensberg Sun hotel in the central berg.
“Hi, I'm Shonta. Welcome to our canopy tour.” We're seated outside under a huge tree around which the center has been built. We're watching a video of the adventure that lies ahead. The adventures depart every 30 minutes which must be a logistical feat in itself.
The Drakensberg Canopy Tour has 12 rides that fly high above the trees of the ancient Nkwanke Forest, part of a world heritage site. “The forest has many old Yellowwood trees," Shonta says, "and you will get to stand on top of some of them.” I can feel the excitement rising as we see and hear more about what we can expect. I feel like a kid staring at cookie jar. Let's do this!
“You can go through to meet your guides,” Shonta says, and we move to another room. Here we’re introduced to Moses our lead guide and the “Safety Officer” Sindi. Being led by Moses on an adventure like this seems fitting - who better to lead us through the parting of trees.
Safety is high on the agenda here, which considering we're going to be connected by a few wires high in the air sounds like a great idea to me. Soon we are decked out in our high-tech diapers, and ready to go and find adventure. “Sanitize your hands,” Moses says as he gives us our “braking gloves”. Now that's attention to detail - important details - why share bugs just because you’re sharing fun?
We climb onto the back of a bakkie and are bouncing our way up the mountain. Spectacular views of the central Berg open before us as we climb higher and higher along the gravel track up the mountain. “That's Barry's grave,” Moses says pointing to a grave as we disembark.
“Eish! Is Barry someone who didn't make it through the adventure?”
It turns out he was a dude from long ago - not a canopy tour casualty. This all adds to the anticipation of what lies ahead.
As we descend into the thick forest that rises from the valley below I imagine I can almost hear Indiana Jones music playing. Well, that's at least how I feel. Like some intrepid explorer about to walk across swaying bridges and slide along vines through trees. OK, hopefully, cable vines!
“Canopy tours started in Costa Rica to study forest animals,“ Moses says as we walk into the forest. In fact, I noticed a board as we were getting kitted out, listing all the animals people had seen on their adventures. I can already hear a symphony of bird life in the trees all about us.
We arrive at the first platform. It’s just a short ride to get us used to the idea of flying through trees. “It’s called the Rabbit Hole,” Moses says referring to Alice’s experience. This is where our world will change as we enter another world. Sindi clips us on and on and on…OK, this does feel safe.
“You’re always clipped on twice,” she explains, plus there are various backup ropes and cables. I think you have more chance of dying being attacked by a swarm of angry butterflies…maybe that’s what happened to Barry?
“Look mom, I’m flying,” I shout as I glide effortlessly along the first ride. Maybe I didn’t say that out loud, but I still feel like I’m flying. I’m ready for the real deal now…Bring on the long rides! As you complete the ride you are immediately clipped to a safety cable as you move along the platforms high in the trees. “Now this is what I’m talking about,” I say as I look at a long cable stretching out into the distance over the trees far below. The views are amazing. It’s a totally different perspective being so high up in the canopy of the trees.
“We call this one the Black Ferrari,” Sindi says, “because it's the fastest ride.”
Now I’m sure I can hear that Indiana Jones theme song. The adventure is here. I watch as my family one by one leap off the edge of a platform suspended high above the forest floor, and whiz at high speed, with hoots of glee, along the line. After a signal from Moses it’s my turn. I lift my feet and I’m off. Boom! It’s an adrenalin hit. An epic feeling as you literally feel like you are flying and a blur of green races past beneath you.
“Hey, but what about stopping? Eish, I should of asked about that earlier…too late now…” Actually, this is the best part of these rides. Stopping is easy. You have a glove that you press down lightly on the cable and you come to an easy stop. However, to make this even safer many of the rides have, as Sindi calls it, “ABS…You don’t have to do anything. Just hold on and enjoy the ride. I will stop you at the end.”
As I come hurtling along at what feels like the speed of sound, the platform on the other side approaches quickly. Here’s to testing the ABS system. Amazingly in seconds I come to a sudden halt as I land featherlike on the next platform, a look of exhilaration plastered across my face.
