In the Clouds
The start of the Battlefields Route and once an outpost of frontier defence, Estcourt today is a thriving commercial centre.
However, it was Wembezi township that drew us to the area, a hotbed of political violence with a dark history of clashes between the IFP and ANC.
Riding through the township, we were met with mild hostility - faces were grim and unwelcoming and we were threatened with the throwing of stones. Fortunately the atmosphere was much lighter at the two schools’ we visited: Zola and Ezamakuthala Primary School.
With support from Food & Trees for Africa, the neighbouring schools have established food gardens that help feed learners (many of whom are orphans and vulnerable children suffering from HIV) with fresh, organic fruit and vegetables, while generating a small income to buy more seedlings.
They also share seeds and do workshops together, supporting each other in their different stages of growth.
Said Mr Mgoza of Ezamakuthala: "Having a food garden is one way in which a person can live honestly. So the more people we have involved the better community we have in terms of values".
Riding along the Battlefields Route, the air was clogged with smoke as farmers set their fields alight to burn annual firebreaks. Flames lapped the edges of the road as we passed, crackling like bullets in what felt like a tribute to the long-gone wars.
We stopped at the Ambleside Cemetery for a break. Chris rested on Spud while I set forth to discover the cemetery's history.
Learning that it was the burial site of soldiers killed during the Anglo-Boer War at the Battle of Colenso, we were chilled when the sounds of screams rent the air, an all-too-human soundtrack to this long-past battle as a nearby piggery began a slaughter of their own.
Our last stop on this historic route was Spioenkop, the most futile and bloodiest of battles fought during what was known as the “Black Week”.
We’d be staying at Fair Trade and Green Leaf Certified Three Tree Hill Lodge.
We followed our GPS which took us along deeply rutted gravel roads - the legacy of thick snow and stuck cars.
Passing a herd of eland standing incongruously in a blackened field set against emerald-green hills, we drove right up to the gated entrance of Spoienkop, only to turn around and drive in near-dark through a village and all the way back again to Three Trees (on the other side of the hill).
This was an impressive feat given the fact that Chris had no headlights - following my dim orange glow all the way through the village and to Three Trees, narrowly avoiding potholes and even spotting a hare and a bushbuck.
Recreating the wood and tin huts that were used by British officers during the war, today the lodge’s post-colonial emphasis is the upliftment of the local community through sustainable employment, health education and environmental awareness.
Energy-saving lightbulbs, a solar cooker, Econo heat pads and insulation keep energy costs down, while locally-made biodegradable products, worm farming, recycling and a vegetable garden ensure minimal impact on the environment.
Owner Cheryl Blackburn told me that in the village of 6000 people, only one household has a vegetable garden - a shocking statistic given the lack of food security in the area.
The lodge is also heavily involved with the community through feeding programmes, even sponsoring a local long-distance runner.
Dawn of the next day pulled away the veil of darkness, revealing a typical African savannah-type plain, dotted with acacias.
The neighbouring game reserve only added to the attractions: guided by the lodge's dog, we hiked along the edge to be dazzled by zebras, endless elands, giraffes that merged into the acacia's like chameleons, and even two rotund rhinos, waddling away as fast as their stumpy little legs could carry them.
The Drakensberg beckoning, we rode onwards towards the stately Ampitheatre, battling harsh crosswinds all the way to the solar and wind-powered Sungubala Bush Camp, which lies on 500 hectares of pristine wilderness below the Hlolela and Sungubala Peaks.
Marked 4x4 only, the route up was not very challenging, even with its loose rocks and tight corners. We set our stuff down in our cute little A-frame hut (they have safari tents, holiday homes and spots to pitch a tent), while ablutions and cooking facilities are shared.
We immediately set to explore the surrounding Ukhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage site, baboons barking at us as we meandered through pockets of indigenous forest.
Though we woke up to non-stop rain, we knew we couldn't miss visiting the Royal Natal National Park. Following a waterfall upriver, which cascaded down natural steps, it wasn’t hard to tell how the Cascades got its name. I lumbered over the rocks to get a closer look, as clumsy in my waterproof gear as an astronaut discovering gravity on an alien planet.
Riding back we stopped off at the Sprinkle Orphanage, which drew us in with its cheerful countenance and expansive vegetable garden.
The 18 kids were happy, well cared for and full of life – skipping with a rope created by joining plastic bags together.
Manzima Maziboko, one of the orphanage’s six carers, showed us around with evident pride – she’d helped build its very walls.
Ampitheatre Backpackers is set at the foot of the Berg, though it could have been in a quarry for all we could see - the clouds were so thick it felt like you could walk through it and enter another world.
Using solar heating, natural building materials, and reusing all their waste through incredible craft projects that make the place suited for an interior design shoot, Ampitheatre Backpackers and Guest Lodge has five-star status.
After two days of rain, the mist finally opened up to reveal a startling vista of snow-covered peaks topped with dense clouds.
We hiked to the foot of the Ampitheatre, hoping the landmark would stop playing Hide and Seek.
Waterfalls gushed down as the snow melted, but still the clouds hiding its peaks obstinately refused to part.
Luckily the sky was clear behind us...
Then it was the badly-potholed Sani Pass, though with two wheels these were easily avoided and we managed to beat most cars, a rare feat indeed.
Through mountain passes overlooking the turquoise waters at Drieberg Dam, a stop at the Vulture Restaurant to see the not-so-scenic corpses of dead cows luring hungry (and endangered) vultures with their rotting flesh, we entered the Golden Gate, dwarfed by the monstrously beautiful Maluti Mountains.
After setting up camp at Golden Gate's Glen Reenen Rest Camp, we hiked to Brandwag Buttress to watch the sunset, hauling ourselves up the last stretch with the help of a chain.
In the far distance you could see the Basotho Cultural Village blending in with the landscape like a chameleon on a leaf, while the five-star hotel stood out like a wasp in a beehive.
Catch us next week as we leave the Drakensberg behind us for the peaceful Maluti Mountains on the border of Lesotho, traverse the grain-swept kilometres of the Eastern Free State, discover conservation in Parys and sustainable farming in Gauteng in our latest blog article Wherever I May Roam.
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