Sani Pass snow squealing, Southern Drakensberg

20180818_122101.jpg

I’m sure I say the same thing every time I do Sani Pass; I vow to never to never scare myself mercilessly out of my wits by slipping and sliding up a mountain to 2873m above-sea-level.

And on this trip 18.8.18, I squealed the same words at one of the final corners on ascent. Myself, Wolfie and Craig (experienced Monique & 4×4 driver), were the first car going up the Pass on this snowy Saturday morning. The Southern Drakensberg peaks were already all dressed in white and it was snowing heavily most of the way.

You really need to experience big snowflakes tumbling from the sky and settling on your windscreen…with a backdrop of the Kwa Zulu Natal Drakensberg Mountains, of course.

Soon, the road up to the South African border control will be tarred the entire way (see below link for more), but on this day we navigated through wonderfully muddy road, skidding to the border at 08:30am. About 2 minutes later, we were through into the “no-man’s land” of Sani Pass, a stretch of about 8 kilometres ending at the Lesotho border. We were the first vehicle to go up the Pass and saw 2 vehicles descending, the whole time it snowed heavily.

The benefit of being early ascenders is the snow is not yet turned to mud, BUT you also cannot see a mapped out “safe way” to proceed.  Just note that at such an altitude (at this point we were roughly 2700m above sea-level) engines don’t function normally, so 4×4 driving experience is essential here.

After passing a herd of snow cows and a dog (much to my continued delight, I’ve been waiting for snow cows for 2 years in KZN), we began to ascend the very steep and twisted section of Sani Pass.

Near the top we came to halt on a particularly steep corner, wheels spinning in new snow and water-soaked sand, making a thick mush. We had to roll back a few times to re-attempt the corner in low range.

There is almost nothing more terrifying than looking behind you to a sheer drop, and rolling slowly towards it on slippery terrain (you can imagine the squealing and whimpering). I couldn’t look and had to fight the urge to spring from the vehicle with my Wolfie and leave Craig, with his calm disposition to his manly adventures.

Having freed ourselves from the sludge corner (yay for Toyota Fortuna once again), we proceeded up the pass reaching the Lesotho Border control at about 10am. We passed an abandoned bakkie, leaning dangerously over the edge, only saved by solidly wedged between some rocks (insert spine-chill).

As we arrived at the border crossing, a descending driver enquired as to the conditions of Sani Pass. He had the unfortunate job of assessing &/ retrieving a stuck vehicle near the top of the pass. Behind him on foot, the shrewd Basotho fellows rather take their chances walking behind the vehicle, instead of drive the treacherously steep & newly snowed section of the Southern Drakensberg Pass.

At the top, the best views down the pass are from Sani Mountain Lodge “The highest Pub (and accom) in Africa”. Wolfie’s joy at the thick blanket of untouched snow was only matched by my own excitement.

From the top we saw the predicted flow of snow-chasers ascending the pass, it was time to head down. In such situations, the ascending vehicles have right of way; simply put, because it is more difficult (if not impossible) to get started again once you are stopped on ascent. Therefore it often takes longer to get down a mountain pass than up. The current dirt road section of Sani Pass is about 22 kilometres (from Premier Resort Sani Pass to Sani Mountain Lodge); this took us 3.5 hrs to drive in the thick, newly settled snow. As time and fellow travellers pass, so does the stability of the newly fallen snow. Travellers reaching the top look more like muddy hippos and less like 4×4 vehicles.

I’ve only done it 3 times, 2015, 2017, 2018 and each time I do this Drakensberg mountain drive, I’m once again like a child, in every way. Each time I am more joyous yet more vulnerable, happier in my weakness and insignificance…and you can see it on my face.

