Durban - Barrelling along the road to Golden Gate and Clarens I often wondered where the signpost to Phuthaditjhaba led. Question answered: it is, of course, the old QwaQwa homeland. But 30km beyond the town and subsequent rural villages is a delightful mountain eyrie.
Situated at 2 200m above sea level and at the base of the Drakensberg Sentinel Peak is Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, the highest in the northern ‘Berg.
It’s not a large resort, nor is it luxurious, which just adds to its charm. Its first “accommodation unit” was a stone hut built during the 1950s by Batlokoa Chief Wessels Mota for backpackers.
In the 1970s the lodge was developed as a state enterprise and in the 1990s handed over to the Batlokoa community. Today Transfrontier Park Destinations manages the lodge on behalf of the community.
Renovation of the lodge began in 2010 and although behind schedule, eight new units have been built which command breathtaking views of the ‘Berg. The old units are being upgraded. Such a joy to lie in bed in the early morning and have a panoramic view of the morning creeping in over the mountains.
This is essentially a resort for outdoor lovers, but it’s just as easy to be a couch potato. Hikers, rock climbers and off-road cyclists are in heaven. Three families of hikers, including young children, a couple of runners and a corporate team-training group were our fellow visitors. Hikers training for Everest Base Camp also make it their base.
As bird watchers and happy walkers we found it equally idyllic. Particularly special is the opportunity to set off with Jeremiah Motloung who, every morning at 8am, delivers a skull or bones to the vulture restaurant.
Patience is required as they don’t simply descend on demand. Our wait was two hours and the wind was chilly, but it was worth every minute.
The only downside to the lodge is the wind. It starts at about 10am and can blow hard, so tie up your hair or wear a cap.
One of the reasons we were at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge was to see “from the top” the route for the Mont-aux-Sources Challenge, sponsored by Old Mutual and the Sunday Tribune.
September 6 marks the 20th running of this race. Starting way down below in the gardens of Royal Natal National Park, it winds up the Mahai Valley, through the Mountain Lodge gardens, to the Sentinel Car Park up the chain ladders and Sentinel Gully… and back again.
Fifty kilometres of pure torture but so popular with extreme athletes that this year 400 entrants are taking to the field. If you want to put in some last minute extreme training, book into the Mountain Lodge now.
For those with a more relaxed view of life, you can do what we did, walk down through the Mahai Valley for an hour, and drive to the Sentinel car park and take a fairly energetic and rewarding hike from there up to the view site.
This is a “never to be forgotten” moment. That glorious sense that you are literally and figuratively on top of the world.
Part of the pleasure of the Mountain Lodge is being looked after – three generous meals a day – breakfast included in the tariff with an à la carte lunch and dinner menu, both reasonably priced, served in the restaurant. The food is good and simple, the atmosphere friendly with conversations taking place across tables and, judging from the relaxed attitude of the guests, it’s home from home, and that’s the way they like it.
The lodge is managed by Jan van Niekerk, an import from Thula Manzi in Midrand, and Barbara Newport, an import from Cape Town and Botswana. Both have masses of experience and under their careful tutelage the lodge is growing and improving daily. The target is a four-star venue in the not too distant future.