Text and photographs: Stephen Smith
It’s winter, and the wind is howling at the walls and roof of the cottage. I’ve gently drifted into consciousness, the warmth of the bed emphasised by the cold of my nose. But the ‘berg is one of those places where you revel in the cold, a masochistic destination for some, and the opportunity to wear those furry gumboots for others.
I poke a hand out from under the duvet, and steal a glance at my watch: 6:03. Rumour has it that the sun will be making an appearance any time now, and everyone always says that the best time to take photographs in the mountains is just after sunrise.
So, summoning up an immense amount of personal courage, I leap out of bed and into my awaiting clothes, cleverly and carefully laid out the night before. When I’m finally ready to open the door from the bedroom into the rest of the cottage, and eventually the great outdoors, I feel like an onion – many layered?
I grab an apple as I head out of the door, camera over my shoulder, but soon realise that you can’t eat an apple with your hands in your pockets, so I stash it in my jacket and wait for the sun to warm the world up before having a snack.
In the greyish-blue light of predawn everything is silent. The wind has dropped, and the birds are only just beginning to stir. I want to get down from Thendele camp, in the foothills surrounding the Amphitheatre, and into the Thukela riverbed, now almost dry in the middle of a snow-free winter. From there I might be able to get a clear view of the amphitheatre.
But when the sun makes its first appearance twenty minutes later I’m still clambering down the hillside through patches of burnt grass and heather, a kilometre or so from where I was hoping to be. I take a few nice shots of the sun rising over the mountains and the proteas, and carry on down the mountain. When I eventually get to the riverbed where the view of the amphitheatre is best, the moment has passed, but I take some pics anyway.
Then I take out my apple, and take a gentle stroll back up to the camp, to wake up the rest of the family and get them to make me breakfast?
We were at Thendele for my mother’s birthday weekend, and it is the perfect place for such an occasion. The chalets are comfortable and well-equipped, and are fitted to be totally self-catering. This means everything from a satellite-equipped TV, microwave, full-size fridge, oven, as well as a fireplace and comfortable dining and lounge areas.
Thendele is the only hutted camp at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Royal Natal National Park in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, and has a total of 94 beds. Set as it is at the end of a “residents only” road there is no traffic to ruin the serenity of the place, and it’s spread out enough not to be crowded.
If staying in the variety of two, four or six bed chalets, or the more exclusive six-bed lodge, doesn’t meet your tastes or your budget, there are also two camp sites in Royal Natal. The Mahai campsite has a total of 80 campsites, 40 with electricity and 40 without, while the smaller Rugged Glen campsite has 10 campsites with electricity and 5 without.
Royal Natal is a place for strolls, walks, and hikes, and there is a great selection of routes for each of these levels of difficulty. If hiking to the top of the Sentinel (at 3165 metres), for one of the world’s great views, is beyond you, then you can take a gentle stroll along the contours to Tiger Falls, or climb the slightly more taxing Policeman’s Helmet. Or you can do the Gorge Walk to the base of the Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall in the world that drops a total of 947 metres in five stages, and the highest in Africa.
But walking isn’t the only attraction, and the other popular ‘Berg pastime, flyfishing for trout, can be undertaken in the park’s dam all year round, or in the Thukela or Mahai rivers, in season.
Royal Natal, though, is one of those places that is so relaxing that you don’t seem to do the things that you planned on doing. It’s very easy to sit in the gently warming sun, admiring the grandeur of the amphitheatre, drinking tea and chatting. Before you know it the morning has passed, and that stroll to the Cascades never materialised.
But that is what holidays are for, especially family ones; relaxing and spending time with the people closest to you. And when you’re staying at Thendele, if they start to get on your nerves you can always tell them to take a hike?
HOW TO GET THERE
From the north turn off the N3 just past Ladysmith on to the N11 and proceed to Bergville. The reserve is well signposted from here.
From the south turn off the N3 at the Winterton/Berg Resorts off-ramp and proceed to Bergville.
WHAT IT COSTS
The self-catering rate starts at R360 an adult (R180 a child) a night. Camping is priced at R80 and R70 per person for sites with and without electricity respectively.
The camp reception also has a shop that sells a wide variety of curios, as well as basic grocery supplies and firewood.