Be Snow my Heart in Bulwer KZN

 

 

 

bulwer_kwazulunatal_drakensberg_southafrica (3).jpg

Bulwer Mountain (1840m)

Snow is fairly common on the Southern Drakensberg mountains April to July. In 2017 we saw snow as late as November on Sani Pass (2873m above sea level), and most recently, Black Mountain (3240m) in neighbouring country Lesotho had snow on 10 December 2018!

20180909_065334.jpg

Bulwer Mountain at sunrise on the road to Cottage Imvana

But, snow is not-so-common at ground level in Bulwer, and occasional atop Bulwer mountain (1840m).

 

Bedtime on this Saturday night was as normal  any other; my parents comfortably settled in at Cottage Imvana on a 7 day visit from Cape Town to KwaZulu-Natal, the furkids and I just up the way.

I keep a firm and fascinated eye on the weather, and tonight seemed an ordinary winter’s night in sleepy little Bulwer: temperatures dropping close to zero degrees and no snow news. When I awoke, it was around 6:30 am on Sunday 09.09.18. In mandatory fashion, I headed for the kettle, taking an also mandatory glance through the un-curtained patio door and the always-open-curtains of the balcony window (a luxury of country life).

I didn’t make it to the kettle, or the pitstop to the bathroom. Instead I threw on a jacket and my trusty gumboots and dashed to Cottage Imvana, puppies in tow. The lounge light was on in the cottage, as usual mom had been praying from the early hours.

20181213_083111.jpg

Later, Mom said that she in turn could hear that I was not panicked but rather excited and she knew I was not in danger, but did not know why the urgency of my tone.

bulwer_cottageimvana_snow_kwazulunatal (6).jpg

Wintery view from the front door of Cottage Imvana

 

We woke Dad and for the next while there a was chorus of happy exclamation, “wow, amazing, incredible God” were some of repetitive lyrics. We then all danced around the garden with various forms of camera, then furious finger dance began, snowy joy being texted to family and friends across the world.

“Ma look, look” I tried not to scream as I hurled past the kitchen window and to the front door. “I’m coming, what, what?!” mom replied as she unlocked the door. I could hear the confusion in her voice, but I didn’t want to ruin the surprise.

 

Later, Mom said that she in turn could hear that I was not panicked but rather excited and she knew I was not in danger, but did not know why the urgency of my tone.

We woke Dad and for the next while there a was chorus of happy exclamation, “wow, amazing, incredible God” were some of repetitive lyrics. We then all danced around the garden with various forms of camera, then furious finger dance began, snowy joy being texted to family and friends across the world.

 

Before the parents arrived, I had said many a prayer for snow to fall during their visit, and God heard me. and what a gift it was! That look of completely happy surprise and joy on Mother’s face will stay with me forever, captured not by dslr or phone, but in the deeper place of my heart’s eye.

bulwer_snow_kzn (2).jpg

Cottage Imvana

But perhaps more than that, it was the feeling of this shared wonder, a connection beyond normal experience that will forever be snow my heart.

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

 

 

 

 

Up High in the Sky: Bulwer Mountain Paragliding

moniquevanderwalt__canon_photography_southafrica_southern_drakensberg_kwazulunatal_wildsky_paragliding_bulwer (10)-2.jpg

Let’s face it, jumping off mountains is not everyone’s thing, and I have yet to decide if it’s mine; so I was more than happy to live vicariously through two paragliders-in-training with Wildsky Paragliding.

Less than 2 minutes’ drive from my house, Wildsky Paragliding is a school and lodge at the foot of Bulwer Mountain. Operated by partners Hans and Ria, Hans established Wildsky in 1996 after giving up corporate engineering for his love of the outdoors and extreme sport. Hans is a South African National Paragliding Instructor, has flown for Team South Africa and has Springbok colours in paragliding.

As Hans drove myself and the two trainees through Bulwer Biosphere to the jump site called the 1000 (1000 ft high), he related interesting facts about the area and paragliding, the different heights the trainees jump from and the impact of the weather and wind. I looked up at a darkening sky and wondered how long we had before the rain let loose over the autumn landscape of the Southern Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) Midlands.

As we climbed higher, a solitary silence settled over the 4×4, as if a war between head-fear and heart-desire raged inside the trainees. There was a palpable sense of anticipation, adrenaline, and sheer want for bragging rights.

moniquevanderwalt_kwazulunatal_southafrica__canon_photography_Drakensberg_bulwer_wildsky_paragliding_canon_photography (849)-2.jpg

At a precariously steep part of our ascent, my blood ran cold looking out of the window, we were so close to the edge! But in my morbid curiosity I asked, “Hans, has anybody ever fallen off the mountain here?”

“There have a been a couple.” Hans went on to explain how, out of fear of the edge, drivers had perhaps over-compensated and gone too far right, driving on the unstable ground where mountain becomes road. The correct way is to drive nearer to the edge (shock horror), to get the required traction and angle to ascend this part of Bulwer Mountain.

From the jump site you look directly down on my little Bulwer, and I excitedly ran to the edge and said out loud to no-one in particular “Look, I can see my house from here!” I scampered to each vantage point, taking in the northern & Southern Drakensberg and the KZN Midlands. I was in awe of the vast landscape peppered by the colourful Zulu huts that burst with beautiful ethnic character. And then of course I found selfie-perfect high-up spot with Bulwer Village in the background below.

All the while the two-way radio crackled through the pristine silence; down below at the landing site Ria kept in constant contact with Hans on current conditions and other need-to-knows. The aim of the game was to get as many jumps in that day, so the trainees could proceed to the next level.

moniquevanderwalt__canon_photography_southafrica_southern_drakensberg_kwazulunatal_wildsky_paragliding_bulwer (3)-2.jpg

The first trainee confidently galloped off Bulwer Mountain and was guided down by Ria, while the second and more intrepid of the two, followed and did just as well. It was around this time that Hans dropped the bombshell and asked me “Do you want to *jump?” (*tandem flight with Hans as I have not completed the training to jump solo.)

My heart was in the air and on the floor, but then my practical mind found two worthwhile reasons to procrastinate: 1) I was wearing a strapless bra that had the tendency to become misplaced. 2) Out of excitement I’d forgotten to eat breakfast and it was 1pm. I sheepishly explained the latter of the reasons to Hans, and the wardrobe malfunction to Ria later, both I’m sure recognised how welcome the excuses were (face palm).

The trainees each jumped once more before the weather put a stop to our adrenaline antics. As we descended, the rain and wind swooped upon us and I pondered how fragile we are as humans afore the forces of Creation.

The aroma of fresh rain on untouched foliage washed over me, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, appreciating this natural experience. And when I opened them, before me was a beautiful sight of two cows lazily watching me from a hill in Bulwer Biosphere; the ultimate ending as I love almost all things bovine, you could say I have a permanent case of moo-derlust 😊

I have an open invitation to hurl myself off Bulwer Mountain with Wildsky Paragliding, and one day I shall trick myself into it; but until then I shall continue to live vicariously through pictures, parables and posts. On the day I conquer my fear, my body shall join my soul at the height of happiness over BulwerKZN.

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)

 

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)

Top things To Do in Southern Drakensberg

Ever wondered what there is to do in the Southern Drakensberg? Well, let me point you in the right direction to find your perfect blend of country serenity and outdoor adrenaline.

Written & pictured by Monique van der Walt

The Drakensberg (Dutch – Dragon Mountains) is the largest and highest mountain range in South Africa, described best by her Zulu name “uKhahlamba” which means ‘barrier of spears’. The mountains majestically span…read more