‘Just breathe’ in the Central Drakensberg
‘Mindfulness’ or ‘escaping the city’ looks different to different people. And taking a break from the urban jungle to ‘just breathe’ may well mean hopping on a plane to Cape town (always top of the list), or simply jumping in your car and driving to the Central Drakensberg - a mere 4-5 hours from Joburg. (If you live in Durban it will only take you 2 ½ hours). So yes, you can make a weekend of it, but a little longer is definitely the prescription for those needing a mountain and countryside getaway.
May is clearly the time of the year to experience gloriously mild weather, a show of autumnal colours, snow capped mountains in the distance and time slowing down.
With the towering Monks’ Cowl, Cathedral Peak and Champagne Castle overlooking your comings and goings, the agenda is not rushed as you bask in their majestic shadows.
This beautiful part of South Africa beckons to be appreciated and explored; and is the perfect spot to go ‘off-grid’ for a few days.
Get your walking shoes on
Don't forget to pack your takkies as the best way to ‘just breathe’ in the fresh mountain air is to take a hike (even a mini one) or a walk. This is all about going at your own pace - nothing too strenuous - and just ambling along the mountain paths, wandering amiably amongst the zebra and bushbuck or heading to a waterfall.
If you really love hiking, then the Central Drakensberg is any serious hiker’s mecca. Others - who are way fitter than me - have gone before and I will leave them to regale you with the merits and wonders of the various hiking trails you can embark on. They do say the best view comes after the hardest climb, and they may be right. (Maybe next time). 😉
Get your cultural fix
A quintessential outing in the Central Drakensberg is booking tickets to the Drakensberg Boys Choir. You have two options - every Wednesday afternoon or Saturday morning.
Angelic voices, a truly cultural ethos and a high-energy, superbly choreographed and variety-packed programme translate into two hours of choral delight. It is in moments like these that you are proud to be South African. (And yes, you do have to pose for the ‘touristy’ photograph to show you were there).
Get coffee (pastries and lunch)
A big player on any trip away is the culinary and coffee memories. It is also an opportunity to support local. Of course, you will not be able to explore all the charming coffee shops and restaurants in the area; but that is okay as our philosophy is, “There is always next time.”
Here are a few of our highlights from this trip to wet your appetite:
#1 The Valley Bakery
An iconic landmark in the Berg, you cannot pass this one by. (And if you do, they have a sweet sign telling you that you have gone too far and just missed the bakery). 😉 The pretty French setting is trumped by the freshly baked pastries, quiches, pies and artisanal breads. We went there for coffee and apple pie (twice) and on our third visit we had lunch. If you haven't time to linger, just pop in and order a selection of pastries and donuts to go.
#2 Scrumpy Jacks
When the sign says 'World famous honey-baked cheesecake,' you have to give it a try. Clearly honey is their thing as they have a glass beehive onsite and apparently you can do a bee tour. This rustic farm stall isn't about the vibe or the frills; and if it weren't for the sign, you would probably not give it a second glance. But we did and ordered their silky (but very rich) honey cheesecake and honey pecan pie while just enjoying the fresh country air and rolling hills.
#3 The Champagne Bistro
Sometimes the best hidden gems are found by accident. And between a cheese shop and a craft brewery at the Berg Air Lifestyle Centre is such a gem - the Champagne Bistro Cafe. The tastefully decorated interior is the perfect setting for seasonal dishes that boast fresh and foraged ingredients and come as art on a plate.
From a friendly welcome, the gastronomic experience is all about saturating your palette with flavours that are balanced, creative and inspired. (Kudos to the chef). The ploughman's platter for 2 was perfectly paired with their homemade strawberry and mint lemonade. My advice is that you do not leave this one for next time. And if you crave something sweet for dessert, the Chocolate Bar is right there for an artisanal chocolate tasting.
#4 The Pig and Plough
Your entrance or exit to the Central Drakensberg is likely to be via the quaint village of Winterton, situated at the foothills of the Berg on the banks of the Tugela River.
Follow the tree-lined main street to the Pig and Plough, a family restaurant and deli that welcomes you to this charming little town nestled at the foothills of the Berg and surrounded by rolling farmlands. You will get delicious fare accompanied by Terbodore coffee (considering the Midlands Meander might only be on your next trip).
Get in your car
Remember those bygone childhood Sundays when you would go for a leisurely afternoon drive? Well, the Central Drakensberg delivers the perfect opportunity to take a scenic drive and bask in the views of the idyllic countryside, working farms, majestic mountain ranges and charming photo ops.
Take a turn off the R600 onto roads less travelled (i.e dirt roads) and you will come across some interesting places. One of these is Sandra’s se Winkel and Trading Store Museum - a treasure trove filled to the brim with collectables, memorabilia, objets d’art and antiques.
Get an adrenaline rush
What is a breakaway without a little adventure? Here, too, the Central Drakensberg area delivers in spades. Whatever your adrenaline-rush fancy, you are likely to find it here: hot air balloon rides, helicopter rides, white water rafting, quad bike adventures, horse riding, and our pick of the day - the Drakensberg canopy zip lining tour, which just happens to be the second highest in the country. There are 12 zip lines - each of different lengths (the longest is 180m metres) and different heights (the highest is 65 metres above the river). This is really a fantastic thrill ride and a unique way of getting a bird’s eye view of the area.
The guides are super fun and the experience is unmatched. (Seriously, if you’re going to spend the money, why would anyone go bungee jumping if you can go zip lining?). One word of warning with this particular canopy tour is the mini-hike after the last zip line. It is not particularly long, but is quite steep - so if you are not fit or have knee issues - you will struggle. (We are going to blame the altitude).
The Central Drakensberg is every wannabe photographer or seasoned photographer’s playground. (Although sometimes you just cannot capture the beauty of nature in a photograph - but you can try). I couldn't choose just one - so here are 3 of my favourites:
“Actually, it’s nature itself that creates the most beautiful pictures, I’m only choosing the perspective.” ― Katja Michael
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”― Dorothea Lange
“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.” ― Elliott Erwitt
Get friendly with the ‘locals’
Depending on where you are staying, you are likely to come across some local fauna who clearly are not perturbed by you trespassing on their stomping ground - from cheeky monkeys and curious bushbuck to a family of zebras wandering over for afternoon tea.
But at the end of the day (and this travel blog) it is all about ‘just breathing.’ You really don’t need to do any of the above suggestions as a trip to the central Drakensberg is for clearing your head of the city cobwebs and unwinding. So if you want to sit on the stoep with coffee and a rusk and just take in the beauty on display all around you - then let that be the order of the day.
There is always next time…
If Cape Town is on the cards for your next trip (lucky you), please read my Cape Town travel blog outlining 12 things to do when on a short tip to the Mother City.
If you want to press the pause button and book an island escape, then Mauritius will probably be on your wish list. Share in a little of the magic of Mauritius.