The Drakensberg of South Africa is one of those parts of the country with legendary status. “The ‘Berg” is one of the most popular holiday spots for local families and many people have been holidaying in the area for generations.
As a Cape Town-based South African I’ve been harbouring a terrible secret for 38 years… I’ve never visited the Drakensberg (or any part of KZN outside of Durban!) Shocking!!!
So, after living with this dirty secret my whole life, I recently decided that the time was NOW for a family holiday to a part of our country that none of us had ever explored and so we headed off on our epic road trip with Ford that took us almost clear across the breadth of South Africa – from Cape Town, through the Karoo, via Graaff-Reinet, through the back roads of the Free State to Clarens and the Golden Gate Highlands National Park and on to the Northern Drakensberg where we descended the R74 as dusk drew nearer and silently soaked in the breathtaking beauty of the sunset skies over KwaZulu Natal.
Visiting the Northern Drakensberg
Arriving in the dark after a full day of driving on seriously potholed roads, we were all shattered, and only too happy to walk through the door of our cottage at Montusi Mountain Lodge and sink into the enveloping beds…
A Review of Montusi Mountain Lodge
At Montusi Mountain Lodge the accommodation is in luxurious stand alone thatched cottages that are fully serviced and offer views over the world-famous Drakensberg mountain range.
We stayed in one of their large family suites which has 2 en-suite bedrooms and a lounge with a gas fireplace and TV as well as a small kitchen area with a tea-making station and small fridge. Our suite also had a private patio for warmer days than the ones we visited on!!
For meals we headed to the main lodge area where the reception area, dining room, bar, lounge and massage treatment room are located (the biggest regret of my stay at Montusi was that I missed out on booking myself in for a very affordable massage!!!)
After our first delicious meal enjoyed fireside we headed straight for bed for an early night, The next morning we awoke to the most magnificent surprise…. This view! Only a while later did I realise that it was in fact one of the most famous parts of the Drakensberg Mountain range that were were taking in… The Amphitheatre.
Just a few moments after sunrise and the whole picture changed dramatically due to the light… proof that it’s actually always worth it to wake up a bit earlier while on holiday to appreciate moments like these!
Our Drakensberg accommodation at Montusi Mountain Lodge was peaceful and serene. I loved wandering in the grounds taking in the views from every angle – you really are surrounded by mountains here.
Over the past 18 years, Montusi has restored this area by re-introducing indigenous trees and forests to encourage the return of Mountain Reedbuck, Vaal Rhebuck, Bushbuck and the elusive Eland to this area once inhabited by Bushmen.
Activities at Montusi Mountain Lodge
This is the perfect place to head if you love hiking and there are daily guided morning walks on the 1000 ha. estate with tea, coffee and cookies provided to keep your energy levels up. Popular destinations are the top of Montusi Mountain, Bushman Cave (with paintings), Waterfall Cave and various streams and rock pools for summer swimming.
Guests can also safely hike the Montusi estate on their own using the Montusi Hiking Guide as well as at the uKhahlamba National Park (Royal Natal National Park) 15 kms away, with the Tugela Gorge being the favourite. A day hike to the top of the Amphitheatre can also be arrange for those of average fitness who are unafraid of heights (the last ascent is via metal chain ladders).
Keen horse-riders will love that their are stables within walking distance of the lodge and Northern Horse offers riders of all levels the chance to see the Drakensberg on horseback via one of the spectacular horse trails leading from the Montusi Estate.
Mountain Bikers are also catered for as Montusi Mountain Lodge is situated right on the 100km network of Northern Drakensberg Mountain Bike Trails, which offers all levels of rider amazing opportunities to test and grow their skills on purpose built and maintained trails. Excellent quality Mountain Bikes can be hired from All Out Adventures just 4 km from Montusi Mountain Lodge.
Trail Runners of all levels can also enjoy the mountain biking and hiking paths on foot or join the Sunset Trail Run group that heads out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5pm for an adventure into the night!
Golfers can enjoy a nine-hole round at the Amphitheatre Golf Course at Hlalanathi.
There is a fenced swimming pool for hot summer days and a tennis court for the more energetic. As our visit fell in winter we rather preferred finding a sunny spot to read or playing board games in front of roaring fire in the communal lounge area.
The Birds of the Drakensberg
One thing that really struck me about Montusi Mountain Lodge was the abundance of birds calling this place home. I loved practicing my bird photography in the gardens, sitting quietly watching an aloe, waiting for a sun bird to arrive for a drink…
On reading up more about the birds of the Drakensberg I realised that when Montusi began they made it their mission to introduce as many indigenous plants to the property as possible in order to attract birdlife back to the area.
Now their gorgeous gardens have become a haven for hundreds of different species of bird such as sunbirds, sugarbirds, widows, wydahs, kingfishers, bald ibis, lapwings and even the endangered ground hornbill. I’m not yet well versed in the names of all the birds I spotted but we were lucky enough to spot 4 of the latter just as we were leaving Montusi! I tried to capture them “beautiful” faces on camera… but I wasn’t quick enough to get a great pic so all I got was this pic. Please excuse the bad crop!!!