Book a Sani Pass Tour: Roof of Africa Tours, Sani Pass Tours, Major Adventures

Some places to Stay on Sani Pass: Premier Resort Sani Pass, Sani Lodge Backpackers (4 star & Fair Trade Tourism Certified, Mkomazana Mountain Cottages, Seaforth Country Lodge, Sani Valley Lodge, Dieu Donne Cottage, Glencairn Farm. See additional places to stay near Sani Pass on SA Venues…and of course my Cottage Imvana (35 kms from Underberg)

Road development & more about Sani Pass from Umzimkulu River Lodge

Mountain Pass Driving from Arrive Alive

 

 

 

 

Round the benz on the KZN Midlands Meander

MONIQUEVANDERWALT_ITOPFORM_MIDLANDSMEANDER_bendcountry (15).jpg

🌂It was a brolliant start to the #iTopFormMeanderMotoring Day, the ominous weather could not dampen our high spirits as we gathered at Mercedes’ Garden City Motors in Pietermaritzburg (PMB).  The crowd that gathered were clearly hip people taking part in this bucolic happening, and I wondered if some were local celebrities. And yes, I wore my gumboots as usual, lol.

We completed the necessary paperwork to take million-rand Mercedes Benz vehicles on the iTopForm pitstop tour of the Midlands Meander, and set out armed with our brollies (umbrellas) as weapons against the wild Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) weather.

First stop was breakfast at iLawu Boutique Hotel’s Botanic Restaurant in PMB, and my my, there was so much tech before breakfast! All kinds of media equipment and the tapping of phone screens was soon replaced by a sumptuous breakfast and excited chatter about the day’s events.

The next stop was something everyone should do in their lifetime, a visit to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site in Howick. A tour through the Apartheid Museum took our minds down a dark path of South African history, ending in a lifting-of-the-spirits at the sculpture of the face of our freedom, Nelson Mandela.

Back on the Midlands Meander road, seven cars snaked along in luxury to the third stop of the day: Chocolate Heaven at the Junction Village Centre (exit 132 from N3). And what a sweet stop indeed! Trays and trays of delights to every taste with over 40 combinations to dip in a swirling pool of melted Belgian chocolate. Needless-to-say everyone had a smile almost all the while 😊

The last leg on our tour was lunch at the Bend Country House, where my eye spied only the glorious curves and serene luxury that is the Midlands Meander.  A place rich in history, the 1400 hectares of pristine Nature Estate and the hotel’s elegant architecture and décor were a breath-taking sight.

Our hearts full with the comradery of the iTopForm experience, we filled our bellies with a hearty three course meal as the rain poured over the moody countryside. When we rolled out of the dining room, our highly-polished Benz vehicles had received an aesthetic make-over, courtesy of the stormy KZN sky.

Out came many forms of camera, the cold and raindrops forgotten in the heat of the moment. Now all that was left was to meander the road back home, perusing opulent files that will remain forever in the memory banks.

Art & Opulence in Gumboots at The Chocolate Box

“I didn’t think it would be this high up, the view is going be incredible; and from what I’ve seen online, its sheer opulence!” I said as I considered my leopard-print gumboots, inspecting them for any farm dirt that might have joined me on my trip from Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) to Cape Town.

I had decided against wearing my trademark gumboots when arriving at the 5-star Chocolate Box in Gordons Bay, opting for beige heels with a graceful below-the-knee chocolate brown dress. And I was grateful for it on arrival, the ample front door whispered of the bespoke luxury behind it.

After a warm welcome by owners Brad & Olaf, it was seconds before my shutter and I were making the usual sounds of capture and delight. I was immediately drawn outside (as per usual) to a sprawling deck looking over a sparkling False Bay, Table Mountain lurking far in the Westerly distance, and the looming Helderberg Mountains in the East.

I explored the outdoor dining area set afore a charming indigenous garden, sky-blue pool, and elegant chairs and not-chairs, all of which seemed to call my name. Brad then introduced me to the other Chocolate Box family members…wait for it…a pair of resident blue-headed lizards (Agamas) – of which the female was pregnant. Bees buzzed around the lavender, and I around them and their neighbourly reptile friends as we all enjoyed some Western Cape sunshine.

