Mountain Kingdoms

by Marlijn van Berne

When I first flew to South Africa, I imagined endless low-lying plains, arid pans, fever trees and Baobabs, and miles and miles of dusty dirt roads. And indeed, it has all of that, but it also has so much more! Beautiful rivers, endless coastline, and stunning vistas, all contribute to a variety of lovely landscapes – which also includes magnificent mountain ranges.

The mountain ranges of South Africa are among the oldest and most beautiful in the world. Across most of the country you will find towering escarpments, plunging valleys and rolling hills bordering onto grassy highlands or separated from neighbouring peaks by passes or gorges. Not unlike something to be found in the Hobbit’s ‘Shire,’ our mountains and their ranges include names such as the Drakensberg (Devil’s Knuckles, Monk’s Cowl, Champagne Castle, Popple Peak, Giants Castle, Gods Window), Table Mountain (Devils Peak, Karbonkelberg), Hex River Mountains, Pilanesberg, the Cedar Berg and the Outeniqua Mountains, to mention but a few. There are too many to mention, but enjoy my favourite two below!

 

“Dragon Mountains”

A few stand out however, and one of the highest and possibly most famous mountain ranges in South Africa is the undoubtedly the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountain range in KwaZulu-Natal. Stretching some 1,600 kilometres from South Africa’s northernmost provinces to the Eastern Cape, this mountain range offers incredible natural beauty, and is one of two World Heritage Sites in the province. Named the ‘Drakensberge’ or ‘Dragon Mountains’ by early Dutch settlers, we all know it simply as the ‘Berg’. Having said that, there really is nothing simple about it! It’s big, it’s beautiful, and it offers an enormous diversity of attractions and activities.

Whether hiking along the footpaths, camping in caves or stopping to picnic and taking a dip into the streams and rock pools, or exploring the thousands of painted rock art images by the San people, the Berg is pretty much unbeatable. The weather can however be a bit unpredictable. In the summer (November to March), everything is a lush green, daytime temperatures are usually hot, but make sure you take a raincoat! In winter (May to end of August), the crisp clear skies are the perfect backdrop to snow-capped mountain peaks and although unlikely to rain, you’ll definitely need something warm to wear. The Berg is also part of a larger collaborative conservation initiative between South Africa and the neighbouring Kingdom of Lesotho, which saw its Sehlabathebe National Park, incorporated as an extension to the uKhahlamba Drakensberg, called the Maloti-Drakensberg Park. Established in 2001, this is Lesotho’s first World Heritage Site. Members of UNESCO praised this “spectacularly beautiful watershed area” which is home to three endangered species, the Maloti Minnow, a species of fish found only in the park, and the Cape and Bearded vultures.

But…for an unforgettable and extra special adventure, not to miss out on, check out Sani Pass! Even if you are lucky enough to find yourself in the comfort of a 4×4 vehicle, this gravel mountain pass is not for the feint-hearted. Built circa 1950 the pass is situated between KZN and Lesotho and if you are up for a ‘man versus mountain pass’ challenge – this is it! Climbing to a summit altitude of 2876m, this is an absolute winner and the scenery is mind blowing, but may require some nail biting or hanging onto the edge of your seat (or both). The route up requires some steady nerves, and the South African authorities may call a halt to your adventure if they deem your vehicle unfit to tackle the conditions.

Make sure you have your passport with you and that is valid for at least 6 months – and you may be required to produce proof of vehicle ownership and insurance. Note that both border control points close at 18h00 – so give yourself a good two hours to complete the trip. At the top of the pass on the Lesotho side, take some ‘time out’ to celebrate your arrival at the top of the World’with a visit to Sani Mountain Lodge. Perched above the clouds, the Inn offers a very warm welcome to intrepid explores. Warm your hands around a steaming mug of gluwien (hot, mulled wine) or hot chocolate, and enjoy the absolutely amazing views from the bar. Spending the night is recommended, as this is the perfect    stop-over before heading into Lesotho and you are guaranteed a great dinner and a good breakfast to send you on your way.

Directions: From Durban take the N3 Motorway toward Johannesburg and turn off at Exit 99 (Howick South/Underberg).Turn left and follow R617 for 110 km to Underberg. From Underberg take road to Himeville and then follow signs to Sani Pass. For an organised South African or Lesotho wilderness trail, trek or hike – visit www.drakensberghiker.co.za/contact-drakensberg-hiker, or for general enquires contact Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Reservations, Tel: +27 (0)33 845 1000, Email: webmail@kznwildlife.com

 

“They who bear honey”

Named “they who bear honey” by the early Koisan who collected honey in the region, the Outeniqua Mountains form a mountain range that frames much of the beautiful Garden Route in the Western Cape. The mountains form a continuous range with the Langeberg to the west and the Tsitsikama Mountains to the east and drop down from the interior plateau to the coastal plain that runs parallel to the coast.

Travelling along mountain passes is one of my favourite things to do – and this is the place to do it! Travel along any of the four passes through the Outeniqua Mountains which connect the small city of George in the Southern Cape to the interior and its stunning beauty unfolds in front of your eyes. Not only that, but I have always found that mountains offer many unrivalled ‘exhale’ moments as you are carried by and share their tranquillity. Amid the ever changing colours of these majestic mountains, scenic passes and rivers, this is a time for taking stock, listening to your inner voice and be immersed in its spectacular natural beauty. The four passes include the Cradock Pass, the Railways Pass, the un-tarred Montagu Pass and the tarred Outeniqua Pass. The passes were built at different times to accommodate an ever-increasing amount of traffic and connect the coastal town of George with Oudtshoorn and the Little Karoo. The Cradock Pass is the oldest of the passes and has white scores along the mountain side to show where the original pass used to be, then there is the Railway Pass and the Montagu Pass, which is very popular with cyclists and sightseers alike, and lastly, the Outeniqua Pass, which has beautiful lookout points as the road descends in lovely sweeping curves down to the ocean. Diverse habitats are home to the klipspringer, grey rhebuck and leopard, as well as the black eagle and Cape sugarbird – and if really lucky, you can see the rare George lily found near water in the deep ravines of the mountain. Suffice it to say, the ferns, forests, heath land vegetation and mountain vistas will knock your socks off!

A lovely daytrip to consider takes you from George up the hand-built Montagu Pass across the mountains to the little village of Herold on the other side. Driving or cycling up, you will pass two interesting relics of the last century; the old Toll-house which charged toll fees to passers-by and the beautifully built bridge over the Keur River which flows through the pass. The latter is now a National Monument. Near the top of the pass there is a point at which you can look through a gap in the mountains, to the farmlands of the coastal plateau and the sea beyond. Now make your way down the pass to the hamlet of Herold, from where you can access the coastal and inland attractions of the Klein Karoo and the Garden Route (PS don’t forget the Cango Caves!)

As you can read, the mountains are your oyster. You certainly won’t be short of things to do as you explore any of our magnificent mountain ranges, or just slow down the pace of life as you breathe in the fresh air.

For information on where to stay in the Outeniqua Mountains visit: http://www.wheretostay.co.za/topic/4015