Montusi is the kind of place that, once you arrive, you don’t want to leave… but we were here to explore this northern part of the Drakensberg so we weren’t able to lounge around quite as much as the place encourages and on our first morning we headed off in the Ford Kuga to see what there was to discover in this captivating corner of South Africa.
The Royal Natal National Park
When travelling I’ve often compiled a comprehensive list of things to do in our destination prior to leaving home, but this time was different. I had no Things to do in the Drakensberg list. I had not researched one single thing! It was very out of character for me, but it was completely freeing.
What this lack of planning meant was that we were free to explore and discover and to let each day happen as it was meant to. No rushing from one activity to the next, just a slow unfolding.
And so it was, after realising that our morning view was of one of the most iconic spots in the Drakensberg, we headed off to explore the Royal Natal National Park (so named after a visit by the British Royals in 1947!) where you can see some of the best mountain scenery in Africa and visit the Tugela Falls, the second-highest waterfall in the world, with a drop of 948 metres (3 100 feet).
Entrance to the Royal Natal National Park costs R40 per person, per day and is payable in cash at the gate so be sure to arrive with money on you as it’s quite a drive to the nearest ATM. Upon entering the park be sure to note the closing times which are signposted at the entrance gate so you can leave enough time to drive back to the gate after your walk.
At the Visitor Centre you can also find a small souvenir shop, some basic food and clothing supplies as well as hiking brochures outlining each hike which can be purchased for R3 each. The brochure shows a map of the park and the network of hiking trails that criss cross the park. More comprehensive guides are also available to purchase.
The Amphitheatre in the Drakensberg
The main attraction at the Royal Natal National Park is the world famous Amphitheater. I didn’t realise this much photographed South African spot even had a name until this visit but now I understand why it’s one of the most popular geographical features to see in South Africa. This majestic rock wall is approximately 5km across and 1.2km (4 000 feet) high in some parts!
On top of the amphitheater is the Mont-aux-Sources peak where the Orange river begins its long journey to the Atlantic ocean and the Tugela river cascades down the face of the amphitheater on its way to the Indian ocean.
The brave amongst you might like to hike to this spot via the hiking trail that starts at the car park above Witsieshoek Resort. From Mount-Aux-Sources there is a short climb (on chain ladders) that takes you to the top of the Amphitheatre where you will be rewarded by one of the most spectacular sights in the world – beautiful African landscapes as far as the eye can see. The hike takes five hours, but you are likely to spend a good hour or two more enjoying the vistas from the top. There is also a 22-kilometre trail to the base of the Tugela Falls (again accessible via a chain ladder) Be sure to set aside eight hours for this route. Both hikes are fairly challenging and require a reasonable level of fitness.
As we were travelling with two kids we weren’t quite up for an 8 hour “challenging” hike, so opted to rather take in the view from the bottom of the mountain and found two of the best viewing sites to see the Amphitheatre from instead…
Lunch at the Best View Point for the Amphitheatre in the Drakensberg
Heading out for the day into the Drakensberg it’s advisable to pack snacks as there aren’t too many shops to restock at. At the Royal Natal National Park visitor centre there is fortunately a shop that does hold a supply of items you may need – ice creams, chips, beer!
We had packed a picnic bag with a few bits and pieces – not an entire lunch – but enough to fill our hungry tummies and what better spot to enjoy an impromptu lunch of crackers, fruit and random snacks than with this beautiful panoramic view of the Amphitheatre from one of the dams located near the Visitors Centre in the park…
Trout fishing at Royal Natal National Park can be done at this dam and we spotted a few intrepid fishermen on the other side of the dam… but aside from them we were alone. The only people lucky enough to be enjoying this picture perfect spot!
A family-friendly walk in the Drakensberg to the Cascades Waterfalls
As hiking is one of the main activities that draws people to the Drakensberg, we didn’t want to head home having not walked more than a few paces to and from our car… so after our picnic lunch we decided to find one of the easier walks in the park to enjoy with the kids.
The walk to the Cascades Waterfalls was marked on the map as being wheelchair friendly which I figured meant it would be flat and fairly child-friendly to walk!
After locating the parking area we found ourselves meandering through the indigenous forest for about 5km along one of Royal Natal National Park’s more relaxed hiking trails.
The route is flat, easy and quite shady too making it the perfect family-friendly hike in the Drakensberg and both my kids loved running ahead and exploring the trail. It winds it’s way alongside the Mahai River and along the way you might even spot a few bushbuck if you’re lucky!
The Cascades itself is a gorgeous series of cascading waterfalls that dips into beautifully fresh mountain pools, including McKinlay’s Pool, perfect for swimming in summer!
On our walk up and down to the Cascades we spotted one of the most beautiful campgrounds located in the park, the spacious Mahai Campground, which seems like an amazing place to camp, especially in summer! Prices are R330 per person per night for an unpowered site which seems quite high!