Our suite was directly off this rooftop paradise, the clever use of space and king size bed made it feel as voluptuous as the deck. Opulent in furnishing and décor, it really is as pearfectly 5 star as the outdoors 😉 . The spacious bathroom is a chique sanctuary in itself, and the hotel is also green-equipped with a grey water system.

Brad then gave us a tour of the Chocolate Box, to which I tried my best to pay attention while focussed on subjects of his informative and knowledgeable chatter. My main point of interest was the exceptional Capetonian artwork appropriately placed around the hotel; and rightly so as Brad himself runs Cape Culture, custom art tours in and around Cape Town. A particular work caught my eye, a piece by artist Ryan Hewett hailing from my area, the KZN Midlands, clap clap.

Both evenings offered fierce and fabulous False Bay sea sunsets and mornings exquisite Helderberg mountain sunrises. We spent our days exploring Gordons Bay and found it loveably quirky. Thanks to the weather we were able to take full advantage of delicious breakfasts on the deck, surrounded by shades of blue and flecks of indigenous colour.

It was on the final morning that a sharp wind called for gumboots at breakfast, by now I felt at home enough not to tread so lightly. And so I boot-liciously captured my final memories of Chocolate Box, mountainside luxury mixed with seaside opulence, and a 5-star stay, for shore 😉

Seaing & Believing at On the Bay Retreat

moniquevanderwalt_onthebay_gordonsbay_capetown_accomodation (1).jpg

“Oh my, look at this décor, oooh that loft, two of them, oh wow…that view!” I was like a kid in a candy store trying not to be a bull in a china shop, darting around On the Bay Retreat still heavily laden with tech luggage & oversized handbag.

After a 2hr flight from Durban, we arrived in Cape Town, travelled east for just over half an hour, to the coastal village called Gordons Bay in the False Bay area. The town reminds me of me fishing village island paradise; a small ocean bay, complete with palm trees, and towering mountains not far behind the shoreline.

I continued to explore the 3bed, 2bath vacation home, sounding like a stuck record with my constant exclamations of delight. After “building my nest” in the main bedroom, with en-suite and walk-in closet, I ventured into the lounge and out onto the balcony.

According to Google Maps the Indian Ocean is 85 meters from On The Bay Retreat; close enough to so richly entertain your senses of smell, taste, sight, and sound, you feel like you could reach out and touch it. Looking at Table Mountain across the bay, I pondered the sunset over the sea, imagining I could see further to left and look upon Cape Point and Cape Agulhas, where Atlantic meets Indian Ocean.

I was awoken from my tropical island day-dream by my techie/geek other half, it was his turn for impressed ramblings. “The wifi is impressive, 40 mb line, can only be fibre.” He then informed me of upload download speeds in comparison to other network connections, apps on the home entertainment system (Netflix, Showmax and powerful Bluetooth speaker), and lastly the alarm system.

I only half listened to him, captured by the views, both indoors and outside at On the Bay Retreat. And retreat is the key word; the living area has such high ceilings (and open rooftop lofts), you feel spirited away to a faraway beach house.  The furnishings are incredibly comfortable, the decor an excellent combination of modern & classic seaside style, infused with cultural, local and artistic pieces.

The also spacious kitchen is kitted-out with the latest top-of-the-range green appliances and kitchen-ware, and includes a separate laundry, pantry & washing area. Doesn’t get any more fully-functional than this. And for people like me, the outside / built-in braai area is an absolute winner!

