The Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) is vast, covering almost 15 000 km² of what could become Southern Africa’s cultural, heritage and adventure playground. There are mountains to hike, hillsides to ski down, different biomes to discover and an incredible biodiversity to explore. There are communities, with their rich culture and traditions, to visit, stories to be told and meals to be shared. There is history to be retold and treasures to be uncovered.
Together with Refiloe Ramone, Chairperson of the Maloti Transfrontier Tourism Working Group, our host from Boundless Southern Africa and a bunch of other journalists, I recently had the privilege of exploring the Maloti Drakensberg TFCA… relive the journey with me and start planning your magical mountain odyssey too.
1 – Hike to the Game Pass Shelter in Kamberg
The region, a relatively easy three-or-so hour drive from Durban (watch out for potholes though), is famous for its San rock art – and our destination for this was the Game Pass Shelter in the Kamberg Nature Reserve, part of the Maloti- Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site.
The Drakensberg was named ‘Ukhahlamba’ by the Zulu people and ‘The Dragon Mountain’ by the Dutch Voortrekkers. Regardless of the name, these awe-inspiring mountains, with their massive cliffs towering over grasslands, riverine bush, lush yellowwood forests, fresh mountain streams and cascading waterfalls are inspiring. As is the formidable barrier they create separating KwaZulu-Natal from the Kingdom of Lesotho.
This 243 000-hectare mountainous region known the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park well deserves its international status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for both its beauty, biodiversity and historical and cultural significance.
We arrive at the Kamberg Rock Art Centre ready for our guided four-km hike up to the Game Pass Shelter to view the incredibly well-preserved San paintings, in the care of Tsebo, our Roof of Africa Tours guide, rock art specialist Dr Jeremy Hollmann, Rock Art Specialist and local guide Robert Duma, whose family is said to be of Khoisan descent.
The lower slopes of these mountains were once teeming with herds of eland, prized game for the San, the original inhabitants of this region. Some 350 years ago they were displaced by African tribes and the arrival of early European settlers, but evidence of their reverence of the eland can still be seen as rock art in numerous cave and overhang sites between Royal Natal National Park in the north and Bushman’s Nek in the south.
As we near a rocky overhang Baba Duma, as he was respectfully referred to, explains that the shallow cave with its trickling waterfall is where the people of the local Tendele village (where he lives) come to communicate with their ancestors, and that the long Festuca grass found along the path was used for ritual cleansing. Hikers are inadvertently cleansed as they brush up against this grass on their hike past the cave.
After a pause to fill our water bottles in the crystal-clear mountain stream, we continue along the path heading upwards, the last couple of kilometers much steeper than the first, with the final 250m up to the narrow sandstone shelter even more so.
The wildflowers are sparse during the cold, dry winter months, but later in the year, once the rains come they will be a welcome diversion on-route – keep a look out for eland, mountain reedbuck and gazing skywards, a Lammergeier, the endangered bearded vulture. Specials for birders in this region are the Drakensberg siskin and the Drakensberg (orange-breasted) rock jumper.
The rock paintings at Game Pass are vivid and easy to see, due to them never being exposed to direct sunlight. But it was their interpretation by both Richard and Jeremy that brings the meaning and significance of the paintings – the people, animals (most commonly eland), and part-animal figures known as ‘humanimals’, to life.
It is a tough hike if you’re unfit but take it slowly, enjoy the views and fill your water-bottle from the mountain stream… the result is well worth the effort!
2 – Unravel the history of the area at the Himeville Museum
After a restful sleep at the Premier Resort Sani Pass, we continue our trip with a visit to the Himeville Fort and Museum before heading up Sani Pass into Lesotho.
This museum has National Monument status and its history dates back to its days as a fort built by the Border Mounted Rifles in 1896. It was used as a fort only once in 1906 during the time of the Bambata rebellion, though no fighting took place in the region. After the South African War (a.k.a. the Anglo-Boer War) the building was used as a prison (the cells are now used as exhibition areas, with one still an example of a prison cell) with additional buildings being built by Scottish masons using stone from the Drakensberg quarry.
After its 70 years as a prison the building was left unused until 1976 when a group of interested parties from the local historical society sought permission for it to be used as a museum. The building was declared a National Monument in 1978 and opened officially opened as the Himeville Museum in the early 1980s. Most of the artefacts and historical items were donated by members of the local community.
The interesting exhibits range from vintage farm equipment and tools to a dining room and kitchen of yester-year with fabulous examples of vintage utensils, furniture and wonderful collectables. There is even a moustache cup that protects the facial growth from being drenched in tea! Other exhibits include fossils, stone age implements and displays of Rock Art, as well as early settler history, the region’s military history and much more.
