Mountains to make your heart beat faster

The majestic Drakensberg. Image courtesy SA Tourism.

The majestic Drakensberg. Image courtesy of SA Tourism.

The Drakensberg mountains are big in visual and physical thrills, creating a 200km arc of activity. This World Heritage Site’s stunning scenery makes you feel tiny in its immensity, but with three different sections to explore, it’s easy to rush from one place to the next and never just sit and soak it in. So stop driving and start looking, with wine on a terrace or hot chocolate in front of a fire, because sometimes it’s OK to stop ticking things off the agenda.

These are some of the highlights I discovered travelling north to south – but for every gem I encountered, I had to leave another two attractions until next time.

CATHEDRAL PEAK HOTEL

You really appreciate the full magnificence of the mountains with an amphitheatre of peaks facing this memorable hotel. It’s a great option to stay a few days and unwind in isolation, since it’s 35km from the nearest crossroads leading to any other attractions. And there’s plenty to amuse you here: it’s a paradise for kids with daily organised activities, an outdoor playground, table tennis, a games room and their own dining room.

Cathedral Peak Hotel

Scenic surroundings at Cathedral Peak Hotel.

TAKE A HIKE

This is serious hiking territory, but even city slickers can have fun. Turn down any random road and you’ll probably find a picturesque stream or languid lake to stroll by. The Cathedral Peak Hotel offers twice-weekly guided hikes up Cathedral Peak itself, which is a gruelling nine-hour challenge. Or try the aptly named Drakensberg Hiker for guided hikes of any intensity.

RAISE YOUR GLASS

All this fresh air builds up a thirst, so it’s a nice surprise to find vineyards in some of the foothills. Cathedral Peak Wine Estate near Winterton was created in 2008 and started opening for public visits and lunches in July this year. Award-winning cellarmaster Flip Smith joined the team in 2014, so the 2015 harvest is his first for the estate.

SAN PAINTINGS

The amaZulu, who called these mountains “uKhahlamba” (“Barrier of Spears”) and the Voortrekkers, who christened them “Drakensberg” (Afrikaans for “Dragon’s Mountain”), were latecomers compared with the San. The San were driven away long ago, but their world lives on in about 500 rock art sites dating from 2 400 years ago to the late 19th century. This is Africa’s most important site for Stone Age paintings.

Drakensberg

Take a rock art safari in the Drakensberg, home to over 500 rock art sites.

SWING IT, BABY!

Zipping through the treetops on 12 wire cables is a sure-fire way to set your heart a-flutter. If it’s a busy day, you can sit on each platform for several minutes, waiting for your turn to fly while contemplating your seemingly precarious position in the treetops. But safety is paramount at the Drakensberg Canopy Tour, so you’re always clipped onto something solid. The ziplines come in various lengths and heights – just make sure you keep your eyes open to really enjoy the beautiful views you’re speeding through.

FALCONS

For a different kind of flying thrill, don’t miss the Falcon Ridge Bird of Prey Centre. Greg and Alison McBey run it as an educational and rehabilitation centre, as well as a showcase for the art of falconry. They and their feathered friends put on an hour-long show at 10.30am every day except Mondays and Fridays. The McBeys tell the audience about each of the birds as they fly and happily answer any questions.

Falconry

GRANNY MOUSE

As the mountains peter out, you’ll find the gorgeous Granny Mouse Country House & Spa, which is a great base for exploring the southern region. Its design is old-style, with thatched roofs, wooden beams and lots of nook-and-cranny bars and lounges. There are two swimming pools, a great wine cellar, a bistro and the Eaves Restaurant for fine dining. Eaves offers a five-course tasting menu paired with wine, as well as tastebud-tingling desserts like Rhapsody, an arty delight of beer-based brioche, bacon ice-cream, oat crumble, beer-soaked koeksisters, a beer float and maple syrup.

A NOT-SO-SKINNY DIP

The whole point of Chocolate Heaven is to make an indulgent mess, says its owner Kereth Guilbride. He and his wife Cindeez sell handmade fondants with unusual twists, like curry flavour and chocolate-coated biltong. The big attraction is choc-dipping, where you’re served a bowl of melted goodness and offbeat items to dunk in it. It’s in The Junction in Nottingham Road, an interesting craft centre with an archery and several unusual shops.

MINE’S A PINT

The oldest micro-brewery in KwaZulu-Natal is Nottingham Road Brewery, a quaint little place in the grounds of the Rawdon Hotel. Manager John Morrow is exactly what you’d expect of a craft brewer, with a bushy beard, twinkling eyes and a jolly plaid shirt. The business has grown from an experiment in a 50-litre drum in the cellar to a production capacity of 2 000 litres a day, and uses spring water from a well in the grounds.

Nottingham Road Brewery

Craft beer at its finest, courtesy Nottingham Road Brewing Company. Images courtesy of Lesley Stones.

This blog is an edited version of an article that appeared in the September 2015 issue of Sawubona. Download here.

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