5 peak Drakensberg experiences
South Africa's most famous mountain range is one of the world's greatest destinations. Paul Ash explores the best of the 'Berg
This classy hotel near Winterton sits like a fine manor house on lush wide lawns that give way to some of the most astounding peaks in the 'Berg, including Champagne Castle, South Africa's second-highest mountain. The recently upgraded Lakeview Restaurant is the heart of the hotel.
Breakfast is the usual bonanza of eggs and bacon or pancakes or waffles or, go on, just have a bit of everything because you'll be needing that energy for all the day's activities.
There is a tree-top canopy tour - soar over the Blue Grotto forest on lines that get progressively more hair-raising - mountain-biking, horse-riding, fishing, canoeing and, of course, hiking. This is a year-round destination but in winter you should find snow on the mountains, a roaring fire in the foyer and hot chocolate on tap.
Rates: The hotel is running a special valid for stays between June 1 and August 31: R2,250 per family room per day on a dinner, B&B basis (two adults and two children under 18, kids' dinner not included). They are also offering 30% off on Canopy Tours; 20% off on hot-stone massage (1 treatment per room per stay) and 20% off horse riding.
Mahai at Royal Natal National Park
This is the campsite in which I fell totally and irrevocably in love with the 'Berg. Green lawns spreading out under stands of whispering pine trees, excellent ablution blocks, a view of the mountains that will leave your breathless and the sound of red-chested cuckoos shouting "piet-my-vrou" as the rising sun gilds the flanks of the Amphitheatre - who could not love that?
Rates: High-season rates apply over school holidays and public holidays. From June 16-July 24, the rate is R420 for three people in a campsite. Any additional campers pay R140 per person (campsites accommodate up to six). Out-of-season, it's R120 per person.
Bergville to Underberg and Sani Pass
There is a magic drive on a series of tarred and gravel roads along the foothills, from Bergville over the Umkomaas River and south along the contours to Underberg, with a detour up Sani Pass. Parts of the route are utterly lonely where you will see few other vehicles and will have the spectacle of the 'Berg all to yourself.
It is best in winter when the mountains are covered in snow and the air is crisp and clean, like it probably was at the beginning of time. Road conditions can can vary widely - ask for local advice before setting out.
Rates: Sani Mountain Lodge has rondavels, sleeping from two to six people, at R1,260 per person sharing, dinner, B&B. Reduced rates for children. Rates higher in peak season.
Backpacker accommodation (three private rooms and two dorm rooms) from R275 pp self-catering.
There is also a toll fee payable at the Lesotho border post (R60 for larger 4x4s, R30 for small).
Meals are served in the highest pub in Africa, with an à la carte pub menu available 9.30am-6pm.
Contact: 078-634-7496 or visit sanimountain.co.za
Royal Natal National Park
Anyone who spends time in the 'Berg will argue until the cows come home over the best day hikes, the best trails, the best peaks, the best rock pools to the point of tedium. For my money, the best hiking is on the network of trails leading up from Mahai campsite into the vast shadow of the Amphitheatre in the Royal Natal National Park.
Trails lead up the slopes to the foot of the Tugela Falls or loop around the sandstone buttresses and outcrops near the campsite. To complete the circle, you should also do the hike from Witsieshoek to the top of the Amphitheatre, where you will stand in slack-jawed wonder before one of the best views in the world.
Rates: Entrance to the park is R40 per person. Otherwise hiking is free.
THE EPIC ADVENTURE
Drakensberg Grand Traverse
If you have a high pain threshold and the determination of a hobbit, then the Drakensberg Grand Traverse awaits. A 230km hike, you start at Witsieshoek, near Mount aux Sources, and pick your way over peaks and valleys, to Bushman's Nek in the southern 'Berg.
Outside Online once listed it as one of the world's 10 most dangerous hikes. Some people race it, some do shorter sections, but all agree the Traverse is one of the country's great challenges in which you will be alone for much of the way. If you do the full hike at a normal pace, expect to be on the trail for roughly 12 nights.
Rates: Several tour operators will hold your hand through it - or plan it yourself.
Contact: Find tour operators online or see kznwildlife.com or phone 036-438-6310.