What do King Goodwill Zwelithini, President Thabo Mbeki and Oprah Winfrey have in common? They've all stayed at Ingeli Forest Lodge, and we've been invited to check it out.
We make our way along the N2 heading south as we attempt to escape the busy Christmas traffic of Durban. Turning off we follow the road past Oribi Gorge as the bustling towns are replaced with rolling hills dressed in Sappi forests and interspersed with colorful huts dotting the hills. Finally the pine trees also give way to thick indigenous forests, as a sign on the roadside informs us we have reached our destination - Ingeli Forest Lodge.
Set back from the main road, the hotel welcomes the visitor with a commanding thatched entrance and a large deck area that looks out over the green grassed area below replete with tennis court, a serious looking adventure putt-putt course and a kids play area. Tasteful Christmas decorations set a festive scene in the entrance and are made complete by the smile we receive from Rejoice at check-in.
Built way back in 1973, in the era of roadside motels, travelers would stop here regularly and receive a Kingdom of Ingeli passport that was stamped with each visit. Once a year a "prime minister" was elected as friends regularly met up in this fun, family hotel. The hotel has now been refurbished and extended to a 44-room hotel. I can see the obvious signs of attention to detail in the décor as we enter our hotel room which is tastefully decorated and flows out through a large sliding door onto a patio and the central grass area with a pool. “Check out the Victorian bath,” I say as I inspect the bathroom, “this is going to be great way to end a day.”
The rate includes dinner and breakfast, and so we will most likely end up more circle-shaped than when we arrived. But then apparently there is lots of active things we can do too…but the only activity filling my mind, as we enter the dining room, is what food should I eat?
The dining room is intimate with tables arranged around a central serving area, giving it a cozy feel – something that is often lacking in hotel dining rooms, and especially appreciated on a cool night like tonight. Soon we are warmed in and out, after enjoying a tasty roast with all requisite vegetables. Tomorrow we will explore Ingeli’s forest area…and address some of the weight gain from our delicious feast. Eish…I’ve overeaten…but it was just so delicious!
Dawn brings a misty cool day today, which means it's a perfect opportunity to explore the forests that cluster around the hotel. We are very impressed with all the cycling and walking trails Ingeli offers. Our first exploration is to the forest across the road. This 10km path winds through thick indigenous forest but also comes festooned with spiders. That’s the price you pay for indigenous…maybe we just have to up our adventurous spirit… however, after about an hour we decide to turn back as this is a 10km route and we are receiving numerous “status updates” from some of the kids on the trauma of walking so far in such spidery conditions - although it's not them who have to battle the arachnids.
Back at the hotel we grab a couple of beers and sit in the overstuffed couches enjoying some time reading in the lounge - which of course naturally brings on hunger. This is quickly dealt with when we order some pizzas to share. I'm impressed by the thick, juicy pizzas, and we are soon all licking our lips in gastronomic appreciation. While pizzas next to a log fire are blissful, nothing beats exploring and hiking for us, and so it’s time to head out again.
A magical silvery mist is now hanging thickly over the treetops which creates a perfect condition for walking. There's a shorter 3km walk to a dam that we try this time. This is obviously a more popular path, as there are no spider webs and the walking/cycle track is well maintained as it winds through thick, indigenous forest alive with the sounds of hundreds of birds.
The path winds down into a valley finally emerging at a tranquil lake. We sit down at one of the tables set beside the lake and are transported to a surreal place as we sip our red wine beneath a silky veil of mist, before a mirror still lake reflecting the green forested wonderland around us. "Shh...," says Nicky as we sit there.
"Be quiet for a moment and just listen."
The only sounds filling the air are the sounds of insects and birds dreamily drifting in the air.
We don't do enough of this.
Just being still.
What a perfect spot to do just that...especially with a glass of good red wine.
As I lounge in the warmth of my luxurious Victorian bath, back in our room, my thoughts drift like the mist to Oprah and friends. “It doesn’t really matter how rich or famous you are,” I muse, “peace and joy are found only by those who create the space, the moments, the opportunity to experience it.” And in this moment, I’ve found that space.
