As we slowly float over the misty landscape of South Africa’s most majestic mountain range in a hot air balloon, the early morning chill making us huddle closer to the burners, our pilot David McGregor says, “Welcome to my office.” In the distance lies the towering Drakensberg Mountains, derived from the Afrikaans word for “Dragon Mountains.” It’s called Ukhahlamba in Zulu, which means the “Barrier of Spears”. It refers to the gargantuan battlements of basalt and sandstone that arc for over 700 miles, and extend from the province of Kwa Zulu Natal up to Mpumalanga and Limpopo, forming the boundary between South Africa and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. What most locals refer to as the Berg is the 200 km jagged section from the Kwa Zulu Natal Midlands to the eastern border of Lesotho.
“This huge mountain range is a product of erosion over eons,” explains our guide Shiney Bright. “Of course, this stunning region is a Unesco World Heritage Site.” We learn that in this region of rugged, dramatic peaks, pinnacles and waterfalls are huge outdoor galleries by ancient San Bushmen. These cave paintings, more than 40,000 years old, were done by the earliest settlers of South Africa.
“There’s something in this region for everyone,” says Shiney. Most people head here for hiking, both short ones and overnight trails. There’s also birding, horse riding, helicopter rides, trout fishing and abseiling. We take to the air first in a hot air balloon. Wrapped in fleece, we jump into the baskets and take off. There’s something meditative and tranquil about a hot air balloon ride — there’s just the hiss of gas and the sound of the wind. We are flying at 16 km per hour and as we rise above the clouds we see wildebeest, eland and impalas amble below, and water bodies that look like glassy tables.
“We are at the mercy of the winds, and cannot exactly pinpoint our landing point,” explains David. He tries a couple of times to land above thorny acacia trees — we duck our heads and crouch in our baskets, bracing ourselves for the descent, but he takes off again. We finally find our landing point and descend in a jiffy, coming to a grinding halt as the balloon touches the ground. David radios our pick-up vehicle as he uncorks champagne and toasts us on the successful ride. Subsequently, we are taken for a bush breakfast in a charming open hall of their office, laid out with eggs, porridge, fresh fruits, and local teas like Rooibos.
Next on the cards is a zipline through the indigenous forest canopy of the Blue Grotto forest at the Drakensburg Sun Lifestyle Resort in the Cathkin Valley. We start with a safety briefing and then outfitted in a harness, helmet and gloves, travel in an open van to the start of the trail. Our first stop is called the Rabbit Hole — a gentle start which does not show us a glimpse of the exciting adventures that lie ahead. I gingerly follow my intrepid friend, crouching on the wooden platform, and swing myself down the cable to the wooden platform on the other side.
We take the next course, crouching and launching ourselves, slides of 65 m above the forest floor, and, then, one that speeds us down 179 m to a rock face that we have to halt at. We slowly start enjoying the experience — the rush of wind against our faces, the lichen on the rocks, the towering trees and birds that flit above the canopy. We soon start whooping like Tarzan as we hurtle down the steel cables, exhilarated. By the end of the last zip line, we are satisfied that we have conquered our fears.
Our next activity is a helicopter flip with West line Aviation. We pile into our copter with headphones on as the pilot swoops over the mountains. We weave our way between table top peaks and plateaus, over grass knolls, mammoth rock walls and cliffs. The scenery is dramatic — there are buzzards and bearded vultures circling in the thermals ahead of us. Below us is the Champagne Castle Mountain. The story goes that two intrepid mountaineers, David Gray and Major Grantham, climbed the peaks directly in front of Cathkin peak. They were about to celebrate their climb by popping a bottle of champagne, but at that moment the guide dropped the bottle on a rock and Champagne Castle was christened. Monks Cowl is another evocative name for the peak sandwiched between the towering Champagne Castle and Cathkin mountains.
In the distance is the massive spire-like Cathedral range or the Ridge of the Horns. This 4 km long row of peaks includes some of the most spectacular peaks in South Africa such as Cathedral Peak, The Outer Horn and the Inner Horn. The pilot lands on a raised plateau in the Giants Castle Nature Reserve, a grassy plateau that nestles among the deep valleys. As the wind whistles through the rocky peaks, we raise a toast to the thrilling adventure.