Silence. Nothing stirs under the oppressive blanket of the harsh African sun. A ripple in the tall grass as a gentle breeze rolls across the valley floor. I pull at the collar of my uniform as I try and loosen its throttling grip. A trickle of sweat runs down my back, causing me to shiver, despite the heat, as though prescience of something coming. At first I think it’s my eyes playing tricks on me, as the green grass seems to shimmer and suddenly turn black. I rub the sweat out of my eyes with the back of my hand, shifting my rifle to my other shoulder. It’s not a cruel trick of the heat. The hill beyond out camp has instantly transformed. Thousands of Zulu warriors have materialised out of nowhere. I stare in horror - the depths of which I would never have imagined - as suddenly the chilling sound of the beating of thousands of shields mixed with an eerie ululation sweeps across our camp in warning of what is coming - a battle unparalleled in our nation’s proud history.
We have been invited to visit Isandlwana Lodge, located on the edge of the famous Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift battlefields - battles of loss and victory never before witnessed. “Wow,” I say as we drive along the gravel road winding between a sprinkling of local huts and the ominous hill of Isandlwana jutting out to our left, “Is that the lodge?” To our right, set majestically on the side of Nyoni rock, is the magnificent Isandlwana lodge.
After a royal welcome from Shane, the manager and his team, we are shown to our room. I’m distracted from the comfortable, elegantly decorated room by the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that provide unfettered views of the story before us. It’s like a time travel portal as I stand for a moment on our balcony clearly seeing the hundreds of dotted white stone cairns marking the graves of the thousands of British soldiers who lost their lives here.
“The Zulus attacked the British at Isandlwana on 22 January 1879,” Shane says as we stand atop the hill behind the lodge, looking out at the battlefield below. “A Zulu force of 20,000 warriors attacked the British camp of 1,800 soldiers.” A cool breeze sweeps across the remote outcrop we’re standing on, sending a shiver down my spine - or is it the tangible feeling of loss and victory forever etched on this landscape that I’m feeling? History, loss, death and senseless suffering mingle with stories of incredible bravery, hope and human compassion.
In the evening we are seated around a warm log fire, the mercury has plummeted to 8c. Sipping gluhwein and chatting about lives and history is the perfect segue into dinner - a delicious affair, and a fitting conclusion to the opening act for what lies tomorrow - our visits to the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift.
“Day waned and the night hung over the hill as we reached the last ridge beyond which had been our camp…in silence we marched down into the gloom below, where lay shrouded by a mericful pall the horrors of the past day…when we saw what had happened every man could not help crying to see so many of our poor comrades lying dead on the ground, which only a few hours before that we left them all well and hearty” (Col Crealock’s account)
It’s stunning waking up at Isandlwana lodge. A belt of mist has been draped across the valley floor as though it were a shroud in memory of the fallen. Only the stark landmark of Isandlwana peak appears above the shroud.
“I am Dalton,” Lindizwe says giving us his English name. “I am a descendant of Chief Sihayo.” As the descendant of one of the chiefs of the epic battle that played out on this stage of history, Lindizwe is the master conjurer. We are transported from the verandah where we stand overlooking the battlefields straight into the heart of the battle. Around us the smell of sweat permeates the air as thousands of Zulu warriors squatting on their haunches pause to take some snuff before the battle begins. Down below the red uniforms of the British soldiers look like tiny red ants as they scuttle between the white tents below the hill.
After painting a vivid picture of the background, we all eagerly pile into a vehicle and head to the Isandlwana battlefield, where we come face to face with the bravery and horror of this most epic battle. Climbing up the Isandlawana peak past countless white cairns is a somber reminder of the sad cost of war. Political decisions made thousands of miles away in gilded rooms that forever stamp red blood blotches all across the African planes.
“In memory of James Adrian Blakie…Killed here in battle, 22nd January 1879. Aged 19 years,” says one of the countless graves. It’s the British army’s worst defeat ever against an indigenous foe.
