Hiking in the Central Drakensberg

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I’m presently working as a volunteer at Ardmore Guest Farm in the Champagne Valley area of the Central Drakensberg, KZN, South Africa. I’ve been here a little over 2 weeks but I feel I’ve settled well. I am one of 4 volunteers,  the last of which only arrived today. More of that in another post!

I guess I’ve missed the hustle and bustle of the hospitality trade even though I can tell you it got my blood pressure up at times! Today has also been one of those days but it’s an exception to an otherwise pleasant stay. The landscape is incredibly scenic around here. At almost any time of day (poor weather notwithstanding) one can see a panoramic vista of the mighty ‘Berg from almost anywhere in the valley. Paul and Sue (the owners) have built a dozen or so chalets and bungalows, some mountain-facing, others garden-facing. You pay a premium to face the mountain of course but the prices are not unreasonable for a 3* establishment.

It took me two weeks to finally get a chance to walk along the mighty mountain range, oft talked of amongst those I’d met over the years, but never visited in my personal capacity. I remember my mum once talking up the possibility of a visit but sadly it never happened. Besides, in Zimbabwe we have magnificent mountain vistas and all that goes with it along the Eastern border with Mozambique. In part it’s a matter of home bias because all these places are unique. There is only one Nyanga, Bvumba or Chimanimani in Zimbabwe; likewise the Drakensberg of South Africa stands apart for its own sake. It extends over an impressive area towards the eastern seaboard  – I couldn’t tell you how much exactly – but I know that it encompasses the mountain nation of Lesotho and upland area of Kwazulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

So yesterday I had the good fortune to go walking from the Monk’s Cowl visitors centre into the Maloti Drakensberg National Park, actually designated a World Heritage Site. Paul dropped me off mid-morning around 9:30 and assured me that when I was done I wouldn’t struggle to find a lift back. If all else fails give the guest farm a call he added. Probably not an option I was thinking to myself, considering the lack of credit on my phone. However, it seemed a busy place and, not for the first time in my life, I put my faith in providence.

It had been a bit of a rush to get out off the far and as a result I forgot a few crucial elements – a water bottle and hat. Fortunately I had my wallet on me and was able to buy a plastic Powerade with its magic contents. If not for that… The choice of walks would have kept me procrastinating for a good while if it wasn’t for Paul. On his advice I set out on the walk to Blind Man’s Corner, a circular route of 12 kms and estimated walking time of 6 hours, give or take. The galleries record my progress.

The gallery at the beginning of the post shows the stunning view one can encounter within about 45 minutes of hiking. Also shown are the play of light in shadow in one of several of the mountain streams flowing down the mountain slopes and a species of Helichrysum (an everlasting). The next gallery shows the entrance to Monk’s Cowl curio shop and office complex and posing for the obligatory selfie near the turnaround point halfway through. Over my shoulder is the Cathkin Peak, one of the three highest in the range at over 3148m.

The next gallery is almost exclusively of mountain scenery, including the rather unusual one the Zulu people call Intunja, meaning “eye of the needle”. I don’t know why but it reminds me of an octopus head but I guess it’s really pretty subjective what you see! The two showing the gnarled and characteristic Protea trees are from the footpath through Keartland’s Pass which is an alternative route back to the car park and office.

There weren’t too many plants in flower but those that were didn’t disappoint. In the gallery above you can see the multiple yellow-flowering heads of a shrub that seems quite widespread in the Drakensberg here. There is also an old male flower head on a stunted Protea tree clinging to the hillside and a close-up of a pretty purple flowering plant eking out its existence in a crack in the sandstone. There is also a last look back at the Cathkin Peak and the Sterkhorn (2973m) to the right of it.

It is worth quickly noting the geology of the range, granted in a very generalised manner. I spent many year’s as an undergraduate studying geology and later as a tutor so I should know something at least! In short the Drakensberg consists of the upper groups of rock types that collectively constitute the Karoo Supergroup, predominantly sedimentary but with subordinate volcanics, sills and dykes. In fact the final event in Karoo deposition was the outpouring of large volumes of basalts (the Stormberg Group) which have given the mountain range a protective ‘cap’. This happened during the breakup of Gondwana well over 150 million years ago but through time, as the softer country rock was weathered and eroded, the peaks we see today stood out, capped proudly by these long-solidified volcanic strata. I have included a few ‘geo-shots’ in the gallery below.

