The twisting but paved two lane road leading into the World Heritage Site of the 243,000 hectare uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park is one of the most dramatic, majestic, and stunning byways anywhere in the world. Sprinkled throughout the grassveld are the beehive homes of the Zulus. A herd of blue uniformed school children line the road and wave and laugh and smile. This is a happy place.
At the end of the dead end lane is one of the world’s most magnificent retreats, the Cathedral Peak Hotel, set on 400 hectares of rolling hillocks and abutting the Cathedral Peak Nature Reserve. Cathedral Peak is an awesome 150 million year old spire of sandstone and basalt that zooms out of the earth with an alpine attitude with flying buttresses clamped to its sides to ensure its geological longevity. Cathedral Peak is 3,004 meters of free-standing skyscraper that is right out of a Disney theme park.
The original Cathedral Peak Hotel.
Other peaks in the area are: The 500 meter Column that hides behind The Pyramid, The Bell, and a wall of what looks like organ pipes that could be played by the gods. By 1917 all the main peaks and pinnacles had been climbed, but the area is still a strong draw for mountaineers. (The hotel has a 10 meter climbing wall.)
The Drakensbergs rose when Africa pulled away from Australia and South America; the lofty massif is one of the oldest ranges in the world. Ancient plants from the dinosaur era are still thriving in the cool ravines, such as the Berg Cycad, Tree Fern, and Maidenhair Fern, all protected species. Guided hikes take guests to many of the remote areas along 16 different paths.
Within the nooks and crannies and gullies and caves of the Park are the last San People (Bushmen) signs of their ancient presence, over 35,000 documented rock art images set in an open air museum, many dating back over 2,400 years.
San People (Bushmen) rock art dates back 2,400 years.
In 1937 the young farmer Albert Van der Riet began the construction of The Cathedral Peak Hotel in the remote valley. He hired and trained Besotho natives to blast and hand hew the sandstone and the extremely hard to carve, once molten lava that had cooled into basalt, and then flood tumbled down the icy Umhlambonia River that flows from the mountain below the hotel. Transportation and communications were difficult to the site, but the hotel opened its 45 rooms on Christmas Day in 1939. During the war years Albert granted three weeks of free convalescence to military personnel that breathed in the rarified oxygen in serenity, and later returned with their families after the conflict.
The hand hewn sandstone survives.
After Albert’s passing in 1987 his son William Albert took over the family hostelry and added many new facilities and activities. Maureen has been the hotel manager for over ten years, and on a walking tour we visited the outdoor boma area for group dining events, the small spa, the squash and tennis courts, bowling green, croquet and soccer fields, and the beautiful chapel where William Albert married his second wife Belinda.
The chapel resembles the peaks.
In 1987 a wing was opened for the conference centre (the hotel hosts about two business events a week), reception shop, and the new Albert’s Bar, named after the father who died in Durban that same year; it opens up to the spacious terrace where lunch and drinks are dramatically served. The more intimate Harry’s Bar is open for special occasions and is named after a famous barman that served hotel guests for over 45 years. It was converted from its original use as a writing room.
The Conference Centre provides business equipment;
WiFi is throughout the hotel.
The original semi circular lounge with fireplace is now the dining area where bountiful breakfast and dinner buffets are served as part of your accommodation package.
Dine on the magnificent Terrace.
In 1992 the barracks or long block of rooms was demolished to create a new double terraced row of superior and deluxe suites that overlook beautiful flower gardens that were designed and planted by Doreen, Albert’s wife.
In 1996 the hillside golf course and clubhouse was opened with nine holes, but with alternative tee boxes the course unfolds into 18 holes of unparalleled splendor.
Near the hotel the kids can enjoy a mini putt course, and heated and cold plunge pools.
The 9-hole course has alternative tees for 18 holes of play.
There are many styles of cottages and suites and rooms to choose from at the hotel, and with various package deals, such as weekend, or weekday, or winter packages, any budget can be accommodated. The six stylish Honeymoon or Executive suites have spectacular views of the mountains, but the Mponjwane Presidential Suite is certainly over the top with its picturesque living mural of mountains that walk right into the room as if you were still outdoors. The best choices for singles or couples are the Superior or Deluxe rooms. Families have the option of interconnecting rooms or family thatch rooms. All hotel rooms provide tea/coffee making facilities, heater, telephone, wide screen television, and en-suite bathroom with both bath and shower.
A Deluxe Suite.
The superlative Mponjwane Presidential Suite.
The comfortable en-suite family thatch rooms are located in the beautiful hotel gardens and can accommodate between 2 to 4 guests. The Superior rooms are also in the gardens. The Deluxe Suites have a private verandah overlooking the gardens. The interconnecting or interleading family Deluxe rooms are able to accommodate up to four guests in either twin or double beds.