From Isandlwana we head, after a delicious lunch at the lodge, to Rorkes Drift, where once more we are drawn into the most epic battle. A battle where more Victoria crosses are handed out than at any other time. A story of incredible bravery, but one written in the sad waste of lives of both British and Zulu alike.
"As the Zulu army retreats from Rorkes Drift,” Lindizwe says as we stand next to the small stone strucutres where the battle took place, “they pass the returning reinforcements of Lord Chelmsford. Silently both armies walk right past each other. Not a word is said. Not a weapon is raised. The death - the loss - the horror, has been too much for both sides. Wars futility is etched on every face. Wars painful cost exacted in sons never to return, in wives left widowed, in wounded never to be whole again."
Back at the lodge as the sun sets over our time here, we enjoy an amazing braai outside on the deck, while warming ourselves around a roaring log fire. What a contrast as we sip our wine and look down on the lights of the huts dotting the plane below. The battle may be a distant memory, but the scars are all too visible under the silvery light of the rising full moon, in the endless white cairns dotting the valley like discarded bones.
We have travelled across a century and returned convinced both of the futility of war and of the need to celebrate and share our beautiful country and its epic history. Why just visit a place for your next getaway, when you can visit a place and a time - and have not just a holiday, but an unforgettable experience.
Isandlwana Lodge has 12 stylishly furnished en-suite bedrooms, each with a private balcony overlooking the panorama of the battlefield and plain. It's an ideal retreat for writers, photographers, hikers, adventurers, and anyone else wanting more than just a holiday. Besides the attraction of the history of this area, there is the beautiful scenery, quiet solitude, great food, and even exciting activities like hot air ballooning. To find out more visit the lodge's website.
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.
It’s the iconic sound of Africa, the cry of the fish eagle that draws me from my blissful somnolence. Opening my eyes I’m rewarded with a visual feast. The mirror-still estuary reflects the blue sky and the tropical forests that cluster on the surrounding hills. Faintly I can hear the deep baritone thump of the distant waves as they attempt to enter the estuary. This is the Estuary Hotel & Villas, near Port Edward on the KZN South Coast. It's a place we come to about five times a year…and we’ve been coming here for over 10 years, and this is exactly why!
“Let’s go for a canoe,” Nicky suggests as I come fully awake after the all important morning coffee. We grab our canoe and paddle up towards the river that enters the estuary. It looks like a knife slicing a mirror as we cut through the water. A flash of colour. It’s the stunning Malachite kingfisher skimming above the water in search of breakfast. Every time we canoe up the river I feel like I’m entering a scene from an Indiana Jones movie, as the thick, indigenous coastal forest, complete with vines, and huge legavaans lounging on rocks, closes in around us. And it seems we are not the only ones who think this. Earlier in the year we were surprised when we came upon an entire village that had sprung up in the forest over night. A village with canoes, reed huts, dried fish hanging….we couldn’t believe it. It turned out to be a set built by Disney for their new movie Jungle Book. However it had no sooner miraculously appeared in all it’s intricate detail than it vanished again leaving only the jungle setting.
“What’s that?” says Nicky pointing ahead as we round the corner of the river. “Oh, my hat! I can’t believe it.” Sure enough there appears to be more buildings in the forest. This time it’s an old trading store and pump house. Once more it turns out to be a set for another movie.
After our morning canoe adventure we head down to the beach. It’s a short stroll and we are soon seated on velvet soft sand pondering whether we should heed the siren’s call of the smooth swells that are rolling up the shore. I love this beach - it’s beautiful white sand, framed by the estuary and lush tropical forests on the surrounding hills. It’s little wonder that there’s a wedding taking place on the beach. What a spot to seal the deal as guests seated on white trimmed chairs, sans their shoes, enjoy the ultimate cathedral under the endless blue sky.
