I love walking, but I am not that keen on carrying a backpack – especially up a mountain.
My lovely friend Christeen Grant convinced me that I simply had to join her for an adventure in the Drakensberg Wilderness this summer. Oh my! It was Wonderland and definitely worth the trek.
We had our passports stamped early at the border post. There were Basotho folk ahead of us – heaven knows what time they left their villages to be all the way down the mountain already at 8am! Then we sploshed across a few rivers to remind us that we were venturing into the water factories of South Africa. Water simply oozed from the hillsides.
There were more flowers than I could ever imagine in one place, almost every one with an attendant insect.
One often hears phrase ‘a carpet of flowers’ – it must have been invented here.
Apparently, there are over 2000 plants here with hundreds of species endemic to the area. Especially at the higher altitudes, there were many flowers I had never even heard about, let alone seen. I find the alpine vegetation fascinating.
The reptiles were equally spectacular.
Just as our phones predicted, it began raining about 1o’clock, so we donned our water proof gear and trudged on through the fairyland of flowers towards Tarn Cave.
The sun came out to greet us there!
In celebration I wrote this poem.
I carried my cup to a cave with a tarn on top
Positioned it on a rock to capture the feral falling drops
Soon it overflows with wild, mineral drenched mountain water
The camp stove adds star bubbles and welcome warmth
I drink in the silence-soaked views as the liquid seeps into my limbs
When the sun came out we explored the surrounds. What a joy to be with someone who also spends most of the time bent double or crouched beside a tiny bloom!
We savoured our supper of pre-cooked Lesotho wheat (which Christeen had carried home from a previous trip) and pesto from my garden. It is astonishing how comfortable cave dwelling can be. During the night we listened to some thunderous storms from the snug safety of our rock rooms.
The next day we set out to explore Sehlabathebe which adjoins uKhahlamba and forms the Maloti Drakensberg Transfronteir Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sehlabathebe means The Shield of the Plateau. The silence is exceptional.
This is natural beauty unlike anything else – with incredible rock formations in the basalt and sandstone – caves, arches, buttresses and rock pools.
Sehlabathebe hosts 23 percent of the plant species in the whole of Maluti Drakensberg area. Wow! Easy to believe. How adorable is this little yellow Schizochilus bulbinella?
The Rock Garden was a delight, with treasures around every corner. Orchids in every imaginable shape and colour.
I particularly loved the tarns – shallow pools filled with water.
My friend Bridget Ringdahl had mentioned a plant that looked like ‘popcorn’ floating on the water, so I was thrilled to find Aponogetum ranuculiflorus which only occurs in this area. Thin copper stems attach the flowers to the bottom of the pool.
There was dainty Limosella inflata and Lindernia conferta (pic below) in the tarns as well – absolutely fascinating.
As I rounded a rocky corner – a real treat awaited. A Motibo. This beautifully constructed rock shelter was used in the past by shepherds when they brought their flock to graze on the higher ground during summer. No grazing allowed now.
Before we were drenched by an afternoon storm again, we headed back to Tarn Cave. Watching the mist roll up the valley, it was easy to understand why people believed in dragons in times past.
In the morning, I followed Christeen up the mountain, drawn by the clank of cow bells.
As we crested Bushmans Nek Pass a grinning shepherd bounded down the hillside to welcome us to Lesotho. He manfully ate the raw, gluten free, sugar free, dairy free, palm oil free Superbar we shared, and we had a little conversation – tossing random Sotho, Zulu and English words around in the mist.
We walked down to Thamathu village where we were staying in the homestead of Ntate Tello and M’e Masehleko Ramaqoma. That’s our room with the washing in front of it. The corrugated iron loo under the trees.
What a wonderful place – with the friendliest people.
Nthabiseng Lerotholi (who also runs a homestay even though she walks two hours to school each morning and two hours home!) showed us around the village.
I particularly loved the architecture. Stone houses, beautifully crafted from local materials, are perfect for the area – resilient, warm and weather proof.
There were gardens everywhere – filled with pumpkins, maize and beans. As well as fields on the hillside where wheat is planted in winter.
Of course, I loved the dogs, but only one came for a cuddle. The rest very diligently doing their jobs as guards.
All the men wore gumboots and blankets. They are proud, stand tall, speak directly, smile lots and clearly are happy with their lives.
We ate maroho (wild greens) with papa (phutu) for supper after admiring and tasting all the weeds on our village tour – sepaile, seruoe, qhila and leputsi.
The animals all looked in great condition. While the rains had arrived late this year, Thamathu village gets more moisture than other parts of Lesotho, so is much sought after for its green pastures.
In the morning the children milked the cow for our breakfast tea, gently shooing the calf from its mother until they had finished.
This was served with steamed bread made from their own ground wheat and very yellow eggs collected in the yard. Slow Food heaven.
We headed off across the hills past goats, sheep, donkeys, cows and shepherds back to South Africa.
The landscape changed dramatically as we began to descend and as soon as we were beyond the reach of sheep and goats, the flowers were spectacular again.
We lunched beside a stream on remnants of our breakfast eggs, served on crackers with foraged sepaile.
While Christeen pointed out our astonishing route up the mountains from the Thamathu Ridge, a Beaded Vulture swooped low, circled and then glided along the cliffs with us watching in awe.
This is how the world was before we made a mess of everything.
This area is a treasure that cannot be underestimated. Pristine Wilderness is defined as untouched by modern man, where humans are only visitors – areas with an intrinsic wild appearance and character. It was not difficult to imagine that San people roamed in this area not long ago.
I am astonished that I managed to make it all the way up there and back. Thank you especially to Carlos Gonzales for suggesting that two hiking poles were essential equipment. They make SUCH a difference and I don’t think I would have managed without them.
If you possibly can – do go – the pictures simply cannot capture the experience. There are more images in these albums: Drakensberg and Lesotho. Naturally, I believe you should engage Southern Secrets to take you there.