“This is the Morris Minor, short and fast….this is the Red Ferrari, the second fastest…this is a 360 year old Yellowwood…” And so it is not only that we are having an exhilarating experience, but our guides are making sure we learn new things, and have lots of laughs too.
“OK,” Sindi says as we stand at the edge of another ride. Lift your feet and don’t sway,” she says as we look out at the cable vanishing between a rock face on the left and trees on the right. “Otherwise you will do bushmen paintings on the rock and then on the tree and arrive looking like braai meat!” Well, who wouldn’t look forward to a ride after that. With pumping heart, I fly across the canyon and through the gap - not doing any painting with my body en route, nor arriving like braai meat.
From the longest ride at 170m in length to the second highest ride in Africa at 65m high, the experience is a green blur of excitement, interspersed with incredible tranquility and stunning views as we move along walkways attached to cliff faces and around ancient trees. It’s all over too quickly, well that’s how it feels. Actually we’ve been out here nearly 3 hours, but as the old saying goes, “time flies when you’re having fun” which means that time really flies when you’re having flying fun!
It’s a short hike out of the canyon and like clockwork we’re picked up by the bakkie and whisked back down to the mountain. Hey, but it’s not over! As we watch a video of our adventure that a dexterous camera man took during our adventure, we are served a most delicious subway-style lunch. What an amazing way to end an amazing adventure. Actually, this is better than Indiana Jones…at the end of his adventures he’s the one getting eaten.
Eish, it's cold. I must get these goats under cover. I know they are strong, but they will not survive outdoors in this snow. I pick up my stick to try and stop one of the stupid ones running into the road, luckily it jumps back because just at the moment a car comes around the corner. Everything is white, even the dirty goats.
One of our favourite places in South Africa is Franschhoek. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the best coffee - and we're fussy on this front, to some of the best restaurants, to the fun European vibe, to the little town, to lots of places to enjoy a great glass of wine in a beautiful setting.
“Hey, but are you doing going on about Franschhoek…isn’t this blog about Clarens?”
It is indeed…and to me Clarens is the Franschhoek of the Free State, and possibly even Franschhoek on steroids!
After completing the crazy 90km Comrades marathon body alignment exercise, we are on the move again...black toenails and all, and our destination is Clarens. We're staying at Kiara Lodge, a timeshare resort about 10 minutes outside of Clarens. Our first shock is the weather. Brr! The sun is shining down boldly from above, casting a rich orange and red hue on everything, yet somehow it's more form than function. It's just not warm.
“This is the Free State in winter…sunny, fresh, but stunning,” I think to myself as Nicky and I float on the little dam at Kiara Lodge atop a paddle boat sipping our sundowners, soaking every sunray we can get like beleaguered lizards.
Yet what is amazing about this area is the Golden Gate Park. It's truly a stunning destination to visit. We set off on the Holkrans walk. It wends along the valley floor as it heads between towering rock structures on either side. At its end it curves around a large rock to reveal a massive cave. We scramble up into the cave and look out at the spectacular vista, framed by the cave, that our vantage point affords. Thick moss that must be centuries old grows on parts of the cave walls and is soft like some natural mattress.
A long set of wooden stairs leads up next to the cave. We clamber up them and the circular walk continues back along the ridge towards the hotel. It's surprises are not finished as the walk stops at more beautiful caves and amazing views of the valley below, framed by the endless blue sky above. It’s another world, and we are enjoying it all to ourselves.
A couple of days later we move to stay in a little cottage just 200m from Clarens town. Staying this close to Clarens means no need to drive anywhere because within walking distance are the best coffee places, incredible restaurants, walks, shops…everything. However there is one reason to drive - SKIING! Yes, you read right, skiing in Africa, it sounds like an oxymoron, but Clarens is the gateway to reaching Lesotho’s AfriSki resort.
It's early, in fact it's dark and we are up and today we are heading to AfriSki. After putting on our ski gear, which feels strange considering the brown hills around us, we clamber into Pajey and are on our way. It takes three hours to get to AfriSki, through border posts, along winding roads, over long winding narrow passes and past frozen waterfalls.
