Hike and Horseback Ride the Dragon Mountains.
We arrived in the Drakensberg Mountains late and under a dark mist. Even though the big excursion truck was a 4×4 it would never make it the last six kilometers of graveled incline to the Drakensberg Lodge, so it was parked for a smaller vehicle pulling a luggage trailer; it still took 45 minutes.
The remote lodge is perched on an expansive bench at 1,700 meters above sea level; a barrier of serrated peaks ran a gauntlet on one side of the encampment of five cabins, a cook shack, and the manager’s home; the reserve is run by Allen and Clare.
The Drakensberg Lodge is in a mountain setting.
The five log cabins slept four to a unit, two in each room; each bungalow had a small wood stove, while the bathrooms separated the units, all under one roof, with a nice coffee patio out front. The cabiny feel made me think of my home state of Wyoming. The camp had solar power and gas hot water heaters.
Clare commands the kitchen.
Griffiths had a night off from his chef duties, and we had a night off from kitchen pots and pans patrol. Allen and Clare had prepared a wonderful chicken meat balls dinner on rice as a pot stickler, with butternut squash soup as a starter, along with salads and desserts and homemade breads. The next night Allen braised lamb chops on the outdoor braai.
Early Afrikaans Voortrekkers called these peaks the Dragon Mountains, but to the Zulus they were uKhahlamba, or The Barrier of Spears. This was not the first time I had been in the highest mountains of South Africa; the trout and bass fly fishing rivers and ponds are superb, and In fact, a brown trout pond spread as smooth as an ironed table cloth below the lodge, near the unheated pool, fed by mountain stream water. Peter and Eve were shivering after their brief dip.
The Drakensberg Mountains is an extensive range.
The Drakensberg Mountains span the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mpumalanga, and end in Tzaneen in Limpopo Province in NE South Africa.
The geology of the mountains was a slow process: the extrusion of magma, known as Drakensberg lava, was forced through fissures and cracks in the Earth’s surface and capped the sedimentary rock formations with layers of solid basalt up to 1,400 meters thick. Weathering reduced the range’s size, and caused the plateau to recede.
A cabin with a lovely view.
Hiking into the mountains.
With the recent rains the alti-montane grasslands were verdant greenery, wispy in the wind, right up to the sylvan copses of woodlands that trailed down the mountain slopes.
These mountains are home to the world’s second-highest waterfall, the Tugela Falls (Thukela Falls), with a total drop of 947 meters. Over 90 plants are endemic to the area, many are very rare. The San or bushman, lived in the area for thousands of years, running down the elusive elands.
The younger and heartier Drifters hiked to the San rock paintings and caves, a National Heritage Site, and a vulture colony, making a loop across the top of the ridges. The trekkers made a scattered early evening arrival after more than six hours of peak clambering, just as the mist fell off the mountains like a smoky waterfall.
The best way to see the scenery is on a horse.
Efrom and Eve at the stables.
I had to add myself into the geezer category because I could only hike the foothills. A steady steed from the lodge stable was more in order to leisurely enjoy the beautiful terrain.
There is an additional nominal fee to ride the horses in the remuda managed by from Efron, who also acted as our guide.
Saddles were English-style, no Western roping horn; helmets were required, but Efrom got by with his frayed cowboy hat. He looked the part of a Drifter.
Drifters owns the reserve around Drakensberg Lodge and plans to expand it and import even more Mountain Zebras and elands, one of the largest of antelopes, and even giraffes, which were all native species at one time.
As we sat around the black wattle fire heating the circular stove in the middle of the cook shanty, all agreed that the Drakensberg Lodge was their favorite Drifters hangout. We spent two nights at the lodge, but a week or two would not have been enough
The cook shanty at Drakensberg Lodge.
After coming down off the mountain from the Drakensberg Lodge we drove over the Oliviershoek Pass and drove past the turquoise waters of the Sterkfontain Dam and on to Golden Gate Highlands National Park, located in the rolling hills of the Maluti Mountains, in the NE section of the Free State Province.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
2013 saw the 50th anniversary of one of South Africa’s smallest parks, at just under 12,000 hectares. Golden Gate gets its moniker because of the golden sandstone cliffs, especially the imposing Brandwag Cliff at sunset, overlooking the main rest camp where we made a photo stop. The world’s oldest dinosaur embryo was found in the park, and there are numerous hidden San rock art paintings. The Zulus used to sharpen their spears on the gritty sandstone.
About 30 kilometers from Golden Gate is Clarens, the extreme adventure capital (zip lines and quad bikes) for the region. A few of the Drifters whitewater rafted the swollen Ash River, while others strolled the quaint souvenir and antique stores in town. Clarens had an active art colony and I took the self-guided walking art route around the berg.
Drifters raft the Ash River at Clarens.
It was hot and dry and I quenched my thirst with a homemade ginger beer at one of the restaurants and then settled in for some impromptu bush jazz from a local band. Most meals are included in the moderate rates of all Drifters tours, but today lunch was on our own in Clarens.
But the next night we had an elegant dinner served on real china on a red checked tablecloth and candles lit in silver candelabras at the Fouriesburg Country Lodge. The buffet was self-serve from big pans of roast beef, grilled chicken, and for dessert, brandy cake.
Fine dining at Fouriesburg Country Lodge.
Later we assisted the locals in celebrating the 120th anniversary of the historic Victorian era hotel by imbibing wine from the extensive wine cellar at the 120 year old bar; it was the first time I actually really looked at my rough and sun tanned appearance mirrored in the beautiful back bar. The stubble of beard identified me as a Drifter, too. There was free wifi in the public areas and the Millenniums popped up their whitewater photos on their lap tops for grins and laughs.
The hotel, located in the town of Fouriesburg, was not a Drifters Lodge, but a private enterprise that Drifters leases because of its strategic location on the eastern edge of the Free State (once the capital of the province) and on the edge of the Great Karoo.
Yes it was dry, that is why they called it the Karoo, named by the Afrikaners for . . . dry. But we were not dry, we were wetting our whistles at “The Brewery” in Nieu Bethesda, as if there was another brewery in a town that looked like a bandit hideout because of its adobe-style whitewashed buildings, dusty streets, and hole-in-the-wall atmosphere. If this is Nieu Bethesda I wondered what Olde Bethesda looked like. The Karoo was truly South Africa’s outback.
Smoked kudu and artisan cheeses arruve with the ales.
There was a nominal 40R (about $5 USD) fee to participate in the beer tasting session. According to brewery owner, Adam, his massive distribution network of the suds (ales and lagers) was just around town and in his own restaurant. We picnicked on the back patio; an irrigation ditch brought gravity fed water to the thirsty town, but the beers were hand crafted with spring water, no preservatives added; the hops was grown in farms nearby.
The Germans were in Ale agreement at The Brewery.
The Brewery also grinds its own home grown coffee beans, and serves artisan cheeses, along with the delightful smoked kudu cold cuts from a nearby private game reserve. I sipped on my Honey Ale and was part of the free-for-all at the hors d’oeuvres trays that Adam brought out. Gusto glowed across the cheeks of our band of brigands, the Germans were in beer heaven. You couldn’t have wiped off those smiles for miles.
As we headed to Drifters Karoo Lodge another sign was down and we were truly drifting through Africa until Griffiths got his bearings straight again. The truck had no GPS on board for a reason, the company doesn’t want the trucks to duck under low bridges, so all routes are planned on desolate roads. Yeah, we were drifting now.
Read on, click the sign for The Karoo Lodge, Wild Coast Lodge, and Cape Town Lodge.
— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.