Tag Archives: ukhahlamba drakensberg park

Winter, or not, at Royal Natal

Early August is still considered winter in South Africa. In preparing for our latest trip to Royal Natal National Park, in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park and World Heritage Site, we had therefore anticipated snow, at least on the high peaks, and severely cold temperatures. Watching the weather forecasts in the days before our visit was a confusing affair. One private weather site was predicting extreme cold and gloomy weather, while the national weather service predicted glorious sunshine with temperatures in the mid 20’s. Not knowing what to expect, we packed for any eventuality.

The Women’s Day long weekend was only three days long, and so we decided to get an early start out of Pretoria. Through the Free State, the outside temperature remained around freezing. Imagine therefore our excitement seeing the temperature reading on the dashboard rise as we descended the Drakensberg Range into Kwazulu-Natal Province, with not a flake of snow to be seen anywhere! By the time we arrived at Rugged Glen, just to the east of the Royal Natal National Park‘s entrance, it was warm enough to start taking off some layers of clothing and soak in the sunshine. The South African Weather Service got it right this time!

Despite it being a long weekend, the campsite at Rugged Glen was devoid of people; perhaps the predictions of poor weather dissuaded many campers from venturing to “The ‘Berg” for a break. Whatever the case may have been, we didn’t complain about having only Rugged Glen’s diverse birdlife and a few nervous reedbuck to share our first mountain picnic with.

From Rugged Glen, which is also the base for the popular guided bridle trails that traverse these scenic hills, we headed to the Park’s gate, supported the crafters selling their wares and then drove the short distance to the Mahai Visitor Centre. Time for another picnic at one of the tables along the Mahai stream before making our way along, and a little beyond, the pretty and easy Cascades boardwalk, passing several dainty bushbuck ewes along the way while a herd of eland grazed high above us on the slope of Dooley Mountain (named after an Irish logger given a concession to cut wood here in the late 1800’s).

With our hiking boots now introduced to Royal Natal’s network of walking trails it was time to head to Thendele Camp and our accommodation for the two nights we’d be spending at the foot of the magnificent Amphitheatre formation, a basalt cliff-face almost 1000m high and 5000m wide. To the left of the Ampitheatre is the Eastern Buttress, 3011m above sea level, and to the right Sentinel peak soars to 3165m ASL. These majestic natural features absolutely dominates the scenery at Royal Natal, which together with Rugged Glen covers over 8000 hectares, and was the main reason for the Park’s proclamation in 1916. The “Royal” moniker was added to the reserve’s name after a visit by the British Royal family in 1947. The vegetation in the Park, more than 900 species strong, is mostly open grassland dotted with a few hardier trees and shrubs, with heathland on the summit and mountain forests in the sheltered valleys.

We found Thendele alive with bird song, and just below the huts a small group of mountain reedbuck were right at home. Despite the camp’s 29 units (offering between 2 and 6 beds each) being fully booked, it was a haven of peace and tranquility – just the way we like it. At 1580m above sea level, Thendele lies a lot lower than the peaks that tower above it.

Evening temperatures were admittedly a lot cooler, and our chalet’s lounge with its cosy fireplace was just the place to enjoy dark chocolate and a cup of coffee at the end of a wonderful day spent outdoors.
Royal Natal August 2015 (36)

The early morning sun on Sunday bathed Thendele and the Amphitheatre in a glorious gold, inviting Joubert and I to walk around camp while Marilize prepared a hearty breakfast.

Our first destination this morning was the trout dam at Mahai, where the windstill conditions made for splendid reflections on the water’s surface and we found out just how easy it is to loose complete track of time while marveling at the spectacular scenery around us.

