Wander around the green hillsides and dappled valleys of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg, then walk the tortured earth where some of South Africa’s most brutal battles were fought. This is a journey of relaxation and reflection, as can only be inspired by massive mountains and moving history.
Southern Africa does not have the colossal mountains found elsewhere on the planet. However, in many ways its mountains are more accessible, and just as imposing. The smaller valleys often have interesting, more varied structure, and are very rewarding to casual day hikers. This journey starts off with a few days in the Drakensberg in KwaZulu Natal, alternatively know as uKhahlamba – the ‘Barrier of Spears’.
From here the journey moves on to the Battlefields of KwaZulu Natal, where you will visit the battle sites of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. At Isandlwana the British suffered one of the greatest defeats in their colonial history, at the hands of warriors armed only with assegais (short spears) and shields made from cow hide. Ironically, at Rorke’s Drift a few days later, one of the most memorable days in British military history saw a hand full of British soldiers fight off another attack by thousands of Zulu impi. Listening to the retelling of these tales of brutality and bravery will leave you with goosebumps.
The Drakensberg mountain range begins its rise in the Eastern Cape, and extends in fits and starts all the way into Mpumalanga. But the main massif runs along the length of KwaZulu-Natal’s western border with Lesotho. By global standards these mountains are quite modest, topping out at less than 3 500m. But the escarpment has eroded into a rich tapestry of ravines and gullies, presenting a series of ever-changing vistas to those energetic enough to venture into its embrace. The management plan for this World Heritage Site has sensibly allowed development in some of its valleys, but the quid pro quo was to allow almost none in others. This has preserved the sense of the wild and lonely places that mountains are famous for.
It was from the bush and grassland of northern KwaZulu-Natal that the impis of King Shaka emerged, sweeping down onto the other tribes of the hinterland and eventually engaging the British forces and shaking the very roots of the Empire. At the height of its power, the Zulu nation ruled over 30 000km2. Its reign only lasted 60 years. In that time the Zulus shaped the future of the country as it engaged in battles with the Boers and the British. But these were not the only bloody conflicts in the region. After the Zulu empire was broken, the English and the Boers fought for control of South Africa, with many battles taking place in KwaZulu-Natal.
If it’s top class cuisine, spectacular scenery and tranquillity you’re after, then Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse is for you. Nestled on the edge of a dam, Cleopatra is surrounded by rolling hills and breathtaking mountain scenery, and is renowned for its relaxed style of gourmet farmhouse dining, along with friendly, professional, yet understated service.
Excitingly different, fine gourmet food is prepared from home grown and fresh farm fare by multi-award-winning chef Richard and his team. Dinner is a sumptuous 7-course affair, and is paired with South African wines from a bountifully stocked underground cellar. The set menu changes every evening according to the seasons, with imported ingredients of the highest quality adding an exotic slant. Temptingly different 3-course breakfasts and brunch platters or packed picnics round off the mouth-watering bill of fare.
Tucked away in the Kamberg Valley close to Giant’s Castle Nature Reserve, Cleopatra lies along the Mooi River and shares most of its boundary with Highmoor Nature Reserve. It is the ideal base from which to explore the endless scenic trails of the Drakensberg Mountains.
Children over the age of 12 are welcome.
Early Dutch settlers called these mountains the ‘Dragon Mountains’ for its ragged, irregular silhouette. The Zulus called it uKhahlamba, or ‘the barrier of spears’. Whatever the language, there is no argument that the Drakensberg Mountains are evocative and mysterious. It is a wild and beautiful place where hikers can walk for days and return over their own, undisturbed footprints. It is no surprise, then, that this place is as dangerous as it is beautiful, and one must be well prepared before tackling it on foot.
The Drakensberg was one of South Africa’s first World Heritage Sites. It is an area of incredible natural diversity with over 2 100 plant species, more than 200 of which are endemic. It is also home to over 60 species of mammal, including the threatened oribi, and herds of eland and black wildebeest. It has nearly 50 species of reptile and more than 300 birds. The Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area was established in 2001. It covers 13 000km² of Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal and includes all the previously fragmented conservation areas under one management umbrella.
In the very north is Royal Natal National Park. It is one of the jewels of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the proud custodian of the ‘Amphitheatre’, an immense, gently curving rock wall that stands guard over the valley below. The 947m-high Tugela Falls drops down the face of the Amphitheatre and is the highest waterfall in Africa and the second highest in the world.
South of Royal Natal, lies the rugged peaks of Didima, Monk’s Cowl, Injesuthi and Giant’s Castle. From here on the berg becomes a little gentler in places like Highmoor, Lotheni, Vergelegen. Mkhomazi and Garden Castle.
The spectacular Fugitives’ Drift property overlooks both Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, where great battles were fought in the famous Anglo Zulu War of 1879. The battle of Isandlwana was one of the greatest military disasters in British colonial history, and the Zulu army wing that went on to attack the tiny British garrison at Rorke’s Drift the next day was beaten off in a battle that lasted all night.
Fugitives’ Drift is world-renowned for narrating these battles to its visitors, allowing the high drama of those two days to unfold in vivid detail as you are walked through the battles as they happened. Dedicated tours for children under 12 years of age cater to shorter attention spans.
The spacious, en-suite cottages at the Lodge each has a private veranda looking out over the plains flanking the Buffalo River Gorge, with sweeping views of the reserve and surrounding battlefields.
Today, the rough terrain of the Battlefields region of KwaZulu-Natal makes one wonder how the machines of war were manhandled across the countryside, one stands in awe at the vast distances the Zulu impis managed to cover in a single day on their bare feet, and the beauty of the land clashes harshly with its querulous past. But this area did indeed bear witness to unimaginable bloodshed as warring factions and ambitious politicians fought for control of the land.
While the best-known battles are undoubtedly Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift, and the siege of Ladysmith, there were countless others, including the battles of Gingindlovu, Kambula, Ondini and Ulundi. The history of the area has also been preserved at a number of British Forts (Eshowe, Kwa Mondi, Nolela, Ulundi and Nongqayi), and heritage sites and monuments (Blood River, Bloukrans, Petrus Uys, Dingane's Royal Kraal and the Prince Imperial).
This safari commences and ends in Durban, South Africa