Its reputation as one of the best rural museums in the country is not unfounded and is definitely worth some time when in the region.
3 – Venture up Sani Pass and enjoy lunch and a Maloti beer at the highest pub in Africa
After our stop at the Himeville Museum it is time to head back into the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site and up Sani Pass and into Lesotho.
The spectacular Sani Pass mountain road, once a rough mule trail, is now the well-known entry point into Lesotho from the KwaZiulu-Natal Drakensberg, and offers spectacular scenery, breath-taking drop-offs and icy waterfalls enroute to the mountains in Lesotho. The route takes visitors along the upper Mkomazana River up Sani Pass to the border with Lesotho (2873 metres above sea-level).
This route started out as a rough trail for Basuto traders who loaded their hardy ponies with wool and mohair to trade for blankets, clothes and maize meal down the pass in South Africa. Thankfully we are able to enjoy it the easy way, by 4×4 with our wonderfully capable and knowledgeable guide Peter from Roof of Africa Tours – this is very popular tour and a highlight for 4×4 enthusiasts, with the reward being amazing views and the opportunity of enjoying a pint at the highest pub in Africa!
The South African border is at the end of the tarred section of road, then it’s a section of no man’s land with its spectacular views, iced-up waterfalls and narrow, rocky road (recent roadworks have widened the road slightly removing many of the previous hazards, but caution is still required). The road levels out as we reach the Lesotho border at the top, the terrain looks bleak and barren, with patches of low growing grasses and heath. A roadside shop sits beside a sign ‘Sani Pass 2873 m’, selling airtime and a few essentials to locals and travellers alike. Jackets are now required as it is substantially chillier despite there being no wind, and as per the warning signs we see as we enter the Sani Mountain Lodge parking area.
The lodge is perched on the edge of the plateau looking down upon the pass we’ve just navigated, the 13 switchbacks clearly evident, and the views spectacular. A variety of accommodation is offered at Sani Mountain Lodge, from well-appointed Basotho rondavels to backpacking and even camping, but the drawcard for us, and many others that make the trek up the Pass, is the opportunity to have lunch and a drink at The Highest Pub in Africa.
The warm and cosy interior is welcomed after the chill of outside, as was the tasty lunch – with soup and homemade bread, burgers, and even pan-fried fresh mountain trout a few of the options, along with a choice of beverages, from hot-chocolate to local Maluti Mountain Brewery beer.
4 – Experience local Basotho village life
After lunch at Sani Pass, we have the opportunity of visiting a local Basotho village to learn about the traditional Basotho blankets and what local village life is like. We enter the unlit smoky interior of one of the stone dwellings, take our seats along the perimeter and are welcomed into the homestead.
There is something exceptionally special about being invited into a stranger’s home… especially when the home is in a village in a rural community, where the language barrier is overcome by expressions and smiles. The delight on a kids face when you show them a photo of themselves (always ask for permission to take the photo first!), of your hostess when you say how tasty the homemade bread cooked over the fire is, and the smile from a young man when you admire the Basotho blanket pinned at his shoulder (which is the way men wear them).
Our guide Peter has a wealth of knowledge about the Lesotho highlands as he grew up here and was a shepherd, with his family still owning a large number of sheep and goats in these remote highlands. He loved the scouts growing up and his love for the outdoors led him to being sponsored to study guiding in Kruger after school.
He gives us some background to these beautiful blankets that have a deep cultural significance and history… from the first woollen blanket gifted to King Mashoeshoe by traders in 1860 to the one with British Royal symbols that was gifted to him in 1868 when Basutoland (as it was known at the time) become a British protectorate. This was as a result of Mashoeshoe requesting protection from Britain against encroaching settlers – he is said to have described it as Queen Victoria ‘spreading her blanket’ of protection over the Basotho nation, which remained a protectorate for 98 years. And the wearing of blankets soon became the norm.
The Basotho blankets are traditionally made from wool, ideal for the icy winter conditions, and are made by Aranda in South Africa, the only company permitted to do so. There are several different designs and colours especially designed for different ceremonies and occasions. Each design must be approved by the king before being manufactured.
Peter shows us a red and black ‘first class’ blanket that is 90% wool, and a brown ‘second class’ spiral aloe designed blanket (my favourite) which is also 90% wool – the 90% wool blankets generally sell for somewhere in the region of R1200. There are acrylic blankets available that are considerably more affordable at around R550. Note to self: bring cash for a blanket next time!!
