Thursday, December 24, 2009

December 17, 2009 - Royal Natal National Park

The Amphitheatre

Back to the Drak! Our trip to the Southern Drakensberg a few weeks ago left us wanting more . . . . more hiking, more gorgeous vistas, more isolated splendor. The only question was where to go. The Drakensberg is a long chain of mountains, with many small towns, camps and hotels nestled in the foothills. But there are few places where it is possible to stay right in the mountains. One of them is the Cathedral Peak Hotel, which we decided was out of our budget. Another is the Thendele Hutted Camp in the Royal Natal National Park, one of the most sought-after places to stay in South Africa. At 900R a night (approximately $120), the huts at Thendele are more expensive than any place else we've stayed in South Africa, but we would be able to self-cater, so that made it more affordable. All of South Africa is now on vacation through the middle of January, so we really didn't expect anything to be available, but we lucked out and got a last minute booking.

When we arrived at Thendele, high up on the mountainside, the office had already closed for the day. We looked around to see if they had left a key for us. Not seeing anything, we headed up to the hut listed after our name on the reservation board. We checked all the doors and windows, but they were all locked. While Sten contemplated unscrewing a set of window bars with his leatherman, I went back down to the office to see if I had overlooked anything. Looking around more carefully, I finally spotted a key on the ground, in the bushes. This would be our first, but not last, experience with the marauding baboons that terrorize the camp.

Once we had unloaded the car and moved into the hut, Sten fired up the grill. While we waited for the coals to mature, we drank some wine and beer, and looked out at the awe-inspiring view. It had been a long day, and we were early to bed.

Now that's what I call a room with a view

The next morning, we were woken very early by the sound of baboons jumping from the trees around our hut onto the roof. Sten got up to make coffee. As he was standing at the kitchen sink, filling the pot a baboon sauntered across the top of the retaining wall behind the hut, and looked in the window at him. Moments later, another baboon strolled in front of the bedroom window, checking us out. We felt like we were being stalked.

After breakfast, I went down to the camp office to register and to buy some milk. The attendant insisted on giving me a bag for my milk. He explained that if the baboons saw the milk they would come grab it from me. When I got back to the hut I noticed this sign by our back door:

We headed the warning. Before we left to go hiking, we carefully locked all our doors and windows.

We had decided to do the Thukela Gorge Walk, a 14km round trip walk that would take around 6 hours. We almost changed our plans when I discovered that I had lost my sneakers somewhere the day before, but I decided to suck it up and do the hike in flip flops. Before we left the camp we filled out the mountain rescue register. We had to confirm that we had proper rain gear and warm weather gear, but the log book didn't ask anything about footwear. The rangers probably assume that nobody would be foolish enough to attempt the mountain in flip flops.

We followed the path down the hill from Thendele, across a bridge, and began climbing up towards the Ampitheatre along the edge of the Thukela River. All around us protea trees were in bloom. The path wound in and out of gullies. One minute we would be in bright sunny grasslands, the next in deeply shaded mountainous rain forest. It was absolutely gorgeous. Waterfalls and rivers cascaded among the rocks, giving us ample opportunity to refill our water bottles. We stopped for lunch on a rock overlooking the gorge. Noshing on biltong, nuts and bananas, we refueled for the rest of the trek.

After lunch we continued on up the gorge, with the trail getting closer to rivers edge as the canyon walls next to us got steeper and steeper. Over the eons, the river had carved a deep cut into the mountains on either side of us. Waterfalls flowed down the rock faces around us. We hopped from boulder to boulder, working our way up stream. Actually, Sten hopped from boulder to boulder. I took advantage of my open toe, open heel, quick dry footwear, and waded.

Eventually, we were faced with a fork in the road. We had to choose between a short wooden ladder up a sloping bank and a long chain ladder up a steep rock face. Of course we chose the chain ladder. But at the top we found terrain that my favorite hiking shoes just couldn't handle - a crevice going up a vertical rock face. There were small iron rods sticking out the sides to use as footholds. I was pretty sure that I could get up, but not certain that I'd be able to get back down. So we turned around and headed back downstream.

What goes up . . .

. . . must come down.

This place makes me feel very small.

The day had heated up while we were up in the misty gorge. Back out in the grasslands, it was bright and sunny. After six hours of hiking in flip flops my feet, legs and hips were aching. Even Sten, with his appropriate footwear, was feeling it. Back at our hut, I slipped into the Jacuzzi tub with immense relief.

We grilled some burgers for an early dinner. There was nothing all that special about them or the toppings, but they were seriously the best burgers we've had all year. Must have something to do with all that exercise and fresh air.

After dinner, we were hanging out in the living room, watching a movie. As we sat there, suddenly a guinea fowl attacked the window next to the couch. This funny looking bird had seen its own reflection and flew into a frenzy. Over the next hour, it returned again and again to attack the strange bird in the window.

Just as the sun was setting I saw a baboon go streaking by the window, with a plastic bag in its mouth. Sten was in the kitchen, cleaning up from dinner.

"Honey, what did you leave outside?"

"Nothing. Only the charcoal."

"What was in the plastic bag?"

"Oh no. The firestarters."

Oh no indeed. Firestarters are blocks of paraffin, infused with something really flammable, that you put under the charcoal to get the whole mess to light. I went back outside and looked up at the roof. Looking back down at me was an angry baboon with a blob of white paraffin stuck out the side of its mouth.

The following morning, as we were packing up the car, a big male baboon waltzed in our open patio door and made a beeline for the kitchen counter. Sten, called out to me to come unlock the back door, so that he could shoo it out. The baboon had other ideas. Noting the lack of bread or bananas in our kitchen, it came barreling towards Sten and back out the sliding door. It headed straight for the car, the drivers side door of which was open. Smart monkey. I quickly jumped into the car and slammed the door. The thwarted monkey stalked off in a huff.

I gave up the drivers seat to Sten and we drove down the mountain to begin the 4 hour long drive to Durban where long overdue visits to the dentist awaited us. We had to leave the Drak early enough to have time to stop at Linga Lapa, a fantastic farm stand just off the N3 at the Nottingham Road exit. We had stopped there the last time we were in the mountains and really enjoyed the locally crafted beers, sodas, candies and biltong that we picked up there. This time we spent a while talking to the owner about his shop and products. Apparently, his store moves 600 kilos of biltong a week. That is an amazing amount of dried meat. We did our bit to help him move his weekly quota of biltong. And then, since we had the chilli bin in the trunk, we stocked up on aged beef fillet. Because, well, we just happen to agree with the sign out front.

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