When we finally arrive at Afriski all the hills are brown and barren but AfriSki sports a single white strip like a line of Tippex fixing a mistake on the hills. The resort is empty - so we have chosen our day well and some clouds hang in the air with the promise of snow. The costs ramp up quickly for a day like today. There's the fuel…six hours worth, then entrance of R50 p.p. then ski hire and ski pass. We discover that half day prices start at 12 noon so we go for that. The end cost is about R500 p.p. which when I think about it is way cheaper than Europe!
We've brought the bum boards so spend some time sliding down a slope having find careening into the barrier at the bottom. We have about an hour before half day starts so we go to the pub. A warm log fire is crackling and we add a round of cappuccinos to complete the alpine experience. It feels surreal sitting in this snowy world with people clumping around in ski boots just hours from Clarens.
It's time to go get out gear and soon we are kitted and ready to hit the slopes. As we emerge out of the ski hire shop the snow begins to fall. It's the first snow they've seen in months. Huge soft flakes float gently down and soon everything begins to turn into a magical winter wonderland. We can't believe God's gift to us. It's stunning. It’s time to hit the slope….OK “slopette”. Only one slope is open, the bottom one, which provides a 10-second ride. Hey it’s Africa and we’re skiing…even 10 seconds is epic. We fly down it, we meander it, we try parallel skiing it, we try backwards, we even try doing circles. We just do fun.
By 3:30 we do our final run, savouring every moment. We have to head back now. I don't relish driving in snow on these mountain passes. As we descend the pass the snow starts to come down heavily blanketing the road in complete white and making driving much more challenging. “Watch out!” Nicky calls as I veer to the right to avoid a stray goat being chased by a blanket wrapped Basotho herder. His muddy goats are quickly turning white as the snow begins to blanket everything white.
Slowly the snow is left behind as we descend heading towards the border and Clarens beyond that. The sun dips in the horizon exploding the dramatic clouds into a pyrotechnic display. It’s as though the beauty cannot end, but then this the wonder of this beautiful part of Southern Africa…sip, shop, ski…sensational!
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.
Everyone is on the move. There is the scent of water in the air and so before I know it we are up and flying. We rise quickly and before long are heading towards the rising sun. The smell of water is thick in the air as the rising sun lifts it from the dew-laden grass. We bank sharply to one side and the entire swarm, as though controlled by a single mind, follows. Suddenly something large is right before me, slicing through the swarm just meters before me, and then its gone. I tumble downwards for a moment before I regain control and catch up with the rapidly vanishing swarm.
It's farewell to the Western Cape as we begin the trek back, marking the end of Part 1 of our adventure that has spanned the entire coast from Port Edward, through the Eastern Cape, into the Western Cape and up to Langebaan. One of the key principles of our trip is “going nowhere slowly”. We are about to break this principle. The girls have a One Direction concert on the weekend and the rendezvous requires us to get to the Berg in one day. It's going to be a loooooong drive of about 1600km.
The alarm awakes me from a blissful sleep at 4am. Eish! We do the final car pack and are in the car, in the dark at 5am. And thus begins the long drive from Franschhoek to Eagles Lodge in the Central Drakensberg. It should be a relatively easy drive as the roads are good...except for our headlight issue. For some reason our lowbeam lights are set too high so every car we pass at night flashes us. I do not have many options. I can ignore them, which typically causes them to turn their bright lights on in revenge - a stupid response I don't quite get, as now you have both drivers who can't see - or I can flash back at them to show them I'm on lowbeam. This also elicits one of two responses. One they ignore me. Two they give me the same stupid response of revenge.
So the first part of the journey, of about 2 hours, is in the dark and I'm rewarded with every oncoming car flashing their lights at us because they think I have brights on. I try and assume they are saying a friendly "Good Morning Mate" and smile ingratiatingly back at them.
Once the sun rises at least this trouble will go with it. However driving in an easterly direction into the oncoming sun brings with it its own issues. I suppose being blinded by the sun now is revenge for my headlights. As I'm heading towards the light, thankfully not metaphorically, a swarm of crazed bees, or other bug things, flies across the road. I slice through them and end up with a nice buttery spread on my windscreen, where the oily film, combined with refracted light creates rainbows in my eyes....which would be fine if I didn't need to drive. Poor bees!