“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.
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.
In an earlier post I shared our 8-hour adventure with, led by Caine our guide, to see one of apparently only two waterfalls in Africa that plunge directly into the sea (the other thousands of kilometers north). However what he shows us is not what we expect at all, it blows us away, as we explore the unsigned, unnamed, and unexpected places of the Wild Coast of South Africa. Click here to read about this adventure and our surprising discovery...or join us on a short video experience by watching the video below.
If you did not read the blog on our experience of the Shipwreck Trail, because words are too exhausting in our modern visual age, then below is a video experience of the 6 day trail. Come along and join the experience from crackling fires, to beautiful beach walks, to outdoor toilets, to blasting rain...it's all here...
The early morning sun glints off a dewdrop hanging from my weave. I've waited patiently for a catch, and the prospect of getting one is increasing as the warm sun wakes the forest. I can see a buzz of activity as small creatures dance in the rays and crawl along the dew laden grass below. I wait. Patient. A light breeze ripples up from the stream alongside the forest bringing a refreshing cool to the quickly warming day. My weave responds by dancing in the breeze releasing a thousand diamond drops. I catch sight of something. It’s very close and so I sit still knowing that it will not see me. It flies nearer, heedless of what is just before it as it darts back and forth on its random flight. Any second now…All of a sudden something large looms before me. My weave is torn as though it is nothing as I quickly scramble to take it back while I cling swaying on a single strand.
Shipwreck Trail - Day 1 - Milkwood Hut (9km)
Behind us there is nothing, besides miles of empty beach. Before us there is a journey of 6 days along the coast from Port Alfred to the Fish River mouth and the prospect of adventure. We’ve just left Dave, who runs this trail, and his words of encouragement are still ringing in our ears. Yet as a family of five with little multi-day hike experience we are a little unsure. Will we get lost? Will we handle living in the rustic accommodation? Will we enjoy this? Yet that is exactly why we are on this year long adventure of southern Africa. We want to experience new things, and especially learn new things by stepping out of our comfort zone. Big tick for that…we are right out of it now with the prospect of 6 days and 5 nights in the wild before us. I hope we can remember what we learnt from all those Bear Grylls shows!
Walking along the beach with nothing but a small backpack and not a person in sight, and knowing you will see very few people for the next 6 days is extremely cathartic. The burdens, “important” things and general concerns of life seem to slip away into the sand as we walk further away from civilisation. The beach is wide and strewn with shells and as the first day is only 9km we know we have time to stop and look at the shells. This trail is not the Amazing Race, although we feel our getting lost may result in some similarities, it is rather about exploring, seeing, experiencing, and living life to the full.
Our efforts are soon rewarded as within a short time we have collected over 300 cowrie shells! We love searching for these beautiful shells, which in ancient times were even used as currency. Never before have we ever seen so many - we’re like kids in a sweet shop where the sweets are free. If we had lived in ancient times we would be rich…but then we are rich, rich in the most wonderful of ways.
We see it! What a relief, we have spotted our first marker, a tyre on a pole that indicates the point where we should exit the beach. After clambering up a giant dune we are soon in stunning coastal forest that soon gives way to grasslands. The route markers positioned on trees and various other (so far) conspicuous spots lead us all the way to our first night’s accommodation, Milkwood Cottage. We are pleasantly surprised. The rustic hut with bunk beds looks comfortable and welcoming as early evening begins to settle over the Milkwood canopy of trees. In fact this seems quite sophisticated with an open air (cold) shower and a flushing loo-with-a-view toilet.
Soon we have a roaring fire on the go courtesy of some logs the farmer, who stopped by to say “hi”, dropped off. Three joggers who run trails through this area also stop by to chat briefly to us. We feel very welcomed and these are the only people we’ve seen all day. As the fire crackles its warm melody, the smoke rises to mingle tantalisingly with our chicken pasta cooking on the flames. A canopy of stars, a crackling fire, a glass of wine and smokey pasta weave into a blend that no Michelin restaurant could ever match. Maybe we will enjoy this experience…what will tomorrow bring?