To the gentle lull of the sea I had a sumptuous sleep on both night’s at On the Bay Retreat, awaking (as usual) before my favourite time of the day, sunrise. And a Gordon’s Bay sunrise is a sight to behold indeed. The sunlight filters quietly over the Helderberg Mountains, gradually nurturing the valley, before showering sparkles upon a turquoise ocean. Its an experience to add to your South African bucketlist, cos sometimes seaing is believing 😊

How did You Sleep at Brahman Hills?

moniquevanderwalt_photography_southafrica_midlandsmeander_brahmanhills_jacuzzi_n3gateway_kwazulunatal_tourism_canon_idotourism_wedotourism (29)-2-2

“How did you sleep” is a phrase you hear often at Brahman Hills, both in the real world and online. This was something different, it gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, like they were close friends or even family.

Although this sentence spoken by the all these voices creates a homely atmosphere, the resort is bold and fashionable. The architecture is a beautiful integration between classic and modern design; like the clean lines of the wedding chapel and conference venue offset by the country manor house.

After exploring the wilderness side of the KwazuluNatal (KZN) Midlands Meander and lunch at The Midlands Kitchen, we arrived at Brahman Hills at about 3pm. We received a fond aloe from everyone, a warm welcome from team members Melusi and Ayanda. After signing in, Melusi took us on a short tour of the beautiful hotel and sprawling spotless grounds at Brahman Hills.

He pointed to the left of the wedding chapel and said, “Your cottage is just over that hill, less than 1km.” I didn’t see the faint smile that flashed to his lips as he added, “but watch out for the lions!” My eyes widened before I realised he was joking and I felt like a real tourist (face palm).

I didn’t wait long to see the real Brahman Hills wildlife; on the first drive to the cottage and less than 100m from the road, I hollered my partner to a halt when I saw zebra and buck. At the sound of the shutter they stopped bucking about and turned looked right at me, ears on alert; a wonderful welcome indeed.

And then, when I thought I had experienced the best of the wonderment at Brahman Hills, I arrived at my overnight dwelling: the eco-friendly Impala Cottage. Solar geysers power the dual showers and basins and an unobtrusive cast iron fireplace assist the environment; while the delicious and large bed and couch plus the fully functional kitchen assist the guest.

And the cherry on top: I knew there were jacuzzis at Brahman Hills but I wasn’t aware that each self-catering cottage comes with a private deck and hot tub with breath-taking views. I have never in my life woken up and got straight into a jacuzzi – this is a memory I shall cherish.

Having dinner underground at 89 on Copper in a converted cellar is what you call an experience. Without windows, the natural light is substituted by a stunning array of different level hanging lights, wall light-boxes (actually circles), and table candles. It’s incredibly cosy and copper figurines and trims give it an elegant finish. Copper piping was discovered in while building the restaurant, inspiring the name & theme. Now the conduits shine elegantly along the corridors, lighting the way to experience.

The attention to detail in the a la carte menu is phenomenal, both in taste and presentation. In a sentence: shooting stars on the palate and robust symphony of flavours.

Aperitif: seared tuna

Starter: butternut soup with bacon, beetroot & saffron butter

Main: Green Thai Chicken & Prawn curry

Dessert: Lemon Cheesecake with carrot & mixed berry

From my younger days of silver-service waitering, I was delighted that our waiter, Joshua, checked all the boxes, giving right amount of attention and conversation while executing prompt, beautifully delicate, and efficient service.

The breakfast menu at Brahman Café has a lovely array of hot and cold, sweet and savoury style meals, and I loved the many windows and high ceilings in the room. My muesli came with a wonderful homemade Bulgarian yogurt, and I have made a note to next time try the option of the yogurt plus a veg/fruit of the day. And of course, my partner enjoyed his manly breakfast with incredible vigour! And the large size coffee is just what I am used to – a boat for a cup!

Another highlight of my experience of Brahman Hills was my favourites: the cows! I did not capture the living specimens themselves, but the artwork and sculptures captured me. Their sweet faces made me smile, like I did when I read the closing remark on my welcoming email from Brahman Hills: “we look forward to welcoming you in the herd!”

