Travelogue: Drakensburg

DRAKENSBERG
12-15 May 2017

We were fortunate enough to be invited by our friends Vern and Kaya to his family’s sharehold on a house in the Drakensberg for a long weekend; an invitation which we grabbed with both hands!
Vern’s family had owned their stake in the cottage for decades – since his early childhood – and he spoke of it so animatedly that our only concern was that there wouldn’t be enough time to do all the cool things he told us were on offer at our destination.
Getting together for a planning session (and a curry) 2 evenings before departure helped enormously as we crafted both an itinerary and a grocery list so, with everything in place, all we had to do was bide the 2 sleeps and 2 long work days until our roadtrip to the ‘Berg.
Friday eventually came and Christian fetched me from my office a little later than planned, thanks to the commencement of a fine drizzle that both heralded the start of a much-publicised coldfront and the inevitable traffic chaos that comes with the slightest sign of any weather interruption. Within half an hour the route that Christian had taken to get to me that we were retracing to begin our journey was already frought with traffic light outages and bumper-bashings. Ah, Joburg. There’s no place like home… but we were quite happy to leave the carnage behind us for a weekend!
It wasn’t so bad and about another half hour later we were on the open road, with Christian expertly juggling the challenges of the rain and a team telecon (on mute, so they couldn’t hear my tiktiktik on the keyboard of my laptop while I finished up my Friday).
The weekend forecast of a coldfront was not a word of a lie and we’d gone from a literally short-sleeve start to the day to a very chilly, very early sunset, pitch black by 5pm.
We made good time and hit Harrismith by 6pm for the ritual refresh and rewater. That pitstop sure has changed since my first memory of it (in the 80s); it boasts a better restaurant selection than many shopping centres in the Big Smoke now! But we weren’t shopping – and the raging fireplace in the bathrooms reminded that we were headed for our frosty mountain adventure.
Back on the road, our progress was slowed by chevrons guiding us through the perpetual upgrades in the Harrismith interchange and onto the magnificently improved R74 (that had been a colander of a road when we’d travelled to Spionkop for a wedding in 2011). Unfortunately all good things come to an end and the last section of the journey was on tarmac pocked so badly along both sides that Kaya had already advised us to stick to the middle of the road wherever possible.
Arriving into the ‘Berg we used the major resorts as our guide and were soon at the Drakensberg Sun, our neighbour for the weekend. The “cottage” (as Vern modestly referred to the 4 double-bedroom home) is in Bergville Estate, a quaint little suburb behind the Drak Sun with traditional family-style bungalows on old-school suburban-size plots winding up the mountain from the valley on tree-themed roadnames. Ours was Bottlebrush.
With only an overnight bag each, there was little settling-in to do, so after the “R2 Tour” (as Vern called it) of our home for the weekend, we focused on helping with the finishing touches on dinner.
A little drizzle had not deterred our hosts from pushing the proverbial boat out on the evening meal and there was a mammoth stuffed chicken on the Weber under the covered patio with ovenbaked veg and more pork sausage stuffing in the oven making the house smell heavenly! Kaya whipped up a brown onion gravy while Christian was tasked with manning the roast potatoes and I laid the table, and we were soon clinking glasses with an epic roast meal to celebrate our arrival.
Half an hour later we were in a similar situation to the poor bird that was no longer. Stuffed to the hilt!
With a crackling fire on the go, we retired to the lounge with red wine, Lindt balls, a pack of cards and a new game that Vern taught us (“Knock Knock”) for entertainment.
Mountain life was going to suit us juuuust fine!
We woke on Saturday to a chilly morning (that was apparently, ironically, nowhere near as cold as home, thanks to the killer coldfront that had hit Joburg in our absence) and stuck to the  programme, heading out to Valley Bakery for breakfast and to procure the baked goods and treats we’d mapped on our weekend plan.
It was easy to see how this eatery had earned its place as top restaurant choice in the ‘Berg, with mingling aromas of strong coffee and fresh bread and the option to browse, sample and buy all sorts of sweet treats – and the reserve some Pasteis de Natalie (custard tarts), which Vern and Kaya had had before… and had missed out on on a previous visit where the fresh tarts were being put on display when they arrived, but were all gone by the time they finished their breakfast!
Revitalised (and 8 Pasteis in hand), we ticked off the other “admin” item; we restocked our firewood. Well, more accurately, the boys sorted the firewood while we snuck in a cheeky homemade chocolate tasting and browsed the local craft store which, in my case, lead to the purchase of the world’s softest scarf.
