Made by members

To the Drakensberg – a South African journey (part two)

24 Mar 2023 | Written by By Elsa Browne

The Joy Club member Elsa Browne shares more details about her recent adventures in South Africa. In this piece, she explores Drakensberg…

You can read part one to Elsa’s South African adventures here

The Drakensberg (“dragon mountain”) is truly breathtaking, known by locals as simply “the Berg”. We head for Didima, an Ezemvelo Parks Board camp with chalets in the Northern Drakensberg, which is roughly two hours’ drive away. We booked there because we wanted to be as deep as one can possibly get into the wonderful mountains without carrying a tent and a backpack. On and on the road to Didima goes, through the rolling hills of the midlands and eventually the foothills of the Berg and we leave the tar behind for dirt road.

The surrounding area is much more populated than we remember from our last visit twenty-odd years ago, before we left to live in the UK. The final stretch of our journey coincides with the end of the school day, so we dodge the many minibuses that frequently and sporadically stop to scatter children in neat school uniforms onto the roadside, joining dogs, goats and women – who are always in bright dresses and carrying umbrellas to shade them from the heat, or babies in arms or tied on their backs. There are men of all ages, some raise their hats in greeting. Everyone is walking, walking, everything is in movement. So many smiles, creased faces, young faces, hands raised to say Sanbonani (How are you?). This is South Africa and we are at home.

Our welcome at Didima is super-efficient – the uniformed man at the boom is expecting us, clipboard and our room key in hand, and directs us “Just go down here and you will see a big rock, turn left, and there is Didima”. More smiles. The chalets are wonderful, designed to blend a traditional thatched hut with the cave dwellings of the San people. The chalets have high ceilings with skylights that we later discover frame the beautiful stars at night. The chalets also face the mountain so – day or not – we are in heaven.

The camp is quiet; our only camp companions show up in the shape of a large troop of baboons. Signs all around tell us not to feed them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be enchanted by them, their babies, their antics and the fact that they are roaming free. The baboons are joined in the late afternoon by bounding hares.

All day long the mountain vista changes – now clear, now covered in cloud. We sip hot coffees. It’s impossible to be this close to earth and nature and not be soul-soothed. We break the silence:

“Do you hear thunder?”

“But, see, the clouds have lifted.”

“It does look like a cathedral.”

I quietly hum a forgotten hymn: 

“O Lord, my God, when I in awe-some wonder, con-sider all the worlds Thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thun-der …”

Most of the chalets are self-catering but there is an option to eat in the restaurant. And so we discover the other visitors in the camp – two newly-qualified Swedish doctors Heleni and Ellisa and another couple, Fabio and Claire, tourists in South Africa and totally in love with this country, no surprises there. Dinner is more enjoyable with company and swap-stories and they are thirsty for our local knowledge. Heleni and her Kurdish family fled to Sweden when she was a child, and Ellisa’s family fled to Sweden too, but from Bosnia, so we are equally as interested in their insider views of their experiences growing up as refugees and we bond over the questions of adapting to a new country. Pity there are only six of us in this huge restaurant with gleaming floors and attentive staff, but our chatter and laughter fill the place. Meeting new people on the road is always special.

The next day we head off on foot, a map sticking out of a back pocket ahead of me, to walk to Doreen Falls. The temperature is in the high 30s, so the stop at a mountain stream for a hand-scoop of clear cool water is very welcome. So is the “Shoes off” instruction from my hike leader husband a while later for boulder-hopping across the Tugela River. 

The walk ends where the path takes us into the grounds of the upmarket Cathedral Peak Hotel and we drink tall iced Rock Shandies on the terrace with a genteel crowd. Our regret at having to leave this beautiful place the next morning is reflected in the lingering goodbyes with our new friends as they head south and we head west towards Oliviershoek.

Oliviershoek Pass and Golden Gate National Park to Ladybrand (340 kms)

It is many years since we drove the Oliviershoek Pass that skirts Lesotho to the Golden Gate National Park so our delight and anticipation at this revisit is palpable in the car. The road winds and twists through the pass and we more or less have it to ourselves. 

“I climbed down a mountain, in my dreams, a long time ago…” (Climb a Mountain, Robert Francis) sings Spotify. 

When the stunning golden hues of the sandstone cliffs come into view, we are in a Pierneef painting.  (Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, was a South African landscape artist, generally considered to be one of the best of the old South African masters. His distinctive style is widely recognised and his work was greatly influenced by the South African landscape).

Our road is the R26 with a lunch break in pretty Clarens. The eclectic Cranberry Hotel in Ladybrand where we stay overnight is a treat, a sprawling surprise of interesting rooms tucked into every corner of lush and leafy gardens and is buzzing with patrons, given that we are a few kilometers from the Lesotho border. At the al fresco dinner in the garden with other hotel patrons, there is a random business training session going on at the table next to us, with a cool blonde woman in a smart suit and heels instructing an attentive group of local people. The training session breaks off and laptops are put aside when their food order arrives as the blonde calmly announces in Afrikaans Nou sal ons bid. (We will now say Grace). And those of us in the immediate vicinity who hear this also instinctively fall silent and wait respectfully whilst the prayer is murmured until bowed heads are lifted and the clatter of cutlery and chat – and the training session! – resumes. We are definitely in the rural Free State and we sleep the sleep of the blessed that night. 

Do you have an adventure of your own that you’d like to share? Go ahead and send it over via submissions@thejoyclub.com – we may even feature it on our blog!

Want to continue reading?

This piece is part of our exclusive articles for members. We post new interviews, features and stories every single day, so sign up to continue reading - today and every day!

Sign up and start your free trial today

Already a member? Log in to read the full post