“How about a beer at Bobbys?” I suggest after we’ve enjoyed our swim and are now drying like content lizards. This is one invitation that never requires repeating. Beach Bobbys is just a short stroll across the beach and soon we are seated on their lovely deck area where we satiate out thirst with an icecold draft beer and the requisite plate of wedges, while looking out for dolphins and whales in the sea.
Time here seems to fold in on itself as morning somehow becomes afternoon, and afternoon melts away into evening. It’s as though the tranquility of the estuary is reflected in the tranquility of time. As the sun begins to set and turns the estuary into a canvas of red, orange, and pink we stroll up to the Estuary hotel. This beautiful hotel, originally designed by Sir Herbert Baker, is set atop a hill and commands stunning views of the living canvas below it. What better spot to enjoy our sundowners.
“Hi, I'm Quinton,” the assistant manager introduces himself. “Would you like a snack basket with your drinks?” Now that sounds like a great idea. As we sit outside sipping our wine and enjoying a tasty snack basket of samoosas, calamari, chicken and other goodies we soak in the vista.
The soft orange light of the restaurant draws us in as outside the deep purples of early evening create a stunning living painting behind us. It's not just by chance the restaurant is called the Fish Eagle Restaurant. Here you feel like a fish eagle perched up high, and the cry of these magnificent birds often floats in the air.
Tonight we have options of the buffet or the a la carte. Normally I'd go for a la carte, but the buffet looks good, so I opt for that. The delicious looking beef curry is probably what sways me, and I'm not disappointed.
With great resolve I have small portions of the crumbed chicken, pasta and other items reserving myself for the curry. Aah…and how good it is. Succulent and spicy. My love with curry is reaffirmed. The chef TK comes out to see how we are enjoying our meal and I congratulate him on his curry. Here's hoping he keeps it up because I'd go back just for that, not to mention the best views on the South Coast.
As I lean back in my chair, satiated visually and gastronomically, I am left in no doubt why we keep on coming back to this amazing place. A blend of wild and modern, beauty and adventure, forest and sea, action and tranquility…and at the moment it’s tranquility that’s winning, as we head off to bed accompanied by the distant sound of the sea and the goodnight chorus of nighttime birds and insects.
For more info on the Estuary Hotel, check out their website here!
“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.
Sometimes the planets align and blessings truly do abound. Nicky and I have been invited to visit the Oyster Box, which recently was awarded second place in the Condé Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards of the top Hotels in Africa. To say that we’re excited is an understatement. We’re like kids headed to a chocolate factory.
The weather has turned cold and a wind is gusting like a crazed banshee as we make our way towards Umhlanga. "Check in, there's a check in," the guard who has warmly welcomed us calls ahead on his radio. After entering through the boom we are directed to stop in front of the hotel lobby where a porter takes our bags, a driver takes our car, and a doorman welcomes us with a beaming smile.
“Meow.” Even the famed Oyster Box cat Skabenga is there giving us his regal, if not somewhat dismissive, welcome.
I look around to see if Zuma's cavalcade has arrived. But it turns out this welcome is for us. Now I know how those politicians and famous people feel. Maybe I should get into politics or dig up a long lost royal lineage. I’m enjoying this.
Entering through the doors is like stepping into another world. Outside the wind is gusting and dark, foreboding clouds are rolling across the sky. Inside there is quietness, warmth...and the royal welcome continues.
“Good afternoon,” Zanele says at the reception, “and welcome to The Oyster Box,” she says while beaming a huge smile at us. We have traveled extensively, we’ve stayed in everything from a sleeping bag on the dusty desert sand to a king-sized bed laid out beneath a canopy of stars. And in all these experiences there is one thing that is more important than anything else, and that is the people who make these special places happen. Sure the setting, facilities, and views are important, but all of these are nothing if the hospitality is not there. We’re getting bucket-loads of hospitality…not just service, hospitality…that authentic, meaningful service...and we’re still only at the checkin counter sipping a glass of sparkling wine. “The best is yet to come,” as they say in the classics!
