Tag: Drakensberg

:: a royal ampitheatre ::

The jagged teeth of rock rose into view. Still far on the horizon, they foreshadowed a return to home climes. Gone was the humidity and salty air of the coast we had just come from. In their place was dry, fresh, clear air and endless blue skies reaching over the soaring peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains.

We came off the motorway and back onto the lovely two lane roads that snake through the golden fields and undulating hillsides of the foothills of the Drakensberg. It’s a similar landscape to that which you find in the Free State running along the north-western border of Lesotho, but from this side the mountains rise straight up. It is an impressive sight to behold as pinnacles of sheer rock reach for the sky like freshly planted trees searching for the sunlight.

We were heading for Royal Natal National Park in the Northern Drakensberg, and more specifically for the Amphitheatre. Named due to its likeness of a concert venue, this prodigious geographical feature stretches approximately 5 kilometres across and rises more than 1200 metres straight up from the base of the Tugela River Valley. From the top, the Tugela Falls cascade close to 1000 meters down the cliff face, making them the second highest falls in the world, behind only Angel Falls. There is little that can explain the sheer awesomeness of this place. It is truly something that needs to be experienced on foot, up close.

We arrived just as the late autumn sun sank behind the foothills, with the last rays of golden sunlight striking the awe-inspiring walls of rock. Suddenly reds and pinks and oranges danced over the sheer cliff faces that stretched in front of us. Heads on a swivel we tried to take it all in and quickly realised that the one night we had there was not going to do this place justice – not by a long shot!

The morning light on the rock wall was different, but equally mesmerising. The only problem was the cold, even with cups of tea and many layers, our hands started getting rather cold and ineffectual after a short time sitting watching the sun rise. Luckily for our hands, but not for our photos, the light quickly changed as the sun rose and we retreated inside. Staying at Thendale Camp inside the park was ideal for being able to see the sunset and sunrise. Right out the back door of our cottage we had an unencumbered view of the entire Amphitheatre. It was spectacular.

It goes without saying that this is hiking territory, and so we laced up our boots and headed up the Tugela River Valley directly towards the cliffs. It was a lovely walk slowly uphill the entire way, but it included little patches of forest that have grown up along the water courses coming down off the hillsides. Tucked into the clefts of the hills, these waterfall fed trees are home to troops of baboons. We heard them more than we saw them, but a few showed themselves for fleeting glances through the branches.

The trail was easy enough, but towards the end it offered some nice boulder hopping and a chain ladder up a small rock face. We were short on time, so we unfortunately couldn’t follow the trail all the way to the cliff face.  It would have surely been an amazing sight, staring straight up at the crushing amount of rock tower over us. Still, with low river levels there probably would have been very little water in the falls so we will just have to return in spring or summer for a more thorough exploration!

All in all, it was lovely to spend even a very brief amount of time in Royal Natal. It was in many ways a homecoming for us. Returning to the mountains after ten days along the coast re-enforced just how much we crave landscapes that feature mountains, hills and plateaus. If there is something to clamour up, then chances are we are happy to make the attempt!

:: in the clouds ::

The clouds rolled slowly up and over the edge of the sheer cliff face, forming the illusion of a tablecloth draped snugly to the rock.  The valley 500 meters below was nothing more than a memory and the idea of driving the dirt and gravel switchbacks that passed down through it was not one that any sane person would relish.

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South Africa

The top of Sani Pass is not for the faint of heart. Sitting nearly 2900 meters above sea level right on the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment, this road pass is one of Southern Africa’s rites of passage for adventurous souls.  

The road climbs over 1300 meters in only 10km with the last kilometre being nothing but ridiculously sharp switchbacks up a nearly sheer wall of rock.  It is the only road pass between South Africa and Lesotho for hundreds of kilometres between the far southwest and northeast of Lesotho.  Nearly half of the circular border of Lesotho has no road passage to South Africa, except Sani.

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South Africa

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South AfricaOn a clear day the Drakensberg mountain range can be seen from the city of Durban about 90km away.  On a cloudy, fog filled day, the mountains can’t be seen from 90 meters away!  Thrown up millions of years ago, this terribly imposing mountain range stands guard between the coastal plains of South Africa and the rugged interior of Lesotho.

A group of us set off from Maseru early on a Friday and nine hours, 300km and lots of bumpy roads later, we arrived at the top of Sani Pass.  The road from Mokhotlong to Sani alone is only about 50km, but it takes about two hours on the unfinished dirt roads.  The views along the way are breathtaking, as you snake along river valleys and up through mountains, including Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest peak south of Mt Kilimanjaro on the African continent.

The top of Sani is covered by huge expanses of pasture land cut by small streams formed from run off of the mountains that tower ever higher.  Right on the edge is Sani Mountain Lodge where you can sit on an outdoor deck and look straight down the dirt track that vaguely doubles as a vehicle road.  Sitting in what is claimed to be the highest pub in Africa, you can’t help but marvel at the spectacular views of mountains all around and the huge drop off right in front of you.

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South Africa

We decided to camp as our dog Mosa wasn’t allowed in the chalets.  We, along with our friend Heather, set up our tents in the middle of a field with the doors facing away from the little village looking out over the pasture and towards the mountains.  At first it was perfectly sunny and clear, but by the time we got back to the tents after dinner clouds had started rolling in.  As we zipped ourselves into the tent, we couldn’t even see the car five metres away.  The cloud swept in thick and low and stayed there throughout the night.

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South AfricaThe morning brought clear sunshine and an amazing sunrise over the clouds down below in the valley.  The soft morning light played against the towering cliff face and we witnessed our first proper sunrise on the African continent.  It was quiet, majestic and awe-inspiring to stand high above the clouds and watch the sun break through and bring warmth to a new day.

Our hike towards Thabana Ntlenyana, the ‘beautiful little mountain’, took us deeper into the mountains away from the cliff edge.  

The rest of our group made it up to the top, but unfortunately five month old Mosa was not strong enough yet to undergo an eight hour hike up more than 600 meters of climbing.  On our way back to camp the clouds started rolling in fast as we approached the edge.  

A barren landscape with far more sheep and cows than people, it took on a haunted spectral quality when the clouds started rolling in.  When the sun was out though, the green fields and blue sky were about as vibrant as you could imagine.  A schizophrenic landscape filled with malice, it is still amazingly beautiful.

We sat on the balcony completely shrouded in cloud and then retired to our tent, where we watched the clouds roll across and then dissipate just as quickly, only to return again within five minutes. It was a surreal experience to watch such variable weather.

After a lovely couple of days, we then made our way down the pass.  It is slightly harrowing, but completely reasonable in dry, clear conditions.  Everywhere you look there is something more amazing to see – sheer cliff walls rising hundreds of meters above you, waterfalls crashing down off the rock faces and even a troop of baboons wandering through the brush.  We took our time and admired the scenery, content to feel overwhelmed by the power, glory and majesty of nature.

Here are few more captures from our spectacular trip to Sani Pass… Thanks to David, Brian, Heather, Bettina and Emma for a wonderful weekend exploring with good friends!

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