Exploring the Drakensberg Mountains
After a great weekend hanging out with friends along Durban’s South Coast, we headed inland for a final South African adventure - exploring the Drakensberg Mountains.
Windmills Pies and Afrikaner Stereotypes
If you’ve driven Interstate 90 across the United States, you know about Wall Drug. If you’ve driven Interstate 95 north or south along the east coast, you know about Pedro’s South of the Border.
In South Africa, you have the Windmills Kitchen.
Like its American peers, Windmills has signs for miles on either side of it, letting you know that you need to stop. Perched on a hilltop just off the N3, which stretches from Durban to Johannesburg, Windmills is, in fact, a must stop. While Pedro’s and Wall don’t always live up to the billboard hype, we’d soon discover that the freshly baked pies at Windmills 100 percent do.
Three hours north of the tropical-feeling St. Michael’s on Sea, the weather had become cold, gray, and slightly rainy. Pulling off the highway and stepping out into this dreariness, we eagerly made our way into Windmills, ready to see whether the place lived up to its reputation.
As expected, there was a line to buy these famous pies (British-style, savory hand pies - not American-style, big ol’ apple pies). Fortunately, the line moved quickly. Plus, they gave out free coffee - great perk!
After ordering a couple curry-type pies (only makes sense with the major Indian influence in the area), we posted up at a picnic table to dive into them. Flaky and buttery crusts, piping hot and mouth-wateringly delicious filling - yeah, worth the stop. Chipp wanted to wait in line for more. Jenna, ever the disciplined one, insisted on “not spoiling our appetite” for dinner…
And, walking back into the rain, we experienced first-hand that some jokes truly are rooted in reality. There’s a stereotype in South Africa that little Afrikaner kids, many of whom grow up on farms, 1) never wear shoes, and 2) always wear shorts. Being from Ukraine, the idea of anyone going barefoot in cold weather horrifies Jenna (“Don’t they know they’ll get sick!”), so she certainly noticed the bunch of young Afrikaner kids running around the Windmills parking lot barefoot in shorts.
Enter the Afrikaner joke: If you’re cold, just put on another pair of shorts!
Entering the Drakensberg World Heritage Region
An enormous, U-shaped plateau spans the interior of South Africa. The Great Escarpment slopes thousands of feet down from this plateau, making way for the lower, coastal regions in the country. Straddling the landlocked nation of Lesotho’s southern, eastern, and northern borders with South Africa, the Drakensberg Mountains comprise the eastern portion of this massive escarpment.
These mountains include some of the most stunning vistas in the country, making the area a natural selection as a UNESCO World Heritage Region. With elevations in this border region ranging from 6,500 to over 11,000 feet, driving up from the lowlands into these beautiful peaks makes for an incredible drive - especially on a stomach full of tasty pies!
Broadly speaking, the South African side of the Drakensberg Mountains includes three separate regions - northern, central, and southern. All of these regions offer a variety of hikes - from quick jaunts to see a waterfall to multi-day adventures crossing the border into Lesotho.
Between local recommendations and some online digging, we opted for the Champagne Castle region of Central Drakensberg. After driving north for a couple hours on N3, we cut west onto back roads. Fortunate that the clouds had broken, the Great Escarpment and its Drakensberg Mountains towered in front of us.
For an hour or so, we wound through farmland and tiny villages, gradually ascending. By the time we reached our home for the next week, we’d entered the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains - peaks high above us to the west, and rolling hills and farms descending back to the east.
Life at Dragon Peaks
Drakensberg, as one may guess, comes from the Dutch “Dragons’ Mountains,” so our Dragon Peaks resort was aptly named. Part summer camp, part wilderness retreat, and part resort, Dragon Peaks sits among the lower slopes climbing into the Champagne Valley. No, not that Champagne Valley. This one’s named after the dominating terrain feature in the area, Champagne Castle - a fortress-looking peak that lords over the entire valley.