“Could I show you around the hotel,” Zanele asks.
“Sure,” we reply. Why not have the royal tour too. And so we find ourselves soaking up the amazing, regal spaces of The Oyster Box. It feels like Back to the Future.
We’ve stepped back in time…Pith-helmeted footman open doors and usher us into glass elevators. Slowly turning fans from a long-past colonial era lazily stir the air, while live piano music mingles with the clink of glasses and the smell of fresh coffee and baked treats. We’ve stepped forward in time...Plastic cards grant us access to our room. Inside are luxurious, high-backed chairs, flat-screen TVs and vast ceiling to floor sliding glass doors. The sea is in our room.
“Let’s go and get some pre-dinner drinks,” Nicky suggests after we’ve settled into our room. We head up to the famous Lighthouse Bar where Basil brings us two draft beers and a delicious selection of snacks. We're seated on luxury leather chairs and the bright red shiny leather seats interspersed with old style brown leather chairs mingle to create a vibrant yet relaxing atmosphere. Outside the wind howls while the lighthouse's light stabs out into the ocean to warn the ships of the rocks…or is it possibly to invite them to this pearl on the rocks. The Lighthouse Bar must be one of the best places in KZN to enjoy sundowner drinks. And judging from how full it is on a Monday night, it seems like the word is out.
After mentally preparing ourselves for what we have heard is a gastronomical feast, we head down to the Ocean Terrace room to taste the famous Oyster Box curry buffet. The world-class hospitality continues as we are welcomed by the hostess, and then treated royally by the waitrons. We are seated beneath slowly turning fans on white cane furniture made luxurious by the addition of comfy aqua blue cushions. The white lattice roof and pillars, and tiled floor, create a fresh and inviting ambiance…but who has time for ambiance when a buffet of KZNs finest curries await.
I need to make a confession now…Being born and bred in KZN, curry is my thing. It’s my food of choice. My dying-wish meal. I can’t last more than a week without curry. In fact when we travel to other countries we often bring our own Durbs spices with us. And so I am in keen anticipation of this feast. The spread of curries is distressing! Simply because there are so many and I’m cursing I ate those snacks in the Lighthouse Bar. I should of fasted for at least a day in preparation.
Chicken and Prawn Curry, Butternut, Chickpea and Feta Curry, Butter Chicken Curry, Lamb Curry, Dhal & Brinjal Curry, Beef Vindaloo…and on and on the list goes. I can hear the “Hallelujah Chorus” playing. Heaven! A spicy heaven! As I tuck into my groaning plate I am not disappointed. The flavours are spectacular. My favourite is the Beef Vindaloo, with its rich spicy flavour, and soft succulent beef chunks. It’s an explosion of vibrant tastes that warms the body and soul.
“The secret is in where you get your spices,” Robert the chef tells me as I try and learn some tips. “We only buy ours from places that produce quality spices.” I’m distracted as he goes into detail…you can’t have a conversation between two people when there is a pot of delicious curry between you. I’m stuffed…but there’s always room in the reserve stomach for one more portion.
Satiated, and with a curry-induced glow of contentment around me, we head upstairs to check out the Oyster Box’s private cinema. An approximately 20-seater movie theatre set beneath a star-lit ceiling welcomes us. We are the only guests, and snuggled beneath warm, soft blankets and sipping a decadent hot chocolate we enjoy our private cinema experience.
“That feeling of being someone famous, a movie star, a king…I’m starting to believe it!” I think to myself as I slip into the silky soft embrace of our king size bed. Tonight I will no doubt have royal dreams.
Waking to the sound of the ocean is a treat. Waking to the sound of the ocean in the Oyster Box is treatment. I've purposefully left the shutters open causing the soft early morning light to paint the room golden. “They have a coffee machine,” I say while dancing a morning jig. What more could we ask for as we sip a fresh espresso appreciating the full, rich, spectacular experience - not of the coffee, well that too - but of the view from our room.
