Hidden Gems

This is our regular feature in which we explore some fascinating off-the-beaten-track places and unique experiences you probably didn’t know existed…but which are truly worth a visit. However, in this edition we deviate somewhat from the usual format as we focus strongly on a number of Hidden Gems that are all located in the Drakensberg region of KwaZulu-Natal.

In August Mzanzitravel’s Zainab Achmat was invited along with other members of the tourism media to come and explore the many delightful experiences in and around the beautiful Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal. Her visit was part of the media launch of Tourism Month (September) by South Africa’s tourism minister, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane. Here Zainab tells us what she discovered. (You can also read this online in our Hidden Gems travel blog here .

Discovering the gems of the Drakensberg

 

By Zainab Achmat

 

It’s amazing how many times we can travel to the same province and each time come away with a completely different, new experience.  During this visit in August, I fell completely in love with KwaZulu-Natal all over again, this time specifically with what I found in and around the Drakensberg Mountains.

Google it and you’ll see that the Drakensberg is a mountain range that stretches over 1,000km from the Eastern Cape almost all the way to the Zimbabwean and Mozambican borders in the northeast.   It is also the highest mountain range in the country, its highest peak, Mafadi, reaching an impressive 3,482 meters above sea level. The range passes through the Eastern Cape, Free State, Lesotho, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

The name Drakensberg is derived from the Afrikaans for ‘dragon mountain’. The Zulu name ‘uKhahlamba’ refers to ‘the barrier of up-pointed spears’. Every turn every corner, every elevation of the mountain offers a different scenic experience that will take your breath away. Of course this makes it any photographer’s absolute delight, whether you are a novice with a selfie phone or a pro with all the latest equipment. There’s always something different to snap and write home about.

Fauna, flora and San rock art

The Drakensberg has been blessed with an astounding variety of fauna and flora, much of it unspoilt in the higher regions because of the inaccessibility there. The lower slopes support much wildlife, perhaps most importantly the rare southern white rhinoceros – which was saved here from extinction –  and the black wildebeest.

The cliff sides and caves around the mountains are also home to some of the most famous and well-preserved San (bushman) rock paintings. The Drakensberg along the KwaZulu-Natal border with Lesotho has between 35,000 and 40,000 works of San rock art and is said to be the largest such collection in the world. Around 20,000 individual rock paintings have been recorded at 500 different caves and cliff sites between the Drakensberg Royal Natal National Park and Bushman’s Nek alone.

Nevertheless, my exciting trip to the Drakensberg started when my flight from O.R. Tambo International touched down in Durban, from where a very memorable, scenic albeit long and winding bus journey brought us to the Alpine Heath Resort. Being in the evening already, we were welcomed with a friendly smile, some refreshments and the keys to our rooms. I was delighted to find that I had been given a luxurious double room en-suite with two twin room beds.

Alpine Heath Resort

The aha Alpine Heath Resort & Conference Centre – its full name – is tucked away in the foothills of the Drakensberg  and is an award-winning four-star, self-catering mountain village – the perfect getaway destination. It’s also ideally situated midway between Durban and Johannesburg. The resort gives families and nature-lovers the opportunity to explore their surroundings with luxury Drakensberg accommodation as a home base, whether it’s for a day, a weekend or even longer.

All of its newly refurbished 100 Deluxe Chalets are self-catering, superbly equipped and offer breath-taking views of the majestic mountains. Each chalet has private braai facilities, a comfortable lounge, kitchen dining area, a fireplace and patio, plus the convenience of a telephone, satellite TV, good cellular reception, and a hairdryer (important if you are a woman!).

But it was only in the morning that the full impact of the place hit me, when I woke up to a view that looked like an exquisitely painted canvas. I could not wait to start exploring the resort. On my way to the reception area I got distracted by different pathways – exploring each, and simply losing myself, speechless, to the variety of views that opened up in front of me. Just yesterday I was stuck in suffocating city traffic, and here I now found myself in paradise!

I was so at peace with myself and these beautiful surroundings that I decided even my breakfast could wait. Finally hunger won, however, and I walked over to the restaurant, passing the pool area, a mini gym, mini golf (putt-putt) course and tennis courts. I also came upon a beautiful peacock that was walking through the main building as if he owned it, not perturbed by the gawking guests at all. And when he had everyone’s attention, he spread his feathers to show off the full glory of his beauty. Finally, arriving at the restaurant an added bonus for me was when I was told that it was halal friendly. The perfect end to my perfect early-morning start. (For more information about Alpine Heath Resort or to book, go to our website.)

