Spending a day in the Tsitsikamma – video

I have always wanted to make travel videos.  When I started working as a tourist guide in 1998 I had a little video camera which I filmed my tours with.  Back then I didn’t know anything about editing.  The video was basically what I shot and I had to make sure the video was rewound just far enough for the next shot to start where I wanted it to.  All those videos are somewhere on VHS tapes in a cupboard at home.  Somewhere I kinda lost the whole video thing and started enjoying photography and blogging.  But as a blogger I started to feel like I’m falling further and further behind many other travel bloggers who started including more video on their social media platforms.
A few weeks ago we headed out to the Tsitsikamma for a day and I decided that it was time to give video a go again.  Rather than go out and take photos all day, I took video clips on my DSLR camera and on returning downloaded a very easy to use video editing program.  This week I finally had a chance to play around with it and once I started I couldn’t stop.  I realise that with the DSLR obviously not having an anti-shake like a video camera has I should probably have used a tripod, but I live and learn.  I must say that I was quite impressed with the end result.  Obviously, I still have a lot to learn, but you can definitely be sure that you will be seeing a lot more video from me in future.
So here it is, my first video called A day in the Tsitsikamma.  What do you think?

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

When it rains in Nieu-Bethesda

A couple of weeks ago I headed up to Nieu-Bethesda in the Karoo Heartland with a colleague for a tourism meeting.  En route we encountered the Fish River in full flow at Jansenville, puddles and pools next to the road approaching Graaff-Reinet and a very wet village at our destination.  The word Karoo comes from the Khoi language and means Place of Thirst, very appropriate for this arid region.  So it’s not often that you see puddles of water in the road throughout the village.  Something I photographed with pleasure.
But puddles in the road wasn’t what drew the oohhhh’s and aaahhhh’s from us though.  It was the Gats River that runs through the village.  It wasn’t just running strong, it was running very high as well.  So high in fact that it was over the low water bridge.  Seeing all this water in this arid region totally made up for the fact that there wasn’t any sunshine and blue skies to take nice pictures, which was part of the mission for the two days we were in town for.  Tourism meeting and nice pictures to use to promote Nieu-Bethesda and the Karoo Heartland.  
My companion on the trip, who is also a part-time mermaid, just couldn’t get enough off all the water.  Luckily she didn’t let her legs get wet, otherwise we could still be looking for her somewhere downstream.

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

Swimming at Cascades – Royal Natal National Park

When you arrive at Mahai campsite in the Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensberg, one of the first things you notice is that there is no swimming pool.  “What! No swimming pool? How is one supposed to cool down on those hot barmy summers days while camping?” you ask.  Mahai doesn’t have a swimming pool for a purpose.  The campsite sits on the banks of the Mahai River and 15 minutes upstream along the Queen’s Causeway is where you head to the Cascades if you want to cool down.  The Cascades is a series of cascading waterfalls and shallow areas offering bathers a safe spot to enjoy the crisp clean mountain water that flows out of the Berg.  You may not be able to dive into deep pools or swim lengths but I didn’t hear one person complain during the ten days we were there.  How often do us city folk get to swim in a mountain stream? 
The little bridge at the end of the Queen’s Causeway.  The Queen’s Causeway was built to allow the Royal family to comfortably walk up along the Mahai River during their visit in 1947.  The visit is also the reason why the park is allowed to be called the Royal Natal National Park.

The last stretch to the Cascades 

Campers and day visitors enjoying the Cascades
Yours truly playing ball with Miggie in the bottom pool
The Cascading waterfalls above the swimming area

Miggie having a waterfall shower

Chaos Boy warming up after a swim in the fresh mountain water
Miggie enjoying the view of the Cascades looking downstream 

Mahai Campsite – heaven in the Drakensberg

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 

Admiring the Amphitheatre in the Northern Drakensberg

Drakensberg Amphitheater
2017 has kicked off and the ball is in the air with all the players jostling for places below trying to catch what the year is kicking their way.  We ended off 2016 with two weeks camping in the Royal Natal National Park (RNNP) in the Drakensberg hence my little stretch of silence.  I have so many pictures from the trip I’m working through and some of them really show off the beauty of that area very well which means I’m going to share a lot of Drakensberg photos with you in the near future. 
The picture above is a “selfie” I took one morning just after 6am.  I was up early and wanted to get a couple of nice early morning pics of the Amphitheatre with blue skies, something that can often change very quickly with approaching thunderstorms. I headed to the dam at the RNNP reception building for a few reflection photos and then down to Tugela River flowing past the park.  After a few pics I needed to get one with a person in it and as I was the only one around I had to make a plan. So it was a case of balancing my camera on a rock and hoping I can get to a good position in time without breaking my ankle.  Mission accomplished.  

The (second) longest bridge in South Africa

My normal route through the Karoo Heartland of the Eastern Cape when heading up north is over Cradock and Steynsburg towards Venterstad and then a short left to the Gariep Dam before hitting the N1 for Bloemfontein.  Before my last trip to Johannesburg I had a closer look at the Geocaching map to see if there are any possible alternative routes that will take me to cache locations I haven’t been to.  A couple of green dots around the town of Bethulie in the southern Free State caught my eye.  It wouldn’t necessarily mean more distance, just a right at Venterstad and a loop via Bethulie towards the N1.  The one thing that really caught my attention though was that one of the caches was called The Longest one in SA. Longest what?  It turns out that the (now second) longest bridge in South Africa spans the the Orange River, connecting the Eastern Cape and Free State, just outside the town. 

The arched D.H. Steyn Bridge (also called the Hennie Steyn Bridge) is 1,152 km long and 51,5 meter high above the river below.  The bridge was built in the 1970’s and was named after the then   chairperson of the Orange River Development Project Advisory Council.

Another unique aspect of it is that the bridge isn’t just a road bridge but also acts as railway bridge with the railway line running parallel to the road.  Approaching it from the Eastern Cape side is probably best with a great view of the bridge, but I have to be honest, standing on the bridge itself it doesn’t look very spectacular. The view to both side are beautiful though (in a Karoo way) and just the fact that I can say I have visited the (second) longest bridge in South Africa made the detour worth while.   Just a pity that more people don’t venture off the beaten track to come and discover places like this.  
Oh yes, and I did find the Geocache in case you were wondering.

UPDATE: Thanks to Grant Stater for the information in the comments.  The longest bridge in South Africa is now along the John Ross Parkway along the N2 near Rochards Bay in KZN.  A 1.2km long bridge spanning the Enseleni floodplain and Nsezi River was completed in December 2009 at a cost of R270-million and is now the longest bridge in the country.