The journey continues and is fairly uneventful except for Pajey's insatiable thirst for fuel. We can only get about 450km on a tank at 15l/100km so we have to plan our fuel stops to satiate his need. Our first stop is some random petrol station for trucks with Nicky getting to enjoy a truck stop toilet. Our second stop is an Ultra City where we grab a small burger on the run. Our third stop is a close affair. We nearly run out and end up rolling in. We full up and the pump reads 79.8 liters in my 80l tank! That was close. There is one time when Pajey flashes some random light on his console at me, but in true Pajey style it vanishes again so I ignore it.
As it gets dark again we turn onto the ugly N5 which is filled with roadworks. This causes more stoppages and difficult driving, made even more fun as trucks turn their bright lights on in response to poor Pajey! Now I'm driving on really narrow roads, with no shoulder because of the roadworks, with huge trucks giving me their brights. I knew there was a good reason we had the philosophy of “going nowhere slowly”. I'm not enjoying this.
The journey down Van Reenen's Pass takes concentration as the hours take their toll and the irritation of the bright lights continues. Finally we turn off onto the peace of the road heading towards Winterton. I can truly sense the end of this long journey as we pass Thokasiza and enter the final stretch. The roads here are quiet and empty as we make the final dash towards the Berg and its tranquility. However, even in this final stretch I'm driving cautiously as I've often seen buck jump out of the long grass on the roadside.
With only a few kilometers to go we suddenly see flashing blue lights ahead. I slow down. We come upon a horrible accident. A small car has driven into a cow. We're unsure what happened to the driver but the warning of being careful is reinforced even so close to the end. Later we find out the driver survived, which is a miracle considering how demolished the car was. Yet what is even more powerfully reinforced is how God has cared of us on this journey. We've prayed for his care and by his grace he has give us a safe journey.
Finally we arrive at Eagles Lodge after 16 hours of traveling. A long journey but the lessons are “keep on keeping on” but do all in God's strength and safe keeping. It's the only way! It's certainly going to have to be our motto if we run the crazy 90km Comrades marathon in a few months time. It's the only way I can finish it.
We've arrived. Those girls had better enjoy that No Direction concert thing they are headed to. Hopefully we wont have to do any more of these long crazy drives in the future. Think of all the coffee shops I missed. Oh well, when we travel back this way in a few months time we will do it properly.
It surprised me. It was going to be a hot day, I was never in doubt of this. Yet that was not what surprised me. It is their arrival at our village. I have already moved under a tree even though it is still early and that sentinel of the heavens, that fiery ball of hot white is already burning down relentlessly. I look up from the moist grass I am eating as I hear the sound of cars coming up the rutted track towards our village. Two 4x4 vehicles are slowly negotiating their way towards us. Strange. Strange because the only cars that ever come along here are the taxis to drop our villagers. Strange because it's Christmas Day and no one moves around today.
Moments later the doors of both cars pop open, almost as though it were a synchronized Olympic event, and a whole lot of umlungus* emerge from the cars. Still chewing the soft juicy grass I look on with interest. Strange, strange indeed. Maybe they are lost.
The village is quiet as everyone is sheltering indoors away from the increasing heat of our African sun. The only sign of life, besides the few of us grazing on the hill, are a pair of mangy looking dogs eating some leftovers they've discovered in a discarded tyre. It's almost as if the village has been abandoned.
"Woza ingane**," one of umlungus shouts out in stilted Zulu. The village remains still. One of the dogs looks up with a cursory interest before returning to its frenzied feeding of the scraps it's enjoying. The buzz of lazy flies fills the air as they rise up in protest agaimst the swish my tail as I attempt to chase them off. "Woza ingane," he shouts again, and this time there is a response.
Gogo^ is the first to emerge. Even though she is bent with age and walks with the aid of a roughly hewn stick smoothed on the top with years of use, she is somehow lightening fast when called. Age has not dulled her mind nor her sharp wit and curiosity. Behind her, like a bride's sweeping wedding trail, are a swath of wide eyed children. They peer out curiously from the safety of Gogo's shadow at this strange arrival. Soon more children and adults appear, seemingly rising out of the dusty village floor. Within moments the village is a buzz of people chatting and looking curiously on at the unexpected arrival.
