Riding the Dragon’s Tail – The Southern Drakensberg

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Click on the photo to see more pics from this journey.

A long way south of where most people think the Drakensberg ends, its basalt tail lies twitching in the sky. Wilder and less developed than the KwaZulu-Natal mountains, the far southern Berg offers untamed adventures that are the stuff of fantasy and legend. 

It was a sunny Tuesday morning in late spring and the verges in the village of Rhodes needed trimming. The 30 or so mowers who’d been brought in to do the job paid no attention to the grass. They sat under shady willows or stood gormlessly in the middle of the street, which might have obstructed traffic, had there been any. Village custodian Susan Koelz shot them a disapproving glance. ‘They’re obviously not hungry,’ she remarked. ‘We’re going to have to bring in another herd.’

While the cows neglected their civic duty, Susan took me and my friend, Dirk Odendal, on a walking tour of the few dozen clay and corrugated iron cottages that constitute the community, which is a national monument. Established in 1893 as a church centre for mountain farmers, Rhodes hasn’t changed much since, except that visitors now come for fly-fishing and snow skiing instead of nagmaal and race meetings.

Today’s visitors are better behaved, if TV Bulpin’s descriptions of fights, dice and big card games are anything to go by. The bookies, wool buyers and cowboys are gone, as is Thys Volstruis, the man employed to sweep up the droppings from their horses, which they rode straight into the Rhodes Hotel. The action has moved up the hillside to Walkerbouts Inn, where a man who could be Father Christmas’s witty twin presides.

The bar at the centre of the universe

Dave Walker has a firm grasp on geography or, you might say, a stranglehold. Chat to him at the bar and he’ll tell you everyone else is completely mistaken about the location of the southern Drakensberg. It’s not, as they claim, anywhere near Himeville or Underberg in KwaZulu-Natal. The last references to the mountain range on official 1:50,000 survey maps are found between Elliot and Barkly East in the Eastern Cape. And, since the surveyor general is the final arbiter of location in South Africa, Rhodes is undeniably at the southernmost end of the Drakensberg.

It’s also the centre of the known universe. Dave doesn’t quote any evidence for this, but after a few beers or a not-so-wee dram of whisky, it seems a reasonable enough claim. Admittedly, it takes a while to get there, but although there are plans for an airstrip in the offing, it would be a shame to forego driving over the spectacular mountain passes that circle the area like citadels.

We hopped into a 4×4 with local fishing and flower guide Tony Keitzman for a ride to the top of Naudé’s Nek. At 2,500 metres, it’s the highest pass open to traffic in South Africa. The gravel road winds up steep, lonely pastures and across wind-blasted moors of broom-grass that mistily echo the Scottish highlands – complete with a public phone that’s never been connected.

Tony took us to weeping rock shelves where creeping euphorbias and crassulas clung to tiny pockets of erosion and to a glen where scores of malachite sunbirds quarelled over a cavalcade of red-hot pokers. He pointed wistfully at long, crystalline stretches of streams – his favourite beats for trout – and stood with us at the summit watching as a black-and-blue thunderstorm bruised the dale below.

Back beside the Bell River, we passed a peculiar monument: a series of stone walls that spelt the name Naudé. It was built to commemorate brothers Stephanus and Gabriel who blazed this route over the Drakensberg on horseback. Just how daring a feat this must have been, Dirk and I were about to find out.

Amphitheatres without audiences

‘We’re complete beginners,’ I told Kathy Mitchell of Skyriders on the phone. ‘So perhaps we could just ride for an hour or two?’ But Kathy said we’d need more time for a worthwhile horse trail and when we arrived in Wartrail, she’d put together a full-day expedition.

‘Normally we do this over two days,’ said Kathy as we crested Lundin’s Nek and turned off the road onto sweeping, scrubby slopes, ‘so we’d best get a move on.’ It was an injunction she had to repeat several times: Dirk and I were too busy admiring the scenery to spur on our horses.

Fold upon fold of green hills bared smooth, sandstone shoulders. Deep in their drapery glinted the beadwork of boulders and sequins of a stream. Across the Telle River loomed Lesotho’s pointy blue mountains, the Malotis.

‘What waterfall is that?’ Dirk asked, as we approached a high white thread tumbling down basalt cliffs at the apex of a vast amphitheatre.

Kathy consulted with local guide Ntate Moshesh. ‘It doesn’t have a name.’

Dirk was indignant. ‘A waterfall like that deserves a name,’ he muttered. But it seemed there was no one there to give it one. In the six hours it took to ride to Dangers Hoek, we saw only one other person.

We traversed more breathtaking amphitheatres and several hair-raising gullies, but our sturdy horses managed to hang onto their goggle-eyed riders. It was with regret as well as relief that we dismounted at last and were driven out of the Telle Valley into the sunset. Our consolation was that the next valley we’d visit was said to be even more bewitching.