5 – Trek through the hills on a Basotho pony
We leave the flat almost barren plain of the village we drive up the Koti se Phola Pass (aka Black Mountain Pass), the second highest in Lesotho, Peter negotiating the 139 bends with ease. Patches of snow remain and icicles cling to the steep shady sections of the road verge. The avid hikers in our group wish there was time for them to stretch their legs to the summit of Thaba Ntlenyana, meaning ‘beautiful mountain’ in Sotho, the highest point in Lesotho at 3,482m. There is a popular 13km hike to the summit from Sani Mountain Lodge which should take in the region of eight hours – using a guide with local knowledge is recommended and will also add o the enjoyment of the hike.
Still in the Lesotho’s highlands, though a hillier area with evidence of agriculture, we stop at No. 10 Riverside Homestay Matsoaing for a pony trekking experience. The Basotho pony is the ideal means of transportation in this rural and mountainous area, as we were about to find out. The homestead, with its round stone dwellings with thatched roofs, was one of several in the valley.
Our ponies are all saddled up and ready for us, and the blanket-clad horsemen ready to help us mount their trusty steeds. We make our way up the hill, through old mealie fields, and past grazing sheep, and over rocky hillsides. Our sure-footed ponies are quite comfortable with the rough terrain and never miss a step and soon we reach our intended destination, another homestead way up the hill.
Our invitation into one of the stone dwellings is followed by lengthy introductions, several dances, a demonstration of how to grind grain and, of course, a sip of traditional beer. After the shared delight of a group photo, we make our way back to the homestay, the confident horsemen in our group taking a longer route back.
To my delight there was more music and dance when we arrived back at the homestead, not for our benefit though, but for a group of Grade nine learners from a school in Pietermaritzburg that were on a 21-day hike (and digital detox, one of the teachers told me) in the mountains and had chosen this homestay as their accommodation for the night.
I felt quite envious of them staying the night in this idyllic mountain setting (perhaps not the long-drop loo though) as we made our way to Mantsebo Guest House in Mokhotlong.
6 – Take to the slopes at Afriski
A highlight for anyone visiting the Mountain Kingdom in winter is surely to spend a few days at Afriski Mountain Resort, one of only a few ski resorts in Africa and the easiest to access from both Gauteng and KZN.
We arrived on the last weekend of their winter season, so the only snow to be found was on the slopes – artificially created by their state of the art and automated snowmaking system. But artificially create or not, the Afriski slopes offered much fun and excitement for all.
All kitted out and with snow passes in hand, it was time for lessons with the internationally qualified ski instructors, which are required for both skiing and snowboarding before being allowed onto the slopes. And should the idea of hitting the slopes be a bit daunting, then try the bum-boarding and tubing, which was SO much fun – as their website says, it’s ‘the most fun you can have sitting down’.
Much fun was had by all… the few in our group with previous experience enjoyed skiing down the high slopes, the snowboarders had moments of ‘eating snow’ to many more moments of growing expertise and heaps of fun, and the rest persisting with the junior slopes or the tubing. When done, it was coffee at the Gondola Café followed by lunch at Sky, the highest restaurant in Africa.
For future reference though, I would suggest June-July when the surrounding mountains are likely to be snow-covered as well offering a real winter wonderland. And if snow isn’t the drawcard, the summer months offer epic mountain-biking, trail running, and much more in these beautiful Maloti Mountains.
7 – Visit a cave of cultural and historical significance
Following on from the fun experience of Afriski we make our way towards the lowlands of Lesotho, stopping at a wonderful view site on route, past delightful roadside villages and hillsides splashed with the delicate pink of peach blossoms – which of course we had to stop for. A stop that included some impromptu soccer with a few local lads much to their delight and the gifting of balls and bubbles to a few of the kids.
From there we spent some time at the Liphofung Cave and Historical Site which is located in a rural village on the tributary of the Hololo River. This large sandstone cave plays an important place in the history of Lesotho – it was first used by the San people, as is evident by the rock art adorning its walls of tall human figures and several eland (Liphofung means ‘place of the eland’). Later King Moshoeshoe used the cave as a stopover when in this part of the Kingdom.
Our local guide explains the history of the cave and gives us an insight into the life of the Basotho, both past and present. We have a quick peek at one of the self-catering chalets which are currently priced at around R500 per chalet (sleeps 6) but you need to bring your own linen etc – so much potential for a wonderful accommodation offering in a delightful valley and a great opportunity for travellers to support local communities and their tourism initiatives.
With dusk approaching we made our way into the sprawling town of Butha Buthe and onwards to the lovely Bird Haven Guest House for our last night in the Kingdom of Lesotho.
