CHAM­PAGNE VAL­LEY

With equal doses of out­door ad­ven­ture and leisure, Cham­pagne Val­ley might just of­fer the best of the Drak­ens­berg, says ME­LANIE VAN ZYL

Getaway (South Africa) - - NEWS -

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.

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