Valley of giants

Arriving at Balloch Cottages in the dark was like being led blindfolded by a conjuror. We followed Graham and Margy Frost’s bakkie between black and dripping trees, across a gushing brook and up a bumpy mud track. Inside our stone cottage, we piled wood onto the hearth and Margy’s lasagne onto our plates. Rain pattered a lullaby as we fell asleep, floating in an unseen landscape.

When dawn drew away the mask, we found ourselves in a valley of giants. A huge woman wearing a Xhosa headdress sat on a cliff top blocking out the sun; a 50-metre high cobra reared up beside a Brobdingnagian hut. Knobbly orbs, sceptres, towers and thrones lined the lush gorge. Clarens sandstone glowed red, yellow and orange.

Margy took us to see some of her treasures. We climbed past a cave that shelters campers and the ox-wagon that arrived with the farm’s first owners to a ridge where two conical boulders perched precariously on their sharp ends. Dirk tried, tentatively at first and then with all his might, to push them over.

Beneath another rock, a great black and tan lioness with whiplike tail chased little red men across a wall. Legs kicked up like ballet dancers, they transformed into antelopes, then birds and flew through the roof, insouciantly eluding death. Bright colours and exquisite outlines defied the decay of years.

Beside the road out of the valley, Balloch’s most remarkable stone sculpture, the giant’s thumb, stuck out in a shaft of sunlight. The sight hitched a ride with us all the way over the Barkly Pass, beyond Maclear to the Tsitsa Falls.

The river rat and his goat

The first thing we noticed at The Falls backpackers was a large, brown goat. ‘Hang onto your valuables,’ said Adriaan Badenhorst when we shook hands, ‘or Billy will eat them.’ Billy was already nibbling Dirk’s shorts. We followed Adi up a hill for a tour of the farm. Billy leapt up and butted me to the back of the line. Adi handed me a small stick to fend him off. ‘Billy has a thing about women,’ he said.

Occupied in this way, it took me a while to notice the waterfall. Below us, the Tsitsa River, curving across a wide green plain, reached a crescent-shaped ledge and plunged 26 metres before swooshing around a horseshoe gorge. Rainbows shimmered in the spray. Billy barged me from behind.

Adi told us how he found his piece of paradise. A former river guide in the Kalahari, he came to the Eastern Cape several years ago on a kayaking trip, rounded a bend in the river and fell headfirst in love. Something prompted him to ask if the farm was for sale. So, for a price that sounds silly to city-dwellers but was nonetheless hefty for a river rat, Adi acquired 80 hectares of wattle-choked land, a tumbledown farmhouse and his own waterfall.

Since then, he and his wife Angela have built up the backpackers and cleared away the wattles. They’ve also helped formulate a plan to transform part of the overgrazed Tsitsa Valley into a wildlife reserve, replacing cows with eland and hartebeest. It was tough going with scant resources in this remote area, but things are looking up. The main road to Maclear was recently tarred and European Union funding through Thina Sinaku, a provincial support programme, has been approved for their project.

Shimmying down a rock chimney where Billy couldn’t follow, we peered at a Bushman painting the farm’s previous owner never found and waded through long grass to the top of the falls. Adi carved up a watermelon for tea, then buckled us into harnesses. An invisible wire stretched across the roaring face of water. Adi clipped us on. Then, with a whoop, he leapt off the edge. A tiny figure, waving exuberantly, in his element.

A painted procession

Not far off, the elements had conspired to reveal records of a race who’d lost their corner of Earth. Storm Shelter was found at the dawn of the new millennium by hikers driven under a sandstone ledge by malevolent weather. Hailed as South Africa’s most significant rock art find in the last century, it’s a palimpsest of manifold figures – hunters, shamen, animals, gods and ghosts – parading across a large slab.

To see it, we headed back to Maclear and out towards the Pot River Pass where the gravel roads were flanked with far-flung cattle farms and pine plantations. At Woodcliffe Farm, Phyll Sephton packed us into her 4×4 with a picnic lunch and drove until the road became a donga. Vultures wheeled in morning thermals as we trekked into a twist of slopes burrowed by a stony creek.

The shelter is so well disguised that Phyll walked right past it. Seclusion has saved the paintings; they are still remarkably fresh and clear – down to the pupil in the eye of an eland. The rock opposite is polished with animal fat worn by Bushmen who must have sat as we did, poring over the army of images. For them, its meaning must have been clear as a story told many times. For us, the message was garbled, perhaps entirely misunderstood. Baffled, I turned to leave at last.

Phyll stood silhouetted by the overhang, her outline quite different to those shaped by the long ago artists. Rock framed a landscape brightly daubed in blue and green, a counterpoint to the tawny, white and burnt umber that flickered in the shadows. The people who’d made this magic were gone, as were the elands and lions, the rhebok and hyenas. There was nobody left to witness the mystery of these mountains but us, the vultures and a herd of cows cropping the long grass.

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