Back at the house, we took advantage of the break in the drizzle to investigate our surrounds. The valley is gorgeous and the estate immaculately maintained – presumably by the hotel, that trades access to its facilities in return for use of the estate’s roads for more convenient access to its timeshare chalets.
We were exploring the hotel’s lakeside paths when the rain returned so we caught solace in the hotel bar, The Grotto Lounge, to grab a cocktail (also on our To Do list). We were in luck to not only get a comfy table for 4 in the quite-full bar, but also to have stumbled across the hotel’s afternoon indoor entertainment – quiz and bingo.
Naming ourselves after our cocktails, The Bloody Marys swept up first place in the quiz and picked the bottle of red wine as our reward. We passed on the bingo since our quiz round had been more of a test of patience than trivia with just 10 questions being draaaaawn out by the quizmaster to fill an hour! He was fond of prefacing every question with pointless things like “I would love to know…”, adding superfluous dramatics onto the questions (“what is the shortest element on the Periodical Table evaaaa?”) and then consulting with every person in the room before revealing the correct answer. Our sweeping victory on 7/10 (the nearest contester was 4/10) was a great note to leave on, so we headed back to our cottage.
Even with the intermittent drizzle, the afternoon was moderate, so we made the most of the scenery, taking to the (covered) patio to continue the afternoon’s theme, cracking open the cottage’s copy of Trivial Pursuit. The challenge of it being the 1982 UK edition didn’t concern us at all and we rehashed the excellent quizmaster skills we’d learnt earlier on to turn what can be a serious boardgame into a marathon giggle!
Between our inability to roll exact dice and the taxing questions – jogging non-existent memories of Yugoslavia and Rhodesia, arbitrary connections to the Royal Family and impossibly detailed entertainment questions about TV shows that haven’t aired in 40 years or more – the game took us through dinner preparations (another slap-up affair, with bacon-wrapped fillet prepared on the Weber and served with Kaya’s (now) famous mushroom sauce. WOW!) and into the evening, with a crackling fire to keep us company.
Sunday morning started the way every great Sunday morning does, with a giant fry-up. Christian had woken up motivated and hit the kitchen so the rest of us roused to the delicious aroma of frying bacon. And eggs. And sausage. And mushrooms. And beans. There was so much food, we didn’t even have enough space on the plate to bother with toast!
Feeling a little guilty after the extravagant feast and spurred by the fresh, clear morning, we decided to take a walk to the Blue Grotto, which is easily accessed from walking trails signposted from the lakeshore in the gardens of the Drakensburg Sun. It’s an easy walk with well-marked tracks through the indigenous forest and we were soon at the Blue Grotto, admiring the waterfalls and rock pools. Way too cold to enjoy them in the water, but pretty to look at nonetheless.
The trail isn’t circular so we retraced our footsteps and were ejected from the hike back at the same starting point… which is also the launch point for another, shorter, walk around the lake. Since the weather was still good and we were still (moderately) fresh, we kept going and circumnavigated the lake, over the dam wall and back up through the hotel gardens.
Not a bad effort, with about 10km all in all. And it clearly shifted breakfast since we were unanimous that our dinner plan – an outing to Winterton – was definitely going to have to move forward to Late Lunch territory. The idea was to do a short drive to absorb the countryside and eat at a place Vern and Kaya had enjoyed many times previously, a place called Bingelela just outside Bergville.
Heading out to dinner at 3 in the afternoon (!) allowed us spectacular views of the fields and snow-capped mountain backdrop… and softened the blow of the restaurant being shut when e got there! Being Mothers Day, it seemed as if they’d done a big event for lunchtime and were not  opening for dinner trade.
It wasn’t a problem though, having seen a few worthy contenders on our roadtrip, we returned the way we came and pulled into the Thokozisa Lifestyle Centre, a small collection of shops in a brightly decorated thatched complex – clearly the Drakensburg’s warm and rustic interpretation of a mall.
The restaurant was happy to seat us and we welcomed the cosy table close to the fire. Kaya and I went for a gander around the shops while our food was being prepared and returned with a(nother) scarf and a big bag of koeksusters, which would serve nicely as a dessert around our own fireplace later on.
Another upside to the (very) early dinner was that we could return while it was still light and have some visibility of the pocked roads. And still have time for a few rounds of card games before our early night in advance of our 5am departure.
It had been a very shrewd decision to leave on Monday morning instead of Sunday afternoon as we’d managed to squeeze in so much more in just the few extra hours!