Be still my Heart – Boston Bulwer Beat

moniquevanderwalt_boston_kwazulunatal_southafrica_canon_photography_Tourism_ruraltourism_sunrise_wedotourism (9)

A lesser-known part of the Kwazulu Natal Midlands (KZN) is the Boston Bulwer Beat, perfectly positioned at the feet of the mighty Drakensberg mountains. I live in the farming village of Bulwer and +-40kms east is her twin-sister town of Boston.

In my typical Durban winter attire (socks & slops) or my usual leopard print gumboots, it takes me 2.5 hrs to get from Durban North to Bulwer because I stop for photos. Dad took 3 hrs to get from King Shaka Airport on his first self-drive trip. Remove stopping & traffic and you’re in for about 1.5 hrs to Bulwer and just over 1 hour to the start of the Boston Bulwer Beat.

Just a note: Boston currently has the most pleasant fuel stop and place to stretch your legs en route to the Southern Drakensberg. The owners are fifth generation farmers, and a few years ago they, like myself, kicked corporate to the curb. I smile when I pass at the far more generous offering that is now Boston Garage. Image Stewardship and Health, Safety, Environment recon trips where part of my corporate days in the fuel industry, so take my word for it.

The Boston Bulwer Beat is the ultimate and most splendid outdoor playground – hiking, biking, river rafting, paragliding, motocross, birding, wildlife & landscape photography, and pure off-road satisfaction.

Being my first winter in the area, I was dreading the ambiguous loss of eloquent summer vibrancy. But winter has stolen my heart with her rich earthy shades and is just as enrapturing in her stark beauty.

Every path calls you ’round the bend to complete serenity, with many an added thrill of high verges, cliff faces and powerful rivers. You can’t help but be endlessly 🚜atractored to the Boston Bulwer Beat, and surrender your heart to the Southern Kwazulu Natal Midlands.

moniquevanderwalt_bulwer_kwazulunatal_southafrica_canon_photography_Tourism_ruraltourism_sunrise_wedotourism_nature (11)

 

The Secret of Bulwer – In My Opinion

MoniquevanderWalt_travelchatsa_bulwer_kwazulunatal(61)

Interview originally published via #TravelChatSA

  1. Please introduce yourself.

Monique van der Walt – In the smallest of nutshells: From corporate PR to Purpose Driven Life.  Less than a year ago I resigned my corporate PR position to seek my true purpose. I currently find myself living and loving Social Media Tourism, PR & Photography.

  1. Where do you live – and where is the town located?

Bulwer is a small farming town in KwazuluNatal (KZN) about 2.5 hours drive from Durban in the Southern KZN Midlands, right at the start of the Southern Drakensberg region.

  1. What is Bulwer “famous” for / or what should one know about the town?

The town itself is pretty old, and is named after the Lieutenant Governor of then Natal from 1875-1880, Sir Henry Bulwer, and is home to one of the oldest yellow-wood churches in SA. The village rests in the shadows of Magwaqa Mountain, boasting a biosphere, fantastic forestry & a world-famous Paragliding site.

The R617 is the only road that will take you to the village, but don’t blink, you could miss it completely. Little Bulwer has a Library, Police Station Station, Fuel Station, grocer / odds ‘n ends store, a few trade stores and couple of funeral establishments. There is a new Municipality under construction which is expected to bring great development to the town and possibly even a Shoprite/Checkers. As it is now, the nearest retail chain store is Spar, 35 kms away in Underberg; but the produce from the local farms is readily available at the smiling street vendors.

Marutswa Forest is one of the most active clouds forest in SA and draws international visitors. The forest is a sanctuary for the Cape Parrot and has a boardwalk with viewing platforms for a chance to spot the many rare and odd birds calling Marutswa Forest home; some say there could be unknown species living deep inside the thick bush.

The vehicle registration for Bulwer is NIP, and the standing local joke is it means Nowhere In Particular. But in particular, look out for the Nguni cows and jolly goats that wander the highway and pepper the byways throughout the area.

