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Published: July 23rd 2016
My feet were cold but my heart soared as I watched the sun rise over the Northern Drakensberg ranges from the patio of our room. Anywhere else in the world, such a view would cost half your holiday budget but in wonderful South Africa, it's completely affordable.
The sun rose slowly over the panorama from left to right, colouring the peaks, crags and sheer rock walls in shades of rosy pink deepening to crimson. It highlighted the trees in their autumn foliage in glowing yellows and oranges. My mind played a string quartet, something sweet and almost tearful. Who needed the theatre when this live play was so absorbing, ever changing and beautiful?
The mountains gained definition, shadows and features, and the woods and fields before them greened. The show was over for today.
We passed through our lodge's lovely garden to the breakfast room, being waylaid by cute Sloggett's rats like well-fed furry hamsters grazing on the lawns and the gleaming greater double-collared sunbirds taking nectar from the poker flowers. This surfeit of gorgeousness was doing my head in.
You can see what I mean. Check out this video.
In the beginning...
Wow, what a bird
The gleaming, gorgeous, greater double-collared sunbird Cinnyris afer sucks nectar from tubular flowers other birds cannot reach. Photo: Di Robinson
After a booze-soaked flight from Sydney to Jo'burg on 20 May and a night in the airport's comfortable City Lodge, we'd driven to the Northern Drakensbergs yesterday on the 21st. The drive was wearisome as we got caught up in a traffic jam outside the airport and an extremely fit policeman kept running along the road in front of us directing gridlocked vehicles. Next, we drove down the N3 through a very poor area of shanty towns and sharecroppers on scrubby soil eking out a subsistence living. The miserable poverty continued for well over two hours. Much as I love this country, you have to continually remind yourself that despite the vast improvements in the economy and equality of the population, heaps of people, mostly black people, are doing it tough.
We finally hit the pleasant town of Harrismith where we had lunch. I nearly choked on a stringy bit of meat in my burger, much to the consternation of the waitress (Matt kept reading his newspaper) but managed to cough it out.
Fortified, we drove through some stunning scenery: blue lakes and peaks, huge crags plunging to pebbly valleys beneath, and zigzagging roads swerving round corners to
What a fab reflection
The Northern Drakensberg Ranges are perfectly mirrored in the blue lake of pristine World Heritage-listed Royal Natal National Park. Photo: Di Robinson
reveal yet more amazing views.
The road was very well signposted with each tourist attraction and hotel/guesthouse/backpackers having its own large marker. We followed signs for our lodge and drove though some meadows with streams, then a flower-strewn garden, to the friendly reception area. Our chalet was at the bottom of the garden facing the mountain range. Wow! It was a lovely place, with a lounge room, bedroom and bathroom comfortably furnished and a patio with chairs.
We were meant to go on a walk through the lodge grounds to a waterfall but got waylaid in the garden by the awesome diversity of the birdlife. We could have spent days here. So much to see. I've shared some of it in the video below.
By the time we set off for the waterfall, it was late afternoon and we had to walk speedily through the meadows with their white, yellow and purple flowers and lovely views of the river valley shaded by reddish mountains. After about half an hour we reached the tinkling cascade and could walk behind it through an open cave: very pretty.
Off back to the lodge for yummy mushroom soup
Gentle bushbuck grazing
Sweet bushbuck or imbabala Tragelaphus sylvaticus grazing in Royal Natal National Park. Photo: Di Robinson
and savoury chicken with veg washed down with delicious Pinotage. The chef came out of the kitchen to ask if we liked the food. I was impressed by this and was able to reassure him that his cooking was A-Okay. Slept so well in the comfy bed with only the odd owl hooting to disturb the deep peace of the starlit night.
Royal Natal National Park
So, today, after breakfast and after bird watching, we got our lazy asses into gear and drove to World Heritage-listed Royal Natal National Park, only a short twenty-minute drive from where we were staying. The idea was to do the 16-kilometre return walk to Tugela Gorge.
As soon as we entered the park, a group of rock hyraxes crossed the road in front of us with their babies (aaaaahhh) and chacma baboons strutted their funky stuff. In a lovely picnic area of lakes and grasslands, we photographed the mountains perfectly reflected in the water and a herd of gentle bushbucks grazing on the grass.
Next, we drove the few kilometres to Thendele Car Park, where our trek began.
If you're in a hurry, scroll to the end of this
The impressive Amphitheatre
In the first part of our walk to Tugela Gorge, the Amphitheatre with its impressive sheer sides was always in view. Photo: Di Robinson
blog and just watch the video. To read all about our walk, what we saw, and the description of the gorge-ous gorge, read on.
The walk to Tugela Gorge
At first, the walk was quite flat while we followed a stream that rippled and babbled beside us, but once we crossed a bridge, it got quite steep. We walked slowly as the views of the ranges were stunning and round every corner there was something new to see and photograph, plus we were weighed down, especially Matt, by photographic equipment. We waded through tall grasslands with some plants waving above our heads, and protea veld, getting continually distracted by butterflies the colour of custard or multi-hued and so bright, and the wildflowers: daisies, pinks and so on. Little lizards and geckos basked on rocks.
At first the sheer wall of the Amphitheatre reared above our heads before we left it behind for other peaks, red and grey and pink, stratified and shining, lumpy, uneven, eroded.
It was a beautiful day and rather warm. Sweat started trickling down my face and the increasingly common strands of small-leafed yellowwood and other trees were welcome. The woodlands rang with birdsong
The brightly-coloured gaudy commodore Precis Octavia butterfly prefers mountain vegetation and is a delight to behold. Photo: Di Robinson
and were cool, with rills and rocks and fallen logs covered in lichens and mosses. We saw an olive thrush and other shy birds who were always flitting from branch to twig, on the move.
The track was extremely well-maintained, there was no litter and as far as I could see, no weeds. Australia: take note.
Eventually, we caught glimpses of sheer pink walls glowing through trees and the next minute, were at the edge of the gorge. Multi-coloured rock walls loomed on either side with small shrubs growing outwards between the cracks, and huge boulders and small trees were strewn around a couple of mint-green winding streams, glass-clear. We boulder-hopped on flat rocks. A little waterfall trickled down a wall that was bright green with moss and orange with lichen. Stopping constantly to photograph the beauty, what should have taken 10 minutes took half an hour.
We came to a grassy area with ladders climbing the rocks on either side of the stream. Ahead of us, the gorge narrowed, winding through wave-shaped walls of grey and rust-brown.
We had been told that the ladders took us to tracks we could follow for fabulous views of
Tugela Gorge. Photo: Di Robinson
the Amphitheatre and Tugela Falls, or with the water level being so low we could just have kept going through the gorge, but sadly, we did not have time to continue. With it being winter, the sun went down around 5 and it was already way past 2.
We went up and down the steepest ladder, just for a laugh, then ate our lunch by the stream, enjoying the peace and beauty of the place.
Back we went. The return journey was quicker as it was downhill.
And here's the video.
And home for a shower followed by lounging round in the fluffy robes provided by the lodge. Then, another delicious dinner - veggie soup, hake with chorizo crust, berries and ice-cream, and Pinotage of course. This is the life. Next: the adrenalin-fuelled drive up Sani Pass...
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