DEVIL’S Knuckles, Rhino Peak and Garden Castle are landmarks of the southern Drakensberg – the tip of the Dragon’s Tail although technically this basalt formation continues south to Ben Macdhui, near Rhodes. These mountains are big, we’re talking 3 000m-plus, so getting an accurate weather forecast is important. But with vague internet access and locals unwilling to commit it’s a tricky business. A group of us went there in May, most wanting to hike, all of us wanting to eat, and drink. Leaving Cape Town the long range forecast was good and so we booked for a guided rock art hike. The location of Bushman art sites is fiercely protected by locals. Not surprising considering that some visitors use water and coke to brighten paintwork for photography.
Starting from Sani Pass Hotel, 1 560m, guide Matthew Chaplin led us up the lower berg to a cluster of giant boulders, 2 200m. The Drakensberg World Heritage Site contains 500 known Bushman rock art sites with over 40 000 images. Over the years the mysterious techniques of how the paintings were created, their symbolism and interpretation has been the subject of much debate. The Bushmen lived in harmony with nature, using poison to shoot an animal and then track it. They followed the seasons and migrations of game living in harmony with nature, leaving no trace of their presence other than these remarkable stories on rock overhangs. A great end to the hike was tea on the hotel veranda.
The following day with grey clouds threatening we explored the Drakensberg Garden Road. Along the way we stopped at Underberg Cheesery where we tasted and bought Parmesani, named after Sani Pass. Nearby is Duck Café set in grounds with an animal farm, playground and gallery. It’s also the place to check-in for Sani Spoors. Local mountain bike enthusiasts and dairy farmers Edmund Smith, Ian Bonsma, Derek Christie with Pierre Horn have created a 70km network of colour-coded, scenic technical single mountain bike tracks.
Next day I returned to jump over rocks and wooden ramps following green arrows on the 9.4km Milk Run. Initially alongside the sinuously winding Umzimkulu River before passing through shady fields to cross the Drakensberg Garden Road onto a technical stretch and Jackal Jol. Riding is strictly by arrangement but worth the effort.
Through their work the guys are now involved with the joBerg2c, a gruelling 950km, nine-day mountain bike adventure which sees 800 riders travel from Heidelberg to Scottburgh. By chance day six ended next day at Glencairn Farm on the Sani Pass Road. Skinny muddy defending champions Gawie Combrinck and Johann Rabie broke the tape on their second joBerg2c. This was the only time I saw a weather prediction, and it looked good. The nearest town to Sani is Underberg dwarfed beneath mighty rugged peaks. A mere five kilometres away is the even smaller village of Himeville.
There are various versions around the history of these picturesque towns, but the most popular is that Underberg grew around a store that was opened to serve the first settler farms in frontier times of 1886. The government decided it wasn’t suitable to be the district centre, so Himeville was chosen and granted a magistrate in 1902. Rivalry arose between the two villages, aggravated five years later when a railway was built that ended at Underberg, not reaching Himeville. Eventually residents Kenneth and Mona Lund had the idea of planting a row of oak trees connecting the two towns. Rivalries were soon forgotten and a commemorative plaque now marks the initiative and saplings continue to be planted.
Himeville Museum is worth a visit. Built in 1896 as a fort, it was also the last laager in South Africa and is regarded as the best rural museum in the country. Taken over by the Natal Mounted Police in 1902 it was converted to a prison until 1972. Since 1981 it has been used as a museum celebrating settler and agricultural history.
Nearby is Kenmo Lake at Hazeldene Farm – a great place for a picnic or fishing. In May it is a photographer’s paradise with trees glowing ruby, russet and orange their leaves forming a golden carpet mirrored in the water. On another day we drove along the Pietermaritzburg Road to explore the beautiful stone buildings and church at Reichenau. Built in 1887 by German monks this Catholic Mission may be run-down to some or a photo opportunity or a wedding venue to others. Crying out for renovation a huge barn-like building is suspended above a waterfall on the Polela River. On the drive back we searched out the quirky epicurean delight of Pucketty Place. Close to Underberg there’s a gallery with works by local artists, a farm stall, plus farm animals for children, and adults. The tearoom is run by the ebullient Morwen Bezuidenhout who bravely left her job as librarian to follow her dream of creating food for love. We were there on a day that a geocache had just been hidden. Geocaching is a type of treasure hunt where items are hidden and then found using GPS co-ordinates and clues.
Saving the best for last we went on the Sani Pass tour. This tortuous bone-wrenching route twists and turns along the only road leading from KwaZulu-Natal into the Kingdom of Lesotho. Stopping along the way to point out grey rhebuck, Protea roupelliae, a Gurney’s sugarbird, a gaudy commodore butterfly and a crag lizard, Birds and Beyond guide Stuart Mc Lean spoke of a woman who survived a quad bike crash after diving off the edge. The final stretch of the pass is known as “haemorrhoid hill” because you clench while negotiating the single track. Stuart says most years the pass is closed for weeks or months.
Reaching the top, 2 874m, it’s another world, the land of the ice rat, Otomys sloggetti. Endemic to Lesotho it is named after Colonel A T Sloggett who collected it at Deelfontein in 1902. Not thinking we would see one a raptor gave the shy vlei rat’s position away but did not capture it. We stopped at a shearing shed to see angora goats and sheep, some with bells around their necks, lose their fleece for export to China. Then we continued into Lesotho ascending Black Mountain Pass, 3 240m, presently being surfaced by the Chinese.
At the top, tucking into picnic lunch we were not alone as Basotho herders arrived dressed in blankets and gumboots and little more, unthreatening and curious.
A short walk led to distant views of southern Africa’s highest peak Thabana Ntlenyana, 3 482m. Retracing the road we stopped at a traditional village and the combined home and shebeen of Vitalina Limate. With dried dung smouldering from baking bread – no trees in Lesotho – her customers are goat and sheep herders and farmers who use ox-ploughs and hand-hoes to grow crops.
Sani Mountain Lodge was a highlight. Sipping local beer and gluhwein in Africa’s highest pub as clouds wafted past to reveal water-sculpted basalt cliffs. It was also time to discuss Sani Pass’ future. In 2005, the South African government began a joint project of upgrading the Sani Pass across Lesotho. Work has not yet begun and if the project does go ahead, engineers have allocated five years to complete the work. The 24km by 200km Drakensberg was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000 due to its rich geology and plant, animal and birdlife, many endemic to the area.
l Watkins is author of Off the Beaten Track.