Johannesburg to Royal Natal National Park

Garden Court Hotel Johannesburg

Breakfast at the Garden Court was as crowded as being in the middle of herd of buffalo. Large groups of Springbok (national rugby team) fans dressed in the appropriate colors chowing down on fatty breakfast offerings. Fortunately the staff is quite accommodating (most likely working for tips) and saves us a table for two while we stand in the hot food line. In addition to the usual hot breakfast meats and eggs they have sautéed veggies with onions and peppers, corn and crispy pan-fried potatoes, as well as a nice fruit and yogurt selection.

Johannesburg to Royal Natal National Park

For once getting out of Jo’burg is easy and with simple directions we find the N3 to Harrismith. On a Sunday morning the drive is a breeze with little traffic and no road construction. In early spring the sparse herds of scrawny African cattle don’t have much to graze on; the open fields are still mostly brown. We stop for groceries in Harrismith, an attractive small town with a river flanked by graceful willows running through it. The Pick and Save is clean and well stocked with the most racially-integrated mix of patrons we have seen yet.

Taking the N5 outside of Harrismith we soon meet the R74 where our road luck runs out. Long sections are under construction with traffic down to one lane, each direction taking turns going while the other direction waits. Along this road the scenery becomes more dramatic with cliffs rising from the grassy plains.

We climb up Oliviershoek pass and then switchback down the other side with magnificent views of the wide valley below.

Royal Natal National Park

Once on the valley floor we turn west and there it is: the famed precipice, the Amphitheater of Royal Natal National Park clearly defined in the distance.

The spectacular range looms above the hills and small subsistence dwellings. The road to the park is busy with locals and animals. Adults and children wander along the road or wait for transportation while skinny cows and sheep graze wherever they can find grass.

Inside the park the Tendele Hutted Camp is tucked away on the side of the hill with magnificent views of the Amphitheater.

Hike to Sunday Falls

The weather is clear except for a bit of haze from a recent controlled patch burning, a pity really. Unfortunately the electricity is off and we sort out getting some ice for our meat before heading out for our first hike. We don’t want to waste the lovely late afternoon light.

The mountains here are squarish cliffs that seem to push out from the grassy floor. This time of year, late September, the upper hills are green and grassy with occasional areas of shrubs and scrubby trees. The hike up to Sunday Falls is a gentle climb up rolling hills before flattening out across a plateau and then descending down to a small pool with the falls below.

A wonderful feeling to walk freely in these beautiful hills without fear of predators or criminals. The first time we’ve felt truly free and safe since we’ve been in South Africa. In the late afternoon light the hills glow golden against the greener upper hills, already alive with spring color.

Short on time, we walk quickly, snapping frequent photos and making it to the falls in just 45 minutes. We take a few more shots and head back. You don’t want to be walking or driving in the dark.

Back at the Chalet

Back at our chalet we sit on the terrace and with a glass of wine taking in the last rays of light on the cliff. As the sun goes down the temperature drops quickly. The lights come back on shortly before 6PM as promised but are out again before 6:30. We cook and eat by the light of our head lamps and the lame candle – producing more melted wax than light – that camp staff has brought us.

They have also furnished us with a gas burner to cook on. Thank goodness we opted for a one-pot chicken stew. Don goes in search of matches just in case we don’t have electricity come morning and talks one of the caretakers into lending him his personal box of matches, promising to return them in the morning.

The hot stew hits the spot in the cold night air. The dark night sky lights up like a pinball machine, so many stars and the Milky Way clearly visible. Just as we finish eating the lights come back on. No worries for breakfast.

September 25, 2011

For links to all the posts in this series see the South Africa page.