The Karoo Heartland has a unique beauty which I have really learned to appreciate more and more as I have gotten older. If you’re a forest or beach person then the Karoo may not be for you, but if big skies and open spaces feed your soul then there is no better place. One of my favorite Eastern Cape Karoo Heartland landmarks is the Koffiebus and Teebus mountains outside Steynsburg. Although there are many similar Karoo koppies throughout the whole region, the fact that there is a thick one (the coffee pot) and a thin one (the teapot) next to each other like this is quite noticeable.
No visit to Graaff-Reinet will be complete without a visit to the Valley of Desolation yet I wonder how many people actually realise that the Valley of Desolation is located within the Camdeboo National Park, which actually reaches all the way around the town, and that you can also go game viewing in the park. On our long weekend in Graaff-Reinet we spent our Saturday exploring the town’s historical heart on foot and kept the Sunday to explore the Camdeboo National Park. The plan was to spend the Sunday morning doing some game viewing, head back to Camdeboo Cottages, where we were staying, for lunch and some R&R before aiming to the Valley late afternoon for sunset on the mountain.
The entrance to the game viewing area is just past the turnoff to the Valley of Desolation and takes one straight into a typical Karoo landscape of low Karoo bush and grassland, mountains in the distance and the Nqweba Dam on the other side towards tow, and big skies. Lots of big skies. The park has about 19km of gravel roads which we found to be in a very good condition and no problem for the Polo to navigate.
The Camdeboo National Park isn’t quite Kruger or Addo, but if you are in the area and enjoy game watching then it’s well worth a drive through. The Game viewing area is home to buffalo, which we unfortunately didn’t encounter on this trip, and game species like eland, black wildebeest, gemsbok, red hartebeest, blesbok, springbok and mountain zebra. Friends of ours in the park the same time than us even spotted the elusive rooikat (linx) near one of the waterholes. Our timing seemed to have sucked and we missed it. The park is also home to over 240 listed bird species of which we did spot a few so I imagine the twitchers would love the park.
After a quick picnic at the park’s picnic site, which we had all to our own, we took a drive to the bird hide next to the Nqweba Dam. The dam level is quite low at the moment which means not a lot of animals or even birds around.
After a bit of kicking our feet up at the guesthouse, we took the road out to the park again in the late afternoon and made our way up the mountain towards the Valley of Desolation. After a stop at the toposcope lookout it was time to show the KidZ what the Valley looked like. I’ve been up here many times over the years and it never gets old. Ok, just wait. The Valley is old, over 200 millions years old, but I mean I never get tired of it. Hahaha….
It is an awe-inspiring feeling standing there looking at the towering dolerite columns with the vast Karoo stretching out beyond. The dolerite pillars rise up to a height of up to 120 meters and were formed by volcanic and erosive forces over a period of 200 million years. It’s hard to explain the beauty of the place and not everybody who visits “gets it”, but the Valley of Desolation is a truly special place.
I made sure we got there early enough to go for a walk along the Crag Lizard Trail, a 1,5 km sircular trail that shouldn’t take you more than about 45 minutes to walk. I want to say the only reason I did it was to go and find the Geocache located just beyond the turning point, but for the first time I got to see more of the Valley of Desolation and some of the further columns which you don’t get to see from the main view point. We made it back just in time for the sun to start setting and found that it was disappearing behind the mountain and not over the valley as it does in summer. Darn!
We quickly hopped back in the car and made our way a bit down the mountain to an alternative lookout point I was told about on my last visit, making it just in time as the sun disappeared over the distant mountains.
And with that sunset our long weekend in the Gem of the Karoo also came to an end. So what do we take home from the weekend? That Graaff-Reinet is the perfect weekend destination for people living in the Eastern Cape with a variety of historic and natural attractions to keep you busy with during your stay. I also came to the conclusion that people from the interior passing through and heading to the coast and don’t realise what they are missing. But that really goes for anybody who hasn’t had the opportunity to explore Graaff-Reinet and the Camdeboo National Park.
We all know Lady Slipper. When you head west out of Port Elizabeth (or vice versa) on the N2 you drive right past it. But have you ever been on top of the mountain. The easiest way up is by following the road up to the towers from the back of the mountain and this is the view awaiting you from just below the Telkom tower at the top.
A couple of weeks ago I got to finally go on the Waterfall Hike at InniKloof outside Hankey. Something we’ve been wanting to do for quite a while now. It was a day of beautiful views, huffing and puffing over a mountain, nearly loosing a child in the wilderness and finally taking a swim in a refreshing mountain pool under the waterfall in stunning surroundings. You can read more about our adventure in the post Up(s) and down(s) and into the water at the InniKloof Waterfall hike on Firefly the Travel Guy.
