Category Archives: Outdoors

Hiking in the Drakensberg – Part II

Our tent

The next morning we woke up to another constant drizzle outside. The rain simply was not in any mood of stopping. As we made our way out of the tent to see how it looked like outside, we heard some shouting and commotion in the far distance. Immediately our guide also got out to see what was going on. Later he explained what we had seen. Apparently some of the locals regularly smuggle a weed called Dagga from neighbouring country Lesotho through the mountains into South Africa. And they often mistake hikers and tourists for cops. So, the commotion we had heard was them spotting our tents and then making a run for it. They don’t come and attack or anything, they just run as far away from onlookers as possible. So we had a nice chuckle about this. The guide also showed us smoke billowing out from some sections in the mountains where this weed was being smoked.

Dagga weed

Walking in the mountains is actually not as difficult as it appears to be when one stares at a mountain. All mountain slopes have wide enough paths that the locals have been using for years to cross. So we kept walking along the long and winding paths, up, down and around one mountain to the next. On the way we passed caves (where hikers usually take shelter and even stay the night), interesting rock formations, beautiful waterfalls, steep drops and lots of heavy mist floating up and down the valley, seemingly having a mind of its own. We were reminded of Tolkien’s misty mountains and many a Led Zeppelin song. The scenery was stunningly beautiful and the mist made it look even better, although we knew that the more the mist, the more the chance of the rain not stopping. But the rain did stop in the middle and we were actually somewhat hopeful of making it all the way to the summit.

With our guide

Finally when we were not all that far from Rockeries pass, the guide showed us how the mist was very heavy around the pass and that it may not be safe to cross if it suddenly decided to rain again. We were a bit disappointed of course but we thought it is better to be safe than over-ambitious on our very first trek. So we stopped right there for about half an hour or so and had some boiled eggs, an apple and some fruit juice. After taking plenty of photos in all possible directions, we started on the journey back to the base camp.

The rain started steadily increasing again and we could hear some thunder too from time to time. As we made our way back, there were a few places where either the mud was very slippery or there was hardly a wide enough path in front of us. So at certain times we had to grab hold of as much grass as possible on the mountainside in order to not slip. Our shoes did a great job though! Just before this hike we had bought good quality hiking shoes and this return journey provided plenty of proof why it is so important to get hiking shoes and not try to manage using running shoes.

As we reached the camp site, our main guide said to us that a big storm was coming and that soon the whole area would be covered in snow! Originally we had planned to camp for one more night but we had to modify that plan. Otherwise we would be stranded in the snow for god knows how long. Also, we had some winter clothing but it was not quite enough for a storm of this size. And so almost immediately we started on the journey back to Mnweni Centre. Both guides folded up the tents and we packed our bags. The plan was to back-track the whole route and maybe stop briefly at the river where we had had our breakfast the previous day.

When we reached the river, it was overflowing. The rain was heavier now and the water flow was much stronger than before. So, instead of crossing the river and taking the same route as before, we took an alternate route. This route proved to be one of the most adventurous things in the whole trip! It went on and on forever and walking in the freezing rain was becoming harder and harder by the minute. To make things worse, we suddenly came to a part of the mountain where there was no distinct path at all in front of us. We literally had to grab hold of as much grass as possible on the mountain side and slide down to the next faintly visible path below. It felt like we were going to slide down the mountain in a free-fall.

After what felt like an eternity, we finally got to some relatively level ground not that far away from the homesteads that we had passed on our way here. My legs were killing me at this point! Thankfully I did not have any sprain or fracture, though I did slip and fall a couple of times. But my knees, especially the right one for some reason, were aching continuously with every step I took. I think what had happened was, we got no rest whatsoever from the time we came back from the higher mountains to the base camp. As soon as we reached the camp, we had to start walking again immediately because of the approaching storm. So all this took its toll on my legs and I basically limped the whole way back to the Centre. My wife surprisingly seemed fine compared to the state I was in. But both of us were clearly visibly exhausted from the hike, the freezing temperature and the endless rain. Meanwhile, we saw our guides happily walking back with the same 20 something kilos on their back as if nothing had happened. I suppose that is what regular hiking in the mountains does to you!