Shipwreck Trail - Day 2 - Treehouse (14km)
It’s not flick the switch and get your morning coffee. it’s start the fire, hang the iron kettle in the flames, wait patiently and then when boiling, prepare that vital morning cup of coffee. Despite it not being fresh espresso beans, the coffee somehow tastes amazing as the morning sun glints off the dew laden grass. We’re excited about today, because today we are hiking to a treehouse. So if we don’t get lost we should be sleeping in something totally unique tonight.
The Shipwreck trail has two options - suffer or enjoy. We have chosen the latter. Suffer means that you carry all your food and gear for the full 6 days. This is vital for those still trying to prove their manhood. Enjoy means you pay a bit extra and you get the slack packing option. This is a no brainer, as Charlie the slackpack expert takes all your gear and food from one place to the next. In fact it’s even better than this, we soon discovered. Charlie will even accept text message orders from you during the trail and will deliver cold beer, braai meat and fresh rolls to your next stop. Now this moves the whole experience from wonderful to epic wonderful! I’m looking forward to that cold beer at the end of today.
We leave Milkwood and are soon back on the endless, white, open beaches. The wind has come up so we walk closer to the sea to avoid the sandblasting effect, but the wind also gives Josh the opportunity to do some amazing power kiting. He’s decided to bring his kite with on the trail for just such a moment. Soon he is doing superhuman leaps in the air or doing “sandslug" down the dunes as the kite pulls him along.
Today’s hike is a bit longer so after a quick swim in a cool river - we have found the next marker - we head inland. We’ve been warned about this part of the hike that it takes longer than expected. And there are two other dangers we’ve been warned about - the electric fences and the angry bulls which the fences keep in. Our route takes us over the fences into the angry bulls’ territory.
Before long we are winding through coastal forest once again, past beautiful streams, onto open grasslands and then back into the forests once more. We reach the first of the electric fence. Warnings tell us to be careful, but strategically placed logs help us to get over without getting a free perm. On the other side we keep our eyes peeled for the angry bulls. In the distance we hear what sounds like the mooing of angry bulls, but we never, thankfully, get to meet them.
After what does seem like forever, and the family is sure that Dave has his distances wrong for this part of the hike, we arrive at the treehouse. The treehouse has been built 6m up in some huge, ancient Yellowwood trees. Two large decks connected by a walkway have three wooden cabins built on them that provide ample accommodation.
Nearby there is a large swimming area which we dive into the refreshing water to wash away the heat of the day. What a way to enjoy your evening bath, before starting our camp fire, tossing back that cold beer I’ve been dreaming of, and watching the braai meat sizzle its delectable song.
We forego sleeping in the cabins and set up our sleeping bags on the open deck. Lying there I look up, all I can see is the cloudless splendour of a starry night stretched above me, disrupted only by the gently dancing canopy of of the trees and the rising moon. I’ve slept in five star accommodation, in amazing rooms around the world, but once more I’m awed by the beauty of simply sleeping under the stars, high up in a tree, listening to the night sounds all around me. I wonder how long it will take me to fall aslee…
Shipwreck Trail - Day 3 - Three Sisters (7km)
You can be slapped in the face with a wet fish or leap into a cool forest stream - either way will sure wake you up quickly, although the latter, which we chose is far more refreshing and less smelly too! So after a quick dip in the river we are ready to face what looks like a warm day ahead.
We wend our way back through the lush coastal forest and it’s not long before I round a corner an yet another spider’s web is strung across the path. Even though I must have dispatched over a hundred webs on yesterday’s walk, the “batman” spiders, as Hannah has named them, because of how they look (actually Kite spiders), have regrouped and restrung their webs in their counterstrike attack. The early morning dew hangs from the spider’s web, but I have become deft at dispatching them with my trusty stick. In moments I’ve sliced through two supporting webs causing the web to spring to the side of the path and the spider to frantically scramble up the remaining web, collecting it in a flurry of activity. I’ll need to keep my eyes peeled as I’ve had many close encounters, despite my deft sword-like action, where I’ve had to stop and shout, “It’s on me…get it off” only to find it’s just the web that’s on me and the spider has long since decided this is a meal above it’s pay grade, and moved on.
