How to soar in a helicopter and explore the Drakensberg

Exploring and soaring to the heights of the Great Escarpment - Maluti Mountains


 An escarpment NE of the Northern Drakensberg Mountains near Oliviershoek Pass

An escarpment NE of the Northern Drakensberg Mountains near Oliviershoek Pass


Southern Africa, Land of Beauty and Splendour
— Thomas Victor Bulpin

South Africa, a land of contrasts, waiting to be explored

Several years ago, in my youth, I bought the Readers Digest edition of 'Southern Africa, Land of Beauty and Splendour'. I regularly paged through that book, dreaming of exploring other parts of Southern Africa. Dramatic and gorgeous photographs of our beautiful country ignited a smouldering ember of desire to travel to parts of it.

South Africa is diverse, not only in its geography but also in its culture. I’d been living near the sea for most of my life and wanted to discover a small part of this multi-faceted country that I hadn’t seen before.

 

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In 1978 I did just that and took a solo trip. I had been working for two years since I left school and put money aside from my meagre salary for a holiday. As much as I’d fantasized about traveling internationally, I was too impatient and all I could afford was a local trip. It was not my first solo trip, as my parents often shoved me on a train during the school vacations and dispatched me to family, either in Port Elizabeth, Durban or Windhoek. This time though, I was venturing somewhere with only myself to please. In today’s terms it doesn’t sound very daring, but for me it was my first real adventure on my own.

 
 The  Amphitheatre,  a well known feature of the Northern  Drakensberg  in KwaZulu Natal

The Amphitheatre, a well known feature of the Northern Drakensberg in KwaZulu Natal

Photographs of the stately Drakensberg mountains had me yearning to see them. I had no vehicle and relied on public transport, which was very good in the 1970’s. I boarded a train at the Cape Town station and headed for Natal (now known as KwaZulu-Natal). If my memory serves me right, it was far cheaper for me to take the train rather than fly. The journey took two nights. That in itself was an adventure and exciting. At Pietermaritzburg I disembarked and joined a tour bus heading to Cathedral Peak.

The Cape has its own beautiful mountains, one of them the renowned Table Mountain. However, seeing the Drakensberg I was enthralled by its sheer size. My hikes led me to stunning scenery, beautiful waterfalls and forests. I stuck to meandering paths, as I was an inexperienced hiker, most of the time on my own but enjoyed this magnificent mountain and its beautiful vistas and views.

It was definitely a place I wanted to return to. I just didn’t know it would take more than 30 years to get back to the Berg!

I left the Drakensberg and went to Durban for a few days, then ventured back to Cape Town, once again by train.

 

 The log cabin we stayed in at Seletwane, overlooking a trout dam

The log cabin we stayed in at Seletwane, overlooking a trout dam

 The vast Great Escarpment - only the Northern Drakensberg visible in the background. In the foreground, the dark patches are firebreaks

The vast Great Escarpment - only the Northern Drakensberg visible in the background. In the foreground, the dark patches are firebreaks

Ventures into other parts of Southern Africa

Since then, although my husband and I wanted to see more of the Drakensberg, we embarked on other trips that generally took us to the coast of South Africa and Mozambique. We’d also ventured into other parts of Africa as well as some international countries and somehow the opportunity never arose for us to visit the Berg.

Eventually in 2011 we spent a long weekend at the edge of the Northern Drakensberg. We’d found a little place called Seletwane, near Bergville, just off the Oliviershoek Pass. Our accommodation was a delightful log cabin overlooking a trout dam. A cosy cabin with a fireplace that could ward off the winter chill and a magnificent panoramic view through the windows of the A-frame.

