Sani Pass snow squealing, Southern Drakensberg

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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

 

 

 

 

My Untrained Eye at Splashy Fen

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As I thundered along the dirt road in my cloud of dust, I wondered what my first ever festival experience would bring. My life is so different 1.5 years after swapping corporate for country, colleagues for cows, keyboard for camera, alcohol for clean air, and an office for the great outdoors. What would I find for my untrained eyes at Splashy Fen Festival?

Since 1990 Splashy Fen Festival has been an annual pilgrimage for festival lovers from around the globe, the R617 to Underberg transformed into a busy thoroughfare of 7000+ happy travellers, excited to spend their 4-day Easter weekend high in the mountains of Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN).

The grounds are massive so although the number of people is high, the banks of Mzimude River and the sprawling plains below Bamboo Mountain can easily pull it off.

Five stages, family & regular camping areas, tented village, market, gin garden, entertainment, beverage & food vendors. And while you’re at it, you can check these off your bucketlist too:

View the Southern Drakensberg from a handmade viewing platform & sculpture created out of wattle by renowned KZN artist Kim Goodwin.

Swim in a river at exactly 1 mile above sea level, surrounded by the Drakensberg mountains, whose highest point is 3482 meters and stretch 1000 kilometres in length.

Sculptured metal works, live performers, drumming & didgeridoo lessons, face painting, live art and colour; so much glorious colour surrounded by tall trees, grassy hills and wandering slopes of the Southern Drakensberg.

Every morning a trail run, yoga, group drumming and didgeridoo lessons before the stages come alive with local and international acts like Mango Groove, Prime Circle, Bowling for Soup (USA) & Napalma (BRA / MOZ). Children also enjoy the festival, with their own dedicated zone, minded by a team of professionals and complete with fun activities.

I found myself most drawn to the Tree House Stage, where every process seemed so beautiful I just wanted to be still…and then rush around madly trying capture the endless imagination and wonder that passed my eyes with flying colours.

People of all ages and all kinds find their way to the festival, a place of harmonious diversity. There are the nature-lovers, the young party crowd, the artists, music & art admirers, families, girls on a getaway, boys camp-away, the stalwart hippies, middle-aged couples – all at Splashy Fen because it has something just for them.

So even someone like me found their place at Splashy Fen. I looked down the barrel of each loaded strum, and I found what appealed to my untrained eye and fluttered my heart. I was glad to trade my cows for cars, my solitude for welcoming company, culture and colour.

Beauty may be in the eye of the web trawler, but you can’t feel everything through media. And the feel, the vibe is what struck me most: tangible happiness of comraderie and celebration of life, nature, art, colour and music. I saw people finding a pitch to their tent, the beat to their drum, the soul to their feet. And when the cold of the mountains arrived, I saw the philosophy: he who smiles the biggest is the warmest 😊

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Round the benz on the KZN Midlands Meander

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🌂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 😉

Monique Van Der Walt’s visit to Chaka’s Cove

Be still my Heart – Boston Bulwer Beat

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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.

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Writer’s Throwback

While unpacking my life at my new home in BulwerSouthern DrakensbergSouth Africa I came across this amazing throwback to my 12 year old writing self.

In 1998 my friend and I entered an Mnet KTV Write Stuff short story competition. 

Here’s the whole short story:

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What a tender-hearted writer I was. We did not win the competition, and I can’t for the life of me remember if we came 2nd or 3rd.

There is an entire folder of my primary school life, projects, pics and precious memories!