After the forest our route takes us back onto open farm fields, we are still looking out for the angry bulls and avoiding the electric fences. We finally walk through an underground tunnel, used to move cattle under a road, and emerge at our next destination - Three Sisters. Three Sisters, lacks the charm of the other places as it is a disused Marine research facility, with the emphasis on “disused” - meaning just longdrops, limited water, and wood = stove. As it is early afternoon we decide to take a walk and see the three rocks that this area is named after. However, in our eagerness we did not read the instructions and soon find ourselves way off track and heading along the trail that would bring us to the start of day 4.
Reaching the beach we are met by a hurricane force wind which causes the girls to beat a hasty retreat behind the dune while Josh sees an opportunity for some epic “airtime” with his kite. My arms are nearly wrenched from their sockets as the wind snatches the kite literally ripping me out of my slipslops. Soon Josh has the kite and is getting some serious airtime as he jumps olympic length distances along the beach.
The prospect of civilisation, and a shop lie along this route, so as we have made it this far we decide to see if we can find a real shop and buy a drink. Water and liquids are a continual issue on the trail, and so it is that 10km and 2 hours later we have purchased a small coke and returned back to our hut. It really makes us appreciate the effort some people have to go to just to get to a shop.
Day 4 - Lily Pad Hut (15km hike and canoe)
We are off with the roosters, as we need to get going early for the big day ahead. We retrace our walk of yesterday, the wind is less today and we hope it stays that way otherwise our canoe journey will be a problem. Arriving at the Kleimemonde river we meet Dave who gives us the choice - paddle in the potentially difficult conditions against the wind, or leap into his car and he will bring us to the hut. Of course if we choose to paddle then we must also paddle back, whatever the conditions are like the next day. It’s an easy choice - paddle! We are here for the adventure, although some of the children are putting in not too silent arguments for the warm and easy car journey.
After only about 100 meters in the canoe we are rethinking our decision and the children’s suggestion is sounding increasingly more tempting. The wind is getting stronger against us and we have to use a lot of energy to get the two canoes moving. Dave runs ahead to stand on a bridge we are passing under to give us a final “back out” option…it is not too late to take the warm car. We do not need to suffer this for 9km! So of course we chose to…continue paddling! After about 45 mins, as the river narrows, the rowing becomes easier and despite sprinkles of rain we can sit back and soak in the stunning vista - just us, the river and the birds…not a person in sight!
Pulling our canoes up the bank after the 9km paddle we set out on the 3km hike to Lily Pad hut. We are greeted by a hut that feels positively first world, with an undercover cooking area and the winner - a donkey boiler to heat the outdoor shower water! Wow! With the cooler weather and the warm shower we are keen to enjoy an early night in the bamboo hut, but not before we take a short stroll around the game farm that our accommodation is situated on. We are treated to sightings of giraffe, nyala and zebra.
“Aah, warm showers are the best…” is the lingering thought as I dose off with the smell of the nearby camp fire wafting through the bamboo poles of our hut. “But outside toilets really need a roof…especially when it rains.”
Day 5 - Stone cottage (22km hike and canoe)
While the canoe to Lily Pad Hut tested our resolve a little, the canoe back is a lot easier. The wind dies down considerably but a random spitting rain reminds us we are still at the mercy of the elements. We delay setting off firstly so we can enjoy a tasty bacon and egg roll breakfast and secondly to let the rain ease up. With a break in the weather - but the odd rumble in the sky - we head off. Once more we are treated to seeing giraffe and zebra on the hike back to our canoes.