As we walked back, we turned around to see that the mountains were now completely covered in mist. As we got further and further away and back on the road to the Centre, snow started falling over the mountainous horizon. What a sight it was! Every time we turned around to look, more snow had fallen on the slopes. They were getting whiter by the minute and it was getting easier to distinguish the mist from the snow. The place where we had camped overnight was now covered in white! We were thankful to the guide for having good judgment and saving us from the storm. But a part of me still wished that we had camped in the snow. Nonetheless, a brown and green landscape with snow-capped mountains in the horizon was the image lingering in our minds as we reached the Mnweni Centre.

So that’s the story. Sorry for writing such a long account but I wanted to describe our first hiking experience in detail. There are still things that I have left out but I could go on and on if I wanted to. The bottom line is that, despite the fact that we ran into unexpected and unfriendly weather which cut short our hike from 2-1/2 days to 1-1/2 days, we still enjoyed it very much. Even if we don’t head back to the Drakensberg for a while now, we want to start doing more day hikes in our own area. After all, it is a great way to stay healthy at a reasonable cost while also catching some lovely scenery along the way.


Hiking in the Drakensberg – Part I

We’d been wanting to hike in the Drakensberg mountains for quite some time, so we finally went and did it last weekend. This was our second time in the Berg. The first time though, was purely a tourist visit to Champagne Valley and Monk’s Cowl. My mom and sis were visiting at the time, so we did not want to attempt any hectic hikes. Ever since that first visit when we saw the stunning beauty of the area with our own eyes, we had been dying to come back for a proper hike. It finally happened in September 2012.

I took a Friday off from work and we set off on the road Thursday afternoon. It was roughly a 5 hour journey covering 450 km to the small town of Bergville. From there it was about 35 km to an area called Mnweni and this included 17 km of unpaved dirt road. After getting a bit lost (which seems like a normal occurrence now especially in the Drakensberg) we finally reached the Mnweni Centre where we met with our guide and porter. The plan was to stay the night there and then start on the hike the following morning. We had our dinner quickly, which consisted of sandwiches that my wife had packed for the evening and then went to bed in our rondavel (traditional African hut). Though there was no TV in the room and no plug points, it was good, basic, reasonably priced, self-catering accommodation.

The next morning we woke up early to get ready. A light drizzle had started outside. After having a quick breakfast of oats we started on the hike with our guide and porter. We had found the guide from the internet and he arranged the porter, a local from the area who also acted as a guide as well. Both my wife and I had backpacks weighing 5 kilos or so and these guys had huge backpacks weighing maybe 20 kilos each. They brought everything for us, food for the journey, cooking utensils, tents to sleep in, sleeping bags, air mattresses and so on. At around 8:30 am, we headed from the Centre on the dirt road towards the mountains.

This was my first time out on a proper hike. I had done a few runs and walks before but they were all on level ground. This was in the mountains. Makes a big difference! After walking about 5 km or so I was already tired from the weight of the backpack and the uphill road. Thankfully we stopped every now and then for 5 or 10 min and took photos and stuff. So it wasn’t too bad. The scenery got better and better as we reached closer to the foot of the mountains.

We passed several settlements and homesteads, all sporting the typically round huts, a rooster and some cattle. It was interesting to see how the locals lived in this area. One thing that was funny to see was that some of these homesteads, no matter how rural and impoverished they looked, had visible satellite dish connections. I guess that’s the scene in a country which is both developed and developing. Also, our guide explained that these people get utilities like water and electricity as well as other things like education and medicine all subsidized by the government.

After about 11 km or so of walking, we stopped for a quick brunch by the banks of the Ntonyelane river. The guide prepared some buns with cheese and tomato and gave us 2 hot mugs of coffee. That was a much needed break.

Then we headed on towards the area where we would camp for the night. The path was really interesting and the mountain scenery just kept getting better and better. Since it was in-between seasons, we saw plenty of brown and green. In a few areas in the mountains, the demarcation between dried brown grass and lush green grass was striking and this made it look beautiful from a distance.