Royal Natal’s biggest attraction is the selection of well demarcated hiking trails traversing the area and excellent pocket guides and maps are available at the shops at Thendele and the Visitor Centre. One of the easier trails is Otto’s Walk, which starts at the Visitor Centre’s parking area and named after one of the reserve’s early Superintendents, Otto Zunckel. It follows the course of the Mahai stream through dense mountain forest for most of the way before returning along the main access road, a total distance of 3km. The pair of rare Mountain Wagtail we encountered at a pleasant spot next to the stream was a real highlight. Another particularly interesting walk is to the San Rock Art site in the Sigubudu Valley, accessible at a small fee and accompanied by a local guide.

Along the main access road from the gate to the Visitor Centre there’s a viewpoint offering an absolutely unobscured view of the Amphitheatre and the wider Drakensberg range. With winter being the dry season, the Thukela River was barely flowing, with only a trickle evident among the rocks and pebbles in the river bed. There was also no sign of the Thukela Falls, which with a combined drop of almost 950m is the 2nd highest waterfall on the planet. One of the Park’s most popular trails follows the impressive gorge cut by the Thukela through the Drakensberg’s sandstone.

Royal Natal August 2015 (57)

We spent the afternoon relaxing around Thendele, enjoying an ice cream on the lawns outside the reception office and exploring the short forest walk behind the camp.

On our final morning, before heading back to Pretoria, we awoke to a Thendele cloaked in thick mist. And cold. Neither the Amphitheatre above nor the Thukela Valley below was to be seen. The wintry weather we had been dreading seemed to have set in just as we were about to depart. After spending two lovely days walking and picnicking in these beautiful mountains, we were immensely grateful for the blessing of good weather! And as we drove out the park that morning, we were already going through our diaries to see where we’d be fitting in our next visit to this magnificent mountain landscape.

The previous time we visited Royal Natal (April 2012), we traveled to the Park via the Oliviershoek Pass and found it such a pothole-ridden affair that we took a 100km detour to return via Van Rheenens Pass instead. This time we decided to give Oliviershoek (the R74) another try for the last 70km from Harrismith to the Park. The road is being rebuilt and by the time it is finished this should again be one of the country’s most enjoyable drives. For the moment, there’s a 6km stretch of one way traffic on which Stop / Go controls are operating, and a further 15km portion on a wide, smooth gravel detour, perfectly safe to travel in a sedan as long as you don’t try to drive too fast.

Route to Royal Natal

Pretoria to Royal Natal (drawn with Google Maps)

The Royal Natal National Park, Thendele Resort and Mahai and Rugged Glen Campsites are managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

Beneath your feet…

is your shadow!

The de Wet family looming over the Mahai stream, in the Royal Natal National Park.

Beneath your feet

Beneath your feet” is the theme for this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge

 

Wall

The spectacular Amphitheatre formation in the Drakensberg range is the focal point of the Royal Natal National Park.

Wall” is the theme for this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge

At home in the Giant’s Castle…

If you are going to brave the Easter weekend traffic on South Africa’s roads you had better be heading to a very special destination. Giant’s Castle Game Reserve in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park is just such a place and that’s where the de Wet’s spent Easter 2014.

Arriving at Giant's Castle

Arriving at Giant’s Castle

Getting to Giant’s Castle is no problem. The road is clearly signposted from the N3 highway near Estcourt in the Natal Midlands. From there it is about a 60km drive on a narrow tar road, though beware the last eleven or so kilometres before the gate, which is badly potholed. You’ll be richly rewarded for the slow drive with tranquil rural scenes and waves from friendly locals.

GiantsCastleLandscape (2)

The 7km stretch of road leading from the gate to the hutted camp is an excellent introduction to the breathtaking mountain landscape. In the green valley far below flows the Bushmans River, with the high peaks of the Drakensberg Mountain Range forming a grand backdrop. Inside the reserve, altitudes range from 1,650m at the entrance to over 3,400m at the top of the escarpment and vegetation varies from grasslands to small patches of valley forest.

The reserve was first proclaimed in 1903 to protect the dwindling herds of eland, Africa’s largest antelope, and today these bulky animals are among the most frequently encountered animals in the Giant’s Castle Game Reserve. Over 340 species of birds and more than 50 species of reptile occur in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park.