The most popular Honeymoon/Executive Suites are thatched roofed cottage set in secluded gardens. They all have been luxuriously refurbished to enhance their appeal and create an intimate ambience, all boasting a king-size bed, LCD television, telephone, mini bar, fridge, electric fireplace, under-floor heating, spa bath, and private verandah with breathtaking views of the Drakensberg Mountains. The Mponjwane Presidential Suite boasts a fireplace, spa bath, steam bath, under-floor heating, two televisions with full DSTV, air-conditioning, and electric curtains opening onto a private verandah. The suite is decorated in warm textured hues with high quality finishes and sophisticated lighting. The natural surroundings are introduced into the décor and the guests will have the use of a private golf cart for the duration of their stay. It must be noted that only the Presidential Suite has air conditioning, but with the crisp, clean mountain air, who needs it, throw open the windows and doors and grab rarified scents of the outdoors.
The Honeymoon/Executive Suites.
One afternoon while sitting on my Deluxe room verandah and after a mid-afternoon rain shower that left the flowers with dabs of wet pigment an African Sunbird flitted and landed on the wire railing to say hello. Its iridescent green feathers shone as if painted by Gauguin, and its red chest bulged into a twitter before flying off to check in with other guests. In our computerized world, this is my kind of twitter! There are about 121 bird species living around the hotel, so bring your binoculars, bird book, and check off your bird list.
The hotel's bountiful gardens draws birds.
One afternoon I met up with the hotel’s Zulu hiking guide, Daniel, and a guest from Cape Town for an invigorating afternoon trek into the foothills.
Daniel has led hikers on every pinnacle and peak in the area, but our two hour meander saw him leading two old geezers to a petroglyph site under an overhanging rock. After a stiff climb Daniel pointed out the Bushman artwork at the bottom of the rock. A shaman woman, eland, and warriors painted in antelope blood popped out of the rock, even after 2,200 years. From the aerie vantage point the Bushmen would run down the eland and other antelope and game and shoot them with their poisoned arrows.
Daniel, my Zulu hiking guide.
The Bushmen lived in peace for thousands of years in the area before the Bantu tribes appeared in the 16th century and pushed them farther up into the mountains. The farming and herding Bantu were later pushed back into present day Lesotho by the Zulus, who called the valley Amangwane. The last of the Bushmen assimilated with the Bantu. The last free roaming Bushmen have their own homelands now only in Botswana and Namibia. For more about the Bushmen and Bantu and early Zulus visit the Natal Museum in the city of Pietermaritzburg.
Daniel can also lead you on more elaborate petroglyph searching hikes to remote Sebaaieni Cave in Ndedema Gorge, and to Eland Cave, where the last reported modern contact with a Bushman occurred in 1925.
Hike to Hanging Rock.
Other paths lead to The Blue Pool, Hanging Rock, and Baboon Rock (the profile of a baboon is seen from the hotel terrace).
Maybe you will spot a few Eland or the Black Wildebeest and Blesbok that Albert reintroduced back into the wild, many no doubt roaming the government planted Oqualweni Forest.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife overseas and protects the entire valley and mountain area these days, including a chunk of land Albert donated called Inhoek and Schaapskraal.
If you didn’t bring your Masai sneakers take a guided pony ride or hop on a mountain bike or hire a quad bike to get you around.
Cathedral Peak Hotel has its own stables.
Albert was a world renown big game fisherman and today he is still only one of three anglers to hold claim to boating the Big 3: marlin, tuna, and swordfish weighing in at over 800 pounds each. His fishing prowess is stuffed and mounted in the reception area. Albert, for many years, represented South Africa in saltwater tournaments that took him touring the world. I took a trout fishing tour to the hotel’s stocked pond. Hugh, William Albert’s uncle, manages the family trout farm and the catch is seared for the table at the restaurant. Read the Jetsetters Magazine feature, Barrier of Spears Trout Fishing.
Relax in the lounge after a day of fun.
The early Afrikaans called them the Dragon Mountains or Drakensberg; after a thunderous five hour electrical storm the dragon flames roared and danced and sparked across the vale.
Glorious flightseeing with the hotel's heli.
With the rarified autumn air clearing the next morning I felt like soaring like a Lammergeyer or bearded vulture for a picnic atop Cathedral Peak. Daniel wouldn’t have to guide the ten hour ordeal because the hotel has its own helipad and commercial helicopter that even William Albert flies. That’s what I call hands on — or rather, hang on — management.
Picnic on the peaks.
A rarified retreat.
Cathedral Peak Hotel
Drakensberg South Africa
P.O. Box 208, Winterton
South Africa, 3340
Tel: +27 (36) 488 1888
Fax: +27 (36) 488 1889
InStyle Tours in Pietermaritzburg provides tours and transfers to the Cathedral Peak area. Carl and Colin's road trip narratives highlight the history, wildlife, and geology along the scenic Cathedral Peak drive.
Tel: 033 320 3298
Cell: 082 471 3434
— Feature by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine; photos by the author and courtesy of Cathedral Peak Hotel.
Cathedral Peak Hotel has a heated and a cold pool.