Dave meets us at the end of the canoe and gives us keys for our final destination - Stone Cottage. The canoeing has been amazing but we are keen to use our legs again as they seem more equipped to motion than our underused arms…maybe if the canoe could be controlled by just two thumbs, our most exercised digits, it would be easy.
The walk to Stone Cottage meanders along the beach and then through coastal bush and open fields. What a beautiful sight awaits us as we turn the corner to arrive at Stone Cottage. Built in the early 1800s, a barn-style stone cottage on the edge of a green field welcomes us with open shutters revealing the warm light spilling out of her windows. Yet her gifts are only just beginning. Stone Cottage contains all the modern conveniences we’ve grown to love and expect - running water, flushing toilets, electricity and the bonus of a beautiful claw bath. This is certainly paradise - what a way to spend our final night.
The sun paints the cottage and fields in a beautiful golden hue giving us the perfect spot to enjoy our final evening before retreating indoors. After a luxurious warm bath in the old style claw bath, and red wine next to a roaring log fire we climb into bed for the final night’s rest. Looking through my bedroom window, through a thick stone portal I see that outside the moonlight is bathing the field in a magical silvery blanket - a magic that we have felt the entire hike. One day left!
Day 6 - The End…or maybe the beginning (15km)
Like babies…that’s how we slept in this luxury. After a quick breakfast of leftover mince we set out for the final leg of our adventure. While the sun is peeking through the clouds, the dark clouds on the horizon look somewhat menacing. So we don our warm wear and head out for the final leg of our adventure.
We decide not to do the same route back to the beach but rather walk along the farm road to the lighthouse and then back to the beach. The road is muddy so we walk barefoot getting enjoying the sloshy mud oozing between our toes. As we reach the lighthouse the menacing clouds that have been following us unleash their load, as the rain pours down on us, while the wind tears furiously at our clothes. Our lighthouse viewing experience is short lived as we quickly scuttle into the protection of the coastal bush heading down to the beach.
The walk on the beach is a mixture of rain, sun and a bit of wind tossed in for good measure yet none of these seem to matter as we enjoy the beauty of our surroundings and the constant abundance of fascinating shells. Yet there comes a time in the city dwellers life, when you can sense the end is nigh, that you start to long for warmth, electricity, hot food and a comfy chair. That time has arrived. Our final destination is a diner next to the Fish River, it isn’t far now.
We can smell the food, taste the warm Milo…however our adventure has one more treat in stall for us. As we head up the river towards the Fish River bridge the clouds unleash their final assault - driving wind and rain like we have not experienced on the entire hike. It is so furious that we are forced to lean into the wind and rain that lashes at us in an attempt to keep us from civilisation. The sand whips up from the beach stinging us. The rain completely drenches us despite our wet weather gear. We are cold, tired…and we laugh. We laugh as we have not done for a long time, as we savour the feeling of being so alive, of being so blessed to enjoy such an amazing adventure.
The sun, the rain, the wind, the heat made us all catch something, something contagious…an irrepressible desire to do this type of thing again…after our warm milo, that is!
Lazily I turn my head and lick the salt off my back. The sun is warm and the beach sand soft beneath where I am lying. A cool breeze carries a fine spray onto the beach as the waves tumble up the shore in their endless quest to gain higher ground. Just ahead I catch sight of a man coming out of the trees that hug the beach. Soon he is followed by more people, trailing behind him in a line like chickens following a hen. They pause momentarily before heading towards where I'm lying. As they come closer I watch them. A few of the other cows on the beach clamber to their feet and move away. But soon they have passed and are heading away down the beach towards the green hill that rises to touch the blue sky above. Lazily I turn my head and lick the salt off my back.
"28 kilometers! Are you crazy!" The kids are not exactly enamored about the idea of an 8 hour hike to see some waterfalls. However, we persist. As a family we are on a year tour of Africa - two daughters who have just completed school and a son who will need to be home/hut/car-schooled, plus two parents intent on experiencing it all. "One of our Africa Tour mottos is to Experience new things, so we are doing this," I say. Of course the teen girls are quick to retort, "But we have seen waterfalls before, it's not new." "You're right," I reply, "but walking 28 kilometers will be!"
