Western KwaZulu Natal (Mountains)

Community Highlights Africa & The Middle East Western KwaZulu Natal (Mountains)

JUNE 2019

After a long drive along the southern coast, we turned north and headed into the Drakensberg area of western Kwazulu Natal. Our first stop was the small town of Howick, an overnight stop before heading into the Drakensberg Mountains. Howick’s claim to fame is that it was the place Nelson Mandala was arrested in 1962 and from which he began his long incarceration. At that time he was on the run from the police, known as the Black Pimpernel and disguised as a driver for a white friend of his.
The next day we travelled west into the southern section of the Drakensberg Mountains and to our base for the next three nights, the little town of Underberg. As is the norm we didn’t go directly there, we sought out a couple of highlights on route.
The first was easy to find, as it was Howick Falls, just on the outskirts of town. Here the Umgeni River falls over 90 meters into a pool below. Legend has it that a massive serpent lurks in that pool, ready to devour any one who gets too close. However, like the Loch Ness monster, no proof of its existence has ever been found and it is believed that it was just a very large river eel that had been spotted. It does have a rather morbid reputation though, as it seems to be a popular place for suicides.

Howick Falls

Howick Falls

Howick Falls plaque

Howick Falls plaque

Full of enthusiasm after our Howick Falls experience we sought out another falls a bit further away, Albert Falls. This turned out to be not such a success, as we drove round the town of Albert Falls several times before locating the site and then couldn’t go to the actual falls themselves as a traditional ceremony was taking place, well you can’t win them all.
Underberg is a small town at the foot of the Southern Drakensberg Mountains and was an ideal location for us to explore the area. However, it wasn’t the surrounding that caught our attention when we first arrived it was the cold. We had been used to lovely warm weather over in the east, but now at the foot of the mountains it was a different matter. At night the temperature dropped to close on freezing, so a roaring fire was needed in the cottage to keep us warm. By day, once the sun was up, it was pleasantly warm, but it took several hours for the frost to go and for us to venture out from under our bed blankets. Both days we ventured into the foothills, for a short walk on the first day and longer hike on the second. Both days provided stunning scenery and a perfect temperature for hiking.

View over the Drakensberg in Underberg area

View over the Drakensberg in Underberg area

View of part of the Drakensberg

View of part of the Drakensberg

Drakensberg Scenery at dusk

Drakensberg Scenery at dusk

Huge herd of cattle going for milking blocking the road. You can see the line going on and on in the back ground

Huge herd of cattle going for milking blocking the road. You can see the line going on and on in the back ground

Drakensberg walk near Underberg

Drakensberg walk near Underberg

Walk in the Drakensberg near Underberg

Walk in the Drakensberg near Underberg

Hike in the Drakensberg

Hike in the Drakensberg

Our next location was further north and in the Central Drakensberg Mountains. Our base here was a beautiful cottage in the Champagne Valley, about 20km outside the nearest town of Winterton. From the cottage grounds there was a great view across the rolling hills to the Drakensberg Mountains in the distance.

View from the cottage in Central Drakensberg

View from the cottage in Central Drakensberg

Our main aim whilst here was to do another mountain hike, and the route to Nandi Falls looked particularly attractive, but first we thought we would have a touristy day. There were lots of things that intrigued us, and all were situated along the Champagne Valley road leading to the mountain. They also didn’t seem to be in keeping with the surroundings, which made them even more interesting.
First stop was Ardmore, the makers of very detailed and colourful ceramics. But not their posh upmarket gallery, that sells items for thousands of pounds to customers all round the world, but to a cottage industry run by some of the original founders (hence still going by the name Ardmore). This famous ceramic’s business started in Winterton, very close to where we are staying, and a few of the original crafts persons still produce items locally. The premises may not be so fancy and the items may not have quite the same finery, but are still very good and are sold at a fraction of the price. We started by looking around the museum then progressed to gallery and finally each made a purchase.

Ardmore Ceramic

Ardmore Ceramic

Next stop was the Negosie Museum, not well known outside the area, but very interesting none the less. The museum is an old shop displaying items from a bygone era, which brought back many childhood memories.