Finally we reached a relatively flat area where our guide decided to put up the tents. It was a lovely spot with more scenic mountains ahead of us and a cliff to some distance to our right overlooking the same river that we had crossed earlier. Actually we were going to camp even further along the route but the ever increasing rain and the fact that we were inexperienced hikers made the guide decide to stop where we were, even though it was only around 2 pm now. For the rest of the afternoon and evening we spent our time in the tent, reading books, sipping on coffee or tea, having noodles and generally staring at the rain and wishing for it to stop.

Staying in a tent overnight was quite an experience! As the sun set, it got pitch dark outside with nothing but the sound of birds and the occasional growls of baboons high up in the mountains. Our guide assured us that these baboons do not come down the mountain towards humans, unless we specially attract them with fire or food. So we were not that scared or anything but it was still a bit unnerving sleeping on a grassy mountainside out in the wild. The one thing that we missed dearly was a starry night sky. The relentless rain had covered the sky up with clouds. That’s the thing with the weather in the Drakensberg. They say it can change in a matter of 5 min. Anyway, since we were in a well-protected tent, we did not get too wet or anything. Plus, we had raincoats. In the middle of the night if we had to pee, we had to go outside the tent in pitch dark, quickly finish the job and scurry back in. And of course, twisting and turning around on the thin air mattress did give us its share of back pain. But one can’t complain too much. That is what you get if you want to experience sleeping in the wild.

The Best and Worst things about living in South Africa – Part I

Got this idea from another blogger’s post on the most frustrating things about living in Germany. So I was wondering about what they would be for me. But I’ll start with the positive…

The Best Things about SA:

Natural Beauty: It is a beautiful country with vast stretches of open land, majestic mountains and never-ending blue skies filled with fluffy white clouds. The sky here is a sight of its own! I have not seen so many different colours and pretty cloud formations anywhere else. The gorgeous reddish orange sunsets are simply to die for! The thunder and lightning also present quite the spectacle with huge menacing bolts from the sky or as we saw in the Drakensberg, continuous flickering over a mountainous horizon making it look like God’s light bulbs are going out. Road trips are a must here for any traveller, no matter how short or long the duration of stay.

Road Infrastructure: Speaking of roads, they are some of the best in the world. Sure, you would find potholes on narrow country roads but the highways and most of the roads in major cities like Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town are world class. They have been like that for many years, although recently many of the major highways were redone for the World Cup in 2010. Also, since most of the country is mountainous there are a lot of ups and downs in the landscape. This gives a lovely look to the highways in combination with the beautiful blue skies.

Climate: The climate of SA really is one of the best in the world. The summers are hot but never get too unbearable. If you are around Pretoria, Johannesburg or Cape Town in summer it is lovely and not too humid. Durban can get quite humid in summer but it is absolutely beautiful and warm in winter. As for winters in Pretoria and Joburg, they get very cold only for a short duration in June/July. Cape Town gets rain in winter. But overall, it is a very mild and moderate climate. It hardly ever snows here which can be a bummer depending on how you look at it, sitting comfy at home staring out the window or struggling with your work commute. But the lack of snow is a somewhat small sacrifice for such polite and relatively unchanging weather throughout the year.

Cost of Living: The cost of living is generally cheap. One can find a decent looking 2 bedroom apartment here for about R5000 which comes to about 15% of the average salary for a skilled professional. So, one gets to save on a monthly basis after meeting all obligations. That is comforting when compared to many other countries where the house rent itself eats away at a chunk of the monthly salary. And since South Africa is sort of a combination of a developing as well as a developed country in many ways, good quality merchandise is generally available at moderate prices. My mum-in-law said it herself when she was here a couple of months back. She was able to purchase 2 heavy woollen coats, 1 light leather jacket, 2 pairs of leather gloves and a leather handbag, all for about R3000. That is not a bad deal considering the top notch quality of the material.

Ease of Exploration: The country is not very difficult to explore due to its manageable size. And there is a wide variety of landscapes from mountains to deserts and grasslands to beaches, all within a somewhat small to medium sized country. There is only one standard time zone here, so there are no issues of jetlag and other such inconveniences. Also, the domestic flights are quite efficient and many in number. There are low cost options available too such as Kulula, Mango and 1Time, in addition to the national carrier SAA.

