Sunday, July 7, 2013

Christmas Holiday Part 1: The Drakensburgs / Ballito KZN

On the lucky day of 12/12/12, Susan, Doreh, and I hopped on aboard a bus and began what I would remember as the adventure of a lifetime.

After roughly 6 hours of evangelical Christian propaganda film exposure courtesy of Intercape, we disembarked in Harrismith, Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) and picked up our little white car that we would refer fondly to only as “The Intergalactic Obamatron”.  (Unfortunately the origins of the esteemed title have faded into legend and there is nobody alive today who could say for sure from whence the name originated.)
From Harrismith, we began leg one of our journey by driving across the breathtaking landscape of KZN to Bergville where we were to spend two nights at Amphitheatre Backpackers.  After a night of much needed sleep, we awoke eager to explore our new surroundings.  As three PCVs stationed in the pretty, yet comparatively barren and definitely landlocked Highveld and Venda areas of Limpopo, the lush, mountainous region in which we found ourselves was simply awe inspiring. 

Our first hike was a relatively simple venture past Cannibals and up into this beautiful gorge that was hidden within the jungle-like mountains of the Northern Drakensburgs.  It felt so great to be free of the endless dust of my site and to bask instead in the cool thinness of the air, feeling the moisture on my face and hearing nothing but the wind cooing through the trees and the soft chuckle of the small river that flowed crystal clear out of the mountains.  Ahhh it was just heaven.  
This hike actually proved to be a perfect starter hike as the three of us were able to get a feel for eachothers’ hiking styles and other “outdoor mannerisms”.  It became apparent that Doreh and I, when confronted with the boundlessness of nature and the allure of the unknown, revert almost instantaneously to a state of child-like glee by running, leaping, climbing, exploring and letting our imaginations run as wild as our surroundings.  Susan on the other hand, was more of a reflective type, who enjoyed the beauty with an admirable and cautious reverence.  In the end we figured out a system wherein we would all take the trail at our own pace, so long as we never ventured too far away from each other.  No man left behind as it were.  We became champions of this method as our hikes grew in length and in difficulty.
The next day we ventured out from Amphitheatre and followed the mountains South for a few hours around the edge Royal Natal National Park with our sights set on hiking to Tugela Falls and conquering the famed ladders that dangle in pairs from the opposing cliffs.  Lets just say that TIO had yet another chance to prove her worth on this particular occasion as we took a road clearly intended for 4x4 drive up to an altitude of really who knows how high.  My guess was over 1 mile high, as the air felt similar to that in the Colorado Rockies.  



The hike was wonderful.  A few of the parts required a bit of an admittedly dangerous scramble over wet rock that went sloping downward to destinations unknown, but true to the team we were we helped each other along with the gracefulness of seasoned pros. Yes, that is what it looked like. No arguing with my fantasy here :).   When, after a couple of hours, we finally reached the chain ladders, Doreh and I took turns accompanying Susan (who is afraid of heights) on one of the two parallel ladders, with one person bringing up the rear.  It worked marvelously and Susan was able to conquer them on both journeys up and down in the wind and the rain without shedding a single tear.  OooRAH!  By the time we arrived back at the car, our feet were thoroughly drenched from walking through streams that were cascading down our trail, resulting in our wishing that we’d chosen to voortrek in aquasocks instead of sneakers, and we were tired, hungry, and happy.  I’m sure you can imagine the state of our car at the moment: NASTY, muddy sneakers, peanuts and raisins EVERYWHERE (nobody knows how), dirt, mud, sticks, bags of wine, and a Santa hat.  It was glorious. We had officially moved into the car.

From Tugela Falls, we zipped back down the mountain and made our way to Inkosana Backpackers in Winterton, Champagne Valley National Park.  Naturally, as we had chosen to embark on this adventure during the peak of rainy season, it was wet and muddy when we arrived at our campsite and we were forced to employ our ingenuity by using a mash of tent, twine, and tarp to keep ourselves and our now worse-for-wear backpacks/sleeping bags from being completely and irreversibly soaked.  The atmosphere of the backpackers was great though; you could feel the excitement vibrating amongst the guests as they reflected the outdoor activities they’d undertaken that day and planned new ventures for the next days.  Given the weather and our leaky tent situation, we spoke to management and decided to only spend one night there with the hope of driving off to a relatively drier location for our planned overnight hike.

