How to choose an ultimate Drakensberg retreat
Magical Mystery Tour Road Trip
Is there such a thing as an ultimate Drakensberg retreat
The secret is out! Destination: Drakensberg
We celebrated my birthday week by taking a road trip. The destination and accommodation were a surprise. I knew it would be in South Africa, but we didn’t have to take our tent and I didn’t have to plan any catering. Knowing my husband though it could have been anything, from a little reed hut to a fancy resort, but more than likely something in between.
Even with our vehicle packed and driving out the gate, I had no idea where we were going. I had my suspicions though, but the mind does play tricks on you and you wonder if your assumptions are correct. As soon as we left the outskirts of Johannesburg, I knew where we were going. Maybe the road signs were a dead give-away. I was excited, but I still had no idea where we would be staying for the week. I was also suffering just a tiny bit from FOMO. It’s surreal, not knowing where you’re going. I trusted hubby – sort of – but he was being extremely mysterious. All I needed to do was sit back, relax and enjoy myself.
Along the way the temperature kept dropping. The thermometer plunged from 10 degrees C to 2 degrees. It had been raining, but we were convinced we could see snowflakes on the windscreen but there was no other evidence as it melted quickly. As we slowed down and left the freeway at Harrismith we could clearly see snowflakes fluttering down. There wasn’t much on the ground though. Only once we were driving next to the Sterkfontein Dam could we clearly see snow. Luckily I was an obedient wife and packed my winter woollies like hubby told me!
I knew the area and was surprised to turn into The Border Post at Oliviershoek Pass. We stopped for lunch at The Phatt Chef Roadside Diner. Normally we would whizz past to get to any of our destinations with a quick snack in the car.
By then there was a thin layer of snow lying on the ground. Time for a few quick photos and a cheesy video. It was freezing!
After lunch we retraced our steps slightly and turned down a road where I’d been before. I was quite baffled! I knew there was a monument down the road which we’d seen before and there was self-catering accommodation, but I didn’t know of anything else. We traveled down a 10 km gravel road and just before the monument we turned into a mountain retreat. Our first stop was situated in the Northern Drakensberg and we were staying there for two nights.
At the mountain retreat we stayed in the Vergezient Lodge. It is a homely hotel, situated on the edge of the plateau. The relaxed atmosphere is suitable for families with a playroom for young children. Fires are kept burning in the lounge area to make the place cosy and warm. It is a great place to find peace and tranquillity and get away from the crowds that you would find at any of the other well-known Drakensberg resorts. When we arrived it was cloudy but later in the afternoon as the clouds lifted we could see about 100 kilometer panoramic view of the berg, dusted with snow. We might not have been up against the mountains, but the view was spectacular and visible from most parts of the hotel.
It is an eclectic hotel, with a mixture of beautiful pieces of antique and retro furniture. We ate dinner by candlelight with a blazing fire in the dining room to keep us warm.
The food was fresh, home-made and delicious, with a set menu for breakfast and dinner and if you required lunch you could order it soon after breakfast so the staff would have it ready at lunch time.
We could help ourselves to tea & coffee whenever we liked and with a huge jar filled with home baked biscuits, we stopped by often. There is also an honesty bar for drinks. We felt right at home and welcome with friendly staff and managers.
There are numerous hikes to choose from. Because we only had one full day there, and the wind was pumping, we took a two hour walk along Razor’s Edge and Homefields. We battled in the icy gusts and had to keep away from the cliff edge, being pushed into doing a little sidestep jig, just to stay upright.
After lunch we went for a shorter, slower walk in the opposite direction. It was still windy but not quite as bad as the morning. Apparently August is the windiest time of the year.
Wild horses roam around freely around the resort and are offspring from the Anglo and Boer war.
Closest hotel for the Gateway to Lesotho
The following morning we drove down the Oliviershoek Pass through Bergville and Winterton then joined the N3. Once again I had no idea where we were going. For all I knew we could have been heading towards the coast, but I wasn’t told to pack a bathing suit, so I presumed that option was out.
We turned off at Mooi River and drove to Nottingham Road, where we took a scenic 60-kilometre gravel road towards the Berg. I knew then where we were going. We were in the Underberg or Southern Drakensberg. Hubby had mentioned, weather dependant, he was hoping to take me on a small adventure for my birthday. I knew exactly what we were going to do!
The hotel was comfortable and quiet, although we were only about 12 patrons and all seemed to be stuck close together in one wing.
Both of the days we stayed at the gateway to Lesotho and the Sani Pass, rain was predicted. We were hoping the weather would play along. Although we could still drive up the Sani Pass, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the scenery and would miss out on half the fun. We decided to take the chance on the day of my birthday as it was relatively clear with very little cloud cover, although it was hazy.
Driving up the Sani Pass
About that passport that I didn't have to pack, as mentioned in my previous blog...fortunately hubby packed mine, or I might have just been left stranded at the bottom of the pass and missed out on this adventure. The road was rough but we were lucky with the conditions. I should have packed a sports bra, or maybe my granny’s corset. I might be missing a few vertebrae! It takes a good 1.5 hours to get up there, depending on the amount of times you want to stop.