Bulwer is also the hometown of the 2017 Comrades Marathon male winner, Bongmusa Mthembu.

  1. What are the top things to do in Bulwer?

Being such an off-the-grid town, the list of things to do suits the nature lover to a T, with vast forests and serene nature reserves all around Bulwer Village.  Bulwer is known for her off-road trails that provide the perfect terrain for hiking, horse riding, cycling, motocross, 4×4 or even just a slow nature and birdwatching meander.  Fishing, tubing, and swimming the nearby rivers is on Bulwer’s summer agenda. There is even a place called “Bulwer Beach”, natural pools hidden deep in the forests, and you’ll only ever hear about it or go there with a seasoned local.

But there is a wildcard thrown in for the adrenaline Junkie. Bulwer Mountain is known as one of the best paragliding sites in South Africa, so much so that there is a resident paragliding school on her slopes (Wildsky Paragliding – with onsite log cabin accommodation).

moniquevanderwalt_bulwer_drakensberg_kwazulunatal_bnb_ardlui_tourism_socialmedia_pr_canon_photography (5)-2

Ard Lui B&B

  1. Any dining places you’d recommend?

My favourite way to “eat Bulwer” is the numerous fruit and veg stalls, packed with fresh and delicious local produce. This is sufficient for me as I have a plant-based and raw-food diet, but for everyone else, there are a few places to eat in Bulwer:

On the west side of Bulwer is Nip Inn, Pub & Grub – the favourite local hangout; the kids area is fantastic and the food is wholesome and hearty.

On the east side is Mountain Park Hotel with its old-world charm pub and restaurant.

The Shisa Nyama in central Bulwer is an authentic experience for the any traveller and an up-and-coming function venue. In the spirit of small town living combined with welcoming Zulu culture, you will find that almost anyone can join the festivities.

I must add that being a country town, things are delightfully informal. Not a restaurant per se, Loretta of Ard Lui B&B said she could rustle up a good meal or high tea, to be enjoyed with a view of fantastic gardens and Bulwer mountain.

  1. Recommended places to stay in Bulwer?

Ashtonvale Guest Farm is a working four-generation farm, family owned and operated. Beautiful hillside rondavels, three waterfalls on site, animal farm, tennis court, swimming pool, entertainment lounge pony rides (and more), it’s a fantastic & reasonably priced family getaway.

Nip Inn boats lovely log cabins with DSTV, campsite, caravan park and onsite pub and restaurant and is the meeting place for many a rural activity.

Established in the 1940s, Mountain Park Hotel is a your landmark for arriving in Bulwer. The garden cottages are a pleasant and serene budget stay, and once the hotel rooms are upgraded they will surely provide the same. The restaurant and pub fireplace provide tasty and cosy country comfort.

Ard Lui B&B is an enrapturing and historic place to stay, with exquisite grounds and interior décor that seamlessly blends of classic and modern design. Little touches like the nightcap tray give you a timeless feeling in a room that is modern in design and flow.

  1. What is your favourite thing to do in Bulwer?

Bulwer’s complete country immersion is perfect for me; as the saying goes, early to bed and early to rise makes you healthy (check) wealthy (I am in soul) and wise (continual WIP). So, my top activity would be simply exploring the acres of forest surrounding the area, and capturing Bulwer’s beauty. I also enjoy “cow-spotting” – finding and photographing roaming cows in random places.

moniquevanderwalt_bulwer_kwazulunatal_southafrica_photography_travel_tourism_ (6)

  1. Why should one visit Bulwer?

It’s a place where KZN Midlands Serenity meets Drakensberg adrenaline, and almost everyone can find their perfect balance of the two in Bulwer, South Africa.

