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.
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!