On our way to our destination at the Monk’s Cowel trailhead, we decided to make up for our missed second night at Inkosana and stop for one night of first world luxury in the quaint, if touristy, town of Clarens.  We set up our tent at Clarens Backpackers, which, in contrast to the others we had been to, was one of those accommodations that appears to be the womb of hippiedom and is in a constant state of party, busker-inspired street art-type activities, and hangs somewhere in limbo between unadulterated partying and the coma of recovery.  In short, it was the ideal location for three young PCVs on vacation.  Aside from the live music and laid back revelry of the backpacker, the quality of Clarens was revealed to us as we took a stroll through town, lapping up comforts of restaurants, coffee bars, and…..breweries??? That’s right my friends: THERE WAS A BREWERY IN CLARENS.  Let me reiterate: THE FIRST BREWERY THAT WE HAD SEEN IN A YEAR. 
Disclaimer about SA beer: If you are a fan of Coors, Bud, Natty, or Keystone LIGHT beers, or happen to enjoy drinking cold, carbonated piss-water, then the beer in this country is for you.

With that disclaimer in mind, we were all practically overcome with emotion when we stumbled upon a local brewery hidden in this little town on the edge of the Drakensburgs in KZN.  We ordered a tasting of everything they had and I settled eagerly with their Red Ale.  Though admittedly not as stellar as the Reds we’re spoiled with in the PacNW, I couldn’t have cared less.  It was the most delicious thing I’d ever had in my life and I savored every last sip of it until the brewery closed and we were on our way. But not without buying a case to take with us on the road.

The next morning we awoke bright and early, packed up the car and continued on our journey to Monk’s Cowl for our overnight trek into the wild.  Really I’m making this sound much more badass than I’m sure it actually was, but hey, the wild is the wild, no matter how long three city girls spend in it right? Right :)  Locking all of our non-essentials in the car, we took off  on our ascent up into the mist in a scene that would not have been out of place in a Jurassic Park movie.  As we had been warned, weather in the Drakensburgs can change in the blink of an eye, and true to form, we were allowed occasional glimpses of our surroundings through breaks in the rolling mist and clouds that raced with an unearthly competitiveness up and over the ancient green peaks of the mountains. 

After about 4 hours of soggy, upward trekking through the mist, we arrived tired and happy at a little thicket next to a bubbling stream of cold mountain water where we would set up camp for the night.  Our hike had taken us a ways above the line of cloud cover, and our view of the landscape below was utterly prehistoric in its beauty.  Although we passed a few more ambitious hikers than ourselves on the way up, the area we now found ourselves in was completely devoid of human life other than our own.  In quiet reflection you could feel the antiquity of the mountains in the very air you breathed, feel the millennia of monumental upheaval and slow and steady erosion that the earth had endured there.  Never in my life have I heard such silence, nor have I ever felt so reverent, utterly small, yet simultaneously in cadence with nature as I did perched in those ancient peaks looking out over the world as it unfurled below us.  The experience was wholly transcendental for me and is not one I shall easily forget.


As soon as the sun peaked on the horizon and we tasted the crisp dewiness of morning air, we filled our water bottles from the stream and began our descent forward in time and down the mountain back to the car.  The view was considerably clearer this time around, and we were surprised to observe the slippery cliff faces we’d been able to navigate with relative ease the day before.  Regardless of our newfound knowledge that a false step could send us cart-wheeling over the edge and leave the remaining members with the awkward task of deciding how on earth to explain the event to Gert (our safety and security guru with Peace Corps) we made it down the mountain in about half the time it had taken us to ascend the day before.
As soon as we’d reorganized our filth in the car and had taken one of the top-five most delicious showers of all time, we piled back into the Obamatron and took off South toward the town of Underberg on the border of South Africa and Lesotho.  Underberg was a nice little place, and serves a couple of PCVs as a primary or secondary shopping town.  There is a decently sized white South African population who lives there (of either Afrikaner or British descent) and held a few little shops that sold things like banana chips and espresso over ice. Delish.  Sani Pass Backpackers was where we stayed for the night, and in the morning we arose early to take advantage of the beautiful DRY landscape by going on a hike before making the hike up Sani Pass and into Lesotho. 
Doreh wasn’t feeling well, so Susan and I met up with an Afrikaner we’d met the night before to go on a hike through a game reserve to this swimming hole.  Given our vastly differing pace preferences, Susan decided to start her morning with a smaller route as Pieter and I voortrekked our way up into the foothills, scrambling over boulders, behind waterfalls, and down ravines until we reached the swimming hole.  Aside from the breathtaking beauty of the location, the experience was made even more spectacular by the fact that you could not only jump off of cliffs into the crisp, cold water, but were also able to drink to your heart’s content while fully submerged.  Ahhhh. If only every river was so pure!