8 – Watch wool get spun and woven the old-fashioned way
A short distance from Bird Haven Guest House, is the incredibly inspiring Leriba Craft Centre. It was started in 1911 by the Anglican Church, as a workshop and employment centre to train young Basotho women to spin and weave the local mohair and wool, the project has grown to handicapped women. Several women work there, whilst others spin the mohair and, in their homes, and bring the yarn to the centre to be dyed, woven, knitted or crocheted. The wool comes from sheep and the mohair from Angora goats that are farmed by small-scale farmers in rural Lesotho.
Mrs Mojaje gives us a tour of the workshop; we watch a weathered gentleman pass the washed fibres between carding combs to separate the fibres and prepare them for spinning. The old wooden spinning wheel is operated with foot pedals, the loose fibres expertly twisted and spun to create the yarn. From there it is either used as is or dyed. We watch as a craftswoman works the pedals, her fingers adeptly weaving their creation on the loom.
The showroom is a feast for the eyes… colourful scarves, clothing, hats and handbags sit beside a wall of wonderful tapestries depicting local village life. Fun jewellery made from shwe shwe cloth hangs on a display on the counter. Several of us make purchases, curtailed only by the lack of a card machine! We are the first visitors she has had in a while so is delighted with our purchases.
9 – Look for Lesothosaurus footprints
Dinosaurs in Lesotho? Who knew!
Walking along the Subeng River with local guide and budding palaeontologist Tsebanang Makibi, where the life of the three-toed Lesothosaurus come to life. Wading through the shallow water with a small grass broom in hand Tsebanang swishes away the sediment for us to get a glance of the indentations of the footprints of the Lesothosaurus, so named by paleontologist Peter Galton in 1978, the name meaning ‘lizard from Lesotho’.
Taking giant strides he demonstrates how the large bird-like dinosaur would have run across the stream, his enthusiasm for dinosaurs clearly evident. He tells us that he has been a guide at Subeng Dinosaur Footprints for 17 years but has had an interest in them for at least 42 years – as a boy he thought they were elephant footprints.
We see several preserved tracks, some showing five toes on their feet, while others three. The first were identified as dinosaur tracks in 1955. Footprints from at least three species of dinosaurs, possibly more, can be found at this site. Tsebanang tells us that this site, which is protected by the local community, has been visited and studied by several palaeontologists from both South African and international universities, but it was Prof E. M Bordy from UCT that sparked his desire to learn more.
We see the fossilised remains of a fish, fossilised worm trails and evidence of mud cracks on slabs of rock in the riverbed and even what could be the footprints of a Massospondylus in the stream. Winter is the best time to visit as the heavy summer rains often obscure the footprints.
A herdsman follows his livestock – sheep, cattle and a goat with a tinkling of bell… the melody of rural Lesotho. There is so much to love about this wonderful country!!
10 – Shop for art and craft in Clarens
Exiting Lesotho at the Caledonsdrift border post back into South Africa we head to Clarens, a small town situated in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains in the Free State. The town, nicknamed the ‘Jewel of the Eastern Free State’, was established in 1912 and named after the town of Clarens in Switzerland where exiled Paul Kruger spent his last days. Today it is an artists’ haven with many well-known artists either living in or frequenting the village, with many art galleries scattered around the village square, which is a hive of activity during weekends and the holiday season.
A stop (or a stay, if you have the time) in Clarens is a must… arty, creative and quirky, with great food and drink options – Terbodore Coffee Roasters, Mohope craft beer, and all the guy’s favourite having just exited Lesotho, Maluti Mountain Brewery beer. The Artist’s Café gave us great food and speedy service, which always good, especially when on a road trip!
11 – Explore Golden Gate National Park
The orange-hued and deeply eroded sandstone cliffs of Golden Gate Highlands National Park invite exploration, but unfortunately all we have time for on this trip is the roadside scenery. This national park does, however, definitely deserve to be visited as it offers stunning scenery, wonderful hiking trails, and even a vulture hide! There are several driveable mountain loop roads that offer opportunity to see eland, zebra and hartebeest, and at the vulture hide, a possibility of seeing the endangered bearded vulture. There is also a cultural village nearby where visitors can learn more about the Basotho culture and traditions.
12 – Learn about Sesotho Culture
Having driven through the spectacular sandstone cliffs of Golden Gate we headed towards the small village of Monantsha just outside of Phuthaditjhaba (it is also a border control post into Lesotho), and near Dinkoeng Tented Camp where we would be spending the night.