Scootours

Ready for a full day’s action after a lovely breakfast at Alpine Heath Resort, we were taken to a place called Scootours where we were broken up into smaller groups. What awaited us were loads of fun activities, perfect for team building and ideal for some unforgettable family fun, but sadly not quite so agreeable for me. Unused to scooters and cycles, racing downhill I found myself doing an unimaginable balancing act on two wheels trying to stay upright for dear life! The rest of the group went zooming passed me with no problems at all, but I ended up falling and walking the rest of the way.

But even so, the surroundings made up for it as did all the other fun we still enjoyed here. This included doing the zip line, paintball, king-swing, tree climbing, abseiling and white-water tubing to name but a few of the hair-raising adventures that awaited us.(You can contact Drakensberg Scootours on Tel +27 074 103 3613 or email info@adventurecentre.co.za.)

Drakensberg Sun

Following an adventurous morning – two-wheel mishap and all – we were whisked off to Tsogo Sun’s Drakensberg Sun Resort, situated in a beautiful valley surrounded by the central Drakensberg near Winterton. This was also the venue where we would attend the launch of SA Tourism’s Tourism Month campaign by the Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane.

As their brochure states, the Drakensberg Sun Resort is indeed ‘one of the world’s most scenic holiday destinations’. This family-friendly mountain resort is the perfect place from which to explore the region’s many fascinating attractions – or simply to relax and unwind in one of South Africa’s most picturesque settings.

The resort offers guests a choice of 78 beautifully furnished en-suite rooms. Accommodation options at the resort include Standard Rooms, Superior Rooms, Executive Rooms, and the luxurious Presidential Suite. The resort’s rooms echo the natural splendour of the surrounding forests and mountains and provide spectacular views of the Cathkin Peak area, one of the main attractions of the Drakesnberg.

The resort is also well suited for corporate activities from team building in the mountains to conferences in relaxing surroundings. The hotel offers professionally managed conferencing facilities suitable for all types of events. For even more comfort there’s also a spa, beautiful pool, restaurant offering delicious fresh cuisine, and outdoor adventure activities amidst the lakes, mountains and ancient forests of the Drakensberg. Offering breath-taking views with utter tranquillity and the joy of discovering one of the world’s most spectacular destinations, the Drakensberg Sun Resort has something for everyone. (Contact Drakensberg Sun Resort on Tel +27 36 468 1000).

Tourism Month launch by Minister Kubayi-Ngubane

In this pristine setting, Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane conducted the media launch of Tourism Month. Delivering an inspiring speech, the minister appealed to the media to focus on local tourism affordable for the lower to middle income sector of South Africans. She began het speech with the following quote by American Author Pat Conroy who said: “Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey”.

She encouraged South Africans to explore their beautiful country given that our historical past made it impossible for a majority of South Africans to travel and thus even today that historical reality still shows. One of the concerns often raised about traveling mainly by South Africans is the affordability of traveling, she said.

“As we announce the Shot’ Left travel week, we are cognisant that it still doesn’t speak to what many have raised with us and we will continue to improve on it using the feedback they have provided to us. The theme for this year’s World Tourism Day is ‘Tourism and jobs – a better future for all’, which highlights the tourism sector’s vast capability to create jobs and therefore reduce the country’s unemployment rate. We remain confident that tourism will contribute to our country turning to positive economic growth desired by our government and also contribute to more jobs to its maximum potential.

The total consumption of tourism through domestic and international tourism for 2018 generated value that directly accounted for 2.9% of our country’s Gross Domestic Product and accounted for 4.5% of our total employment. Domestic tourism in 2018 contributed R26,4 billion in revenue and we believe with aggressive campaign and marketing this figure can increase to almost double.

Tourism month is also about getting people from outside the boarders of our country to travel and experience our country’s diverse offerings. To this end, fundamental to the achievement of the over 21 million international tourist target by 2030 is to firstly continue to work closely with Home Affairs on visa facilitation to increase access to our country by our tourists.

Secondly, work closely with Minister of Police and our sector to address the concerns of safety. We have agreed yesterday with the Minister of Police to bring all our teams together in the coming two weeks. Lastly and most importantly, we need to develop and drive an aggressive marketing campaign for both domestic and international markets,” said Minister Kubayi-Ngubane. (Her full speech and more details about the Sho’t Left Travel Week can be found on the government website and at www.shotleft.co.za.)

Beer, chocolates and a farm stall

Our next stop was for some beer tasting at Drakensberg Brewery, a unique craft brewery in the heart of the Drakensberg with spectacular mountain views. The in-house pub, called the Brewpub, is a great place to sit back and enjoy one of their fantastic beers on tap. The brewery and pub are also well-known for their DIY platters where customers can create their own platters from a selection of cold meats, cheeses, pickles and preserves.