After a bit of an adventure bushwacking our way back to the backpackers in a loop that was approximately 15 kilometers long, I reconvened with Susan and Doreh, said goodbye to Pieter and began the journey up and into Lesotho via Sani Pass.  We’d spoken to fellow PCVs who had recommended we “hitch” up the pass with one of the 4-wheel-drive vehicles that would inevitably be passing by on their climb up the pass.  Best we’d not heeded that advice.  Long story short the three of us ended up making the hike by foot, all the way up the pass from the boarder crossing in a torrential and violent thunderstorm.  Given the fact that there was nothing to be done about our situation, and that I was still amped from my morning adventure, I admittedly had a blast in our situation.  Fortunately though, I was wearing tennis shoes and a raincoat. My partners in crime however, were not so lucky.  In the end we made it to the top unscathed and shivering, and were welcomed into the “Highest Pub in Africa” with applause by the lucky, paying customers who had past us hours before in their cars and minibuses.  I don’t think a round of gl├╝vine has ever been so well-earned by a group of silly American girls in the history of our generation.


After a lovely 24-hours basking in the altitude of Lesotho, we had a final celebratory drink or two and caught a ride back down the pass to the backpackers where we’d left our trusty car and all baggage deemed “non essential” for our ascent up the pass. Thankfully it wasn’t raining as we rolled and wobbled down the pass in the back of a pick up truck belonging to a man from Lesotho who, as we learned, owned a Tuck Shop located in Underberg. We arrived at our backpackers, paid our new friend R50 each (about $4 at that point in time), then prepared ourselves and the car for the next leg of our journey. For Susan, that meant taking a taxi to Durban where she would meet up with another group of PCV’s to travel around the “Wild Coast” of KZN/Eastern Cape, following a route similar to the one we took almost one year ago, after IST.
For Doreh and I, it meant dropping Susan off at the rank outside Underberg, and switching digs to stay at a new backpackers nearby, sandwiched between Underberg and the evergreen peaks of Lesotho.  We camped at Khotso Backpackers for two nights; the longest we’d spent in one fixed location since we’d left Pretoria.  It was a welcome treat for us, and we ended up bringing in the Maya end-of-the-world event cliff jumping and braaing with an eclectic mix of new friends from South Africa,  the U.S., and Germany.  The weather was beautiful, and we were able to enjoy quite a few strolls through the surrounding hills and see the ponies employed by the backpackers to trek into Lesotho via trails hidden in the folds and rifts of the mountains.

After two lovely and incredibly fun days at Khotso, Doreh and I were once again seized by our insatiable wanderlust and, after calling Avis for the umpteenth time to extend our rental agreement, piled back into the car and sped off toward the beach town of Ballito which is located about an hour north of Durban.  The decision was actually very spur of the moment. We’d decided to await the results of the Mayan Prophecy far away from any major body of water and heed the advice of John Cusak in his smash-flop movie 2012 by waiting out whatever apocalypse loomed ahead in the safety of the Drakensburg Mountains.  After we could safely conclude that the world wasn’t crashing down around us, we decided to use the remaining 48 hours before our bus ride indulging in some time lounging by the Indian Ocean.

After braving a hellish mall to find a new Blackberry that would replace the one I’d set free somewhere in the mountains of KZN, we made it to Monkey Bay Backpackers, which was located 3 or 4 blocks from the beach. Our stay there was out of this world, however brief.  For the next 48 hours we swam in the ocean, over-enjoyed fresh seafood and caipirhi├▒as, participated in watermelon fights, and took strolls on the beach while munching on chili-coated strips of pineapple impaled on a stick.  For two water babies from Oregon and Maine landlocked in rural Limpopo, it was sheer bliss.  So blissful, in fact, that we managed to miss our night bus back to Pretoria by approximately 60 seconds. Thankfully there was a second bus leaving shortly thereafter and we managed to secure seats for a minimal charge after pulling the tearful “broke PCV” card. We arrived in Pretoria the next morning and took the Gautrain to Bosman station where Doreh barely made her bus back to site and I tried to recover from our bus ride over a double shot of espresso before heading out to the taxi rank to make the journey up to Machipe. 

Next Time: Christmas in Machipe!

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