Spring in the Central Drakensberg

2013-09-30 15:13
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Giant's Castle - home to the endangered Beared Vulture

Scott Ramsey explores the Central Drakensberg - home to Giant’s Castle, the best place to see one of Africa’s rarest birds.

With the cold winter beginning to thaw and the unpredictable summer weather still on its way, there is no better time to visit the wild northern regions of the majestic Drakensberg mountain range

Get Out and About

This part of South Africa is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, with vast open spaces and a plethora of activities to engage in.

The area around the Drakensberg Amphitheatre boasts some of the best hikes in South Africa. 

Sentinel Peak is among the most popular.

This relatively long hike encompasses the famous chain ladders and takes you to the source of Tugela Falls; the thin stream of water that falls into the valleys below is the second highest single fall in the world after Angel Falls in Venezuela.  

There is a hiker’s cabin at the top which can provide shelter from the wind for those wanting to camp overnight, and the streams and springs provide plenty of good, clean drinking water.

The jagged Mon-Aux-Sources mountain range just across the provincial border from Free State into Kwazulu-Natal also has a number of great hiking routes and is a favourite with experienced climbers.



(Photo: Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge)

The views from the top of any of these peaks are spectacular, spanning across the towns and villages of the Qwa Qwa region and the lakes and dams in the valleys below. The mountains around you constantly take on different hues and dimensions throughout the day depending on the shadows cast by the changing trajectory of the sun.

From the top of these peaks you might be lucky enough to see the beautiful and critically endangered Bearded Vulture soaring across the horizon, their distinctive light-coloured breast standing out against the deep, earthy colours of the mountains around you.

Experience the Local Culture

It’s not only the landscape that makes this part of the Drakensberg special, it’s the people. Bustling local markets in towns like Phuthaditjhaba are great places to experience the culture and warm hospitality of the Sotho-speaking people that inhabit this region, many of whom are from the Batlokoa chiefdom.



(Photo: Sylvia Braun)

While elements of more traditional Batlokoa culture still survive today, such as traditional music and oral poetry, the community has adapted to a rapidly urbanising population and world around them, and is well aware of the benefits that tourism can bring to the region. Local traders can show you both modern commerce and traditional craft and art.

The villagers of Tsheseng also welcome you to the local Catholic Church that sits at the foot of Sentinel Peak. Whatever your religious leanings, this mountain church is worth a visit both for its spectacular setting and for the spine-tingling harmonies of the choir that sings on Sunday mornings.  

Accommodation

Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, the highest lodge in the region, provides the easiest access to a lot of the area’s outdoor attractions and boasts spectacular panoramic views in all directions. The newly refurbished luxury Chalets have floor to ceiling windows and private patios offering unrivalled views of Sentinel Peak without even having to leave the comfort of your bed. There are also plenty of options for families and for those on a stricter budget.

The lodge can provide local guides for hikes in the area and the ‘lodge liaison’ Jeremia, a member of the local Batlokoa King’s council, lays bones from the restaurant kitchen on a rock at the edge of the lodge in the mornings, to draw the bearded vulture for visitors to see.



(Photo: Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge)

The lodge has a cozy and well-stocked bar and a good a-la-carte restaurant, again offering beautiful vistas of the valley below.

The lodge is run by Transfrontier Park Destinations on behalf of the local Batlokoa chiefdom, who provide the bulk of the lodge’s staff, and much of the artwork and woven items in the lodge are made within the Batlokoa community and Qwa Qwa region.

Both Witsieshoek and this region in general paint a very different and somehow much simpler and more peaceful picture of South Africa than the one many of us urban dwellers are used to seeing, and it’s a picture that once looked at, you certainly won’t forget any time soon, and will want to look at again and again.

Read more on:    drakensberg  |  travel south africa

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