SMOKY DRAGON

Camp­ing in the Drak­ens­berg

Road Trip - - CONTENTS - Story & Im­ages © Jac­ques Kok

On Top of the World

The Drak­ens­berg is world renowned for its nat­u­ral beauty with a uniquely colour­ful South African cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence. The ‘’Drak­ens berg’’ or ‘’Moun­tains of dragons,’’ named by the early Dutch set­tlers, stretches for over a 1000 kilo­me­tres, from the Eastern Cape to the Lim­popo prov­ince, par­al­lel to the Eastern coast.

This ad­ven­ture plays out in the North­ern re­gion of the Drak­ens­berg – more specif­i­cally the Am­phithe­atre. You will get here in a lit­tle more than four hours and it is 340 kilo­me­tres from O.R. Tambo In­ter­na­tional air­port. The best route to this spot is via the N3 to Har­ri­smith and the R74 from there, past the Sterk­fontein dam on your right.

The Am­phithe­atre has one of the most im­pres­sive rock faces on the globe and boasts one of the tallest wa­ter­falls in the world. It is five kilo­me­tres in length and its high­est point is 3,050 me­ters above sea level. It is a World Her­itage site and part of the Royal Na­tal Na­tional Park. The wa­ter­fall rolling off the back of the dragon is the Tugela (Thukela) Falls, which refers to the ‘sud­den’ or ‘star­tling’ ef­fect of the heavy rains on the falls in Zulu. This is re­garded as the sec­ond high­est wa­ter­fall in the world, with 948 me­ters in to­tal tak­ing five cas­cad­ing leaps with the tallest be­ing a spec­tac­u­lar, un­in­ter­rupted 411 me­ters.

Snakes and Lad­ders

The very pop­u­lar Sen­tinel Peak trail – also known as the chain lad­der hike or Tugela Falls hike – is a fre­quently treaded hik­ing trail in the Drak­ens­berg. The claim to fame of this trail, apart from the Tugela Falls, is the daunt­ing, leg­endary chain lad­ders con­nect­ing you to the top of the world.

The hike will take more or less five hours re­turn with a dis­tance of 6,4 kilo­me­tres and an el­e­va­tion of 518 me­ters. From the Sen­tinel car park above the Wit­sieshoek re­sort, it is a zig-zag sin­gle track hike up to the only weak point or gully in the con­tin­u­ous, in­tim­i­dat­ing and lofty sheer rock face. This rocky val­ley in between the ris­ing citadels is hard work, but once you get to the top of the es­carp­ment, the moun­tain lev­els out into an enor­mous, flat plateau. I could not tell what took away my breath; the stren­u­ous gully, the ice cold wind, the re­al­i­sa­tion that I tore my pants, the hiss­ing sound I heard when I placed my

hand on a rock, or the spec­tac­u­lar views as you rise through the rocks.

The 360 de­grees view is im­mensely vast and hum­bling. Up there you look past civil­i­sa­tion into a sim­pler time where it was just man ver­sus na­ture: no pride, no ego, and no self-doubt. At the bot­tom of val­ley are fu­ri­ous fires blow­ing up clouds of smoke that roll up the moun­tain, em­u­lat­ing the fa­bled dragon.

After tak­ing it all in, you con­tinue with the hike across the moun­tain top un­til you get to the mouth of the wa­ter­fall. At this cold stage of the year the river bed was dried up and we only en­coun­tered frozen pools of ice. We were able to walk all the way up to the edge of this bar­ren wa­ter­fall, some­thing you can­not do in the rainy sea­son.

A short hike across the tun­dra and now it was fi­nally time for the dreaded chain lad­ders. This took up the ma­jor­ity of the di­a­logue on this trip and it did not dis­ap­point. As you get to take your turn down the lad­der, you can feel the trem­bling in­sta­bil­ity of the per­son below you. This lad­der is 40 me­ters to a ledge where you take lad­der num­ber two and a fur­ther 20 me­ters to the sin­gle track trail. Once you are on the lad­der, the fear turns into adrenalin, in turn be­com­ing ex­hil­a­rat­ing fun.

You will hear screams of full grown men on these chains, guar­an­teed. The now smoky trail zig-zags back to the car park and a well-de­served rest.

Mix­ing with the lo­cals

We sought refuge from the cold at our old favourite, the Am­phithe­atre Back­pack­ers Lodge in Bergville. This is a melt­ing pot of lo­cals, in­ter­na­tional tourists, ad­ven­ture seek­ers, and moun­tain climbers. This might not match the other high-end ac­com­mo­da­tion in the Drak­ens­berg, but what it lacks in lux­ury, it makes up for in per­son­al­ity.

With colour­fully eclec­tic dé­cor coated with a lot of South African flavour, it is an en­ter­tain­ment hotspot and a fix­ture for the lo­cals. There is a bustling bar at the cen­tre of this tourist trap with an in­door fire­place to one side, a jacuzzi to the other, and a break-away Tv-room above. The stock stan­dard en­ter­tain­ment fea­tures like ta­ble ten­nis, pool, chess, rock swim­ming pool, and foos­ball are all ac­counted for. But what makes this place re­ally spe­cial are the sauna, in­door boul­der­ing cave, and a cosy restau­rant. The pre-set, three-course meal at this restau­rant is al­ways de­li­cious and only sur­passed by the live en­ter­tain­ment on stage – an ex­plo­sion of lo­cal flavour.

For more in­for­ma­tion, please visit www.am­phiback­pack­ers.com.

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