First up though was a visit to the Bothobapelo Country Lodge to learn about Sesotho Culture and the Basotho way of life. There was singing and dancing and the tasting of traditional food, as well as the sampling of mqombothi, their traditional beer. Following this we pony trekked through the local village to Dinkoeng Tented Camp.
13 – Get adventurous
The tented accommodation at Dinkoeng is, well camping… there are regular tents pitched on the ground or a few that are on a raised platform with a thatch roof. It’s basic, but as owner (and fabulous host) Fedile Molefe said, ‘it gives a taste of what local village life is like’. Having said that, there are a few really cool thatched chalets which are available should they be required. But seriously, this would be a great venue for a group of campers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts – they cater for school groups too.
Much fun was had the next morning with quad biking through the village, archery, as well as attempts to get to the top of the climbing wall – there are also 4×4 trials on offer, but we opted out of this having seen enough of the inside of a vehicle by that point. The views are fabulous, and I’m sure the hikes even better with San paintings, bat cave, Gudu Falls and several other options on offer.
What was most inspiring though was Fedile’s story… having watched her mum provide for her family by growing and selling vegetables she decided that she wanted to be an entrepreneur. She started by opening up her home as a B&B, then growing it to three guest houses and now adding Dinkoeng to her property portfolio. Such a great example to young girls of what is possible as a hard-working entrepreneurial woman.
14 – Enjoy creativity, eco-conscious living and story time under the stars
We head past the Sterkfontein Dam, a storage reservoir for the Tugela-Vaal Water Project, and down the Olivier’s Hoek Pass into KZN. We glimpse the famous Amphitheatre in the distance – home to the Tugela Falls, the highest waterfall in Africa, and second highest in the world, as well as some spectacular hikes that can take anything from a few hours to several days (the longer hikes usually with a local guide for safety).
We soon leave the majestic mountains behind and drop down towards the KZN Midlands, and our next stop, the quirky, artistic eco-conscious Antbear Lodge.
Besides the eco-building concepts (think rammed earth and straw-bale construction, reed bed filters for grey water and more), locally grown fresh produce and fabulous food, commitment to local employment and skills development, as well as wide open spaces and wonderful views, it was the attention to detail and creatively crafted wooden furniture and décor that drew my attention. And they are found absolutely everywhere – in my spacious mountain view suite, in the bar, the dining room, the lounge areas and even outside. In fact, the whole building and its contents is a creative work of art, some created by Andrew Attwood (owner & creator of Antbear Lodge), his dad, visiting volunteers and employee Mlendeli Sithole, an inspiring young man who grew up in the village nearby and spent much time at the lodge as his mother worked there.
Not only is Mlendeli the resident ‘horse whisperer’, but he is also an avid storyteller… which we experienced in the middle of a field, lying in a hammock under a star-studded sky. He tells the traditional tales that he grew up with, just as his grandmother had once told him. An exceptionally memorable experience!
In addition to these skills, Mlendeli is also a problem solver and budding entrepreneur. And with help from Andrew (as well as some entrepreneurship business prize money) he has piped running water from a nearby spring for his community, and not only that he has installed the necessary filtration and bottling systems to be able to bottle and sell this bottled water under the name of Ithafa Spring Water. We had the opportunity to see the spring water bubble out of the ground, walk the route of the pipeline with him and watch as fresh water gush from a tap in close proximity to the rural homesteads.
15 – Be inspired by a Statesman’s life and legacy
A road trip through the KZN Midlands, and indeed anywhere in the region, wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site, and its fabulous new state-of-the-art museum.
The world-renowned sculpture at the Nelson Mandela Capture Site comprises 50 steel columns that have been cut by laser to form an image of Nelson Mandela when viewed at a certain angle. It was created by Marco Cianfanelli and Jeremy Rose and is said to be a dramatic representation of the multi-faceted influences and nature of Nelson Mandela and the huge impact he had on South Africa as a nation.
The Site commemorates the day, 5 August 1962, when Nelson Mandela was arrested outside Howick. He had been travelling disguised as the chauffer of the car he was driving when he was apprehended by the Apartheid police, who had been searching for him for 17-odd months.
This was a significant day in South Africa’s history as during his incarceration, Nelson Mandela made great strides in bringing the inequalities and unfair treatment of the Apartheid era to the consciousness of South Africans and the world. In addition to being South Africa’s first democratically elected President, Nelson Mandela is acclaimed for his efforts to establish racial, social and political equality in a country that had been ravaged by Apartheid.
For more info or to plan your adventure contact:
Click HERE to read the story in the Digital Mag – it’s got way more pics : )