South Africa has two iconic “flat” mountains. Table Mountain in the west and the Drakensberg’s Amphitheater in the east. It is below the Amphitheater in the Royal Natal National Park that we camped at Mahai during December and like with Table Mountain I just could not get enough of looking up at the Amphitheater. Well truthfully, not just the Amphitheater but all the mountains around us, but that’s what you do when you live in a city by the coast. Today I just want to share four pictures I took of the Amphitheater with you. The first was taken from the dam next to the Royal Natal National Park reception area.
Take from the road into the park
The Tugela River
The Tugela River again
How can one visit the Drakesnberg and not do some of the amazing hiking trails the Berg has to offer to take in the magnificent mountain views, streams and waterfalls around? Over the ten days we spent camping at Mahai in the Royal Natal National Park in the Northern Drakensberg we split our time between doing some of the day walks around the park and just chilling in the campsite. Over the first few days we took the walk up to the Cascades a couple of times and did the Tiger Falls hike, but with Christmas the next day we decided to do the Sunday Falls hike on Christmas eve. The hike is a nice and easy, mostly flat, 6km hike out to the Sunday Falls (3km) and straight back to camp or via a slightly longer detour through Fairy Glen. The nice bit of this hike is that the trail cross over a couple of streams along the way and take in some stunning views of the surrounding mountains and is quite doable if you have kids. Even if they are as big as mine already.
The trail takes you to the top of the Sunday Falls from where you make your way down into the little valley the waterfall flows into
Relaxing below the falls (while I was searching for the Geocache located there)
Some of the little gems I noticed on our way
The Drakensberg Amphitheatre is set as backdrop for the hike
The Drakensberg is famous for the trails that crisscross her spine, meanders across her back, explore her valleys, marvel at her fabulous buttresses, enter her wooded vales, wade through her streams and end up at waterfalls flowing over her. It’s enough to want to throw your head back and shout in ecstasy. Yes I know what that all sounded like, but heck, that mountain truly is sexy. For our ten days of camping at Mahai in the Royal Natal National Park in the Northern Drakensberg we planned to split our time there between relaxing at the campsite, swimming at Cascades and doing three or four short morning or day hikes. The first one we did was the Tiger Falls Trail. The trail is an easy 6 km circular hike that starts right outside the campsite and heads uphill and on towards the mountain. Along the way you get a great view of the Amphitheatre and Dooley mountain, stop for a break at Tiger Falls and enjoy the view from Lookout Rock before descending back into the Mahai Valley and back to the campsite via the Cascades.
The view of Mahai campsite from the Tiger Falls Trail
Flowering Proteas along the trail
The Damselfly approaching Tiger Falls
Tiger Falls is a great spot to take a break along the trail, fill your water bottle and kick off your shoes to cool down your feet. Its even possible to climb up and in behind the waterfall, something the KidZ just loved doing.
The view down the Mahai Valley from Lookout Rock. The campsite is in the centre of the picture
Heading down the path back into the valley and ready to go and take a swim at Cascades on our way back to camp
Nestled in a beautiful valley in the Royal Natal National Park of the Northern Drakensberg is a campsite that regularly makes lists of top campsites in South Africa. Six years ago we discovered Mahai Campsite for the first time and spend an unfortunate holiday there during major floods that hit the area that summer. Even with all that it still counts as one of our favorite holidays and when we left that year we vowed to be back some time. After making a few other summer holiday turns over the last few years we decided to head back to the Berg this past December and topped our previous visit by a country mile.
Mahai lies along the Mahai River in the shadow of the Dooley Mountain with the world famous Amphitheatre looking on over its shoulder. What does this mean? The campsite is IN the mountains. It’s definitely not one of those campsites that sell itself as a Drakensberg campsite yet the mountains are only visible on the horizon. Here the sun disappears behind the mountain in the late afternoon, summer thunderstorms roll straight off the mountains and the mountain streams and hiking trails run right through your backyard. It truly is a mountain campsite. In the mountains. With mountains all around.
Mahai has about 120 campsites equally split between electric and non electric sites with more than enough ablution facilities, washing up areas and space. Lots and lots of space. It’s definitely not one of those campsites where you are squashed in like sardines in summer like you often see along the coast. The campsites are huge and the space between even bigger. Facilities are well looked after, ablutions kept clean and security is tight keeping day visitors to the park as well as passing baboon troops out.
If you want to know anything while at Mahai you just ask Lucky. Lucky is supposed to be the day security guy but he literally is Mr Mahai. In addition to being day security he makes sure everything in the camp runs smoothly, he points out empty spots to arriving campers, is always available to give you a helping hand and chases off any baboons coming too close. Lucky is always smiling and returning campers come over to greet him with a hearty handshake and a “How are you Lucky? Great to see you again.” Lucky is also teaching himself to be a birder and always have his binocs and bird book handy. Most importantly, the kids just love him. Probably because he’s always friendly.