Frosted grass Salute from a Weather Nerd

moniquevanderwalt_southafrica_kwazulunatal_drakensberg_bulwer_travel_tourism_weather_nerd_photography_frosted_grass (2)

I’m a bit of a weather nerd, as well as many other types of nerds – tech, cats, puns, language – perhaps just an all around nerd. So I’m delighted to tell you that, as expected, yesterday morning’s pink skies were indeed a warning of fierce winter weather!

Our predawn real-feel in nearby Underberg, Southern Drakensberg was a cool -6° Celsius (21° Fahrenheit) and Bulwer certainly felt like it too.

moniquevanderwalt_southafrica_kwazulunatal_drakensberg_bulwer_travel_tourism_weather_nerd_photography_frosted_grass (6)

My easiest way to get going in the mornings is to have a quick coffee (wait a bit), then a brain-freezing teeth-brush and mouthwash, followed by vigorous online workout. After this I am warm enough to brave whatever degree temperature to capture the winter weather.

On with my leopard-print gumboots and into the garden I trot, the grass and frost crunching beneath my feet. Within a few minutes my hands are like ice, I grasp my Canon tightly and drop to my knees to get the shots.

With a positive leap of the poetic imagination (and frozen fingertips) I try to put words into pictures, undeterred by the lack of feeling in my fingers.

So, with my hands-on approach, I (and photobombing cat) salute you with frosted grass from the Southern KwazuluNatal Midlands.

 

 

 

Drakensberg Snow Road Trip: Sani Pass

Moniquevanderwalt_SaniPass_Kwazulunatal_southafrica_snow (16)

“Do you think we’ll get up?” I asked Craig nervously as the 4×4 wheels of our Toyota Fortuna skidded confidently the in thick mud.

He didn’t bat an eyelid at the sliding vehicle and said, “We’ll get close! Good thing we got in early before the rest of the world coming to see the Sani Pass snow, the more the cars pass through, the more messy the road becomes with melting snow.”

Two days ago, the first proper snowfall of the season had blanketed the Southern Drakensberg, just in time to turn our road-trip into a snow-trip. Saturday 13 May 2017 we left Bulwer before 9am wearing 3 pairs of socks, gloves, beanies, thermals and our cold faces. The trip from Bulwer up to Sani Pass is <70km, passing through the KwaZuluNatal towns of Underberg and Himeville, then over the South Africa/Lesotho border, and finally the steep climb up the Southern Drakensberg mountains.

“Here, ask this family coming past what’s happening further up the pass!” I urged as the second of 4 vehicles gingerly made its way down towards us.

It wasn’t good news; we were told the road was very bad ahead and a few of the early-bird explorers had turned back. But fortunately, Craig is a seasoned Sani Pass tripper, having done it plenty times, and he reassured me we would be fine to press on.

A few times we had to stop and wait; either at a safe following distance behind an ascending car, or far enough over for a descending car to pass.  The die-hard explorers without 4x4s had long since disappeared and the majority of 4x4s were proudly Toyota, their passengers of all ages. I was stirred by the intense feeling of comraderie between us travellers; the sheer epic of the Sani Pass experience formed a common bond. Almost every person you make eye contact with smiles, and there is a knowing in their eyes.

After a 4 minute stop at border control and a stamp in our passports, we were back on the muddy road and could see the thick snow on the Drakensberg peaks. As we climbed, the dark green landscape became more and speckled with white, until all around us was winter wonderland and sparkling snowflakes were falling from the sky.

About 80% of the way up and before the zigzag section, there were at least 15 cars creeping down the slope and we could see a queue up ahead. The the road was barely wide enough for 2 vehicles side by side, but fortunately just up the way there was a verge.

We pulled over and I lurched from the van and began to frolic in the 30-60cm snow in my leopard print gumboots, throwing snowballs and feeling like a kid – completely forgetting my frozen fingers in the fun of it all.

On the verge, there was a solo traveller that made the trip annually to stay in the mountains for a few days. He told us that up ahead a vehicle has lost its cargo and this had caused a traffic jam on both sides, with at least 18 cars waiting to ascend.