We’d spend the work week at Dragon Peaks - unfortunately not able to undertake any multi-day adventures up into Drakensberg. But, the location would provide a perfect balance of a relaxing place to work, copious food and drink at the restaurant and bar on site, and proximity to some amazing day hikes. (NOTE: While Chipp blames “work” for no multi-day adventures, his overall level of poor fitness was just as culpable!).
While the resort has more traditional hotel rooms, we opted for what South Africans call a “self-catering apartment” - a place run by a hotel-like company but with its own kitchen and expectation of self-reliance. Ideal.
We’d wake up in the morning and have some coffee and breakfast on the back patio of our place. Refreshed, we’d then stroll over to the main lodge and post up next to its beautiful lake to work over some more coffee and, eventually, beer! Hard to picture a more leisurely place to attempt productivity, with the Drakensberg Mountains reflecting off the water, a cool breeze, and not a hint of pollution in the air.
It’s also worth noting that Dragon Peaks sits adjacent to the famous Drakensberg Boys Choir School, so family and visitors to the school’s weekly concert make up a large portion of guests. Due to poor planning on our part, the Wednesday concert had sold out by the time we tried to buy tickets - definitely high on our list of places to return, though.
Hiking (and Backtracking) in Drakenberg’s Champagne Valley
So yeah, we had to work, but that didn’t mean we didn’t take some hikes during our Drakensberg time. Overly confident, Chipp was pretty sure he’d found a great local trail, something we could tackle right out of the Dragon Peaks back door.
The destination was a place called Twin Falls, a grotto-like series of two waterfalls tucked into a wooded draw up in the mountains. Well, we entered the woods - and then walked right out of them. That doesn’t seem right.
Jenna: “This doesn’t seem like the right path.”
Chipp, surrounded by head-level weeds: “No this is right, we just need to backtrack a little…”
Backtracking a lot, we found our way back into the woods, got to a stream, and decided that it should eventually become the waterfalls we were trying to find. Following it downstream, we stumbled into two of the most beautiful, shaded falls we’d ever seen. Imagine how much nicer they’d have been if we found them the first time!
What’s a good hike without a little “off-trail” action?
Chocolate, Beer, and a Failed Braai
In addition to the more nature-oriented activities in Drakensberg, there are plenty of non-walking-in-the-woods things to do. Stop 1: chocolate tasting!
Drakensberg Chocolate Memories - absurd name? maybe - exposed us to one of the most unbelievable flavor bombs either of us had ever tried. They make their own chocolate - all sorts - including hot chocolate. But, when they serve the piping hot mugs, they include a little glass bottle of hot chili extract. Oh man, a couple drops of that into the chocolate sweetness, and you’ve got quite the taste sensation! Sweet going down and burns your lips at the same time.
Stop 2: Drakensberg Brewery. Can’t visit an area and not check out the local brewery, right? We happened to go in the middle of a monsoon-esque rainstorm, but that may have even made it a better experience. Housed in an industrial-like building with firehouse doors, the brewery had six beers on tap - and bottles to go. It’s hard to adequately paint the picture, but drinking massive pints of beer high in the mountains - with rain pouring around you - there just aren’t many better places to spend an afternoon.
So the last “stop” isn’t really a stop at all - more a unique experience. We mentioned the rain - the Drakensberg Mountains are often covered in a blanket of mist. This, apparently, makes the firewood slightly damp. Our apartment at Dragon Peaks had a balcony and outdoor fireplace/braai. After a day at the brewery, we decided to get some wood and local meat to do the whole braai thing.
Turns out, lighting a fire with damp wood is fairly difficult. Did we end up cooking on the fire? No. Did Chipp nearly herniate a disc waving his laptop case to try to get the fire started? You bet. Failed braai? Check!
Despite this - largely self-inflicted - braai failure, we’d go back to the Drakensberg Mountains in a heartbeat. Stunningly beautiful area.