One of the best parts of Mahai is the fact that I can just sit in front of my tent and watch the mountains, listen to the nearby stream and just chill. Relax heaven and one huge adapter to plug one’s soul into for a major recharge. Also because it’s a back to nature campsite people really respect the environment so nobody spoils the atmosphere with load music and parties. It’s about listening to the wind in the trees, the stream flowing over the rocks and the Piet-my-Vrou calling rather than your neighbour’s doef doef music. Absolute heaven.
Mahai is like a free range reserve for kids. The whole campsite is enclosed with only two gates so you know the kids won’t go very far. They tend to disappear in the mornings and only reappear when they get hungry or thirsty. If there was a cricket game somewhere we knew exactly where to find Miggie while Chaos Boy kept on searching out a quiet spot somewhere to read a book or let his imagination run wild with him without being disturbed. The kids were like herds of animals the way they grouped up and kept on moving from one place to another.
The campsite may not have a swimming pool but there is no shortage of spots to go for a swim. The main swimming area is about 700 meters up the Mahai River from the campsite at the Cascades, a safe swimming spot where the river cascades over a series of little waterfalls and through shallow pools. If you’re looking for something a little quieter then there are more than enough options along the path upstream. A couple of times the herd of kids (under the watchful eye of one or two parents) would just go for a swim in the river right outside the campsite. You may not be able to dive in and swim laps in the river, but what is better than being able to swim in a fresh clean mountain stream like this? Definitely not something us city folk get to do very often.
The biggest advantage of staying at Mahai is the fact that you don’t have to get in the car to drive somewhere to be able to go for a walk in the mountain. The trails all start right outside the gate and vary in length and difficulty. We did a couple of easy 6 km morning trails during our stay while I headed off on a longer 13 km walk the one day to find some Geocaches. Did I mention there are about 50 Geocaches in the park? No? Well now I did. As we opted to just do nothing on a couple of days we didn’t get to do all the trails in the area and some of the longer and more challenging ones we left for a future visit.
The trails don’t just offer beautiful mountain and valley views. Most of them cross various streams along the way and end up at a waterfall at some stage or another. Lot’s of opportunities to fill water bottles, cool down feet and bodies or just sit and watch the water flow by.
Deciding to return to the Drakensberg this summer was the best decision we could make and you can’t go wrong by choosing Mahai as your Drakensberg campsite of choice. It’s may not be a “resort type” campsite with holiday programs and organised activities to keep everybody busy, or have a pool with slides and a putt putt course next to it. But who needs all of that when you have the mountains all around you to admire, lots of space to set your head straight in again, hiking trails to get out on, streams to cool off in, waterfalls and the chance to really immerse yourself in nature?
Everything has a bit of a downside though and it can’t always be moonshine and roses, so I don’t want to pretend that Mahai is any different. The first of the two biggest ones for us was the fact that the nearest town is a good 50km away and unless you carry absolutely everything with you and have a proper fridge along you will have to make the trip at least once, especially seeing that the little shop in the park has a very limited variety of things. The other is the fact that you are in the mountains in a summer rainfall area and its nothing strange to have a thunderstorm suddenly appearing over the mountain mid or late afternoon that comes to mess around with your braai fire. Just make sure your tent is properly waterproof and there there is enough firelighters around to get the fire going again and Bob’s your uncle. We did have one spectacular midnight thunderstorm with Miggie not being very impressed with the thunder and lightning, but seeing that we’re not used to thunderstorms I really enjoyed listening (and watching) to it pass over. Ok, so these are minor downsides compared to all the advantages of camping at Mahai but I just wanted to mention them.
If Mahai and the Drakensberg wasn’t so far from Port Elizabeth we would probably head out that way a lot more often than once every few years. At about 1 100 km the trek is just a bit on the long side. Next time we’ll probably try and visit in winter to see what these mountains look like covered in snow but regardless of when, we will definitely be back.
Disclosure: This camping holiday at Mahai in the Drakensberg was our annual summer holiday and was done at our own cost
The general holiday question is always, BEACH or BUSH? I will probably choose bush over beach 7 out of 10 times but that’s because I live on the coast. It’s also because I love getting away to a forest, the bush, a game reserve or the wide open spaces of the Karoo. Although I feel you can group all these things into the BUSH category, something is definitely missing from that question though. MOUNTAINS, definitely mountains. The question should be BEACH, BUSH or MOUNTAINS. This past December holiday we chose mountains and went camping at Mahai in the Royal Natal National Park in the Northern Drakensberg. The year has started out a wee bit busy so my posts featuring Mahai and the Drakensberg has been a bit on the slow side to flow out the keyboard, but watch this space…
The Amphitheatre must surely be the most recognised and best know feature of the Drakensberg and looked down over us while we were camping in the Royal Natal National Park in December.
The Amphitheatre is over 5 kilometers in length and the cliffs along its entire face is about 1 220 meters high at average. The source of the Tugela River is up in this section of the Drakensberg and the Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall in the world after the Angel Falls in South America, plunges 948 meters over the side of the Amphitheatre.
I took the photo from the dam close to the Royal Natal National Park Reception building early one windless morning.