Following on our visit to Champagne Valley in February this year, we found ourselves heading back to the same area scarcely a month later – reason being my brother Andrew came to visit from Devon in the UK where he has been for some 20 years. This time we had traded in some timeshare points for a midweek at Drakensberg Sun, a resort we last visited some 19 years ago, so what memories we had were vague to say the least. How nice to re-visit a place that we enjoyed so long ago and find it well-kept and just as attractive after so many years!
On the Monday morning that Andrew was due to arrive from London, we were up early to do some last packing and head through the morning traffic to OR Tambo to meet him just after 8 am. All went according to schedule and by 9 am we were on the N3 heading south towards Heidelberg, where we decided to stop for a coffee and pain au chocolat “filler” at the Mugg and Bean – Andrew declared it the best cappuccino he had enjoyed in a long time. So easy to please some people!
On to Harrismith in surprisingly light traffic with fewer lorries than we have become accustomed to – mental note to travel this route on a Monday in future. We broke the journey once more at Harrismith for brunch and by mid afternoon had reached our destination.
Chalet 213 was our allocated home for the next few days – it turned out to be in the “back row” of two rows of chalets a short distance from the hotel, separated by extensive gardens and with a large pool and a dam as the main features. Getting our luggage and self-catering provisions down the awkward steps outside the chalet and then down and up to the different levels inside proved to be quite strenuous for us semi-pensioners (another mental note to book the front chalets if ever we return) and once done we made haste to the pool for a refreshing swim in the humid weather.
Tea revived us enough to take a walk around the gardens –
Later we enjoyed a delicious bobotie and salads which we had bought freshly cooked at our local Super Spar the previous day and which was the perfect way to end the day with the minimum amount of cooking effort. We had thought of watching the Oscars on TV that evening but a heavy thunderstorm passed through the area and put paid to that idea as it temporarily disrupted the power and affected TV reception for the rest of the evening. This was a blessing in fact as we were all quite weary and happy to get an early night.
Still in “take it easy” mode, we slept later than usual and even Andrew, early riser most times, slept in to catch up on lost sleep on the flight over. After a fruit brekkie we set off on a drive without any fixed plans other than a stop at the Valley Bakery nearby, set hidden away behind plantations but well worth finding, as we had on a previous visit. Relaxed surroundings and a really good roast chicken wrap, followed by cappuccino and pasteis de nata (Portuguese custard tart) made for the ideal way to catch up on news with Andrew and just enjoy the ambiance for a couple of hours.
The road took us further to Winterton for some stocking up and on the way back we popped into The Hand Woven Rug Co for a look at their attractive products, including some interesting colourful rugs woven from leather off-cuts. The quirky signage outside and in added to the interest.
Back at our chalet it was time for a walk down to the dam and surrounds – wide lawns leading to the water’s edge in places and to reed beds in others. A variety of birds were doing their thing –
Yellow-billed Ducks in the shallows looking rather aloof and scudding away at my approach;
Common Moorhens dipping at unseen organisms in the water;
Thick-billed Weavers by the dozen busily moving up and down, out and back, never far from their perfectly woven nests strung between sturdy reeds.
It made me realise that the human weavers we had seen earlier, good as they were, are amateurs by comparison with these little brown experts!
We closed out the day with a braai of chops and wors and chatted well into the night – so nice to catch up with family after a couple of years.
I set off early to the hotel reception to enquire about walking the Forest trail – the hotel insists that anyone wanting to walk the trails check-in first and pay a small deposit, presumably to give them some record and control of hikers. My aim was to do a portion of the trail or possibly the whole one, with the objective of looking for a bird that has eluded me until now, the Bush Blackcap, a bird of the forests in these elevated parts. It was not to be as the staff had decided the trail was too slippery and dangerous after the night’s heavy rain – a wise precaution but disappointing.
Having set out to do some birding I walked the gardens and along the dam edge, then took a short drive along the road back to the R600, adding to my growing pentad list with the likes of Cape Grassbird, Lesser-striped Swallow, Fan-tailed Widowbird and Jackal Buzzard.
A substantial breakfast awaited back at the chalet, after which we headed off on an exploratory drive towards Monk’s Cowl, branching off at side roads that looked interesting.
One such road took us past an interesting looking building where we decided to have a closer look. We were the only visitors and a small fee of R20 allowed entry to the inside of the old Trading Store, which we were told was transported lock, stock and barrel from Lesotho some 12 years ago by the owner of the farm. The inside was filled with old-fashioned provisions, as if waiting for the next customer to come in and order from the assistant behind the counter – fascinating and absolutely unique. What a gem and another example of the quirky attractions that lie hidden in South Africa’s countryside.
Another rainy morning meant no chance to try for the Blackcap along the forest walk so we enjoyed a fruit brekkie in between packing. Not wanting to exhaust ourselves lugging everything back up the long flight of steps to the road above, I approached one of the security guards to assist – he was more than willing and had all our luggage and provision crates at the car in no time. Quite a relief for all of us!
We had planned a few stops, the first one being Scrumpy Jacks for their delectable cheesecake accompanied by good coffee. It was the same one we had tried for the first time a month ago but this time it was drizzled with a dark berry dressing – oh so good!
Once again we took the “old” road via Winterton and Bergville to Harrismith where we joined the N3 highway back to Gauteng and we were back home by late afternoon.
After not visiting the Drakensberg area for close on 20 years we have ” re-discovered” this beautiful part of our country during 3 visits in the last 12 months or so – and we’ll be going back next year I’m sure.