There’s also the cliff-top vulture hide, where photographers can stakeout a wide variety of  carrion-eating birds and animals. It is immensely popular and booked out months in advance, the big attraction being the chance of getting close-up shots of the endangered Bearded and Cape Vultures in their natural habitat.

Giant's Castle's vulture hide

Giant’s Castle’s vulture hide

Bearded vulture in flight

Bearded vulture in flight

Hiking in the mountains is a major activity at Giant’s Castle and there’s a number of trails of various lengths to undertake, ranging in time from a few hours to several days to complete. The most popular trail is the easy 45 minute walk to the Main Caves Museum – around a two-hour return trip if you include the guided tour of the museum. These mountains was once the home of the San people, though today the only proof of their erstwhile presence is the paintings they left on the walls of the many caves in the area, including the drawings on display at the Main Caves Museum.

Along the way back from the caves you can stop for a breather at “Rock 75”, a campsite of Col. Durnford’s 75th Regiment during the 1870’s Langalibalele Rebellion, and take in some more of the region’s rich history.

The hutted camp at Giant’s Castle is a very comfortable place to stay and an excellent base from which to explore many of the shorter trails in the area. The camp offers a good restaurant and small curio shop with a limited selection of groceries. Accommodation is available in two-, four- or six-sleeper, fully self-contained, chalets, each of them themed after a different flowering plant that occurs in the Drakensberg (more than 800 species of flowering plants occur in these mountains). Our unit, number 7 – “Gladiolus”, had a terrific view of the Giant and his Castle and was decorated with exquisitely detailed and annotated paintings of several different species of gladioli.

Crisp mountain air and mountain water so clear and cool that you can’t stop yourself drinking directly from the stream seems good enough reason to brave the Easter traffic, wouldn’t you agree?

GiantsCastleLandscape (9)

 

 

 

 

 

On the Move!

During our recent Easter visit to the Giant’s Castle Game Reserve in the Drakensberg we encountered numerous black-backed jackals, and most of them turned and made a run for it the moment they realised they were spotted.

On the move 1

On the move 2

On the Move” is the theme for this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge

Time to depart the Giant’s Castle

21 April 2014

We left Giant’s Castle before dawn this morning, hoping to beat the Easter Weekend traffic back to Pretoria (which we did). Between the packing there was just enough time to take a picture or two of the Drakensberg illuminated by moon- and starlight.

Giants Castle 20140421

Look out for more from Giant’s Castle Game Reserve in an upcoming edition of de Wets Wild!

A serpent in the Giant’s garden

20 April 2014

We happened upon this adder sunning itself on an open patch next to the hiking trail this morning. Just goes to prove that even when hiking in such exquisite surroundings as here at Giant’s Castle, you have to keep a sharp look-out for dangerous situations.

Giants Castle 20140420

Baboon on the roof!

This female baboon has been spending the last couple of minutes foraging around the chalets here at Giant’s Castle Resort, and the rooftops make excellent vantage points from where to plan her next kitchen raid…

On Top (1)

On Top (2)

On Top (3)

On Top” is the theme for this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge

Exploring the Giant’s garden

19 April 2014

We’re still having a wonderful time out in the fresh Drakensberg air, exploring the beautiful Giant’s Castle Game Reserve.

Amazing scenery along the Bushmans River

Easter in the Giant’s front yard

18 April 2014

 

With this view of the giant and his castle, it’s not difficult to imagine that the beautiful resort at Giant’s Castle Game Reserve is located smack in the middle of the colossus’ front garden.

This is a small piece of the magnificent view from the veranda and master bedroom of the chalet we’re spending the Easter weekend in.

Yes, we’re bragging ;-).

Wishing you all a blessed Easter!

The view from our chalet at Giant's Castle Game Reserve

The view from our chalet at Giant’s Castle Game Reserve