"Welcome I'm Jonathan," the waiter introduces himself as we arrive at the Ocean Terrace for breakfast. "I have a special table for you in my section." Aah, the special treatment continues! "Can I explain the breakfast to you?" he asks. And with our acquiesce he enthusiastically describes our gastronomical options.
"This is the cold section," he says pointing to a colorful array of fruits, cereals, pastries, cheeses, oysters…yes oysters!...and more. It looks like it should be in an art exhibition as the carvings, colors and creative displays tantalizingly draw one in. "And this is where you can choose a main meal," Jonathan continues. Once more we are regaled with a list of choices. I didn't realize eggs could be done in so many ways.
Seated at our table sipping a cappuccino, we do our best to be worthy of the tantalising options before us. The quiet chatter of a few other diners who are here mingles with the music and the sounds of the sea outside. The Oyster Box… “Well,” I think to myself, “Now I know how a pearl feels…it feels great!”
Some of the Oyster Box's well-deserved 2015 Awards...
Condé Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards - Voted No. 2 in the Top 25 Hotels in Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor: Hall of Fame - Certificate of Excellence (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 3 Best Hotel in South Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 6 Best Hotel in Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 13 Luxury Hotel in South Africa (2015)
TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards: Voted Number 14 Best Service in South Africa (2015)
World Luxury Spa Awards: Voted Best Luxury Hotel Spa in South Africa (2015)
To find out more about The Oyster Box, and experience the ultimate in hospitality
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.
Pizza, vino, cappuccino, deez are da things that make life worth living. As I cross the road I see someone looking at the menu. “Ciao,” I say. “We have the best pizzas in the world.” The girl, she looks at me and smiles. I think she will be back. I watch as she walks away. Yes, pizza, vino and cappuccino, they are the things that we live for.
After leaving the network of dirt tracks in Mozambique we return to South Africa. It's like chalk and cheese, sand and tar, wild and calm. It's been fun but it's good to cruise on a paved road with signs and lines and modern things. Yet it's short lived as we turn off on our way towards Sodwana. The route hugs Lake Sibaya, and just like in Mozi, it is mainly thick sand and undulations, winding through dense coastal forests. It's beautiful seeing glimpses of this magnificent Lake Sibaya, but I'm giving the driving full concentration as once or twice Pajey fights furiously to get through the thick sand. Getting stuck out here would be a problem - there is no cell signal, no humans that we've seen. Years later, all that would be discovered would be our remains picked clean by hippos. However, finally after about two hours we arrive at Sodwana Bay Lodge.
We awake and are ready for action. Today we are headed to Mkuze Game Park. Our first stop on route to Mkuze is the Spar at Mbazwane. We've had to adapt to a new style of shopping as we move off the grid, and shop where Africa shops. The shop cuisine sports everything from bulk packs of chicken claws to 50kg bags of mealie meal - enough to feed a small nation for a week. No suhsi in sight....Aah, for a taste of sushi. Actually just chicken that no longer looks like a recently departed chicken would be good.
We make our way along a bumpy dirt road that occasionally gives way to what appears to be the distant memory of a tar road before giving up completely and returning to gravel again. Added to this are the bonus points for dodging cows, goats, and equally non-intelligent pedestrians.
Eventually, we arrive at the Mkuze gate, flash our Rhino card, fill in endless, pointless forms, as though this is a border crossing, and are finally admitted. By this stage we are feeling peckish - it must be the lingering memory of chicken claws. We head to a lake-side picnic spot arriving just after noon having not seen another car or human on route here. It's wonderful having this game park all to ourselves. Soon we've set up our table, poured our chilled wine, and are smelling the wors braaing as we listen to the hiss of our promised meal mingling with the nearby sound of snorting hippos and the distant cry of a fish eagle. It truly is incredible to be just 20 meters away from these magnificent animals while enjoying fine food.