Our guide, Caine arrives spot on time at 7am - Africa will always surprise you just when you think you have it figured out. After a brief explanation of the route we head on down the dirt road from the Pondo Hut where we're staying at the community run campsite in Mbotyi. The road winds down the hill and crosses a low bridge where the local women and young children washing their clothes in the river below call out greetings to us.
Shortly thereafter Caine leads us to a small local Spaza store, giving us an opportunity to buy some cold drinks for the walk ahead. The shopkeeper smiles and greets us as his two small children look curiously at the strange visitors. Soon we are stocked and on our way.
The path winds its way up a small hill and quickly enters a thick, dark forest. Huge trees frame the path like a tunnel. This incredible forest that stretches for miles in all directions is impenetrable and largely unexplored except for a few paths the locals use to traverse between villages. We feel like we are explorers deep within the Amazon jungle as we listen to the haunting sound of a crying baby coming from deep within the forest. "That's a Hornbill," our guide informs us, dispelling the mounting sense of trepidation. Long, tangled vines hang from the trees and butterflies dance in rays of light that occasionally penetrate the thick canopy above.
The path emerges from the dense forest into a new world. Hills carpeted with lush green grass roll out before us, dotted with colorful huts, all spread beneath a cloudless blue sky. We walk past lone huts with views that most of us would pay a fortune to own and finally emerge on the beach. We take off our shoes and our feet relish the soft powder white sand stretching down towards a tranquil azure sea.
A herd of cows lounge lazily on the warm sand of the beach - a familiar sight all along the Wild Coast. As we move towards them some clamber lazily to their feet and amble away. A large bull boasting huge curving horns watches us as we move towards him, but as we move on he flicks his head and turns to lick his hide, quickly returning to his restful somnolence.
Our path continues up from the beach across rolling green hills, over streams, and through stunning hidden valleys. Reaching the halfway mark towards our destination, we stop to swim in a cool river that cascades down a series of small waterfalls. It's a welcome break as the warm African sun begins to take its toll. It's a short break and soon Caine is leading us on - our destination, Waterfall Bluff beckons like a siren's irresistible call.
After 4 hours of brisk walking we arrive at the edge of a cliff with a steep path winding its way down. "Be careful here," Caine says, "it's far down there." The anticipation is mounting, we've walked far to see this spectacle. Yet we are careful as we descend as quickly as we can. The moment we have been looking forward to is near. And then we round the corner and the sight is spectacular, awe inspiring. There it is, one of only 19 in the world, one of only two in Africa, the only one in South Africa - a waterfall that falls directly into the sea,
A huge overhanging rock forms a cave at Waterfall Bluff where we settle down to have a picnic in one of the world's ultimate picnic spots. The giant waves roar in from the sea and smash against the towering cliff as if seeking to rise up and meet the water plummeting down from the waterfall. It's like watching a meeting of giants, from the secure, shaded shelter of a cave. We sit there enjoying our rest while staring transfixed at this titanic sight.
About 30 minutes later it's time to move on. "I want to show you more," Caine says in his perfect English, "let's go." We are reluctant to leave this spectacle, and the children who have not complained at all are also keen to stay longer. However we know it's a long hike back so we set off once again.
Just above the falls is Mamba Pool which tantalizingly invites the hot hiker into its cool embrace. It's a huge deep green, Olympic sized pool that refreshes us immediately as we dive into its refreshing depths. A cascading waterfall tumbles into the pool just above the pool before exiting below us to head on down to its final destination - Waterfall Bluff and the sea. It's a little scary swimming in the deep, dark pool as Caine has just informed us of the origin of the pool - "Once a large mamba snake was seen here!"