Towards the end of the walk I have to say I was wilting. I’d forgotten my hat and even though it was supposedly heading into winter the African sun still maintained a certain ferocious intensity. Additionally, I only had a small ice-cream wafer on the way up and I felt my energy levels diminish. The Nandi and Sterkspruit Falls would have to wait for another day. A good reason to return!

 

My Summer Workaway Adventures, Part I

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It is hard to believe that I have just come back from a four month Workaway experience on the continent. It seemed like I departed a year ago at least so rich and varied has the experience been for me. After returning from a memorable three months in Africa backpacking from Cape Town to the shores of Lake Tanganyika I didn’t think I’d be able to round off the remainder of the year in Europe in any way as exciting. How wrong I was to be proven.

After returning from a memorable three months in Africa backpacking … I didn’t think I’d be able to round off the remainder of the year in Europe in any way as exciting. How wrong I was to be proven.

I selected a varied number of projects on the site, Workaway.info, based on things I’d knew I’d probably enjoy and a few I wasn’t so sure about but which looked interesting. Workaway is a website which facilitates pairing hosts with volunteers for a number of different projects varying from farm labouring to au pairing to assisting in hotels and hostels.

The two parties enter into a non-binding contract whereby the host provides board and lodging and the volunteer provides whatever service is required of them (as per the host requirements on the website). Central to it is that the agreement between host and workaway is a purely social contract i.e. no money change hands.

Workaway is a website which facilitates pairing hosts with volunteers for a number of different projects varying from farm labouring to au pairing to assisting in hotels and hostels.

I made the decision to avoid flying, or at least to keep it to a minimum. I set off from my uncle’s house in Poole in early August on a cross-channel ferry to Cherbourg. I had set myself a conservative budget of about maybe 1200 pounds, the idea being that I was only going to pay travel costs and entertainment. If I was frugal I should spend even less.

My spirits had been flagging a little, due in some part to the uncertainty of setting out into the unknown, alone. It didn’t help that my arrival in Cherbourg coincided with a spell of rainy weather. The historic harbour – the 2nd largest artificial harbour in the world – was a strange, place-out-of-time experience. Before the buildings of modern Cherbourg hove into view through the mist there was for a while only the Napoleonic harbour walls stretching far out to sea and attendant fortifications, long obsolete. It was quite eerie.

Before the buildings of modern Cherbourg hove into view through the mist there was for a while only the Napoleonic harbour walls stretching far out to sea…

I struggled for the next few hours to find my way to a campsite on the edge of town. When I got there I found myself walking in the wrong direction, hopelessly lost. A chill wind was blowing hard off the sea. My first stroke of good fortune came in the shape of a Frenchman, Roland, grey-haired and lost in thought. I politely approached him and asked for directions. He steered me back to the camping/caravan site and before long I had a spot allocated me and my one-man tent.

He looked a little concerned considering the weather but the next day he picked me up and showed me some highlights of the district. An interesting and thoughtful man he also introduced me to his other half at the local market as well as his youngest son and Thai wife, selling SE Asian cuisine from a mobile caravan.

After two damp nights at the campsite I jumped on a train and headed to Bayeux, arguably the highlight of my trip through Normandy. What else but the Bayeux tapestry can elicit such emotion? An amazing work of historical art. Absolutely fascinating, accompanied by a charming audio commentary. Very much recommended.

What else but the Bayeux tapestry can elicit such emotion? An amazing work of historical art.

From Bayeux I continued to Caen and it’s chic riverside shopping malls and apartments. That said the charm soon wore off as I found myself walking for an absolute age looking for my hostel, or as they call them there, l’auberge de jeunesse.

As with other youth hostels I stayed in whilst in France I found it to be fairly utilitarian: clean and functional but without much charm. All the same I got my head down soon after arriving and was up early and refreshed. As I write I was trying hard to recall the exact route I took from there. I recall that it was a longer train journey this time to either le Man or Tours whereupon I had to change to another train to Poitiers.

Arriving in Poitiers I was met by Gerard, similar in age to Roland and also sporting a clipped moustache, but shorter and wearing a pair of round spectacles. He put me in mind of an old photograph of my great grandfather on my dad’s side of the family. He had a ready smile but his English was non-existent. Thus with some difficulty, initially at least, I was forced to use my schoolboy boy French. It was good experience and a necessary one dare I say.

