One of the things I love most about South Africa is its incredible scenic diversity. It's a one-stop-shop really - two oceans, temperate yet varied climates, deserts and forests and, of course, spectacular mountain ranges. The Drakensberg (or Dragon Mountains as it translates from Afrikaans) is our destination on this chilly September day and childhood memories of care-free, not un-Heidi-like holidays come rushing back, as we see the first vestiges of their misty blue nebulous shapes far in the distance. The landscape changes rapidly and dramatically once you take the turn-off to Bergville from Johannesburg. The road winds through the bucolic country-side against the ever-nearing backdrop of a folded blanket of lush slopes that extend to vertiginous cliffs in the west. Pockets of dense woodland lie in the deep folds of the valleys, but the eye is inevitably drawn upwards to the improbably steep, flat-topped peaks that mark the summits.
Gradually we are surrounded by a vertical rush of towering cliffs, flat-topped peaks and high-level walking trails. The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park (in KwaZulu-Natal Province) is a World Heritage Site and part of a long mountain chain that hugs the border with landlocked Lesotho. It stretches from the Eastern Cape to the country's northernmost provinces. Given the numerous peaks that rise abruptly to more than 3,000 meters, its Zulu name of uKhahlamba (barrier of upturned spears) seems very appropriate.
Montusi Mountain Lodge
We arrive at the romantic mountain retreat Montusi Mountain Lodge at about 5 p.m. and since we haven't had lunch yet, the very nice front desk manager Melissa promptly sends over a basket of fruit and delicious home-made biscuits.
Our chalet is simply charming, with sweeping views of the so-called Amphitheatre, dominating the western horizon and the flat plain of the KwaZulu-Natal veldt stretching away to vanishing points in the east. The Amphitheatre is a highly impressive curving barrier of 3,000-meter-high basalt cliffs and the most famous feature of this part of the northern Drakensberg. It is the only upmarket destination in the area with a full and uninterrupted view of the Amphitheatre escarpment. The 16 spacious, tastefully decorated, individual suites are among the most luxurious in the Drakensberg. Each free-standing suite is decorated in the earthy colors of Africa and has mountain views. All the suites have tea and coffee making facilities, including a bar fridge for fresh milk. Minibar facility in the suite is available upon request. All suites have a car port for one vehicle as well.
For a long time we sit in serenity with a sundowner, as the sun sinks beneath the mountains and the big sky starts lighting up a million twinkling stars in the inky black sky. A sense of peace envelops me like a stranger I have known for years…
The Lodge consists of a large and beautifully thatched main building with reception, dining room, terrace, bar, lounge and massage treatment room and we make our way to dinner at the intimate restaurant (with under-floor heating and log fireplace), which is renowned for sumptuous local cuisine with innovative menus. Breakfast and dinner are included for lodge guests and light lunches are available between 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m.
We wolf down the excellent mushroom, onion and feta spring roll, pork fillet Wellington and berry cobbler for dinner with the greatest of ease. The food really is excellent.
I wake up the next morning to the view of the mountains and the day stretches out in front of us like an eternity where every second occupies its own universe. Time truly does stand still here. Since June 2000 the Carte family owners have provided an opportunity for their guests to intimately indulge in the freedom of the Drakensberg experience.
They also believe in the conservation of the Northern Drakensberg and for 10 years have preserved and planted, changing a Wattle-infested wasteland into a rehabilitated conservation area. The indigenous trees and manmade forests here continue to flourish and the resultant birdlife (once non-existent) has become abundant. This ethic has resulted in the return of wildlife such as the Mountain Reedbuck, Vaal Rhebuck, Bushbuck and the elusive Eland to this area once inhabited by Bushmen.
Breakfast offers both a set menu and continental buffet options. I have the corn fritters and the best salmon and scrambled eggs ever; creamy and not overcooked.
We return to our sanctuary and just revel in the peace of our surrounds, lazily discussing plans for the day. Realizing we can't just laze about ad infinitum, we take to the road to explore the area. We drift in and out of local arts and crafts shops, watch a local soccer game for a while and have a craft beer at one of the nearby colonial-style hotels.
Montusi Mountain Lodge chalets with Drakensburg Mountains in the background
Take a hike
Back at the Lodge, we go for a relaxing walk. In terms of activities, hiking is probably the most popular. The Lodge offers daily morning walks on the 1,000-hectare estate with a guide who provides tea, coffee and cookies free of charge. Popular destinations are the top of Montusi Mountain, Bushman Cave (with paintings), Waterfall Cave and various streams and rock pools for summer swimming.
Guests can safely hike the estate on their own using the Montusi Hiking Guide as well as at the uKhahlamba National Park (Royal Natal National Park) 15 km away, with the Tugela Gorge being the favorite.
On request, they will organize day hikes to the top of the Amphitheatre, an experience you will never forget and do-able for all those of average fitness and unafraid of heights (the last ascent is via metal chain ladders).
The Northern Horse operates spectacular horse trails from the Montusi Estate. The stables are within easy walking distance from the lodge and all levels of riders are catered for.
They also have two dams on the property stocked with trout. Fishing rods can be hired and fishing flies are for sale. This Catch and Release activity is strictly reserved for Montusi residents.
Montusi is situated right on the 100 km network of Drakensberg Mountain Bike Trails, which offers all levels of rider amazing opportunities to test and grow their skills on purpose built and maintained trails. Excellent quality Mountain Bikes can be hired from All Out Adventures just 4 km from Montusi. Anyone approaching Montusi will not fail to notice the impressive Adventure Center 10 minutes' drive from the Lodge.
Guests wanting an adrenalin rush have access to a spectacular Cable Tour, a hair raising Free Fall King Swing, thrilling Flying Trapeze, Bungee Bounce (trampoline and bungee system), Zip Line (Giant Foofy Slide), Forested Paintball and Quad Bike Tours to the river. Activities are run with an emphasis on safety and are achievable by participants of all ages and fitness levels.
Visit www.alloutadventures.co.za for more information.
But we have no such aspirations - in fact, as I lie by the pool with its sweeping vistas with my book and beer after our hike, I can hardly imagine a more blissful way of whiling away the afternoon.
Montusi Mountain Lodge is truly a hidden gem. It is a place where you can recharge, relax, rewind and simply just be…
Montusi Mountain Lodge
Air China outbound flights to Johannesburg in South Africa operate on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, with return services from Johannesburg offered on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Flights will departs from Beijing at 23:15 Beijing time, and arrive in Johannesburg at 7:35 local time on the following day. The inbound flight departs from Johannesburg at 11:50 local time and arrives in Beijing at 7:30 Beijing time. From Johannesburg you can rent a car to get to Montusi. It's about a 4-hour drive at most.