Sodwana Run & Snorkel
'Tis always a joy for the children to be awoken with the news “We're heading out for a run in 10 minutes”. But such is the lot that does on occasion fall upon them, as it is on this fine morn. With Hannah's mumbles muted due to a restraining order already imposed, we head out, and what a rave run it is…for us at least. We run the gently undulating road towards Sodwana beach but are forced to turn at 2.5km as some of the less running inclined kids deem this far enough.
The deep blue sea is calling us and today we will venture into it. We've booked a snorkeling adventure. “It's women and children first,” says the guy who is going to lead our dive as we get ready to launch. “And then when you are waist deep the rest can get in the boat.” So much for equality. Clinging white-knuckled to the side of the boat as the waves roll in I await the call to “abandon sea” hoping it will come before the waves swamp me or the boat propeller slices me into biltong pieces.
Getting out to sea in the rubber duck is like driving on a badly potholed road, which resonates with our driving experience in this area. We bump along the coast for about 20 minutes finding nothing more than a shoal of hyperactive tuna leaping through the waves. Aah, sushi...so close yet so far.
“This is the reef,” the dive master says once we give up on the elusive dolphins, “follow me,” he says leaping overboard into the big wide ocean. Reef? This looks like the great wide open sea. An ideal place for sharks to suck on turtle-looking snorkellers.
In moments we are all bobbing in the ocean like a flock of colorful jellyfish. Putting my face down a hidden world of visual splendor erupts into view. Floating high above the reef far below, I see schools of colorful fish dance and dart to the crackling sound of the coral. The scene is stunning as we “fly” over this hidden world and get a glimpse into the unseen.
Returning to the boat after about 30 minutes I find Hannah and Josh already there having succumbed to the ocean's kiss - nausea. Clinging onto the boat we bounce our way back and before long are showered and warming, like contented lizards, in the sun.
In the evening we attend the local church, Solid Ground, that takes place in a home. We are warmly welcomed and enjoy the worship and the powerful message ahout hearing God - something I really need as the fear of the upcoming Comrades marathon settles upon me! Should I run it this year? It's number 10...but this was going to be the year off. Decisions...
Across the road from the church is an Italian pizza restaurant claiming to be the best in the world. We met the proprietor yesterday and he is Italian both in accent and enthusiastic spirit. The restaurant is just a caravan nestled on the side of the road with a few tables planted in the sand. Candles on the table and stars above create a truly remarkable ambiance as jovial music pumps out of a pair of small speakers coming out of the caravan kitchen.
The thin based pizzas are delicious and we wash them down with the wine served in paper coca cola cups. “It's an epic way to end an amazing stay at Sodwana,” I think to myself as we walk the kilometer or so back to our chalet. Africa just keeps on serving up the best in tastes, sights, experiences and people. Nkosi Sikilele Africa.
The cool of the water makes me want to stay underneath for longer, but I must come up to get some air. I rise slowly. As my head breaks the water I exhale sending a fine spray of water into the air. Not far from where I am I can see a lot of activity. Its humans. At first I am not sure what they're doing, and then I see. They're running. Something must be chasing them...but I'm not really interested. I sink below the cool water once again, savouring it's cool embrace.
A gentle breeze wraps languidly around me as drops of condensation distill on the glass of Sauvignon Blanc I'm holding. It's 30c but the light breeze and the deep shade of the huge African Fig tree under which we're seated makes this a perfect spot for our picnic. Before us stretches wide open grasslands dotted with clumps of trees. A herd of giraffe look quizzically at us as we settle down for our picnic. “This has to be one of the world's best picnic spots,” I think to myself as I sit soaking in the surreal vista before me.
We're in the iSimangiliso St Lucia Park. We've found an amazing spot to have a picnic and soak in all that is amazing about Africa. We have it all to ourselves. A lone warthog scuttles with its aerial-like tail held high towards the dwindling water in the pan.
