With equal doses of outdoor adventure and leisure, Champagne Valley might just offer the best of the Drakensberg, says MELANIE VAN ZYL
There is indeed bubbly here, and much more, discovers Melanie van Zyl
‘I‘m not kidding when I say this is the local hangout,’ said Gerhard van Zyl, pointing to a new arrival at Dragon’s Pub. Gerhard is my uncle, and he started working in the Berg when I was 12 years old. I’d come to him now for some advice, and we were sitting outside the bar chatting about what to do during my week in The Valley.
‘There’s the canopy tour, which is just beautiful, and you’ve got to visit Edi’s chocolate shop,’ he enthused.
I wrote down the names and mentioned that I’d love to tackle a few day hikes too.
‘Hold on!’ he said, and went into the pub. ‘This is Roy Strydom,’ he said, re-emerging. ‘He manages the Bergview Estate near Drak Sun [the Drakensberg Sun hotel] and he can tell you.’
‘Well, Blue Grotto is easy and there’s a waterfall at the end,’ said Roy. ‘I’ll walk with you if you like?’
At the pub, we also bumped into Karl Huybrecht, the guide for Monks Cowl Adventure, and got useful tips about the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. Greg McBey, owner of a raptor rehabilitation project, was there too, as was Trevor Livesey, the director for the Champagne Sports golf course. I even managed to book a ride in a helicopter with pilot David Maguire. In a matter of minutes, my week was planned.
Later, from my lakeside suite at Dragon Peaks, I could see the flat-topped Cathkin Peak and Champagne Castle, before the jagged Dragon’s Back starts forming the iconic ridge of the Central Drakensberg. Moorhens, Egyptian geese and a determined pied kingfisher splashed in the water outside my window.
I checked Berg Info on Facebook to fill in any gaps in my schedule. More than a mere Facebook page, it features a clever Chat Bot on Messenger that makes recommendations. I learnt about a winery (there might be bubbly after all!) on the road to Cathedral Peak.
Falcon Ridge Bird of Prey Centre, near Champagne Castle Hotel, has been here for
19 years and was first on the recommended list. It’s an institution in The Valley and offers a daily raptor show. ‘There’s a young fish eagle delaying the show at the moment and our owl doesn’t like it, but hopefully, we’ll get some good flights in,’ said Greg McBey. I could immediately hear the soulpiercing call of fish eagles.
The show kicked off with an introduction to the centre. ‘Many birds are just passing through, but others have been here for years and can’t be released due to injury or disability,’ explained Alison McBey to a full house on this Monday in May, supposedly a slow week in autumn. ‘The injured birds have either been electrocuted, like our vultures, or shot at.’
Greg elaborated on the crying fish eagle that circled above the crowd. ‘This guy’s learnt he can get food here. It’s not unusual – on the Zambezi, several birds have learnt to follow the fishing boats and mokoros for a tasty snack.’
Throughout the show, the couple’s passion for their birds was palpable and they used humour to educate the crowd.
From 3.30pm every day, fresh scones and jam are served on the deck at Champagne Castle Hotel and I didn’t want to miss out. There, I met Joseph Sithole, who has been serving guests for 31 years. ‘I started as a waiter and worked my way up to restaurant manger.’
There is an old-fashioned charm to this sprawling establishment, which forms part of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site. It began as a hostel in 1934, catering for the Natal Mountain Club, and the present owners have been running the hotel since 1965.
It was time to strap on my tackies and head for the hills. I chose Mike’s Trail for sunset, which was an easy 20-minute stroll past the dams. The peaks turned orange, then a bruised blue, as the sun ducked behind the mountain and the ensuing darkness sent me inside.
Champagne Valley is a thriving hub for weekenders looking for solitary hideaways and, with its range of activities, for holidaymakers wanting to expend energy. So far, my trip had been relatively sedate; now it was time for a bit of adventure. Westline Aviation offers breathtaking helicopter rides over the highest peaks of the Drakensberg. My pilot was David Maguire, who used to work for Richard Branson in the British Virgin Islands, so I felt in good hands as we lifted off.
‘I could swear they used footage of the Berg in Black Panther,’ said David. ‘There’s a scene of Wakanda that feels so familiar to me, but it’s like they flipped the scenery or something.’
My outlook from the front seat of the helicopter was wondrous. We landed on a high, flattened mountaintop for an unforgettable picnic in the sky.
After my adrenaline spike, I needed some soothing. The Drakensberg Boys’ Choir performs once a week, so I made my way to the school and took a seat in the auditorium. The sound of their melodic voices singing in mixed styles – from traditional choral pieces to popular hits – was magnificent. I left feeling humbled by such talent.
Champagne Castle Hotel offers unrivalled views of South Africa’s third-highest peak (3 377 metres), from which it takes its name.
ABOVE This fish eagle has imprinted on his handler, Alison McBey, and they call to one another. TOP Gerhard and his two dogs, Dexter and Jack, at the shallow rock pool which is lovely for summer dips at Dragon Peaks Mountain Resort.
LEFT Horse rides for all levels of competence are offered at Dragon Peaks. BELOW The aptly named Mountain View rooms at Champagne Castle Hotel.