Inside the Negosie Museum

Inside the Negosie Museum

Negosie Museum in the Champagne Valley

Negosie Museum in the Champagne Valley

By now we were getting a bit hungry so we moved on to the Village Bakery. Now this is not the small establishment that the name may suggest, but a big building with plenty of parking, a shop, a restaurant and children’s play area. However, we were here just for the bread, which has a very good reputation in the area, but as usual left with more, biscuits and jam this time.
This visit made us even more hungry, but we restrained ourselves and moved on to find our lunch elsewhere. Our next location was a converted aircraft hanger complex with a number of small businesses operating out of the site. Food came first, followed by beer tasting at a local microbrewery, and then finishing off with a bit of shopping for local produce.

Beer tasting in the Champagne Valley

Beer tasting in the Champagne Valley

Next day was the more serious, and healthier, business of a hike up into the mountains. We stuck with our plan to hike to Nandi Falls and weren’t disappointed. The start was a descent through woodland, before emerging to great views of Cathedral Peak. We then gradually climbed up a gorge following a river until we reached Nandi Falls. A fine ribbon of water fell from a plateau above us into a pool with a rainbow at its base, a truly beautiful spot. The return journey took us along the bottom of a rock face with nice views across the valley below.

Nandi Falls Walk

Nandi Falls Walk

Nandi Falls

Nandi Falls

Nandi Falls

Nandi Falls

Nandi Falls walk

Nandi Falls walk

We decided that after all that exercise we deserved a treat, so called in at the Valley Bakery on our way back for tea and cake.

Continuing north along the Drakensberg Mountain range our final destination was another beautiful cottage just outside the town of Bergville and just inside the Royal Natal National Park protected area. Our cottage sat overlooking a small valley where we regularly spotted Eland (Africa’s largest antelope) on the opposite hilltop. The plan was for two days of hiking and with perfect weather conditions that is exactly what we did.

Our cottage in Northern Drakensberg

Our cottage in Northern Drakensberg

During our drive north on the previous day we had encountered a lot of smoke. This was the result of firebreaks being created, and our hope was that this wouldn’t impact on our enjoyment of the area. Fortunately on our first day’s hike the fires were in the distance and not likely to effect us in any way.

Fire break

Fire break

The mountains seemed to have got more spectacular as we travelled north and as we entered the Royal Natal National Park, the location for our hike, this was even more evident.
Today we had decided to explore the northern section of the park. Our route first took us through forest, following the Mahai River, before emerging at some cascades. It now got much steeper as we continued on to a lookout high up on the mountain slopes. The views from here were magnificent and the flat rock formation was a good place to sit and get our breath back. The hike now levelled out as we passed through more forest, eventually arriving at Tiger Falls. The hiking pamphlet we were following spoke of a magical curtain of water failing from the cliff edge, but today it was more like a dripping tap due to the season and reduced rainfall in the area.

Tiger Falls Walk in the Royal Natal NP

Tiger Falls Walk in the Royal Natal NP

Tiger Falls Walk in the Royal Natal NP

Tiger Falls Walk in the Royal Natal NP

Tiger Falls (not much of a fall)

Tiger Falls (not much of a fall)

Baboon encounter on the Tiger Falls Walk in the Royal Natal NP

Baboon encounter on the Tiger Falls Walk in the Royal Natal NP

Our route now began to descend the mountain slope and eventually arrived back at the start. At which time we realised that our timing had been perfect, as smoke from the firebreaks had now engulfed the area we had enjoyed only a few hours earlier.
The hike for the following day was in the southern section and the most iconic part of the park. Iconic because it affords the best views of the incredible amphitheatre, a concave wall of rock that sits on top of the mountain face some 3,000 meters above us.

