Skinny Dipping in the Drakesnberg
You can, if you are feeling adventurous enough, slip right out of your hiking clothes and swim stark naked in an enticing clear mountain pool. Or cool off goddess-like under a trickling waterfall. Or take off your shoes and wade in rock-filled rushing streams. Even spread a picnic out in a sandstone cave possibly inhabited by the Bushmen thousands of years ago. It is that wild, that natural, in the rugged and unspoiled Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains of South Africa. This is where the locals come for holiday.
As with most things in South Africa, the name is complicated; Ukhahlamba means barrier of spears in Zulu and Drakensberg is Dutch for Dragon Mountain. Some of the greatest hiking in the world can be found in the rocky high berg or along the pastoral little (lower) berg of this range. My first glimpse of the Drakensberg, as we drive in on the N5 from Johannesburg, is of sheer, steep walls of basalt, jagged and chiseled by the elements – with the lower foothills shockingly lush and green as if covered with a fine velvet cape. These massive mountains separate the country of Lesotho from South Africa for a 250-mile stretch. Some of the peaks are totally flat, others sharply pointed, others slanted as if tipped sideways by some extraordinary force of nature.
I have come to the Drakensberg, after doing business in Johannesburg, to visit some South African friends on holiday. When I check into the Champagne Sports Resort, named after the nearby Champagne Castle mountain, the desk clerk remarks that it is unusual to see an American here. “Americans usually go to Kruger Park and Cape Town and very rarely make it to the Drakensberg,” she says, rolling her eyes. “They don’t know what they are missing.”
It is early March, almost autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, and the days are sultry and warm, reaching into the high 80s with the nights cooler and often punctuated by evening showers and dynamic lightning storms. In the winter these mountains are blanketed with snow, and in the summer they are a vivid green and drenched with hot pink and white Cosmos or flame-red Bottlebrush.
This not what I thought the interior South Africa would look like: rushing rivers, trickling creeks, plunging waterfalls and shimmering lakes. Visitors to the area can enjoy some of the finest trout and bass fishing in Africa. There is also hiking, rock climbing, trekking, river rafting, canoeing, horseback riding, and a variety of camping options, including cave camping. I find myself in a modest resort area in the Central Drakensberg, where golfing, hiking, dizzying helicopter tours, and great food seem to be the favorite sports.
I am still groggy with jet lag when the wake-up call comes at 6:00 a.m. My friends have hired a helicopter to get a bird’s-eye view of the region. Five of us pile into a white, French-made helicopter and slip on our headsets. Our pilot, a self-assured guy in his 40s, tells he us he also uses the chopper to rescue climbers and hikers who get stuck or lost in the mountains. Good to know.
As the helicopter thunders off, we sweep low over a corn field, then out over Wonder Valley, dotted with grazing cows, and finally toward the towering cliffs – and I see the sharp ridges of a mountain that does look like a huge dragon’s back. We catch glimpses of cascading waterfalls, hidden valleys, and unique rock formations like the giant hole in one peak called the Eye of the Needle. We fly past the knobby Monks Cowl, and the impressive flat-topped Cathkin Peak. Later we land on a grassy little berg where the pilot serves us pink champagne and rusks (dry biscuits) and we have a chance to walk around. We discover the trail’s head to Blindman’s Corner – an unusual name for this part of the contour path, I think, looking down into a steep ravine. A hike along the contour path can take up to four or five days to complete. As we watch, a fine white fog creeps in and covers the valley below. We sit quietly on the ridge sipping champagne until the mist lifts. The pilot seems remarkably unconcerned with the time.
In the afternoon my friends tackle the resort’s 18-hole championship golf course – the challenging course is laid out along a winding river, the fairway a bright lime green against the lavender mountains. I skip the golf and opt to relax by the pool to work on my nonexistent tan and existing jet lag.
No one is in a hurry here in Drakensberg and so it is past noon the next day before we set off for our hike to the Blue Grotto. The trailhead starts at the nearby Drakensberg Sun hotel. Out past the swimming pool we spot several vervet monkey’s pillaging for food in the hotel garbage cans. They bugger-off chattering when they see us.
The trail to the Grotto winds through a forest of yellowwood, pine, smoothworm, and wild pear, and is dense with high grass, tangled vines, and white orchids. It is pleasantly noisy with the murmur of water cascading over rocks in the nearby river, the hum of insects, and birds twittering. We hike past huge gnarled trees covered with hanging moss. In the forest it is dark and cool.
As we start up the mountainside, the African sun feels sharp. One needs to be in pretty good shape to make it to the Grotto, I think, puffing my way up the second hill. My friend’s daughters, in their 20s, are way ahead of me. By the time we get to the Grotto, we are all overheated — coming up over a hill we suddenly find an inviting, crystal-clear pool fed by a thundering waterfall. Smooth sandstone caves surround it. Everyone, but me, strips down to their bathing suits and plunge laughing into the icy water. To this big-city girl it looks like we are in the Garden of Eden. What a great place to go skinny-dipping, I fantasize, dangling my legs in the water. We have passed only one other couple on the trail going the other way much earlier. Next time I’ll come alone or with a special someone.
Everyone feeling refreshed and dry, we start down. The backside of the hike is mostly downhill, thank goodness, so it is a lot quicker going down than going up. Finally, back at the Drakensberg Sun, we gulp icy peach tea out on the hotel patio.
That night, after a traditional braai (beef barbecue) we sit out on the veranda of the timeshare resort-home my friends are renting and watch huge streaks of lightning flash across the sky silhouetting the jagged shapes of the Dragon’s Back ridge. We sip a lovely organic South African chardonnay. The air smells like jasmine. Later we roast strawberry-flavored marshmallows over the waning coals.
There is so much to see in this natural wonderland and I have so little time. I have just scratched the surface. To the north of us is the famous Amphitheatre, one of the most frequently photographed peaks in South Africa. In the Southern Drakensberg visitors find world-class fly-fishing, canoeing, and river rafting. A World Heritage site since 2000, the area also boasts more than 35,000 Bushman “rock art” or cave paintings by the Bushman, the area’s first inhabitants. Some of the primitive paintings depict Bushman warriors on horseback, a rain-making ritual, and stick figure humans with the heads of insects.
I have to admit, I left the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg without that skinny-dip. But I am planning to go back, you can bet on that. It is not often you find a place so wild and uninhabited that you can run a little wild and uninhibited yourself.
If You Go
The Central Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg is about 3 hours south of Johannesburg along Route 3 to the N5 and about 2 1/2 hours northwest of Durban on Route 4. All roads are tarred.
For useful information on Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg visit the website.
Central Drakensberg information centre: 011-27-36-488-1207
Where to Stay
Champagne Sports Resort
Phone: 011-27-36-468-1088 (Everyone speaks English)
Sprawling 62-room hotel with a variety of room choices, most with balconies or patios. The spacious two-room suite or the family rooms are a good value all with huge bathrooms. Rates vary by season: $125 per single to $250 double includes breakfast and sumptuous buffet dinner. Be sure to try the Kingklip, a local fish. Request a room with a view of the mountains. Helicopter rides can be booked through front desk. Clear and specific driving directions located on the website. Over 40 well-appointed timeshare homes are also available.
Drakensberg Sun Hotel
A comfortable, older hotel with 77 rooms and one executive suite. The décor is a little dated but rooms are large. The Sun has a private lake, lovely gardens, and two swimming pools all with mountain views. This hotel is child friendly and even offers babysitting – perfect for excursions to the Blue Grotto! (The trailhead starts here). Rates vary by season: All inclusive with dinner, bed and breakfast running about $189 single, and up to $250 per night for two.