Arriving in Poitiers I was met by Gerard, similar in age to Roland and also sporting a clipped moustache, but shorter and wearing a pair of round spectacles.

Despite the transient difficulties I had a wonderful time at le Jardin de Verrines, a smallholding on which Gerard grew vegetables and created all manner of articles from his barn-cum-workshop. We made a rocket-stove, a bicycle-powered washing machine and from his garden harvested an abundance of vegetables and fruit.

Everything was done in the spirit of permaculture. No artificial pesticide or fertilisers were used and boy did it taste good. “Tres bon” as I found myself saying time and time again. No superlatives could do justice to the cherry tomatoes! I dare say I could have gorged myself on those alone for the several weeks I was there.

We made a rocket-stove, a bicycle-powered washing machine and from his garden harvested an abundance of vegetables and fruit.

From Verrines I turned back north and caught a train to the historic city of Orleans where Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) rose to prominence in the early 15th century. There were references to her everywhere, at least one statue, a museum and a house where she had allegedly lived, now a national heritage site. I wasn’t there to see the maid of Orleans, however, but rather as an entry point into the much acclaimed Loire Valley along which many 100’s of kilometres of cycle lanes have been purposely built under a scheme called Loire à Vélo.

I hired a bicycle for several days (I had to extend it slightly) and set out from my hostel in the south of the city in a westerly direction. It was a truly memorable few days cycling in what was still late summer: long, warm days followed by cool, 8 hour nights.

The Loire is dotted with historic villages, towns and old chateaux.

The Loire is dotted with historic villages, towns and old chateaux. The latter are a big attraction and draw in much of the tourism alongside the wine tours; campers, caravaners and cyclists like myself; visitors to the towns and villagers; etc. The best part of this leg of my trip was simply the pleasure of riding alongside the broad river, periodically reading the information boards and all the while taking in the subtle changes in colour, character and landscape.

The best part of this leg of my trip was simply the pleasure of riding alongside the broad river

The birdlife was good and ensured that my binoculars were always close at hand. From time to time I could even see the fat, dark forms of fish lazily holding their position mid-stream. The occasional fisherman sat on the bank or stood waist-deep in the water, a study in patience, oblivious to the modern world and the buzz of its motorways, aeroplanes and passing traffic, me included.

I didn’t go quite as far as Tours but instead turned back towards Orleans at chateau Chenonceau. From Orleans I caught another train southbound again to Toulouse, known popularly as La Ville Rose due to the prevalence of pink-coloured stone used to construct many of its buildings. There I stayed with a friend, Rui, whom I’d been at school with in Zimbabwe. I had lived with him for some months in the the town of Luton in the UK where he worked in the aviation industry.

From Orleans I caught another train southbound again to Toulouse, known popularly as La Ville Rose…

It was no coincidence that he was in Toulouse, the heart of the aviation industry in Europe. As in the UK he worked long hours and I didn’t see that much of him. Consequently I had a good deal of time in the several days I spent with him to explore the city and enjoy the buzz of its many parks, cafes and squares.

Best of all was sitting on the east bank of the Garonne as dusk approached, a plastic glass of wine in hand (purchased from a 24 hr store near he apartment), accompanied by a packet of peanuts and a rolled cigarette. Guilty pleasures.

Best of all was sitting on the east bank of the Garonne as dusk approached, a plastic glass of wine in hand … a packet of peanuts and a rolled cigarette

Sitting there, watching the sun set behind the dome of the chapel of the Hôpital Saint-Joseph de la Grave alongside many other like-minded individuals, many of them students, gave me a sense of bonhomie and good will even though I knew none of them individually.

After a weekend in Toulouse I met my next hosts near St Cyprienne Metro station. Anne and Hector used to live in the city but now resided in a small town about an hour or so to the south. It nestled near the confluence of the Garonne and the Salat.

I spent only a couple of weeks with the family, busy with their varied lives, helping Hector insulate a barn-roof.

I spent only a couple of weeks with the family, busy with their varied lives, helping Hector insulate a barn-roof. The barn itself he had partitioned into an upstairs and downstairs area. The area beneath was living space and the upper floor was to be a large music room replete with stage and lighting.