"Merry Christmas," one of the ingane umlungus shouts, holding out a wrapped gift towards a shy young girl clinging to her mother's leg. For a moment she looks on, still unsure what this all means, but within moments her curiosity wins out over her uncertainty and she ventures away from her safehaven to take the proffered gift.
"Siyabonga," she says, as a huge smile splits her face revealing her lovely white teeth. "God bless you." Soon all the children are running to receive their gifts, and bubbling chatter and laughter fills the village. Parents stand by and smile their appreciation as their children run back to them to tear open their gifts. Their reticence is forgotten replaced by the excitement of unexpected gifts.
In moments new soccer shirts are being donned, and dolls pulled from their packaging. The village has transformed. Excitement, laughter, kids playing and adults chatting in the shade outside their huts replaces the stillness that just minutes before lay heavily over the village. Even the sun, which seemed so oppressive just minutes ago, seems to have lost its intensity as a cool breeze ripples across the grass making the small yellow flowers dance as if they are alive.
Gogo, leaning lightly on her stick, extends her gnarled hands and grasps the hand of one of the umlungus. She beams a huge smile, replete with missing teeth. A smile that demands a response and cannot be ignored. She says something that he does not understand but her reply needs no words, her face says it all. The umlungus smile back, and in moments they too are laughing - not just a shallow laugh, but a laughter bubbling deep from within the heart, a laughter born of receiving a real gift, one so unexpected, one found in the joy of giving.
I return to my moist grass as the umlungus clamber back into their cars followed by a waving, laughing, bubbling river of children. They young umlungus lean out the windows and wave farewell and the village children shout after them "hamba kahle"^^. This is Africa. She is beautiful. Her people are beautiful. And when they come together to share, to meet each other, to touch for a few moments, her beauty is complete. Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika - God Bless Africa!
Meaning of Zulu words:
* white person
** come children
^^ go well
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!
Braai, Beer, Berg...Bliss is the the awesome foursome especially on a perfect day like this. And today we grabbed the awesomeness to the full as our last full day. I'm sure this is the ideal spot to study the space-time continuum and the warping of time, because I have undeniable proof of time compression. Yesterday was a week ago!
Being our last full day we grabbed the opportunity to cycle to our newly found swimming spot right at the end of the road...a 3km uphill cycle and walk that leave you warmed up and ready for a dip. However afterwards there is the flying home - which is what the 5 mins of downhill feels like all the way back.
The parents were heading home so we had an early braai before bidding them adieu. The warm sun enticed us to go and try out the new hotel swimming pool with slide and caves. Nicky and kids also decided to finish the experience in the Cove - a nice heated pool, but I did not fancy the idea of sharing a "bath" with others who were wallowing in it. This premonition proved valid as they shortly returned with smirks of a near miss on their faces. Their hasty retreat had been initiated by some young kid saying to another "now you make me weewee"...Eish!
We topped off our day with a final hike up to Mushroom Rock for sundowners and a moment to be mesmerized by the beauty of God's divine tapestry. Wow!
We're looking at the most majestic Rhino, while experiencing Hippo and there is not an animal in sight. And that is why this possibly the most spectacular place on earth!
We're at Drakensberg Gardens in KwaZulu-Natal's southern Berg, staying at the amazing Fairways timeshare. I consider this the unbeatable holiday destination.
The ever present vista of the majestic Drakensberg mountains dominated by the iconic Rhino Peak, satiates your visual sense. A stunning walk along the river and into the mountains, a swim in the invigorating, crystal clear Hippo pool, restores even the weariest soul.
The smell of log fires, pine forests, and champagne air, which are the defining scent of this paradise, fills your lungs and your heart to bursting.
The gurgling sound of the peppermint colored water mingled with the the melodic song of doves, occasionally punctuated by the guttural call of a troop of baboons, reaches deep into your very being.
It's upon this divine tapestry that we are blessed to be a single thread woven by God's hand. A thread that is woven into a tapestry so amazing we can hardly comprehend it. It's only when we stop for just a moment that we realise the true wonder of what we have been blessed with!
This is Africa. This is South Africa. This is the mighty Drakensberg. This is perfect. This is a Gift!