 The road that led us to our log cabin at Seletwane covered in frost

The road that led us to our log cabin at Seletwane covered in frost

 The fire was a necessity

The fire was a necessity

 The escarpment at Oliviershoek Pass, dotted with interesting shaped hills

The escarpment at Oliviershoek Pass, dotted with interesting shaped hills

 Stone pillars and interesting hills in the Northern Drakensberg

Stone pillars and interesting hills in the Northern Drakensberg

 Three trout dams at Seletwane and the escarpment in the background

Three trout dams at Seletwane and the escarpment in the background

The mornings were still and the trout dams looked like mirrors until the wind picked up later in the day. Although it was technically at the edge of the berg, it was a great area for walks. We even found some Bushmen paintings on one of our short hikes. It was peaceful and a great weekend to relax and unwind.

 

 Reflections like a mirror in the trout dam at Seletwane

Reflections like a mirror in the trout dam at Seletwane

Return to Cathedral Peak

For most of the weekend I knew something was up, because hubby was like a Cheshire cat waiting in anticipation for a saucer of cream. Eventually he let the cat out the bag. He had planned a belated 30th wedding anniversary present. We were to drive to Cathedral Peak, just over 100 km away that would take about one and a half hours, where I’d stayed more than thirty years ago. The surprise was a helicopter flight over the mountains.

 Is it a toy or is it real? Maybe it was dwarfed by the magnificent mountains in the background

Is it a toy or is it real? Maybe it was dwarfed by the magnificent mountains in the background

I was excited about the helicopter trip and being able to see the area around Cathedral Peak again. Till I spotted the helicopter. It looked like it belonged in a toy box. The four-seater helicopter looked like it didn’t even have enough place for four children, let alone adults. Besides that, I was dubious about it staying in the sky.

I swept my fears aside. Who wouldn’t want to get to the top of the Drakensberg, without having to slog and sweat uphill on foot? I decided I’d take it on the chin for the team. After all, this was a far quicker and less tiring way to crest the Great Escarpment. I clambered into the tiny glass bubble, strapped myself with a seat belt that gave me a false sense of security, adjusted the earphones and microphone on my head so I could chat during flight – or let off a blood-curdling scream in the pilot’s ear if I went into a panic attack.

 View from the helicopter after taking off at Cathedral Peak

View from the helicopter after taking off at Cathedral Peak

 The valley and river at Cathedral Peak with the resort on the right

The valley and river at Cathedral Peak with the resort on the right

 Rugged peaks of the Drakensberg

Rugged peaks of the Drakensberg

 Parts of the Drakensberg still covered in snow

Parts of the Drakensberg still covered in snow

 The magnificent Drakensberg Mountain range

The magnificent Drakensberg Mountain range

Like a roller coaster we curved over peaks and dipped into ravines till we landed on one of the highest plateuas. Our pilot-cum-waiter served us a glass of sparkling wine. Whilst admiring the spectacular view, we proposed a toast to the first thirty years of our marriage and hoped we’d be blessed with another thirty. It was worth waiting for this even though our anniversary was a few months before that.   

It was rather chilly up there, and when we returned to Cathedral Peak, we had some hot tea at their restaurant. 

 Landing on the plateau

Landing on the plateau

 A toast to thirty years of marriage - we’ve certainly had some highs!

A toast to thirty years of marriage - we’ve certainly had some highs!

 Back to Cathedral Peak Drakensberg

Back to Cathedral Peak Drakensberg

 

A call from the adventurous Bush Babe herself

At the resort we had cell phone reception again. My phone rang and it was an unknown number. Leilani Basson, a photo journalist for Leisure Wheels magazine at the time, was on the line. She had established Bush Babes, an adventure and safari club – for women only. She had a surprise for me. I was one of 10 ladies that had won a competition I’d entered via the magazine. The ladies were given a weekend away in the Waterberg, complete with 4x4 training. I never thought I would ever win. You might well ask why I would want to put myself through a course like that. We felt it was a good idea for me to build up confidence to drive in off-road conditions as we often travel on such terrain and it might come in handy one day.

We returned to Seletwane and stopped on the way for an early dinner at The Tower of Pizza. It has some interesting history, so be sure to take a look if you ever venture there.

Not too shabby a weekend away with plenty of surprises!

 

Read about another celebratory occasion in the Drakensberg.

 

Apologies for the reflections in the photos. This was before blogging days and being caught up in the moment.