Work-Life Balance: Generally I have seen from my own experience and from talking to people that there is a good work-life balance here. The number of ‘paid vacation’ days usually provided annually by companies is more than the average number in the US. On a weekly basis, people generally work much more during the week than during weekends. The problem with this of course is that it applies to the retail sector as well. So, shops generally close between 2 to 4 pm during weekends. But as long as we plan our shopping early, it does not matter. It is certainly a good thing that there is emphasis on weekend family time. The national pastime here is barbecuing or as it is called in local lingo, ‘braai’. When the sun is out, nothing pleases a South African more than hanging out on the lawn with friends and family around a smoking braai grill.

To be continued in Part II … Thanks for reading.

A visit to Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve

Last weekend one of our good friends was visiting from Delhi and so we decided to give her an authentic South African safari experience. Since I could not afford to take leave, we thought it would be best to cover a close by place. So, Rhino and Lion Park it was. And boy, it turned out to be one of the best safaris we have ever been to! Here are some photos:

First came the generally easy-to-spot zebras.

Then we saw some handsome Gemsbok…

…followed by alert-looking ostriches staring into the horizon.

A little later we headed to the Predator Camp where it was feeding time for the whole pride…

…with eagles circling above.

We were also lucky enough to see a few agile cheetahs.

As we left the predator camp, we caught one of the many varieties of deer in the grass

…followed by some wildebeest

And buffalo

Then finally my favourite, the magnificent rhinos!

We ended the evening at the Wondercave in Kromdraai.

My first time hang gliding experience

A couple of weeks back I went hang gliding for the first time. My wife had been itching to do adventure sports, so I surprised her by booking a tandem hang gliding session on a random Sunday morning. Tandem hang gliding is basically introductory hang gliding where you physically hold on to an instructor as you hang-glide and the instructor does all the work like maneuvering, ascending, descending and landing. Normally from what I have heard, people jump off a mountain in order to hang-glide but here we took off from a small runway. A microlight or small plane engine with a glider frame was connected by rope to our glider. As the pilot of the microlight accelerated and took off, we were also lifted up into the air. It seemed like an easier or at least less intimidating way to go up rather than simply jumping off a cliff over jagged rocks below. Once we were all the way up and started coasting at a certain height, the instructor released the rope. From that point on, our instructor had full control of the glider. The microlight then prepared to land so that the pilot could help other people take off.

The place where we did this was called Aviator’s Paradise and it is near Hartbeespoort dam and the Magaliesburg mountain range. So the scenery from up above was absolutely stunning! Several evenly ploughed, beautiful, circular fields started coming into view as we made the ascent, along with gorgeous views of mountains, lakes and white clouds against the azure sky. The instructor had an altitude meter attached to one end of the glider and he periodically glanced at it in order to gauge our position and maneuver accordingly. He had also attached these small, very hi-tech, shock resistant cameras to each end of the glider, so as to capture the whole flight on video. The video was included in the price of the flight. That was nice.

The feeling that we got from this experience was nothing short of exhilarating, but something happened which neither I nor my wife expected. We both started feeling incredibly queasy and almost on the verge of throwing up as we reached about 800 metres. So we both had to tell the instructor to quickly start making the descent lest we start vomiting from the heavens! See, actually what happened was that our flights got delayed because of excessive wind early in the morning. The instructor was not comfortable doing the flight with so much wind blowing in a particular direction. So we had to wait. He told us to go get breakfast in the meantime and come back in an hour or two. So we went and had a nice breakfast of pancakes and coffee. We were indeed conscious about the fact that it may cause queasiness in the flight. So, after eating we left a gap of around an hour or so before flying. But apparently it wasn’t enough.

Hence it is very important for any curious people out there who want to try hang gliding: Don’t eat anything! Or eat very little… maybe a muesli bar or something, just to satisfy that bit of hunger in the morning. Otherwise, it really does take away something special from the whole experience because as soon as you go up, you feel like you want to come back down again.

Anyway, it was awesome fun to do it and I would surely do it again… only with hardly any food in the belly!