A glimpse of local life in the Northern Drakensberg
Our “quick visit” to the Royal Natal National Park was meant to take a few house of our morning before we headed on to the next spot, but, after discovering this peaceful place we were in no hurry to head off so we lingered longer and enjoyed a day spent in one spot.
As the temperature started to drop we realised it was time to head back to Montusi and our drive back “home” took us via the back roads of the Drakensberg giving us a glimpse into the local life of the Zulu people who call the Northern Drakensberg home.
Swarms of people were out and about, having visited the local market to buy their weekly provisions. I so wanted to stop and visit the market myself as the picture opportunities would have been an amazing way to showcase the beautiful vibrant people of the area, but I was also so aware that this is the daily life of these people and I really didn’t want it to come across that I was prying or treating them like a tourist attraction.
Such a tricky balance to get right – showing interest and being fascinated to learn more about the local culture vs embarrassing or intruding on people’s privacy (esp when you have a camera with you!)
Ultimately we decided to keep driving and not stop at the market (a decision I have since regretted) I managed to snap a few photos of the local kids walking home, a herd boy herding his family livestock to the kraal for the night and the brick makers making their straw based bricks hard at work in the fields.
A few times we stopped and asked permission to take a photo when we spotted someone on their own. This friendly chap was only too obliging!!!
What would you have done? Would you have stopped at the market? Would you have whipped out your camera? I’m keen to hear your thoughts!!
Fly-fishing in the Drakensberg
Upon returning to Montusi as the sun was setting, my son was eager to take advantage of the fly-fishing rods for hire. We parked the car, picked up the rods and headed to the dam where he tried is luck at hooking something…
His biggest catch proved to be himself when he flicked the fly hook straight into the back of his top on his first try! If you’ve ever tried to get a trout fishing hook out of a cotton weave you’ll understand the frustration that ensued!
Fortunately we managed and he enjoyed another hour or so of fishing in the near-freezing while Abi and I headed for the warmth of our beds and our books!
Montusi have two dams stocked with trout and complete with a beautiful view of the ‘Berg. You can bring your rod and flies or hire them from reception at R100 per day. This ‘Catch and Release’ activity is strictly reserved for Montusi residents.
Bushmen Paintings in the Drakensberg
Having arrived after nightfall on the first night of our two night stay, our time at Montusi was far too short, only one full day spent exploring the mountains… and then one morning before heading off to our next destination.
After enjoying breakfast on our last morning (a definite highlight of our stay), we decided to explore more of the grounds and chose to head up to the top of Montusi Mountain to take in the view before hiking on to the Bushman’s Cave on the property to view the authentic bushmen paintings.
We’re not a very athletic family, although this is something we’re all keen to change, so the hike up the mountain proved to be more breathless, than breath-taking. But we were very pleased with our efforts once we reached the view point….
On arriving at the cave we caught up with the guided group who had left 20mins before us and so got a bit more insight into the history of the paintings that were made here about 500 years ago.
There were two sections of paintings, one depicting a herd of eland and another two bushmen. Obviously this was really special to show my kids who have only learnt about bushmen paintings in school.
And then it was time to head down the mountain and say our sad goodbyes to Montusi….
Fun for kids in the Drakensberg at All Out Adventures
Before leaving the Northern Drakensberg area we had one more pitstop to make… Ben had received a voucher from Montusi to enjoy a ride at All Out Adventures located just a few km’s down the road and was desperate to use it so we made stop here to allow him to get his adrenalin fix!
All Out Adventures offers fun for kids of all ages in the Northern Drakensberg with a Cable Tour, a hair raising Free Fall King Swing, thrilling Flying Trapeze, Bungee Bounce (trampoline and bungee system), Zip Line (Giant Foofy Slide), Forested Paintball and Quad Bike Tours to the river.
We signed his indemnity forms and watched our first born ascend the spiral staircase to enjoy the giant zip line. It was terrifying watching it from the ground, but apparently loads of fun in the air!
The smile says it all!
Not wanting to be left out, Abi also wanted to do something fun so we bought her a ticket for the Bungee Bounce…
Locally made souvenirs to buy in the Drakensberg
And then our time in the Northern Drakensberg was up… but not before we stopped to support the local craftsmen by buying a souvenir.
These gorgeous animals are hand made from the local clay and painted bright colours. My kids loved them all and had a very hard time choosing just one to take home with them. If they could they would have bought them all… mostly because of their super sweet empathetic hearts that made them want to support every vendor we drove past!
I had thought that these animals would be available throughout the rest of our journey and that we should rather buy them on our final day, but they weren’t anywhere else to be found than in this small pocket of the ‘Berg so my advice is to stop and buy one when you see it. You won’t always find them around the next corner and I’m so glad we did stop and buy them when we did because these quirky creatures are the perfect souvenir to remind us of our special time in this beautiful part of our country…
Have you visited the Drakensberg? When was your last visit? Maybe it’s time for another one (or a first one!)
Contact Montusi Mountain Lodge
Tel: +27 (0) 36 438 6243
Email: [email protected]