Playing cowboys in the Drakensburg Mountains

South Africa had been a largely sedentary affair up until this point and we were feeling the need of a good leg stretch. Where better for a stomp, than the World Heritage listed Drakensberg mountains? To get there we drove south from Dundee through rolling landscapes that became more dramatic the closer we got to the mountains.

Our first stop was in Winterton, a town of antique shops and farm shops stocked by independent producers, it was almost too cute, but not quite. It was the ideal place for lunch, at the (almost too cutely) named Pig and Plough, and we also stocked up on the ingredients for a carpet picnic for dinner; wine, cheese, beer. We bundled up our goodies and drove to our accommodation, River Crossing, which was shrouded in cloud and the famous mountains were nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately, the cloud stuck around for the next two days but the view was still pretty good.

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Almost the instant we had unpacked the car, the heavens opened and we settled in for an indoor afternoon. James spent the afternoon watching rugby and drinking beer. He reasoned that it was local beer, and therefore a valid travelling experience. Our carpet picnic of cheese and wine followed with Moana as light entertainment.

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The following morning it was still overcast but dry and we ate breakfast outside, looking forward to a stomp in the hills.

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We’d planned to do a couple of walks around Monk’s Cowl and we had made it all of 100m up the first track to the Sphinx when it started to drizzle. Caro absolutely hates slippery slopes, her general lack of balance does not lend itself to unstable surfaces, and we dreaded the thought of the weather deteriorating the further we climbed. We diverted instead to a short 2.5km loop in the valley in the hope that the weather would improve, and it did. Well, it stopped raining.

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We took advantage of the slightly less damp weather to extend our walk along the lower slopes with some pretty waterfalls, taking in what we could of the long-range views under the clouds, which remained resolutely overhead all day.

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Feeling significantly better for a leg stretch, we set off in search of more local produce for a late lunch and dinner. Armed with steaks, more cheese, more local beer and more wine we headed back to our chalet. The weather again made our minds up for us on what we were going to do as it proceeded to pour down for the rest of the day.  We passed the hours with a couple of films and a few hands of canasta.

The second part of our Drakensberg tour was in the southern section of the mountain range, near the town of Underberg and, this time, the weather was playing ball.

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We had decided to go riding so we booked ourselves a picture-perfect rondavel at Khotso Lodge and Horse Trails for a couple of nights.

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The lodge is part of a working farm and the owners seem to be operating on Caro’s wavelength; pinned to the inside of our door was a sign introducing all of the farms dogs so that you would know them on sight. This included a new breed for us, Anatolian sheep dogs. These animals have very little human contact once they are trained, they live with the sheep and protect them from predators like jackals, caracals and the occasional leopard. Sadly, their sheepdog had recently died and the owner told us that he was losing a sheep a night as a result.  But every cloud has a silver lining; their new puppy was not yet trained and that meant cuddles!

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Between this guy and the three collies who dropped sticks at our feet more or less constantly, Caro was in utter heaven.

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James was in his own heaven, cooking a brai and enjoying the stars on our penultimate night in South Africa.

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We have been meaning to go riding ever since we kicked off this trip and it only took us 15 months to get around to it.

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It had been about 20 years since James had been on a horse and about 15 for Caro; to say that we were rusty would be a serious understatement. Our guide, Ellie (of course from Norfolk) was very kind and gave us a bit of a refresher on the essentials before we set off. The horses at Khotso are quite small and therefore not remotely intimidating, this helped calm the nerves a fair bit. Because the horses are quite small, there are really strict weight limits in place and there are only a couple of horses there that can carry an adult male. James was delighted by this because it meant that he ended up with, Marena, a dependable plodder who was in absolutely no rush to get anywhere.

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All the horses were beautifully behaved and after we had settled in Ellie was happy for us to have a trot and a canter. This required some fairly rapid re-learning but it all came back to us quite quickly. Caro’s horse, Muffin, was all for it. Marena consented to canter for all of 10 metres before settling back in to a slow trot for the remainder.

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We were out for three hours and the time flew by. We had perfect weather for views of the mountains and the surrounding farmland. It was brilliant.

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We only had one hairy moment right at the end when Muffin got too big for his boots and felt that he should be in front. The lead horse decided he needed a kick in the chops which she delivered with an almighty thwack. Fortunately, Caro’s knees didn’t get in the way.

 

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Back at the lodge we were offered the opportunity to tag along with another group who were going tubing that afternoon. Caro declined the opportunity to float down a cold river for an hour, but James gave it a go. Everyone clambered in the horse truck and were deposited with inner tubes on the edge of a horse paddock by the river.  It was a fun hour bouncing over the small rapids in beautiful countryside. We have no pictures.

That evening we wandered up to the communal area to have a couple of drinks with the staff. The owner served in the Rhodesian army… he had some stories. His fascinating anecdotes about his travels across Africa made for the perfect finale to our South African adventure/holiday, all that was left to tackle was a delightful seven hour drive back to Jo-burg and an overnight flight to London.

That’s not a particularly exciting end to a blog, so here’s the leopard again to remind us all how to leave in style.

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