Durban - “This is the quietest place I’ve ever been,” Oscar said in a hushed tone. I nodded.
It sure was quiet, peaceful and beautiful on the porch on a night when Venus and Saturn were together in the evening sky, reflecting on the still waters of Lake St Bernard in the Swartberg region of the southern Drakensberg.
But it isn’t always like that - and certainly wasn’t the previous day when, instead of a braai outdoors, we were glad to have the roaring fire and plentiful firewood inside our lakeside cottage.
A heavy snow that week had left blankets draped over the higher peaks and a whistling wind across the valley, but it was hot and sunny the next day, so be prepared for all conditions.
Wind, rain, snow and sun mean nothing to the diehard fishermen who, dawn, dusk and any time in-between, paddle their kick-boats amid the ducks in search of the trophy rainbow and brown trout in the crystal clear 68 hectare lake on a privately owned farm.
Lake St Bernard has just three lakeside cottages more than 50m apart: one and three are both three-bedroom, two-bathroom cottages on the water’s edge and sleep six.
We were in the older stone and thatch No 2. It’ more rustic and open plan but has beds for six or seven - a queen bed in a downstairs bedroom alongside the bath and shower room, the rest in a creaky loft area.
Nothing fancy, but well equipped with two fridges, oven, microwave, electric and back-up gas stoves.
We were envious of the enclosed verandas the others had on the first night, but happily sat out late, with two braais to choose from, the next evening. I figured the early-to-bed fisherfolk contributed to the stillness.
I’m not a sport fisherman, but I can think of worse ways to get some exercise and enjoy nature, hoping to beat the heaviest catch to date (a sliver under 6kg).
We got exercise in other ways. First we ascended via 4x4 up the steep concrete road to the cellphone tower on the closest rise, then ventured on gravel tracks and hiked when I ran out of ground clearance and suspension travel.
Don’t chance it if you haven’t got the right vehicle. It’s lonely up top and a long way down some sheer drops.
We came back down, then went halfway up again on foot from St Bernard’s Peak Hotel, 3km from the lake, to a cave with Bushmen paintings - a short, steep hike in the heat, even with snow still being about.
Ian and Cheri Worral are happy to hand you a cold one and a pub lunch and let you watch a game. You can book horse rides too - all the way to Lesotho and back if you have a few days.
In summer you can use the pool at the hotel or swim in Bamboo Pools or Beaumont Pools, but not in the lake. You may get hooked by upset fishermen.
The birdlife is abundant too, with fish - and other eagles above and plenty of feeding in the reeds or swimming on the lake. We spotted crowned cranes and storks, geese and more.
It’s all about the outdoors, but no quadbikes, motorboats or pets are allowed. For kids there is a playground with swings and a trampoline - not that anyone bothered when there were real-life adventures across the dam wall.
The area around the lake is grassland. Up the slopes you will find ericas, disas and proteas and perhaps eland. In winter the eland come down to visit, while the farm’s own, relatively tame bunch can be intrusive if encouraged. Jackal, wild rabbits and buck are also around, plus baboons, porcupines - and snakes in the heat.
Lake St Bernard is the perfect spot to unwind with family and friends. And it’s inexpensive, with rates from R1 100 for a cottage.
Don’t leave anything behind, though, as it’s a long way to the nearest shop, although the hotel keeps some odds and ends such as soap and toothpaste.
It’s a fair drive from Durban, about three-and-a-half hours past Underberg. But it is worth it.
Call Leanne on 083 268 9357 or visit www.lakestbernard.co.za