“If there’s anything wrong tell me, not that I’ll be able to do much about it, but always good to know”, our pilot who has the build of a rugby hooker, chuckles before we lift- off.
I can tell It’s a mantra he regularly uses to ‘calm’ nervous passengers.
“Look out for antelope, the Reebok, Bushbuck, Eland, even a leopard if you’re really lucky”, Renier shouts. “When we cross the ridges my heli wags its tail but that’s just turbulence, nothing more”.
We strap ourselves in and don headsets drowning out the noise of the chopper’s whirring rotor blades, experiencing the thrill of soaring through and over the mighty Drakensberg Mountains here in KwaZulu-Natal.
The passenger beside him has left her stomach in the burnt red earth below whilst we hover above the spikes of Dragensberg (Dragon Mountains) that rise to over 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) viewing Cathedral Peak, a popular climbers’ mountain.
The earliest hunter-gatherers roamed this area 8,000 years ago, leaving behind a legacy of numerous rock paintings within the caves and rock overhangs.
Looking down from these ‘Dragons Teeth’ to the lush valley floors far below, ghosts of the San bush tribes, stalking antelope with their bows and arrows in ancient times, can be imagined among the shadows.
Colonizing vanguards of Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaner and British drove them from the region. Today only those evocative paintings of the original settlers remain. Most of the wildlife, including spiral horned eland, the largest antelope in Southern Africa, considered sacred in San rock art were hunted out to extinction by the beginning of the 20th century. Together with other wildlife the Eland has been successfully re-introduced over the decades.
Our 20 minute flight with Westline Aviation cost approximately €75, fair value enough for this once in a lifetime experience that includes a glass of bubbly or other refreshments, and a stop off and walkabout on the mountain plateau, surrounded by jagged peaks with spectacular video and photo opportunities.
Yet complacency up here is not a good idea. “Stay away from those rocks” Renier warns anyone tempted to have a selfie sit- down “ plenty of snakes around here”.
He pours us a celebratory glass from a cool box and a glance at my watch shows that it’s a little on the early side (8am) for bubbles. Then we breathe in what locals call ‘champagne air’ due to the swirling breezes blowing around the pinnacle which may account for some extra lightheaded ness.
In a matter of a few weeks South Africa would enter coronavirus lockdown, leisure travel worldwide halted by late March 2020 as borders were sealed, quarantines were imposed and South Africa’s iconic safari lodges and parks were shuttered.
As the world re-opens South Africa’s spectacular scenery, wildlife watching and immersive cultural experiences is bouncing back up onto our bucket lists. The Covid-19 crisis also had a significant impact on funding for wildlife conservation, leaving South Africa’s endangered animals at severe risk from poaching.
Our adventure from base Drakensberg Sun Resort, set among luxuriant hillside landscaped gardens ,featured a bumpy jeep ride across dirt tracks, through villages and hamlets of huckster stalls into countryside where emaciated old men herded cattle and goats. Zulu women in colourful dresses with beaded bangles and necklaces passed balancing baskets of washing and stacks of wood on their heads.
We were following the trickle of a river with the unlikely name “The Dog that’s full” (Injisuthi) in search of rapids. Our Four Rivers mini-bus and trailer, piled with inflatable river craft, ground to a halt beside fields of tall reeds. At the river bank ‘Innocent’ the rafting guide pumped up a six- person inflatable boat, whose bottom contained too much water for my liking. There was no danger it would sink during our 14 km voyage, he said., “The crocodiles here are vegetarian”, his companion Rasta cackled.
Rounding the first bend of our rafting ‘experience’ we hit the first rapids and a crew member toppled overboard. With much shifting of weight and oar work we resumed our downstream course, managing to drag him aboard. A mother carrying her baby on her back through the fields gave a shy wave of encouragement whilst a bare chested man who appeared, high on dagga (Marijhuana) giggled uncontrollably at the spectacle.
Our late lunch was at Cathedral Peak Wine Estate., one of the region’s first vineyards, naming its wines after Zulu chiefs on whose lands the grapes are cultivated. Another memorable lunch in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands at rural retreat Fordoun Hotel & Spa, harked back to the days of colonialism, mirroring lifestyles of the past that could have been taken from the Out of Africa movie. KwaZulu-Natal is among South Africa’s less well known, scenically diverse and historic regions.
Don’t miss Durban’s Golden Mile, one of the world’s great urban beaches. Known as South Africa’s ‘surf city’ travellers come for its year round combination of sunshine, sand, sea and surf and of course we took a quick stab at learning to surf on one of the few rainy windswept days here followed by a cycle tour with Green Corridors and Bike & Saddle, a small eco active travel company.
The Nelson Mandela Capture Site’s enthralling and deeply moving exhibition and visitor centre in the Natal midlands is an absolute must heading northwards. Apartheid police who were hunting Nelson Mandela down stopped his car at a roadblock on August 5, 1962, the day which began his 27 years of incarceration.
The Big Five roam spectacular Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Wildlife Park, the oldest one in South Africa. The area of 230,000 acres, from mist shrouded mountainside to bush veld, is home to elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and Rhino, many different varieties of antelope and in the wetlands to the east Nile crocodile and hippos. Our base Thanda Safari private game reserve (www.thanda.com) a spectacularly located award winning tented camp is rated as among the top safari lodges in the country ,also known for its excellent conservation program. Nyala and Kudo grazed outside our stylish comfortable villa-tents. Later a lioness was observed on the prowl nearby, memories to sustain a traveller through some of the worst pandemic lockdowns to follow.
TRAVEL FACTFILE: SOUTH AFRICA
■ Flights from Dublin via London Heathrow to Johannesburg, including an onward flight to Durban, start from €982 return with britishairways.com, from €820 with virginatlantic.com, and via Doha from €1,090 with qatarairways.com.
■ For more information on all your travel requirements see dfa.ie.