Tag Archives: Drakensberg mountains

Drakensbergs, revisited

This weekend, fresh off my safari, I went back to the Drakensberg Mountains with Al and some of his McKinsey colleagues for a so-called “team weekend.” Based on past (semi-traumatic) experiences with McKinsey “teambuilding” “retreats,” I feared that this weekend would involve flow charts, PowerPoint, and small-group breakout sessions. To my relief, it just ended up being a weekend away — no brainstorming or teambuilding involved — that McKinsey paid for. Not bad!

The Drakensbergs

The Drakensbergs

We (that is, Al and I, his colleague Mattia and his girlfriend Isabella, and another McKinsey colleague, Martin) drove from Joburg on Friday afternoon, all five of us cramped into a tiny Suzuki Alto. In case you’re not familiar with the Suzuki Alto, it looks like this:

Suzuki-Alto-2009-hd

Don’t let the smiling faces of those Europeans fool you: the Suzuki Alto is not a good car. It is slow, cramped, and most definitely not suitable to seat five adults – and their luggage – comfortably. But we made it. Somehow.

We stayed at the somewhat grandly named Champagne Castle hotel, and it was a mixed bag.

View from our balcony

View from our balcony

Good things about the Champagne Castle:

  • Very close to the mountains
  • Decent buffet with a good cheese selection
  • Meals included in price
  • Many interesting animals on the grounds (including peacocks, parrots, and baboons).

Bad things about the Champagne Castle:

  • Neither a castle nor filled with champagne
  • Confusing and unnecessary “dress code” enforced: no shorts or “slipslops” after 6 pm – unclear if this prohibition also applied to one’s room, but we decided to chance it. Also, what are slipslops?
  • Spa was booked until Monday, and also did not appear to be open/actually a spa
  • Many “strictly enforced” rules about checkout time, attire, meal seating, etc. – one must always be on one’s guard at the Champagne Castle
  • Internet only available in “internet hut” on grounds
  • No fitness center
  • Shrieking parrots, marauding baboons

We were baffled by the many and varied rules enforced at the Champagne Castle, and decided that the boss, an affable Belgian who checked in on us multiple times during each meal to make sure we were enjoying the fettucini alfredo, must have it in his head that “fancy” hotels involve dress codes and dinner bells and assigned seating, whether the guests find those things charming or not. Or else maybe the place is run by Nazis. I could see it going either way.

The Champagne Castle

The Champagne Castle

Apart from abiding by the Champagne Castle’s rigid code of conduct, we spent most of the rest of our time in the Drakensbergs sleeping, eating, and hiking.

IMG_5135

 

On Saturday, we had planned to do a four-hour hike that ended up turning into a seven-hour death march because the guy in charge of the map sort of didn’t know how to read a map. But we made it back, seven long hours later, a little worse for the wear and extremely hungry, but alive. Then we pigged out on buffet food, so it was all good.

Me, at the beginning of our hike

Me, at the beginning of our hike, while I was still smiling

It was a nice weekend, overall, but it’s refreshing to be back in Joburg. I haven’t really been able to work for a month, so I’m looking forward to bearing down and getting a lot done this week. I do love traveling, but you know what they say: the best part about traveling is coming home.

Drakensberg Mountains

This weekend marked our first real weekend away from Joburg, and it was all I hoped it could be.  Al and I and three friends (Josh, Ken, and Elli) spent the weekend hiking, braai-ing, and drinking in the Drakensberg Mountains and, let me tell you, it was glorious.

The Drakensberg Mountains run along the western edge of the KwaZulu-Natal province and also border Lesotho.  There are a lot of resorts in the Drakensbergs, but we decided to stay in the Royal Natal National Park, which, according to my guidebook, “is famous for its exceptionally grand scenery.”  This turned out to be no joke.

View from our hike

However, reaching the park was no easy feat.  The drive from Joburg was a harrowing five-hour ordeal involving a two-lane highway full of slow moving trucks and fast-moving cars, long stretches of unsealed/unpaved roads littered with potholes, and, for most of the trip, pouring rain.  Oh, also, we left Johannesburg at 7 pm – probably not the wisest choice, in retrospect.   We made it, though!

We stayed right in the park in the uber-charming Thendele resort.  The five of us rented a self-catered, six-person cottage with a fireplace, TV, kitchen, and, most important, outdoor braai area.  Priorities!

This was the view from our cottage’s back patio.

Our cottage:

It was okay, I guess.

After staying up until 2 am on Friday drinking wine and eating biltong, we got up at 9 am on Saturday, ate a filling breakfast, and then set out on what ended up being a rather epic four-hour hike.  The hike took us past several waterfalls and required that we scramble up wet, moss-covered rocks and ascend a chain ladder.  For those of you who have never climbed a thin, swaying chain ladder set against slick, wet rocks, go ahead and skip it.  We all pretended we weren’t scared by it, but I’m reasonably sure we all secretly thought we were going to die on that ladder.

View from “The Crack”

On our way back down from the midway point of the hike, we were passed by a group of very tough looking Afrikaner guys wearing compression leggings and huge backpacks, who informed us, quite gravely, that “the pressure is dropping” and that we needed to get back down the slippery rocks before it started pouring rain. Then they jogged up the rocks and we lost sight of them.

When they passed us again ten minutes later, going back down, one of them – in his eagerness to outrun the dropping pressure, I imagine – slipped on the rocks and fell so hard on his back that we all gasped and cringed, sure that we had just witnessed a spinal fracture. “Are you okay?” we all asked him.  “Fine,” he said cheerily, as he popped back up, brushed himself off, determined that he had no broken bones, and continued on down the rocks at a brisk clip.  These Afrikaners don’t mess around.

After our hike, we uncorked some wine and settled in for a braai – salads, steaks, sausage, garlic bread, grilled veggies, corn on the cob, and even cookies for dessert.  Stuffing myself silly with wine and food has become my main weekend activity here, but what am I supposed to do, not partake in the local delights? That would just be culturally insensitive.

This guy, and his friend, decided to join us for our braai. He was very bold:

Guinea fowl?

After stuffing ourselves with food, we went inside and started a fire, and, of course, drank more wine. Are you seeing a pattern here?

The only thing missing? S’mores.  I’m thinking s’mores need to become a braai staple. I also realized this is the second blog post in which I’ve mentioned s’mores. I might have a problem.

Some other highlights of the trip, for me, included several baboon sightings and this sign warning us not to feed said baboons:

I also saw this in the park’s “curio shop,” and had to really make an effort not to buy it.  By the way, what do we think – is headache powder to be snorted, or applied directly to the head? I couldn’t decide.

All in all, a great weekend.  South Africa is feeling more and more live-able every day.

Weekend away

We’re taking a weekend trip to the scenic Drakensberg mountains and will be gone until Sunday afternoon. So there will be no blog updates this weekend, but I’ll be sure to fill you all in as soon as I’m back.

In the meantime, please enjoy this ridiculous photo of some of the services offered at the beauty salon next to my gym.  I better make my appointment soon!

Enjoy your weekends!