With wet clothes we head on, grateful for our cool clothing as the sun beats down relentlessly upon us. After about 20 minutes Caine once more leads us toward a bluff of rock jabbing out into the ocean. We're following, not sure if this is a view point or just the way back. To our surprise it's the former. A magnificent spire of rock with a huge hole in it, to rival the famed "Hole in the Wall" further down the coast, rises out the sea below us. It is truly stunning and totally unexpected!
"It's called the Cathedral rock," Caine says, as we look on in wonder. From our vantage point high up on the cliff, the Cathedral rock stands immutable like a lone sentinel in a swirling vortex of waves. Like Waterfall bluff there are no signs, no official viewpoints, in fact there is not even a defined path. How is it possible that such natural beauty lies so unacclaimed in this land? In any other country there would be paths, signs, photo spots...but then there would probably be shops selling postcards, guided video tours and a MacDonalds...maybe it's better this way. Undiscovered, and as beautiful as it has been since the dawn of time.
We could spend hours just looking at this sight, but we still have a long hike home. We set out with 5 liters of water, but now we are running low. The sun and the distance are taking their toll on our fluid supply. Everyone is thirsty and there is only a liter left with about 3 hours to go.
Following Caine as we wind back up green hills, marveling how he knows where he is going, we meet two woman carrying huge bags on their heads. "It's muscles," Caine says, "they are carrying them to their village up there," he says pointing to a village in the distance. The village looks to be about 10km away. The round trip must have been at least 25km or more, with half of it carrying 30 or more kilograms on their heads...barefoot, of course.
Our vague concerns about sore legs and thirst vanish as we look on in awe. We continue following our guide as he makes his way over hills and across grassy plains, seemingly following some hidden map. I'm watching the path as Caine had told us to be careful of snakes and so I don't realise where we are until I look up. It seems once more we are walking out onto a rocky outcrop.
"Be careful of the gap and the cliff. Go on your stomach" Caine says as we get close. "Secret falls is there," he says pointing down. We walk carefully over the gap and then lower ourselves and slide towards the edge of the cliff.
"What!" I reply, "that is..." words fail me at this point as I look down at the sight before me. "I don't understand," I begin again. "What is this falls called?" I ask again. "Secret falls," Caine replies. And what a secret it is! Here before us is another magnificent waterfall plunging directly into the churning sea below. This seems even bigger than Waterfall bluff that we saw earlier. The view is truly beyond words. The roar of the sea far below rises up carrying with it the smell of its salty spray. The waterfall cascades down a huge cliff plummeting into the sea far below - what a triumphal way for the river to end its long journey from the hills far away.
"I never knew there were two waterfalls that fall into the sea," I say to Caine, still stunned and transfixed by the sight. And as it turns out nor does the rest of the world. Wikipedia with all its collective knowledge lists just 19 such waterfalls and 2 in Africa. It's wrong! There are 20 waterfalls emptying into an ocean, and 3 in Africa, and 2 right here just kilometers apart! It's called Secret waterfall because that's exactly what it is. No path, no signs, no knowledge of its existence by our modern world. It's plummeted into the sea for millennia upon millennia, yet the world has not known, except for a few locals, like Caine who have enjoyed this sight for many years. Maybe this is the world's best kept "Secret" after all.
The rest of our walk back, despite the heat and thirst is almost euphoric. Finally after 9 hours of sensory indulgence we arrive back at Mbotyi beach. We plunge into the cool waters of the estuary and luxuriate in finally resting. I lie in the water thinking. We have just experienced the most incredible and beautiful walk possible. We have just witnessed the most astounding views and sights imaginable. And all of this was not because of some fancy tour or some signposted walk, it was made possible by our guide. A local, born and raised in this area. A local with a love of his land and a passion to share it. A local who is making a difference. This is how we should experience Africa, because in the experiencing we are also touching lives. And who knows, you may just see something that is such an incredible secret, the world does not yet know about it!