Brewmaster Nick Roberts turned his hand to brewing after moving to Cathkin Park from Johannesburg with his wife in 2015. He left behind many years of experience in project management and process engineering, both of which have served him well at the brewery. The Drakensberg Brewery is a proud member of Drakensberg Experience, a local tourism initiative. (Contact the Brewery at info@drakbrew.co.za or phone 083 296 4552 or the Brewpub at brewpub@drakbrew.co.za 060 382 6225.)

Great was my surprise – and the delight of my sweet tooth – when we next came upon what is aptly called The Drakensberg Chocolate Memories… for chocolate was in abundance and memories were certainly made. Here you can munch away to your heart’s delight on artisan chocolates that are made with love and care in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains. Only the finest ingredients are used – pure cocoa butter and natural bourbon vanilla, and definitely no modified fats or palm oil are used.

Indulge in some free chocolate tasting, enjoy a chocolate fondue, have some hot chocolate, or take some syphon brewed coffee with truffles and chili essence. Or drink some chocolate water, try their light and irresistible chocolate mousse, get a frozen chocolate drink to cool you down, buy some of their range of chocolate bars or bulk chocolate, and much more. The decadent chocolate fondue was definitely my favourite. (Contact Chocolate Memories at Tel +27 072 310 3376.)

Still basking in a kind of chocolate afterglow, I next found myself within walking distance of the Farm Friends Farm Stall.  What a hidden gem all of its own! The stall is situated at the Berg Air Lifestyle Centre and sells handmade and artistic items, metal craft, gifting, homemade preserves and jams as well as “free to roam” meat – beef and lamb. I could easily have bought everything in store to take home as gifts!  (Contact Farm, Friends Farm Stall on Tel +27 083 365 0391.)

Wine, adventure and horse riding

Next stop on our action-filled trip was a date with some lovely wine tasting at Cathedral Peak Wine Estate situated in the Winterton area of the Central Drakensberg. The climate here has unique characteristics – the air is clean, crisp and fresh to breathe, and the sheerness of the mountain allows heat to rise up against the warm cliffs during the day and cooler air to feed down at night. The winter sees snow on the tops of the peaks that feed the crystal-clear mountain streams. The soil is deep and fertile, and the land is gently undulating. With steady summer rainfall, nature responds with vigour.

It was this unique combination together with their passion for wine that led to the decision in 2008 to plant their first vineyards in this unlikely location. But the owners were sure with all these ingredients they would most certainly find ways of making wines of distinction… which is exactly what they do.

Not only did our group get to taste their delightful wines, but they could do so against the backdrop of a spectacular sunset within the lap of the majestic mountains. Apart from wine tasting they also host weddings and private functions on the estate. (Contact the estate on Tel +27 (0) 63 075 1123 or at bookings@cathpeakwines.com.)

Adventure with a Big A was next on our list as we started our next day with adrenaline pumping at the appropriately named at  All out Adventure, situated in the unspoilt Northern Drakensberg just off the R74, mid-way between Joburg and Durban. This awesome outfit offers 10 awesome activities at one spectacular venue. Highlights include South Africa’s fastest cable tour, adventure quad trails, 150km of marked mountain bike trails, and a hair-raising 17-meter free fall King Swing accessed by a wooden spiral staircase that snakes 21 meters to the treetops.

The activities are all visible from the coffee shop lawn, so those who are less adventurous can kick back with a giant cappuccino and still feel like part of the action. Perfect for team building , scouts or school getaways. There is a separate section for kiddies from age 8 and up. There’s plenty of good,  different accommodation within close proximity. (Call them on  +27 036 438 6242 or +27 082 406 8980.)

And finally, as our visit started drawing closer to the end, our group divided in two: some of us went to the Cavern Berg Resort for lunch, and some like myself went horse riding at Alpine Heath Resort. The Caven Berg Resort is the perfect family getaway, with spacious and comfortable rooms that have en suite bath and shower, tea and coffee making facilities and a patio each. And don’t forget the relaxing spa treatments by qualified body care therapists. The resort offers a variety of activities, including two daily guided hikes, fly-fishing and horse trails. (Contact them on Tel +27 36 438 6270 or +27 83 701 5724).

After a final sumptuous breakfast at the Alpine Heath Resort, it was onto the bus for the long journey home, but at least with a bag full of wonderful new memories to take along. I must be honest, I never thought going to the Drakensberg could be so much fun. I prepared myself for the usual hikes, but instead came away invigorated by some awesome new experiences.  That is what travelling is all about: discovering new places and experiences. And KwaZulu-Natal and the Drakensberg always live up to this promise. Our thanks also to SA Tourism, KwaZulu-Natal Tourism and all the properties/companies that hosted us.

  • Zainab’s visit to the Drakensberg Mountains was sponsored by invitation from SA Tourism and hosted by the companies/entities mentioned in the article.