The job itself was instructional but not particularly exciting. More of interest to me was being in a position to explore the surrounding area. One weekend I took Hector’s town bike, slung a sleeping bag, tent and some provisions on the back, and headed for the Pyrenees just a little further south. I cycled from Montréjeau to Luchon and took in a wealth of sites in-between: old monasteries; orchards; medieval towns and sweeping vistas.

One weekend I took Hector’s town bike … and headed for the Pyrenees just a little further south.

That night I camped up near a village calleed Sost, renowned for it’s cheese, and the next day cycled all the way up to Lac d’Oô, an artificial lake fronting some jagged, snow-capped peaks. There were signs saying beware of avalanches but the meadows and hillslopes were still green and cheerful. It was a magical weekend and will live on in my memory for many years to come.

My Workaway experience may have ended here as plans for the next stopover in Italy fell by the wayside. I had intended to make my way across Italy and the Balkans towards Greece but decided, somewhat spur of the moment, to fly back to Istanbul.

I’d been in Turkey earlier in the year teaching English at a language school near the capital and sharing an apartment with my old friend Sofian. If you have read any of my other travelogue you might recall him from an earlier Turkish chapter, a summer language camp in the provincial town of Merzifon. I had also visited him in his home-country, Algeria.

I would like to say that I was confident in my decision to travel on to Turkey but the moment I crossed into Turkish airspace I felt I had made a wrong one. Menacing grey clouds blanketed the landscape below and on the ground the city was inundated after days of incessant rain. I couldn’t help but feel the weight of it pushing down on me.

I would like to say that I was confident in my decision to travel on to Turkey but the moment I crossed into Turkish airspace I felt I had made a wrong one.

I headed out of the city towards Izmit, really just a satellite of Istanbul, to where I’d taught earlier in the year. I checked into a hotel in the meantime. Much of the novelty had worn off and now what impressed me most was the seemingly endless extent of concrete buildings, factories and apartment blocks for the 70 or so kilometres en route.

To get to the point I was offered a teaching place at a new language centre in a neighbouring town, Sakarya, but without the assurance of a place to stay nor a negotiated salary. I asked for a few days to think about it and returned to Istanbul. It was there that I realised that my journey was only half complete. I’d really wanted to go to Greece at the outset and I was only a stone’s throw away so to speak.

I’d really wanted to go to Greece at the outset and I was only a stone’s throw away so to speak.

I returned to Izmit and declined the offer in person and immediately felt a sense of lightness and relief. At last I felt the urge to meet up with several friends and students I had engaged with earlier in the year and the return trip seemed to have a purpose after all.

As an aside it is worth pointing out that elections were imminent after the failure to form a coalition government after a prior general election earlier in the year. This may have contributed to some of the tension I felt in the air. Additionally, Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict seemed to have intensified, as had the involvement of other powerful nations. The morning news bulletins were laden with infographics of Russian warplanes on bombing sorties although I couldn’t understand any of the attendant commentary.

The morning news bulletins were laden with infographics of Russian warplanes on bombing sorties…

On my way back to Istanbul prior to my outgoing flight out to Athens I took the intercity train for the first time. It didn’t go all the way into the heart of the city and I had to find a way to get across to one of the metro stations for that purpose. I was helped in that respect by a polite, somewhat reserved young man from Ankara University.

We conversed a little and he told me in halting English that he was studying medicine. He was on his way back to Istanbul to visit his parents for the weekend. That was a Thursday evening. On the weekend a terrorist bombing blamed on Islamist radicals in Syria would kill dozens of his co-students who were participating in a peace rally in the capital. It was a small consolation to know that he wasn’t amongst them.

That Friday morning I was greeted by clear skies, a good omen. An indirect flight, I had to catch a connecting plane in Izmir, a popular tourist spot on the Aegean coast. As I flew on to Athens, the Med sparkling beneath, islands dotted here and there, it seemed inconceivable that there was a tide of refugees attempting to cross those same waters to Europe. But more of that in the next chapter. The French leg of my journey was over and despite my Turkish diversion I was back on course for more adventures in Athens and beyond.

The French leg of my journey was over and despite my Turkish diversion I was back on course for more adventures in Athens and beyond.

The Marmaris Straights

You can read more on my French Workaway experience on my sister blog which include a few funny anectdotes at the end.