Exploring Sani Pass and the Mkomazi Wilderness Area
When people say 'wedding', I think money, extravagance, excess. A similarly disheartening word-association occurs with the mention of 'honeymoon'. It's become synonymous with overseas travel: 5 star hotels, secluded islands, private yachts, cocktails in coconuts, naps in beach hammocks and business class flights...because who wants to Instagram about flying economy?
I'm no innocent, this picture-perfect dreamscape was top of mind when envisaging my honeymoon, but on computing the cost of long haul flights and turning our Randellas into Dollars and Euros, it swiftly dissolved. And let's be honest, whilst the impossibly iridescent waters of the Maldives and the mountain vistas of Peru and Montenegro do look idyllic, we've got it just as good right on our doorstep: The Wild Coast, Wilderness, The Transkei, The Drakensberg, an abundance of National Parks spread across the country...the list goes on.
Our choice: Sani Pass and the Mkomazi Wilderness Area
It forms part of the Southern Drakensberg and the Maloti-Drakensburg Park leading up to Sani Pass and the Lesotho border (the closest major towns are Pietermaritzburg and Mooi River). It's an area of majestic wide open spaces, lush grasslands, mountain vistas, waterfalls and rock pools: untouched, pristine and ideal for anyone who loves the great outdoors.
There's a generous array of beautiful guest houses, lodges and cottages in the area, the majority of which cost less than R1000 per night per couple and are even more affordable for families. We had a week's stay at Mkomazana Mountain Cottages and never wanted to leave. Built as a trading post in the 1800's it was proclaimed a world heritage site and has been restored into 3 self-catering houses and 2 cottages interspersed between lakes, trees and the Mkomazana River.
We stayed in one of the 2-sleeper cottages: quaint, cosy and romantic. The units are serviced daily, there's a fire place, heaters and heated blankets on the beds for chilly nights and misty mornings, the kitchen has most everything you need, there's a braai and a potjie pot, outside seating and, the piece de resistance, you're greeted with freshly-baked, warm-from-the-oven scones every morning.
Whilst evenings are for card playing, red wine and reading by the fire, days are for adventures: trout fishing, horse riding, bird watching, trinket shopping, milk tart buying, hiking and going up Sani Pass to Lesotho. We opted for the latter two activities.
It must be said that I'm no hiking fanatic:
- I'm not one for early mornings and
- I'm not interested in driving for hours off the beaten track just to conquer something.
But here every hike or even walk is punctuated by such breath-taking views that you can't help but want to make it to the top, and there's an infinite number to choose from, anything from 2km meanders to 5 day trails: http://www.drakensberg.org/activities/hiking/ (We chose hiking trails in our vicinity for reasons 1 and 2 mentioned above.)
One of our favourite hikes was to Ngwenya Rock Pool; it forms part of the Giant's Cup five day trail, but can also be accessed from Sani Pass Road. The entrance point is located between the Sani Pass Hotel and the beginning of the dirt road to Sani Pass. Drive over the bridge with the golf course on your right and you'll see a yellow concrete post with 13 on it and two clay pillars on the left just after the bridge - that's where the rather overgrown entrance to the trail lies. It's an hour and a half through woodland paths, over verdant fields, across flowing streams and up rocky ravines.
We played cards, ate sandwiches, drank beers, skinny dipped and lay like lizards on warm boulders watching clouds go by. You begin to feel like the world is yours; you can walk endlessly without interruption and days roll out like pastoral scenes from romantic novels. Sheer bliss.
The second activity (going up Sani Pass to Lesotho) was a little more strenuous - we decided to hike up instead of drive and have lunch at The Highest Pub in Africa (the pub's actual name).
The walk up isn't easy, but it is rewarding. It's 9km uphill from the border with the last 2km at a 45° incline (this is a fib, I have no idea of the actual angle, but it sure felt like 45°) - there's actually a marathon from the Sani Pass Hotel to the top and back. Having experienced bouts of fatigue and breathlessness on our way up, I'm rather in awe of anyone who could run it, let alone add on an extra 20km just for fun.
Most people drive up in 4x4's in guided tour groups; we happened to be the only tourists walking up that day. People drove past hooting, cheering us on and offering us lifts. We felt like champions...until we encountered several herdsman and their sheep traversing down as if on a Sunday stroll and came across 4x4 minibus taxis navigating potholes the size of small cars and rocks the size of boulders.
It's like staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or standing in front of the pyramids - you experience a sense of gravitas that simply can't be captured in a photograph; a recognition of your own insignificance against the majesty of nature.
We made it to the top to be greeted and congratulated by many of those who'd driven past us, we shook hands and had a few beers, we laughed and shared stories whilst staring out at one of the most extraordinary views I've ever encountered. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and thought, 'this is what it means to be happy'.