I started hiking as a recreational activity while I was in university. Before that it was one of those mandatory activities that you could not get out of at school, despite very colourful and creative excuses on my part. To me, the fact that I was a pedestrian at the time was my “weekly contribution” towards a healthy lifestyle and I wasn’t really looking for added extras.
Over the years, that feeling has changed and my attraction for hiking in the wilderness, or even closer to home, has grown. Even so, it had been a long time since my last hike.This year I decided to change that and kill two birds with one stone by going hiking and doing so in a place I have never visited before as an actual destination as opposed to a drive through– the Drakensberg.
Central Drakensberg, which is where we spent most of our trip, is about 4 hours outside of Johannesburg. It took us longer than that to drive there because we stopped for scenery, coffee and surprisingly craft beer at the de Jager Brewery which is at a rest stop on the N3, who knew?
We stayed in Winterton – “the gateway to the Champagne Valley.” This phrase conjured images of a quaint but bustling town with picturesque scenes similar to Clarens in the Free State or Graskop in Mpumalanga…this was not that. It’s more accurately, the one shop town outside the Champagne Valley. So not what we expected but the B&B was clean and comfy with a nice little garden.
And to be fair, if the area is called ‘Champagne Valley’ – why be outside it? It was a shocking rookie error on my part. I just wasn’t focusing. I think I just got caught up in the phenomenal vistas, landscape views and hidden caves and stories, that I forgot to adequately factor in things like location, distance, height, fitness levels and do I really want to spend my birthday climbing a mountain?
The day we had set aside for hiking was cold and wet and so we decided to do other activities. However, we were on sun watch and as soon as the sun made an appearance, we headed to the adventure centre for our first hike (well, really more of a walk) to the Sterkfontein Falls. Now, obviously you can go hiking in the rain but I am not about that life – No Sir.
Many of the hikes start at the entrance of the Monks Cowl Nature Reserve . The paths are well numbered, making it an easy 1-2 hour trail to follow. Even on a cloudy and misty day, the surrounding views were warm and inviting.
The second hike on the next day was a lot more hectic. And there is definitely no happy picture like the one above. Before the trip, I spent some time doing cardio just to get my fitness levels up but it did not particularly help. After much some toing and froing about which route to tackle, we landed on a 4-5 hour walk up to the Sphinx and on to Blind man’s Corner.
First I was worried that it would be too cold, so I had an extra layer of clothes on which I ended up leaving in the car. But then the wind was quite biting the higher we got and I soon regretted that – when I’m cold…I’m really grumpy.
Second, I discovered that over the years I have actually gotten more cautious and scrambling up rocks (especially steep ones) had me well and truly freaking out. We couldn’t turn back because if scrambling up had my anxiety on tenterhooks, what of scrambling down! There were parts on the hike when we would have to find another route because my reaction was “no thank you, I choose life.”
In hindsight, I think a walk to the Sphinx was enough for my hiking fix. It was pretty and I could manage the challenges (although it was already tough for me). But I had committed to the Blind man’s corner and I definitely wouldn’t have managed going up the same way I came. So we soldiered on, not without complaints on my part – I might add.
After walking through mist, wind and expansive green terrain as though I was on a walking expedition through middle earth, we made it to Blind man’s corner. I was so exhausted when we reached it and I’m not entirely sure why it’s called that but I’m adamant to find out. Mainly because when I reached there it was a plaque. And I was expecting something a bit more dramatic for my 5 hour walk. I know that it sounds so terribly ungrateful given how beautiful the view is. Blind man’s corner is not at the top of the mountain. You don’t come upon it after turning a corner and being floored. So what gives?
Although, I was exhausted and moaned a lot along the way. I will still be back because I only saw central Drakensberg. More hills, valleys and caves beckon in the Northern part. So Drakensberg…I will be back.