By: Carolyn Hall
His warning bark reverberated off the surrounding mountainsides and brought the hike to a temporary halt. A second and third short, sharp bark followed, adding reinforcement to the idea that we were being watched. Swivelling around, I took several moments to locate the source. Sure enough, there he was, halfway up the opposite side of the valley, squatting on a rocky outcrop: a large male sentry baboon, resting on his haunches, telling the rest of the troupe that here were intruders.
This same baboon probably had ancestors who sat on the same rock and barked the same warning at a very different set of human intruders thousands of years ago. Evidence exists that it was probably the San people who originally inhabited this part of South Africa. For these hunter-gathers, the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Mountains (uKhahlamba means “barrier of spears” in Zulu; drakensberge means “dragon mountain” in Afrikaans) in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province must have been a haven, with caves scattered throughout the valleys to provide shelter, edible plants to gather as food, and plenty of wildlife to hunt.
From their lofty height, the successive generations of baboons must have watched the influx of Voortrekkers wending their way down from the north with laden bullock carts; the Dutch women in long heavy skirts and bonnets, the children in heavy boots alternating between walking alongside and riding in the wagons, the men carrying guns. Settlers simultaneously moved up from the south; sandwiched between the two populations, the San people and the landscape were changed forever.
Gone are the San, mostly shot as pests, leaving behind only cave paintings to give witness to their presence. The timber industry and sheep farming changed the ecosystem to such an extent that since 1903 the Drakensberg Mountains have gradually been bought back and given the protected status of national park.
The Drakensberg Escarpment has now been recognised as being the source of a number of significant rivers in the region; it contains the second highest waterfall in the world and is home to fragile Afro-montane and Afro-alpine vegetation, thus earning it recognition as a World Heritage Site in 2001.
It also acts as a natural frontier to neighbouring Lesotho; the two countries have joined forces to create a combined total of 8,113 square kilometres of protected park, making it a perfect location for hiking for all levels of ability.
It’s here, in this northern section of the Drakensberg Mountains, that the baboon is sitting, backed by the aptly named Amphitheatre, overseeing his domain, oblivious to the fact that it’s now called Royal Natal National Park (rather than Natal National Park) following a visit by Queen Elizabeth II in 1947.
And it’s here, in this section alone, where there are over 130 kilometres of well-marked hiking trails, with names as diverse as The Mudslide, Tugela Gorge, Policeman’s Helmet, Gudu Falls and The Crack. The trails themselves cater to a wide range of abilities from fairly flat half-day walks suitable for young children or beginners through to steep climbs at altitude, involving chain ladders; or, for the very adventurous, there are multi-day climbs with nights spent in self-transported tents.
For every hike started there is a log book that must be filled out giving details of your departure time, your party, where exactly you are going, what you have with you in the way of food, first aid and clothing, and what time you expect to return. On your return, a section indicating the return time must be signed, plus any comments you might wish to make regarding the route taken. Detailed individual maps of each of the hikes are available for purchase, from either of the two park stores, and are well worth the 50-cent investment for the additional interesting information they contain.
Being a mountain range, the area’s weather is very changeable; mists close in with little warning, snow has been known to fall in the middle of summer, and winter conditions definitely require thermal layers. Fortunately, our few days were sunny and almost tropical.
Besides the barking baboon, the only other wildlife encounter was another giveaway – this time a short but piercing type of squeaky whistle: a hyrax balancing in the fork of a tree, just above the trail. Looking for all the world like an overweight guinea pig, the hyrax or “dassie” is in fact a distant cousin of the elephant! They’re normally quite shy and skittish, but this fellow just sat and stared unblinkingly as if to say, “What sort of creature are you?” After a few more moments of observing each other we went our separate ways.
While the wildlife was not prolific, the birdlife was, with shrikes, sunbirds, bulbuls, drongos and the always-entertaining guinea fowl among the frequently sighted. Wild protea bushes were abundant but sadly not in flower, the best time for this being earlier in the year.
The baboon encounter on the magnificent and isolated slopes served to reinforce that humankind is indeed very small in the grand scheme of things. Coming from our comfortable lives where we insist on changing our immediate environment to suit our every consumer-driven need, a long hike in the wilderness of Africa really serves to feed the soul.
The Upper Thendele Camp Chalets and Cottages are a perfect base for hiking, fishing, horse-riding and relaxing. The campground, self-catering chalets and cottages are within the National Park boundaries. The chalets have an indoor fireplace for those romantic cold nights, while a small covered patio through a sliding glass door off the open-plan living room/kitchen gives fabulous views of what is known as the Amphitheatre area, making it possible to just sit and enjoy the ever-changing play of light on the mountains as the sun goes down. And, even without birdseed, the birds perch nearby to see what is happening if you sit out on the patio area.
Outside the National Park there’s a multitude of places to stay, from backpackers to five-star lodges. A firm favourite is Dalmore Guest Farm B&B. This family run B&B is on a working farm, giving an added interest to explore plus an alternative location for horse riding in the nearby Spienkop Nature Reserve. The “rooms” are standalone, converted and upgraded farm buildings varying in size. The honeymoon suite is the size of a small flat with mezzanine bedroom area, bathroom with huge shower area and claw-foot bath, full-size kitchen, open-plan dining and living room with very large private patio complete with uninterrupted views of the surrounding farmland. Meals, if you’re not self-catering, are deliciously home-cooked, mostly using ingredients from the farm itself, and served in a nearby separate dining room complete with sunken lounge area. Pippa and Andrew who own and run Dalmore are graciously welcoming hosts providing information on the farm itself and nearby activities.
Tip: Both places are approximately midway (three-to-four hours) between Durban and Johannesburg off the national highway and make an ideal stopping point if journeying between the two. However, if you’re coming from Johannesburg, don’t take the R74 from Harrismith as major work was started on this road but later abandoned, leaving it in a very sorry single-lane state. While it’s very scenic and it is possible to travel this route, care needs to be taken – add at least an extra hour to your journey. A better option is to stay on the national highway and come off further south at Bergville.
To book accommodation within the park, visit www.kznparks.com or www.nature-reserve.co.za and select Royal Natal Park from the lists. Note: weekends and school holidays are busy and you’ll need to book well ahead of time.
Cathay flies daily direct to Johannesburg, departing Hong Kong at 11.45pm and arriving the next morning at around 6.30am.