The salty biltong and blue cheese stuffed olives are a perfect complement to our wine. The weave of the animals grazing, the soft caress of the wind, the symphony of the birds, the taste of fresh rolls layered with ham, basil and tomato makes this an almost indescribable experience. How do you describe this feeling? How do you put into words the exhilaration, the joy, the peace of an experience like this? It can't be described. It must be lived. They say TIA - “This Is Africa” - and they're right. In the distance the fish eagle cries out her agreement as she rises gracefully on the late afternoon thermals. This is Africa and it's beautiful. It's life-changing. It's real. It's unequalled. Hannah and Josh climb an ancient tree framing out view and sit on its long, stretching, thick branch. Their vantage point gives them an unobstructed view of the open planes before them and the slowly moving herd of giraffe as they head off.
As we drive out of the park the sun begins to descend towards the tree fringed horizon. We can't miss it. It's too beautiful to let it go uncelebrated. Leaving the park we head straight to Sunset Jetty, which adjoins the estuary. The sun is just melting over the horizon, painting the estuary a fiery glow of orange.
“It's so early,” one of the kids complains, as we wake up at 7am on Sunday morning. They are sure out of the early morning school routine if this feels early. But we're all getting up. “Come on guys,” I say, “we are not going to be late.” Thirty minutes later we are headed out and down to the St Lucia Skiboat club where the action begins. Today we're running. Hannah and Josh are doing the 5km fun run. Sarah is doing the 10km run. Nicky and I are doing the 21km - a final fun trainer before Comrades. And what a run it turns out to be. It goes through thick coastal forest, along the main road of St Lucia, next to the game park and finally along the beach front and the boardwalk. What an epic run. We finally all meet up back at the club, and with the music pumping, the announcer welcoming back runners, we enjoy a beer and toasted sandwich. In the river a large hippo breaks the surface of the water, and exhales loudly sending a fine spray of water into the air. It floats for a moment, seemingly looking at us and thinking, “Crazy dudes...you don't get a figure like mine by running like that!” It sinks below the water.
“This place is infested with hippos,” I say loving the fact that there are just so many. I don’t realise just how many there are. As evening settles upon the tiny town of St Lucia we are given the Eskom treat…darkness. We decide to take a walk down the main street and look at some of the shops that are still open, and have power. “Hey,” Nicky suggests, “why don’t we walk back on the back streets as it will be darker and we can see the stars.” We all agree. It is dark, and the only tourch I have is my cellphone which I point at the road, not so much for the potential of tripping over something, but because hippos roam freely in St Lucia at night. However the small torch does little to pierce the thick darkness.
Just up ahead the road passes a park and opposite that is the entrance to our timeshare. We stop for a moment to appreciate the stars, and are about to move on when Eskom decides to return the light like some benevolent utility provider. But on this occasion their benevolence is appreciated. Just across the road in the park, three large hippo are grazing, just meters away from where we would have been if we had continued to walk. Hannah yelps and runs for safety into a nearby driveway, while we all back away. Wow. This really is a hippo infested place. You just have to love it.
The next night, as we are enjoying an evening coffee and cake at one of the restaurants, we see a hippo come trotting up the main road. This is a crazy place. “Dad,” Josh says, “let’s go hipp spotting.” Yeah, why not…and so we pile into Pajey and drive the streets of St Lucia. It’s pitch dark as we enter a car park that borders the estuary. Joshua is shining the torch out the window. In moments a huge dark form is illuminated…and then another, and another. A pod of hippos is grazing contentedly next to the car park. Carefully we all slip out of the car in the ink-black night, and clamber onto the roof. Above us a million stars have been sprayed across the sky. The night is still. The only sound is the rustle of something large, and the sound of grass being eaten as the hippos graze contentedly. Wow. What a place. Where else in the world could you feel so alone yet so close to such amazing animals. Wow.
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.
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.