The Amphitheatre

The Amphitheatre

We started with a gentle but long climb up the Thukela (also known as Tugela) gorge with the amphitheatre becoming ever closer. Our target was not to complete the whole hike, that would take over 6 hours, but to get the best views possible and maybe even see the Thukela (also known as Tugela) Falls. We knew that seeing the falls was a bit of a big ask, as water levels are low this time of year and at best it would just be a dark line down the mountain face. However, it was worth a try as the falls are the second highest in the world, at 948 metres. From our final vantage point and with the use of binoculars we thought we could see them, but with Anne and I pinpointing a different spot on the mountain face we couldn’t be sure. Having enjoyed the fantastic scenery, got a good view of the amphitheatre and maybe seen the falls, we turned around and retraced our steps back to the start.

Ampitheatre walk in Royal Natal NP

Ampitheatre walk in Royal Natal NP

View during the Amphitheatre walk in Royal Natal NP

View during the Amphitheatre walk in Royal Natal NP

We were now at the end of our first three weeks in South Africa and had to say good-bye to Rob. As unlike us retirees, he had to return to work in the UK, whilst we continued our travels. Therefore we left the Drakensberg Mountains and drove to Johannesburg airport to drop him off, and then overnighted before continuing our journey.

Craft sellers outside the Royal Natal NP

Craft sellers outside the Royal Natal NP

Now just the two of us, our southern Africa journey continued east towards the Mozambique border. Our destination was the town of Nelspruit, the capital town of the Mpumalanga Province. Nelspruit is a busy and relatively prosperous town, due to its administrative functions, farming and magnesium industries, and we were staying just on the outskirts. Our home for the next four days was a one-bedroom cottage set in the most amazing grounds. The property had what is best described, as its own botanical gardens. These spread for several acres over a hill side and provided great views of the valley below and mountains in the distance. The cottage was small but very well fitted; and with the weather so nice we were able to make full use of the outside furniture.

Our accommodation in Nelspruit

Our accommodation in Nelspruit

Back garden of our accommodation in Nelspruit

Back garden of our accommodation in Nelspruit

Double Collared Sunbird taken from the garden in our Nelspruit Accommodation

Double Collared Sunbird taken from the garden in our Nelspruit Accommodation

Having got behind with our planning and travel admin, this was a great place to catch up. It was also so comfortable that some days we didn’t even go out, just relaxed in the beautiful surrounds. However, we did explore the area a bit, but only a couple of forays to check out the town and a visit to its botanical gardens. With our own botanical gardens on our doorstep we almost didn’t bother with the official one, but were glad we did. The Low Veld Botanical Gardens is located to the north of the town and are dissected by the Crocodile River. Containing most of the local flora it is also home to a wide variety of bird life. We spent a few hours there, exploring the trails and admiring the nature all around us.

Lowveld Botanical Garden in Nelspruit

Lowveld Botanical Garden in Nelspruit

Purple Turaco in the Lowveld Botanical Garden

Purple Turaco in the Lowveld Botanical Garden

Refreshed after our relaxing stay in Nelspruit, we were ready for adventures new, a different country in fact.

Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

Drakensberg Mountains
The Drakensberg Mountains run south to north across eastern South Africa, starting close to the Indian Ocean in the Eastern Cape and ending right up in the north of the Limpopo Province. The range runs for more than 1,000 kilometres, with its highest peaks in the south (several over 3,000 meters) were it forms the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Amongst it’s many amazing features is the Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall in the world and the highest in Africa, which tumbles of the Lesotho escarpment down into South Africa and eventually forms the Orange River.
However, there is now some debate as to whether the Tugela Falls may actually be the highest in the world. At 948 metres they are only around 30 metres lower than that recorded for the Angel Falls in Venezuela, currently the highest in the world. Due to a potential flaw in the original measurement of the Angel Falls a Dutch geologist believes their true height is in the region of 930 metres, which would make Tugela the highest. For the moment though, the debate continues and it may be some while before it is settled. In fact, such is the effect of climate change; both may dry up before that.

Tagula Falls (courtesy of the internet)

Tagula Falls (courtesy of the internet)

This featured blog entry was written by MAd4travel from the blog MAd4Travel.
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By MAd4travel

Posted Sun, Jul 21, 2019 | South Africa | Comments