The evergreen uKhahlamba

The lovely, diverse sounds of birdlife welcome visitors to Bergville, a town on the nose of KwaZulu-Natal.

Time is stuck in first gear here. The slow-lane mood is only contrasted by racing four-wheeled beasts on the scenic R74, linking this region from the Free State to the North Coast and, via the Midlands, the East Coast. A short but circuitous drive to the west takes visitors to uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, my destination.

If you prefer to immerse yourself in nature, prepare for a six-to-eight-hour hike there from northern Bergville.

The hike is taxing but savouring each kilometre of the serene scenery — in slow motion— is priceless. Unfortunately sandwiched between deadlines and taxes, my merciless rat race of a schedule plays stingy this time. A round-trip hike is a further six-hour affair.

Known to locals as eMangwaneni (after 19th-century Chief Ngwane), this dorp has a shy reputation as home to the shadow of the chicken or umthunzi wezinkukhu. That’s a euphemism for marijuana, a herb at the centre of the skirmishes that pitted the state with local peasants in 1956.

Twenty-three herb farmers, found guilty of killing five police officers amid dagga raid-related chaos, were sentenced to hang. Four decades on, Duma Ndlovu’s evocative song-and-dance-rich Bergville Stories retraced that bloody episode and paid homage to those lost souls.

“Bergville Stories recovers a forgotten piece of history, an incident that makes it clear that blunt assaults on people’s land and pride during the years of apartheid were not simply endured, but sometimes vigorously resisted,” the Mail & Guardian reflected in 1995.

Zooming to the blood-stained early 1990s, the play went on to weave in, uncritically, what mainstream media termed “black-on-black” violence — battles that curiously began in the twilight of the apartheid regime.

Returning to the present, it’s the colour green that brings the herb to mind. The harmonious coexistence of hues is inviting. That’s if you ignore the apartheid-era flag that some farmers flew on what they called Black Monday, pock-marking the mood and horizon. A tinge of swart gevaar, a 1980s bogey, is hard to miss.

On this summer Monday, colours such as yellow, blue and brown also make the horizon. Sunrises during my brief visit are a glorious orange and pink. Clouds switch to white then grey. Lush greenery, including pastures dotted by grazing livestock, blanket emerald hills and mountains as far as the eye can see. There’s more. Even smack in the middle of summer, mountains, especially towards the kingdom of Lesotho, can be peppered in white thanks to snowfall.

Lying at the confluence of the uThukela and Sandspruit rivers, the Bergville town centre is charmless. There is neither a museum nor a library here.

Interestingly, Bergville is a curious cross between yesterday and today. A blasé goat crosses the road to graze on a lawn in town. The train station, with over-grown grass and roofless structures, stands forlorn.

Hardly a kilometre down the road, tired low-rises have given way to green carpet and the soundscape to a mix of melodic tweets, moos, humming rivers, whirring winds in parts. Crickets and frogs take centre-stage after nightfall.

[The Amphitheatre in Kwa-Zulu Natal.  (Photo: Gallo Images / GO! / Shaen Adey)]

Veteran journalist Aggrey Klaaste was so moved by KwaZulu-Natal’s “host of laughing streams gurgling between tree-clad hills so beautiful they make you ache inside”. He surely must have seen Bergville, which, after all, ticks all those boxes.

To the north, along the R74 highway (with crawling tractors on dusty side roads), is a sprinkle of eateries and coffee shops — Van Reenen Biltong, Coyote Café, Patch and others — all boasting one item in common: panoramic views as the splendid terrain of braes opens up. Though shrouded in mist and low-lying clouds today, the photogenic and hard-to-miss uKhahlamba-Drakensberg doesn’t fail in its age-old task of beckoning visitors.

The journey is a mini study in topography (and economics and history and politics). The concrete jungle of Gauteng and the eastern Free State, with its maize and sunflower fields quickly rippling past, morph into alpine country the moment you hit Harrismith. You’d be pleasantly surprised to spot some impalas thereabout. Then it’s downhill.

A place still called Kafferstad materialises. Really? Yes, and it’s some two hours from Kaffir Drift and Kafferskraal (a dozen places, from the Western Cape to Limpopo, bear such names or Hottentots-this-and-that). Whatever happened to human rights bodies or the people at the place-names council? Where is Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa? Until when will residents of these villages and hamlets answer to such derogatory names? The violation is naked.

A series of mountains juts as you head westwards, after leaving the N3 for the R74, mimicking a standing ovation. Some of them confer with the clouds that, despite today’s scorcher, seem within touching distance. The sun glints off the Sterkfontein Dam where a lone couple is cruising on a boat. Some of the mountains flanking the R74 bring to mind Mpumalanga’s Blyde River Canyon and others seem to imitate mokorotlo, the Lesotho national hat shaped like a lopsided cone. A handful of shiny windmills, one near a dry river, also feature in the aesthetics department.

The showstopper, though, a queen in the realm of aesthetics, is uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, a Unesco world heritage site since only 1999. It is understated but souls who discover it, to borrow from history books, become instant fans.

At the foot of the escarpment, past the tranquil Royal Natal National Park, is the Free State’s alpine Phuthaditjhaba (also known as Witsieshoek) — the starting point for the Amphitheatre summit. The Amphitheatre is a high-altitude picture-perfect basalt plateau and an awe-inspiring landmark whose sight massages and nourishes the soul.

The hours-long summit up the crags, past ridges, boulders and tall grass that underscore pristineness, flirts with vertigo as hundreds of metres unfold below. Cliffs!

Time pauses on the plateau. The heart beats faster and legs turn a tad jelly on the way up. There is another reason behind a quickening heart rate: achingly beautiful vistas. Never mind the punishing trail, even when descending, the Amphitheatre is reputed to be among the world’s top 10 hikes.

Beyond the sweeping views, the mountain is home to caves reputed for their number of rock paintings. That is partly why Unesco declared a park here, one of only two mixed world heritage sites in the world (the other is Pyrénées-Mont Perdu on the border of France and Spain).

Mixed sites are those that combine cultural and natural significance. In the cultural context, Maloti-Drakensberg, as it’s also known, is home to several caves and rock shelters and has a concentration of paintings believed to represent the spiritual life of our ancestors who called this place home an eternity ago.

From a spiritual perspective — which would explain my reluctance even to spend a night in one should I ever set up camp here — these caves hold secrets to the ways of those who came before us. They are sacred.

On the other hand, despite being the world’s second-tallest waterfall (behind Venezuela’s Salto Ángel), uThukela — cascading and plunging 800m down the crags — is barely rated a must-see. But that’s never a bad thing because it lets nature just be. This also spares admirers from being overwhelmed by shuffling selfie-stick-brandishing been-there brigades not famous for pausing to experience their surroundings.

Having small numbers affords sightseers the privilege of actually seeing and relishing the sight as thousands of cubic metres of water rapidly crash to the valley floor, as if on repeat, to traverse 500km, then empty into the Indian Ocean.

Viewed from the Amphitheatre — the pain of summiting mingles with unscriptable joys and reverie with reality — spellbound by this unfolding drama, water cascading as it plunges, confirms just how beautiful Mother Nature is.

Towering 3 000m above sea level, the plateau is trapped in white-grey-gold clouds in the afternoon. Mountains and clouds often smooch in these climes. Only metres away, Lesotho, home to serial cloud-kisser Mont Aux Sources (near where uThukela and iGqili or Orange rivers rise), reveals brae after brae and cliffs at a distance with villages on both sides of the border melted into the horizon.

Beyond the now-slowly moving clouds, impressive verdant vistas bless the eye from just about every angle. One can never get enough of this type of nourishment.


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