Roadtrips in South Africa are very different to roadtrips in the UK. Driving to St Andrews in Scotland is one of the prettier routes, with snow-capped hills accompanying long stretches of the motorway, but long trips in my mind are still characterised by grey roads, rain (usually), and soulless service stations. South African motorways still have grey roads and soulless service stations, serving Spur or Wimpy instead of Little Chef. But they make up for it by having hours and hours of glorious straight empty stretches disappearing into endless mountains, devoid of signs of human life for miles and miles at a time. South Africa is really big, allowing it the luxury of much more natural space than the UK. Driving from Johannesburg, Gauteng, to the Maloti mountains in the Free State is like going into a different country altogether. From the complicated, over-populated tangle of crossroads, five-lane highways and expensive toll gates, the road eventually stretches itself out and settles down into one, long line, going as far as the eye can see. On either side, golden grass gently waves and glints, creating a soft, yellow, endless landscape. Eventually, mountains start to appear on the horizon, swallowing up the road
as it meanders through them. Before winding our way through them, we spotted a small farmstead peeking out from between sheaves of golden corn, and stopped for breakfast. The owner was a hospitable Afrikaaner, who chatted away (in Afrikaans) unceasingly, promptly put on cheery Afrikaans music, and offered us unlimited food and strong coffee. Every Afrikaans cafe I’ve been to has sold homemade jams, preserves, cakes, and knick-knacks, and books, which is quite endearing. The menu also offered an extra steak for R20 (about one pound) with every all-day breakfast item. As you do.
After stepping back in time in a nearby town to purchase some dusty groceries, we delved in between the huge rocks, and meandered along the now windy road until we reached the Golden Gate Nature Reserve, in the heart of the Maloti mountain range. We chose a secluded corner to camp, shaded by trees, with a stream trickling merrily past. Stepping out from under the cover of the trees, the mountains surrounded us. Some were craggy, erosion-scarred hunks of grey and red rock straight out of the lion king; others looked like they had been lovingly draped in green velvet. On the hikes
we did over the next two days, the mountains never failed to astonish us with their majesty, beauty, and sheer size. The Golden Gate is apparently so-called because of the colour of the sandstone rock in the sun. It is appropriately named. The sandstone cliffs rise yellow out of dusty red bases, as if they have been dip-dyed, alongside steep grassy hillsides which appear green and brown except when the sunlight hits them, which makes the whole landscape look as though it has been freshly drenched in gold paint.
On the second day, we did a long hike up to Echo Ravine, and then up to Wodehouse Peak. Echo Ravine is a deliciously cool, deep, shady chasm, with views of distant mountains peeking through the cracks. As we got further up, the wind picked up, keeping us cool even in the hot sun and during steep climbs. It also, however, felt as if it was trying to push us off the mountainside, especially when we took a slight wrong turning and found ourselves clinging to what felt like a vertical cliff-face. At the beginning of the trail, we had come across a group of older hikers, who
wished us ‘Good luck’, in slightly sinister warning tones. As we scaled the steep, windy path, we were filled with admiration for the elderly hikers’ skills. A few minutes later, we realised that there was no way anyone could continue on this path without ropes and harnesses. Back on the right track again, we tried to appreciate the stunning views and ignore the burning in our legs and lungs. Clambering upwards and gasping for breath, I suddenly found myself wishing I was a nimble mountain goat. But, I reasoned, would a mountain goat have a (swiftly melting) chocolate bar in its backpack ready for the top? Unlikely. Finally, we reached the peak. Layers upon layers of mountains stretched away endlessly in every direction. Steep, straight ridges ran down the sides, casting deep blue shadows which contrasted with the dappled copper of the hillsides. It was worth our exhaustion, aching limbs, and cold strong wind to see that 360 degree panoramic view.
As soon as we had consumed our chocolate bars and got our heart rates back to normal, we began to climb down. If the ascent was hard on my lungs, the descent was hard on my knees. We
Appreciating the view...
were re-filled with admiration for the oldies, who had done the trail the opposite way to us, making our steep, rocky descent their ascent. With the chocolate bar now a mere memory, and my knees feeling like the cartilage was being chipped away, I found mountain goats creeping back into my mind. I distracted myself by taking pictures, and putting my layers back on as the cold wind whipped around us. On a particularly tricky bit, my boyfriend turned around and said, ‘We’re like those mountain goats’. I wish.
Thankfully, the last half hour was gentler, and we reached our camp again as the sun was setting.
The stars above our camp were simply breathtaking. They were not sprinkled or peppered or dotted, but littered across the sky, which was awash with twinkling pinpricks of light as if someone had spilt a pot of salt over a dark blue tablecloth. It was worth walking out into the open, away from the warmth of the fire, to blow my mind with the sheer number of stars I could see, craning my neck to try and take them all in. Not for too long though -
it was cold. Wooly jumpers, hats, extra socks, duvets, sleeping bags, blankets, and still shivering kind of cold. We didn’t properly warm up again until well after the sun had come up the next morning, and we set off again along the winding mountain road, in search of new adventures.
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