Drakensberg Mountains · Royal Natal National Park

A Weekend in Northern Drakensberg


A Weekend in Northern Drakensberg
The amphitheatre in all its glory

It had been a stressful couple of days. Some of it had been exaggerated in my own mind, but it was there, nonetheless.  I was going bonkers listening to the incessant noise that comes along with living smack dab off a busy main road. My belated anniversary trip to the Northern Drakensberg mountains couldn’t have been better timed.

The Retreat

On arrival to the luxury room (luxury is all about perception here.  I’m not picky so I found it delightful, but anyone used to five-star resorts might be underwhelmed) at the Drakensberg Mountain Retreat, the first thing my husband and I noticed was the stunning view from the enclosed patio. The second thing we noticed was the heavenly silence.  I could actually hear myself think. Peace at last! Another thing that we noted is that there are no phones, TVs, or wifi in the rooms.  That was just fine.  A couple of days away from it all was just what I needed…and wanted.

Haembeast in Drakensberg
The hubs checking out the scenery from our patio

The Drakensberg Mountain area is a place for nature lovers, for those of us who feel energized by open spaces, solitude, and sanctuary-like silence. If you’re looking for nightlife, fancy restaurants, shopping, theatre, etc. – you won’t find it here (though the one – hour drive to the arty town of Clarens is worthwhile. More on that later). There are cafes, farm stalls and craft shops, but they are quite removed from the retreat, so it’s convenient that the retreat can serve all three meals (lunch upon request only). It’s a lovely escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.

There are several hiking trails around the retreat, but they can be somewhat “rugged”. That being said, they are worth checking out. The property manager Gerry was very helpful; he explained each trail to us and even went outside to show us the trailheads.

Even though you could probably spend an entire weekend exploring the trails around the Retreat and be satisfied, I highly suggest that if you make the trip to the area, you venture out into one of the national parks.  The Royal Natal National Park is the closest to the retreat (only about 30 minutes away) and luckily, one of the best parks in the area to visit.

A Weekend in North Drakensberg-View from Drakensberg Mountain Retreat
View from one of the Retreat’s hiking trails (Photo courtesy of Haemish Melville)

 

The Park

The main draw to this park is Tugela Falls, which is known as the second tallest waterfall in the world after Angel Falls in Venezuela. The output of the river that feeds into the waterfall is fairly meagre, so spring and summer are the best times to actually see anything. I was visiting during a dry autumn so there was no chance of even catching a glimpse. That was completely fine though, since there were plenty of other beautiful sights to admire.

Another attraction of the park is the much-photographed Amphitheatre, which is a wall of basalt cliffs and peaks in the shape of a crescent. The tallest peak, called the Sentinel, stands at an impressive 3,165 metres. There’s a reason the Amphitheatre been photographed over and over- it’s stunning.  Majestic. We were there in early May and the sky had that lovely clarity that I only seem to notice in the autumn.  The combo of the crisp blue sky, the (mostly) green trees and grasslands, and ruddy colored mountains made for great photos.

We took the Tugela Gorge trail, which is one of the easier trails, but also the most popular because of the views along the way. It’s about an eleven to fourteen kilometer hike starting from the Royal Natal car parking lot. The hike can take anywhere from five to nine hours (depending on your speed and how far you go). Along the way, you will:  stroll through dense forests with moss, ferns and gnarly trees, slowly make your way through grasslands where you can barely see the trail path (and hope that you don’t pick up a whole generation of ticks), and walk along the lovely Tugela River.

Drakensberg swimming hole
Queens Cascades with Sentinel in the background

As you get deeper into the gorge there are a series of swimming holes that look incredibly tempting, but……if you’d like to get wet along the way, I would advise waiting until the summer months. After 30 seconds in the water my bare feet were getting numb!

_DSC5954
Tugela Gorge Trail with the Sentinel in the background (Photo courtesy of Haemish Melville)

 

The hike culminates when you reach “The Tunnel”, where the river begins winding through walls of stone on either side. After wading and jumping from boulder to boulder in the Tunnel, you reach a set of chain ladders which will take you up higher towards the falls . Unfortunately, we didn’t even make it to the tunnel because we didn’t want to get caught in the park after sunset, but we have intentions of going back and making sure we get there early enough to go the full length of the trail. I’d like to go back in the summer when the water might be warm enough for a swim (though I don’t know if the water ever gets warm enough for me).

A Good Day

The trek was gorgeous and certainly worthwhile, but ultimately tiring. Even though I wished we could have spent more time in the park, I also couldn’t wait to get back to our room to put up my feet. After coffee and a nice long soak in the clawfoot tub, I felt renewed. There’s something incredibly satisfying about spending an active day outdoors.

Wild horse view from my clawfoot bathtub - A Weekend in North Drakensberg
Bathing with Peeping Tom wild horse outside

That night, after a good dinner and couple of glasses of wine, I spent 20 minutes staring at the unbelievably clear night sky. It amazes me that there are so many stars….and that I only realize it when I’m in places like the Drakensberg. Researchers have found that being in nature lessens the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and being in the mountains helped remind me of how important it is to escape every now and then. Especially when you live off the noisiest street on the face of the Earth.

 

 

 

 

 

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