De Toren on the way to Nieu-Bethesda

If you have ever been to Nieu-Bethesda in the Eastern Cape’s Karoo Heartland, you would have dropped down the winding pass towards the village and noticed the typical Karoo koppie on the other side of the valley below. Did you wonder what it’s called? In case you did, it’s called De Toren, translated to English as The Tower.

Walking up Lady’s Slipper

In a way, walking up Lady’s Slipper has become for Port Elizabeth like walking up Lion’s Head in Cape Town. At one stage only a few people did it, but lately it has become a very popular outing. Not very far distance wise, but a tough cookie as far as terrain. It has been on my “To Do” list for so long and the other day I decided to tackle it with the family in tow.

As the trail and mountain peak falls within private property under control of the Mountain Club of South Africa, you can’t accent without a permit. We left our car at the parking area at Falcon Rock Adventure Centre and this is also where you get your permit. The trail is open Tuesdays to Sundays (and public holidays) from 8am to 4pm with the latest ascent permitted at 13h30. Its best to walk early though before it gets hot or the wind comes up. Oh yes, and if you think you may need a rest stop in the next three hours, then do it here cause there are no facilities on the mountain.

The first section of the walk is fairly easy through the gum trees but once you hit the fynbos it starts to get steeper. About a third of the way up, we came to an open rock platform from where there are great views. This is also the ideal spot to take a breather.

When we got going again the gradient eased for a short while and then the big climb began in earnest as we make our way up a rugged section to the base of the rock cliffs. At this stage the kids went up ahead as the Damselfly and I just weren’t fast enough for their taste. Up to now it felt like we were walking away from the summit, but now we were heading eastward (towards Port Elizabeth) and the summit was waiting for us.

At this stage you can see the Telkom tower and all the radio masts to the left on the other summit. That wasn’t the summit we were heading to though. That one you reach walking up the access road from the back of the mountain and a mission for another day.

Although the path to the top is easy to follow and well maintained, it’s often just a rough track with lot’s of loose stones and quite steep in places, i.e. not something you’re just going to do in slops and with no water. In actual fact, you need to be at least walking fit, otherwise you’re going to really struggle to the top.

Reaching the top takes about an hour to hour and a half over a distance of about 2.5km. It may not be that far, but the climb starts at 265m above sea-level at the parking area and gains 338m to the 603m high peak. That’s an elevation gain of 1 meter every 5 meters, but hey, if the Damselfly and I can do it then so can you.

The view from the top is magnificent. To the west you can see Jeffreys Bay, the Kouga Mountains and all the way to Cape St Francis,

to the south the N2 is visible below, you can see the wind farm at Blue Horizon Bay and Van Stadens Mouth is that bit of white water in the valley, …

and to the east you can see Port Elizabeth on the horizon.

Turning around looking north you get glimpses of Uitenhage with the Groot Winterhoek mountain range dominating the skyline to the north with the Cockscomb at its western end.

What goes up must come down and when you go down you have to take it easy not to slip. There is also a second route (the red route) up (and down) which is much steeper, so if you’re a leisure walker like us, then it would be best to keep to the easier (green) route. But before heading down I just had to have this photo taken. Very nearly took the quick way down thanks to the wind that day.

I can definitely recommend the walk and even more so the view. Really worth the outing up.

More information on the hike up Lady’s Slipper can be found on the Falcon Rock Adventure Centre website

DIRECTIONS FROM PORT ELIZABETH

Driving on the N2 towards Humansdorp, take exit 713, R102 (R334) Uitenhage/Van Stadens Pass. Turn right and continue towards Uitenhage, 200m after crossing the railway line turn left onto a dirt road. Look out for the signs to Falcon Rock (1.2km).

The Lady’s Slipper

For years I would drive along the N2 past Lady’s Slipper mountain looking at it and wondering where the actual slipper was. At one stage I thought it may be the peak standing out over the mountain, but I just could not see it. That was until I heard that the slipper isn’t visible from the N2 at 90 degrees side on, but rather that you have to be on the old road between the Falcon Rock turnoff and the Old Cape Road / Rocklands Road split.

So today I want to show those who still haven’t been able to find or see it where Lady’s Slipper’s slipper actually is. So basically it’s a upside down high heel shoe.

Koffiebus and Teebus on a moody day in the Karoo

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.  

A couple of surprises in the Camdeboo National Park

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.

A mountain pool dip

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.

Drakensberg Amphitheater views

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

Sunday Falls Trail – Royal Natal National Park

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

Hiking to Tiger Falls – Royal Natal National Park

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