It didn’t rain and we had a great view, so we think we chose the right day. As we crossed the border at Lesotho, we continued for a further 10 kilometers to the highest point, which had more evidence of snow. We turned around and headed back to The Highest Pub in Africa for lunch that is right at Lesotho border post. We spent another bone-jarring but enjoyable hour worming our way down the pass.
We had a few people driving up the pass, but fortunately not that many. I would hate to drive up during a busy time. The previous weekend vehicles had to turn back as they had closed the pass due to the snow.
Driving up the Sani Pass isn’t the only thing you can do in the Underberg (or indeed any other part of the Drakensberg). There are plenty of scenic drives and meanders and the following day we drove through Himeville and the Underberg towards Castleburn Resort and stopped at The Olde Duck for tea and scones.
In Himeville there is a highly underrated museum and fort that we had fun exploring. Maybe it’s because we are becoming two old ducks that we enjoyed it, but it has a wealth of history and displays from the previous century. Do yourself a favour and browse around if you drive through Himeville.
Just for me!
Hubby can have one too!
The Cosiest hotel in the Drakensberg
From Sani Pass, we drove back on the gravel road that we brought us there a couple of days ago. Thirty kilometres before Nottingham Road we turned left towards Giants Castle. We had intermittent sections of gravel and tar. We passed Giant’s Castle and wound our way to Winterton towards The Nest near Cathkin Park.
When you enter The Nest it’s like coming home to granny, cuddling in and being covered with a warm quilted snuggle blanket. Cottage gardens with beautiful fragrances greet you. The Table d’Hote six course menu for dinner feeds you just like grandma's cooking. A tasty fusion of old style and contemporary food will fill your belly. It reminded me of hotels in the 1970’s. In case you are still hungry, morning and afternoon tea is served on the patio, overlooking the berg.
Yum honey cheesecake
My favourite! Pecan nut pie
We missed out on the adventures, because it was raining and the cloud cover was low, but we took a short walk (with a detour to Hippo pools) that lead us to Scrumpy Jack’s. They serve the best honey cheesecake and pecan nut tart. Did I forget to mention that we were fed well this holiday? The scale was not going to be my friend when I got home. Scrumpy Jack’s also sells a wide array of honey products.
The Falcon Ridge Bird of Prey Centre was worth a visit too. Greg and Alison treat you to a thrilling display by rehabilitated raptors. They are released and called to return, showing their intelligence, speed and survival skills.
From The Nest we took a few more gravel and back roads through rural villages and ended up at Mont aux Sources. We were back in the Northern Drakensberg and my last surprise of our holiday.
We had a spectacular and exquisite view from our room, overlooking the amphitheatre. It was a tossup between the Drakensberg Retreat and this one for the view, but each one is superb.
It was a pity we only had a couple of hours and an overnight stop here. It is situated close to the Royal Natal National Park and we would have loved to have done a few walks.
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How to choose an ultimate Drakensberg road trip itinerary
Luckily that was not my decision, although it felt strange not to be part of the planning. The co-ordination and planning were made based on a few factors.
We didn’t have to backtrack except for a few short sections, where we had no option. Although we ended up close to where we started, we did a circular route most of the time.
Availability of accommodation played a role regarding our accommodation. The original plan was to spend 3 nights at The Nest, but they were full for the third night, which was a Saturday night, because of a bowls tournament. Just as well, as I would have missed out on another stunning view for the last day.
How do you choose an ultimate Drakensberg retreat?
There is no ultimate retreat or best place to stay. We stayed at four resorts or hotels and we found there is no best hotel. Each place has their own unique attraction, view and comfort. Even if I’d stayed at another ten, I’m sure I wouldn’t have found the best one. The location is great, no matter where you are and we saw the Drakensberg from many angles. Breath-taking scenery everywhere.
Bear in mind, this is not a hotel or resort review. It was purely my experience of the places.
What influences your decision about accommodation?
Resort, hotel, B&B, backpackers – there are so many to choose from. I would base my decision on what I would want to do and according to budget.
Would you like to be right in the berg? It is magnificent and majestic. There is no doubt about that. The vistas, views and scenery are spectacular. If you are a serious hiker, you would want to be deep in the berg. It would also save you time to stay at a few of the resorts closer to the main hiking trails.
But if you step a little bit away from the berg you won’t be disappointed. There are lovely walks and meanders, not just for the ramblers and amblers, but for the mountain goats too.
This has been an unforgettable road trip for me and one that I will cherish for the rest of my life. It has made my 60th birthday an awesome celebration. I realised I’ve spent my 20th, 50th & 60th birthdays in the Drakensberg. Not bad going!
I was thoroughly spoilt, surprised and enjoyed the adventure. We met lovely and interesting people. All the staff were friendly and helpful at the hotels. As for the hotels and resorts, they were not too shabby at all!
One regret: I would love to have stayed a little longer in some of the places, but that’s just me being greedy!