I think it’s safe to say that most people know how much I love South Africa. I happen to think we are fortunate enough to live in the most beautiful country in the world. So it’s always a pleasure when friends come to visit from far-flung lands and the opportunity arises to play tour guide.
The Irish only had two and a bit days to spend in KZN before leaving for the Kruger, and because one of them had been to Durban to visit me before, and they would be doing the beach thing on the Garden Route, we decided to head to the Berg for a night. A bit of a drive for just one night, but totally worth it – the Berg is undoubtedly one of the best places in SA. We based ourselves in Mountain Park Hotel, which is in Bulwer just outside Underberg. To be honest, the choice was made primarily because they did full board, and the idea of fitting four people, their luggage, and food into Meredith the Atos made self-catering seem completely impractical. In hindsight, the Mountain Park was perhaps not the most African of experiences I could have offered the Irish, although it certainly gave them a good look at our colonial past. The hotel is allegedly haunted, and they have really worked this in into every aspect of the guest experience. Think dark furnishings, creepy porcelain dolls, an abandoned school desk outside one of the rooms, and a dungeon bar. And of course a flip folder full of stories detailing sightings of the plethora of ghosts said to haunt the establishment (which I tried not to judge for the innumerable spelling mistakes). Being the sceptic that I am, I was not sold on the ghostly tales, but I will definitely give them points for committing to the story and creating a really creepy atmosphere….not helped by the fact that we were the only guests staying in the hotel that night. I wouldn’t say the Mountain Park Hotel was the best accommodation I’ve ever experienced – the staff erred on the side of unprofessional, and my poor room mate had the most uncomfortable bed she’d ever slept (or tried to sleep) in – but it was really reasonably priced, and the food was tasty old-fashioned fare.
Our initial foray from the hotel took us to the Marutswa Forest. To be honest, normally when we go to the Berg, we’re fairly (read very) lazy and don’t walk further than from the car to the house – we’re soaking up the tranquillity you see. But since one half of the Irish couple is quite the energetic individual, we thought we’d appease him with a walk through the forest. Nothing quite as silly as a hike up a mountain of course, just the easy-paced, flat trail through this indigenous forest. We were theoretically supposed to be on the look out for the endangered Cape Parrot, but of course they were nowhere to be seen, and we were quite content to just amble along under the canopy of ancient yellowwood trees. I think the Irish were quite happy to have the shade for a bit! If you are a bird watcher, this is apparently the place to go in the Berg, and you can also hire a professional bird guide to help you out. I thought it was quite sweet that they operate on an honesty box system when the offices are closed, and the donation of R20 per person is well worth it to see this kind of conservation in action. The trail is well-maintained and there is a craft shop at reception that sadly was closed when we were there but looked as if it had some lovely items on offer.
On the way back from Marutswa we stopped off at the tiny 125 year old Yellowwood Chapel for a wander around. A touch on the random side, but it really is very pretty and given the theme of our hotel, a stroll around the graveyard seemed fitting.
We survived the night unscathed by ghostly encounters, and hit the road towards Underberg the next morning. Once you drive through Underberg, taking the Drakensberg Gardens road is really one of the best ways to feel as if you are in the mountains without having to drive as far as the Drakensberg proper. A good tour guide always allows for photo opportunities, so of course we had to do a couple of stops on the side of the road, which may or may not have involved some light trespassing. There is something so breathtaking about the crisp blue sky touching down on the rugged backs of the mountains that no matter how many times I travel that road, I just can’t get sick of it.
Trespassing is thirsty work, so we made our way to the spectacular Castleburn resort for milkshakes all round. The setting for this resort is simply gorgeous, and we have vowed to make a plan to stay there…when we are feeling flush of course.
We have a tradition of visiting the Underberg Studio every time we’re in Underberg, and I cannot say enough in praise of the beautiful ceramics and photography they stock. On this visit, I was finally ready to commit to purchasing two of the photographs taken by the extremely talented co-owner, Lawrance Brennon. I have to give credit to the rest of the touring brigade who put up with my endless “this one, no this one, no this one” inability to choose from the array of phenomenal shots of the Drakensberg, and to the photographer’s wife Catherine (who is responsible for much of the ceramic work on display) for saving me from my indecision. If you’re in Underberg, or anywhere nearby, you absolutely have to pay them a visit.
Homeward bound, we decided to stop in at the Pickle Pot just outside Boston (a throbbing metropolis indeed) for a spot of lunch. This is a very quaint little roadside stop, with lush gardens, friendly staff, and delicious food. Definitely recommended. And their shop sells a fabulous range of coffees, chutneys, jams and pickles (obviously).
Once back in Durban, the final leg of our whirlwind tour was a visit to Moyo for dinner. It may seem kind of cheesy to locals but I don’t think you can host tourists and not take them to Moyo. We started out at the relatively new Pier Bar, which clings to the end of the pier and gives visitors a panoramic view over the ocean and the skyline of Durban. And they serve mammoth cocktails that are absolutely well worth the R40 or R50 for a daiquiri. Once we’d finally managed to slurp down our cocktails, we made our way into the restaurant itself to enjoy a wonderful meal. I’ve had mixed experiences at Moyo but on this occasion they really delivered. The atmosphere was, as always, magical – the Irish contingent really seemed to enjoy the hand washing and face painting rituals, and the intermittent visits to our table from wandering musicians. The service was a tad slow but our waiter made up for this with his friendly demeanour. And the food was absolutely worth the wait. Delectable steaks, fragrant curries and tasty game, followed by decadent desserts, sent us all into the night smiling with the uncomfortably pleasant sensation of being well and truly full.
There are so many other places I could have taken the Irish but time was short and I think we did quite well, covering over 500km and a fair few sights in a day and a half. And despite James’ policy of never visiting the same country twice, I’m sure they’ll be back. You can never get enough of South Africa.