YOU CAN HELP PEOPLE LIKE CAINE: Our goal is to share the stories of "locals" who are making a difference in their communities and touching lives. In doing this we hope that we can help touch their lives too. Our ability to touch their lives is of course up to you. By sharing this story, more people will not only experience these incredible sights, but Caine and the local community will also benefit. Please click Share below to spread the word! If you would like to help Caine or find out more about the amazing activities he offers (horse trails, overnight hikes and more) then visit here for more details on how to contact him. No middleman - just straight to the local - and that makes all the difference!
The water is glassy still as I look down at it from my vantage point on top of a dead tree. It seems as if nothing is alive beneath that glassy surface, but I know different. After a few moments I catch sight of movement just below the surface and launch myself into the air before banking sharply left and diving down towards the water. In seconds my talons break through the water and sink deeply into the soft flesh of my prey. With a mighty thrust of my wings I rise quickly above the water holding my catch as droplets roll off it like silver tears. I cry out my success to my mate as I rise high into the air.
From bush to beach. From north to south. We make our way from northern KZN and the beauty of Phinda's stunning game reserve 5 hours south to a cottage we have just outside the little coastal town of Port Edward (H). And once more God, using a different brush to the one he used to paint the bush in the north, sweeps his divine hand across this area to create an equally stunning, yet vastly different vista.
Gone are the thorn trees and endless bush - before us is a mirror-still estuary, framed by twin hills covered in dense coastal forest that reaches out to kiss the white beach and sea beyond it. Gone is the rich smell of dust and fynbos replaced by the scent of tropical coastal bush blended with salt spray.
One of our goals on our trip is to not only walk Africa but to also run Africa...that means we get to explore on foot the many wonderful places we are visiting.
It's a sticky humid day, the kind of day when the sweat drips off your body with just the slightest exertion - it's summer in KwaZulu-Natal. So if you decide to go for a run, you can expect to return hot and sweaty - and that's what we do. After a few days of inactivity balanced by equally active eating we know that a run is needed to help with the restoration of body and soul. And so despite the heat, already oppressive at 8am, we set off.
Running through the small coastal town of Port Edward on the south coast of South Africa is a real treat. The road wends its way between the sea and small old style homes that have been here for years, sporting interesting signs such as "Likable Local". Soon the paved road gives way to a dirt track framed on both sides by cool, shady trees that almost touch each other above the road. Our 8km run finally ends back on the beautiful white sandy beach where it began - but now there is the added reward, the tantalizing prospect of a cooling swim.
The moods of the Indian Ocean on this south coast of South Africa are as changing and unpredictable as the moods of a male elephant - one moment calm and serene and the next wild and dangerous. Today we are rewarded with a silky smooth sea that looks like God has turned it to glass. Beautifully formed waves grow slowly and perfectly as they approach the beach, rising in grandeur before crashing down in a spray of foam as they reach the shore and roll up the sand.
We need no second invitation and quickly doff our running gear and race towards the cool, silky embrace of the sea. The chilled liquid pleasure envelopes us and instantly washes away the heat of our run. It's invigorating, exhilarating, and what is most amazing - it's just like this nearly all year round.
Port Edward and the beaches nearby are what might be termed "far from the madding crowd". Unlike the busy and popular beaches of Durban and Cape Town, Port Edward and the nearby Ramsgate Blue Flag beach are tranquil and uncrowded - especially if you come out of season. Beautiful walkways and paths wind through the coastal bush and along the beach enabling you to walk many kilometers enjoying the beauty, searching for shells or just relishing in the amazing weather. This is the place of the endless summer!
I sit on the patio of our cottage at The Estuary, and even though we have been here many times over the years, I am overwhelmed by the beauty. The tranquil estuary stretches out to the tree-dressed hill beyond. The air is tinged with the salty smell of the sea air as the early evening sun paints the sky a kaleidoscope of colours. And then I see it - Africa's most magnificent bird, the African Fish Eagle. It rises with graceful ease off a branch and plummets towards the water to grasp a fish. In seconds it is rising again crying its iconic sound - the sound of Africa, the sound of tranquility. I raise my glass of chilled Chardonnay and toast this place of endless summer and endless beauty.
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!