It was now around 11am and the snow was falling rapidly, dramatically reducing visibility. So reluctantly I said “Let’s go back, it’s a pity we will not get to Sani Mountain Lodge for lunch though. But we’ll will do Sani Pass again, on a sunny day, so we can get the most of the views from the top.” And at that we began our hair-raising descent, slipping and sliding down the pass.

moniquevanderwalt_tourism_kwazulunatal_drakensberg_durban_travel_photography (14)

Back down where there was more mud than snow, we saw one of the few non-4×4 vehicles on the road. A MiniBus Taxi, fully loaded with commuters and luggage appeared to be helplessly stuck in the mud, like a wildebeest about to be taken by a mountain of a crocodile. We were at the top of a hill they were trying to ascend, so we stopped and waited. But this was no problem at all for these locals! Out the vehicle they jumped, some unloading and carrying baggage up the hill, while the rest began to push and within I minutes the taxi was back on its way.

 

I was quite astounded, but Craig gave me the insider’s perspective “These are the Basotho people, they grew up in these mountains and have travelled this road many times. This must be a regular thing on the drive to and from work in and around Underberg. They know what they are doing.”

A couple of slippery and sludgey kilometres later, we were back through the border and onto tar road, on an absolute high! We came, we saw, and the way my heart felt, I could conquer the world.

moniquevanderwalt_tourism_kwazulunatal_drakensberg_durban_travel_photography (13)

The Castle & The Christmas Shop

 

The next day of our adventure was to the Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle and the Christmas Shop

SAM_0892

The Haut-Koenigsbourg castle located above the village of Orschwiller

SAM_0893

The town is another tiny village, nestled in-between endless winelands

IMG_0101

We wound our way through the town, up to the Castle

IMG_0179

IMG_0173

The Castle was built by Frédéric le Borgne, duke of Souabe and a member of the Hohenstaufens familyview more history

IMG_0181

It is cold and eerie inside the castle, you feel like you are back in the  12th Century, when the Castle was built.

IMG_0171

Throughout, small period windows allow you this astounding, breathtaking glimpse of what the duke saw on a daily basis

IMG_0104

After the Castle, we went down into Orshwiller for lunch, and ended up at The Hupsa Fannala

IMG_0114

It was a quaint place, the food slightly higher priced, but most delicious

IMG_0115

And from there, on to Riquewihr, in search of the Christmas Shop

IMG_0203

This was my favourite town of the trip

IMG_0125

The main street is only pedestrian (and delivery vehicle) access, the cobbled wonderland becomes from the start

IMG_0126

For those who prefer not to walk, the little tourist train will show and tell you around the fairy tale town

IMG_0124

Here, I found something I have never had before (and would not normally eat, should I not have been on holiday)

IMG_0138

Banana Sorbet !

IMG_0144

Made with real bananas, it was absolutely delicious, so much so that I hunted for it in every other place we went to, but did not find it

IMG_0137

We wandered through the village, taking in this surreal, movie-set like village

IMG_0135

The smell of mouth-watering treats, sweet & savoury capture every  sense

IMG_0131

Tourist and locals alike congregate in the the gorgeous winstubs (or wine rooms)

IMG_0147

Just one of of the boulangeries (bread-ery) / patissteries (bakery), its windows lined with multi-coloured macaroons

IMG_0153

Ha, and finally, the famous Christmas Shop

The Feerie de Noel is the main reason why this town holds the best memories for me.

IMG_0155

 The store is set up like many of the stores here, almost like a ride, one way in / out. And, as soon as you enter, it feels like you have climbed aboard the Polar Express

IMG_0157

As you venture further into the wonderland, you feel as if you have just woken up in the  Santa’s Factory, it really gives you that warm-and-fuzzy feeling.

No cameras inside – check it out here.