May, 2017: As you head north of Port Elizabeth along South Africa’s Eastern Cape, the landscape becomes greener, wilder and more, well, African. The towns become less developed and increasing numbers of small villages made up of rondavels (small round huts) dot the countryside. There are scruffy but bustling street markets filled with all manner of produce and the likelihood of seeing a white person decreases significantly. After a few days exploring Addo Elephant Park, we were headed for the Wild Coast and then on up to the Drakensberg.
Bertha gets her first taste of African dirt roads on our way to the Wild Coast
After a pit stop in Grahamstown for groceries and KFC (an increasingly frequent guilty pleasure for us), we continued along the N2 under dark and stormy skies. If it hadn’t been for the discovery that Bertha’s windscreen leeks, the whole scene of verdant hills, brightly painted rondavels and rain clouds would have been rather picturesque. We pushed on towards the coast hoping that the paved roads would hold out so we could make Bulungula before nightfall. Alas, an hour on from the highway, our GPS directed us off the paving and onto a rocky, muddy, beastly looking road which stretched off into the hills. Our pre-nightfall arrival looked less and less likely.
At first I thought we might be able to maintain a happy 60km/hr but very quickly this slowed to 30, then 20 and that’s about as good as it got. While all around us was beautiful this road was shocking. With Fi reading out directions to Bulungula from a hand drawn map (our GPS had no hope), all my concentration was focussed on navigating the constant potholes, mud traps and blind corners of a fairly painful 40km. For 2.5 hours this continued until after much slipping and sliding and more water coming through Bertha’s wind screen, we gratefully arrived at Bulungula. Welcome to the Wild Coast!
Bulungula is a beautiful community run lodge set above a long stretch of beach which is completely empty of much other than a few cows. It’s off the grid completely with solar power, composting toilets and surprisingly awesome kerosene heated showers. The lodge helps to fund a range of community initiatives in the area across education, health, livelihood etc etc. We were very happy to pull up here for a few days and enjoy the super relaxed pace of life and beautiful scenery of the Wild Coast. Well, to be fair, on our first day all we did was eat toasties and get drunk on cask wine with some new found Swiss buddies as the rancid weather continued.
On day two though, we awoke to a stunning sun filled day. I stumbled out of our slightly damp tent and suddenly realised that the previous day’s clouds were cloaking some epic views. From the front porch of the main lodge building, we could look straight out across the Bulungula river mouth and then up along the yellow sand beach to a craggy headland beyond. A friendly billy goat, couple of and a local dog moseyed around as did the locals who were always ready with a smile and a wave. We took a stroll up to the community school where we were surrounded by loads of gorgeous little kids who were full of giggling hellos and high fives. In the afternoon we went and joined the cows on the beach and marvelled at having such a beautiful stretch of sand all to ourselves. There were no other tourists and no locals trying to sell us anything. It was perfect. I think the Wild Coast is just like that.
Onwards and upwards to the northern Drakensberg
While we could happily have stayed on the Wild Coast for days (if not weeks) we had to push on up to the northern Drakensberg. This time Bertha was challenged not with potholes and mud (which she kind of likes) but hill, after hill, after hill. Turns out Bertha doesn’t really like hills so if we weren’t going down we were crawling up in second gear getting passed by semi trailers. Twelve to thirteen hours after leaving Bulungula we pulled into the carpark at The Amphitheatre Backpackers and gratefully hopped into some pork belly and mash!
Climbing the Amphitheatre
One of the rare good things about arriving at a place at night is waking up in the morning and being surprised by the world around you. When we peered out of our rather chilly tent at Amphitheatre Backpackers we found that we were staring at an awesome view of rolling savannah country and awesome snow capped mountains. Hello Drakensberg! The Drakensberg is a chain of mountains which runs up the eastern side of South Africa and around the little mountain kingdom of Lesotho. It’s territory primed for hiking, little cosy mountain cabins and kind of feels like you could go trout fishing in every river. For us, the main reason for coming to the northern Drakensberg was to clamber up the Amphitheatre.
The Amphitheatre is a rugged escarpment shaped like a, you guessed it, natural Amphitheatre. On top is a snow covered plateau which melts and feeds into one of the highest waterfalls in the world, Tugela Falls (there are some controversial claims that it’s actually the highest) . To get to the Amphitheatre we had to take a roundabout route from our backpackers around the Sterkfontein dam, through the bustling town of Phuthaditjhaba and then up another busted dirt road until we reached the start of the walking trail. From there the trail wound it’s way up the escarpment providing stunning views and rather hairy climbs up chain ladders to get to the top. The trail itself is easy enough to follow but the chain ladders (plus a few other icey spots) reminded me that my fear of heights isn’t getting any better.
After a slightly shaky climb up 25m of chain ladders we arrived at the top of escarpment and only had a short walk until we arrived at the Amphitheatre. True to it’s name, sheer cliff faces were curled around in a rough horse shoe shape to create a massive natural amphitheatre. The Tugela Falls tumbled off the edge and down into the gorge below creating a constant gentle rumble. A gentle breeze blew and Fi and I both felt pretty pleased with ourselves to have arrived at yet another stunning natural wonder. We unpacked our little picnic and then sat back to enjoy the view. It was gold!
Down south to Underberg
Our final stop in this gorgeous part of South Africa was a night just outside Underberg. This lovely little town and the surrounding hills felt like somewhere in between an english village and Hobbiton. Underberg also happens to have a rather delicious little bistro (Lemon Tree) and an artisan boot maker (Walk-About). While these things probably don’t logically go in the same sentence they do inhabit the same small shopping centre. I had been on the lookout for a pair of Veldskoens for a while so after stuffing ourselves with bunni chow (curry served in a loaf of bread), beef pot pie and an outstanding milkshake I couldn’t help but wander over to the boot maker to see what he had on offer. Thirty minutes and many laughs later we walked out having learnt the history of the original desert boot, how suede is made and surprise, surprise with a new pair of Veldskoens.
We made our way out of town and on another 14km to the lovely little Sani Lodge Backpackers lodge which sits virtually right at the foot of the Sani Pass. The next day we were due to climb the famous Sani Pass and leave South Africa for the first time with Bertha. But, that folks will have to wait for the next instalment.