I thought I knew the Midlands intimately but perhaps I was thinking too local, apparently there is far more to the Midlands than the R103 Hilton to Nottingham road. Driving past Mooi River, we passed along a very scenic and lesser travelled district road to Antbear Lodge, the starting destination of a newly curated 3 day slackpack in the area. Rising out from the grassy hills and deep valleys mushroomed a series of thatched domes nestled amongst the bush veld environment. Pulling up to the front of the lodge we marvelled at the intricately hand carved windows and doors, not unlike a magical scene from Narnia. For owner Andrew Attwood, woodwork has been a proud family legacy founded by his father Bruce. Walking into the reception felt like being in a giant wooden toy shop for adults, every door hinge, lampshade and table was a unique piece, lovingly carved out of lumps of often locally harvested alien trees like Blue Gum and Jacaranda.
That afternoon we met our affable guide for the trip, Deon Small, an experienced high mountain guide who regularly escorts people into the high Drakensberg wilderness. Hailing from Escourt he has played an intricate role in trying to revive tourism in the Escourt/Mooi River valley. He tells us how Escourt was once known to be the epicentre of many important industries, with companies such as Nestle and Albany Bread based in the area. Sadly, centralisation of industry to major cities has left small towns like Escourt high and dry, with little work to support families living here. Tourism, Deon believes is the key to its make-over.
After a welcoming meet and greet, we then sat down to a delicious meal, many of the ingredients sourced or produced locally. The relative remoteness of the place has made self-sufficiency not just a core value but a necessity, and it was encouraging learning how this slackpack initiative hopes to bring business to the locals to sustain its micro-economy.
After a scrumptious breakfast it was a leisurely start to the day. Heading off through a pretty grassland we ascended the valley slowly taking time to get to know a young millennial blogging couple who had also come along on the slackpack to capture photos and footage. The effortless hum of the overhead drone taking 360-degree video’s made our onward progress look pitifully insufficient but thanks to our patient guide we slowly creased the top with magnificent views. Extending beyond the Langibelele valley rose a jigsaw of ancient rock making up the southern Drakensberg skyline. The White Mountain, an ever-present feature on this hike lay in the foreground shouldered by the sleeping Giant of Giants Castle and the rest of the Kamberg Valley. We strode onwards on a grassy cattle path into the next valley to enjoy a picnic lunch and refreshing swim near a small plunge pool. Twelve kilometers later we arrived at our next night’s stay, a family run agritourism farm called Lepards Lair. Hankering for a cold beer, these warm farmers knew how to please. An unbelievable hearty lamb potjie washed down with long slugs of red wine was the perfect end to a great day’s hike. What I loved most about this stay was the personal touches, even the soap (sculpted into a little sheep) was handmade! Surrounded by a menagerie of farm animals; an intrepid gosling, a spirited lamb and an orphaned Eland, the stay added character and colour to our travel experiences.
Day 2: Awoken by the merry clucking and mooing of farm animals, we had a hearty boere farm breakfast before charging our water bottles, packing our picnic lunches and heading off up the hill. Leaving the neatly planted mielie farm we soon rose out of the valley to reach some high wild grassland. It was magic on top looking down the valley of spurs and ridges, it certainly felt as though we were nearing the foothills of the Drakensberg. Some of the grassland specialists we spotted included Larks, Grassbirds, an Orange Throated Long Claw and a rather prehistoric Secretary Bird stalking across the grassland like a T-Rex in search of a snaky treat. This area is also home to some rare and highly endemic butterflies including the Midlands Widow, Estcourt Blue and Mooi River Opal. With proposed plans to build a vulture feeding restaurant/bird hide this will certain add value to the hike experience.
From here we headed along an old farm track into the next valley where we chanced upon an old farmhouse ruin with a looted 1943 grave of local farmer Herbert Gerald Wheeler. We wondered what motivated the grave-robbers? Were they in search of hidden treasures, or perhaps to satisfy the demands of an ever-growing muthi market?
The walking was fairly easy going and after a 3.5 hours amble, we finally arrived at the Zulu Waters Private Game Reserve. We were greeted warmly by the head game guard Mbongiseni Makhaye and Danish owner Michael Tetzlaff, who along with his wife Bettina, have recently taken over ownership and management of this 5 star lodge and private game reserve (apparently the only private game reserve in the Drakensberg). The Wembezi area Mbongiseni tells us, was at one time in the late 80’s and early 90’s a no-go area as battles between the IFP and ANC political groups raged. Fortunately political faction fighting has ceased allowing tourists to start enjoying this less visited areas remote and beautiful charm.
From here, Mbongiseni escorted us on a walking safari high above the banks of the Bushmans River. Meandering through this pristine reserve, it was a privilege to exchange bush stories with a man who has grown up in the area and holds a deep appreciation and passion for nature. Our early arrival could not have been better planned, Shaka’s Lodge is definitely a place you want to hang out in for the afternoon. This newly renovated lodge decked in rich wood and leather furnishings comes with its own private chef, deluxe king size beds, roof top jacuzzi, tennis court ( in case you are still eager to move your feet) and sweeping views overlooking a heated infinity pool. After a refreshing swim we dined like gourmets that night on tenderly seared antelope and fresh farm vegetables dressed in a balsalmic reduction. Wow!!!
On the third and last morning, we awoke to inspiring views of the reserve from our bed as we looked out of our master suite bedroom. Revitalised by a restful nights sleep, it was difficult to lace up the boots and leave this heavenly abode. Of course the regrets of an early departure were soon soothed with the splendid sights of teams of wilderbeest, zebra, antelope and 2 rhino strolling the grassy plains of this 3000 hectare reserve. Being entirely selfish, I took pleasure in the fact that we did not have to share our encounters with cars filled with other tourists. This sort of walking safari with luxury accommodation is a fabulous way to have an intimate wildlife experience without sacrificing your creature comforts. Heading back to Antbear Lodge for a cold beer and an afternoon departure was the perfect ending to a colourful and diverse slackpack, each day brought its own surprises and novelty’s and the people we meet brought a fullness and humanity to the stories of this little-known valley.