Hidden treasures of the Northern Drakensberg

I’ve lived in Newcastle KZN on and off for over a year now,yet I still find new secrets amongst the mountains that enfold this town.

Last weekend a friend took us to his grandfather’s farm on the D6. Turn left at the McDonalds and you are suddenly,stunningly transported from a bustling commercial settlement and onto a lumpy bumpy dust road, winding its way into distant purple hills. On either side are vast grasslands. Birds of all kinds burst out of the golden sea as we drove past; this area is a hotspot for migratory birds year round. I saw finches, sparrows,starlings, mynas, whydahs, weaver birds starting to turn into their yellow summer coats and at least 3 types of shirkes ,including one with a plum coloured head busily stringing bees onto the barbs of the roadside fences. Redbilled oxpeckers  sat on the back of every cow we passed, and watched us sedately as we roared by in a cloud of dust. There were several cranes and geese flying by that I could not identify.

  Within ten minutes the last vestiges of town had disappeared. On all sides the moutains reared up; far from the main tourist attractions of the Drakensberg range, these are still impressive things, as imposing as Cathedral Peak and as timeless-looking as Giant’s Castle. I do not know if any of them are named. The only landmark I could identify was the plateau topped one in the far distance that marks the position of the Memel road. I think its also the location of Botha’s pass? The cold winter air made for marvellous viewing, even with the sun glare factored in, and every time you looked beyond a mountain,you saw another, until all I was seeing was vague purple shadows gradually fading into the cerulean dome of the sky.

The Ncandu river ran through this farm, we were told as we drove through the herds of ruminating brown cattle. I stood up in the back of the bakkie and looked in vain for any sign of a river. We parked the car, and began a short hike through the grass. Have you ever really listened to the noise elephant grass makes in winter? Reaching way over my head, it whispered at me with every breath of the breeze intermittently passing through it. The sun seemed to glint off of every blade and stabbed my eyes until it was all I could do to follow the person walking ahead of me. One had to watch one’s step; the ground was not even and the thick grass covered loose rocks and sudden holes well designed to wrench an ankle or break an unwary fibula. Nontheless, it was a magical walk,like being encased in a soft golden cocoon.

  The sussurating grass hid the little stream that becomes the Ncandu so completely,that I only heard its watery tinkle when we actually stepped into it. It forms a charming little secret pool between the savanna and the side of a mountain. Duiker tracks in the sand indicated its normal inhabitants were somewhere nearby, hiding from us. The river flows over two tiny rapids, with a clear still pool in between them, reflecting the sky. All very picturesque, and I rather imagined myself stumbling upon this place, like Bear Grylls, and deciding to live there forever. We followed the river up a short way, to a stand of old eucalypt. The ground beneath them was littered with white droppings, black and white feathers, and what appeared to be hairballs.We assumed an owl lived there,and spent a long time serching for it amongst the branches, in vain. We began what turned out to be quite an arduous climb up to the top of what had seemed, from the bottom, to be a small hill.The sides were steep, the boulders loose, and the grass obscured any sense of direction or horizon. Over an hour later, we had only made it halfway up and decided to stop and turn back as the sun was setting. Too exhausted to unsling my camera, it was then that we saw the eagle in the eucalypt. He was a huge bird, creamy white underneath and brown on top, with black tail feathers. We oohed and aahed at him through the binoculars, and he stared back at us from his perch, large yellow eyes blinking lazily in the sun.After a while, he opened a pair of massive wings and glided gently off, rising on some unseen air current, and vanishing over the tops of our heads.

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