The Drakensberg Mountains completely captivated me, and may just be the highlight of my entire trip around Southern Africa. After an early morning slog to Witsishoek Mountain Lodge, buckets of rain forced us indoors. Luckily watching creeping tendrils of fog curl around distant peaks from inside a cozy hotel room is my idea of a lovely afternoon. I went to bed that night crossing my fingers that the weather would improve enough for us to hike, and woke up the next morning to bluebird skies. I’ve never been more grateful for a good weather window, because the jaunt to Tugela Falls (Africa’s tallest waterfall, the second tallest in the world) was one of the most beautiful hikes ever.
We wound up switchbacks towards massive sandstone cliffs, new craggy peaks revealing themselves with each turn, colorful wildflowers blanketing the path. Soon the trail stopped at a sheer cliff with chain ladders bolted into the side, bringing us to the top of the central buttress. After following alongside a river across the plateau, we arrived at the falls. The way the wall of rock dropped dramatically down into the misty, verdant valley below made me feel like I was on the set of Jurassic Park. As I peered over the edge to take in the dizzying view, a surge of fog hit the vertical face of the cliff, rushing up to blow back my hair and wet my face. For the next few minutes the clouds continued rolling in and out, the folds and layers of the surrounding mountains appearing to dance with them.
Suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, the clouds settled in all at once. A thick, swirling fog soup obstructed any views; even the waterfall ceased to exist. A clap of thunder shortly after sent us scurrying back across the plateau, eager to reach the chains before any lightening began. I’d just climbed down the final ladder when an epic storm rolled in and chased us down the mountain. Eventually we reached the little guide hut at the entrance gate where we waited for our shuttle, shivering and ringing out our clothes, still smiling ear to ear.
The next day we drove to Lesotho via Golden Gate National Park. The drive went quickly, as we passed countless coral-colored sandstone outcroppings interspersed between the intensely green rolling hills extending in every direction. This scenic stretch of highway continued into Lesotho, rock formations transforming into the backside of the Maluti Range, part of the larger Drakensberg.
A tiny, landlocked country of only two million people, Lesotho was yet another love at first sight kinda place for me. After crossing the border and driving through the little town of Buthe-Butha, we were soon the only car in sight. The highway paralleled a wide, meandering river that contoured along the base of the vast, spreading mountains. Thatched roof rondavels with donkeys grazing in front lined the roadside, and the road itself was shared with young boys galloping on horseback or shepherds wrapped in thick wool blankets.
Rondavels gradually gave way to a patchwork of vegetable plots in the shadow of the peaks, with farmers wearing conical, woven straw hats waving as we drove past. After a peaceful hour we reached Ts’ehlanyane National Park. Gary had a nice chat with the park ranger at the entrance gate, bonding over their mutual love of the Wu-Tang Clan. “I’ve always wanted to know, where exactly is Staten Island?” he asked eagerly. We did our best to explain New York City’s various boroughs, before carrying on up the dirt path to the Maliba Mountain Lodge.
The views from the lodge were the kind of spectacular that sticks in your throat. Scrubby cho cho trees, ferns and wildflowers competed for space on hillsides so green they hurt your eyes, while various waterfalls across the range flowed down to a serpentine river below. The afternoon was spent hiking up to Lots’e Lots’a, the Black Pool. The altitude kicked my butt after all the sitting I’d been doing, but I enjoyed hopping from rock to rock during the many stream crossings along the way, and dipping my feet in the cool, clear water at the end. At night the stars were so bright that they lit up our path, a sky completely devoid of ambient light pollution. We stoked our wood burning stove before turning in for the night, letting the river softly sing us to sleep.
And just like that, our brief visit was over. We left early the next morning to catch a flight to Cape Town, full of regret for not budgeting more time here. Lesotho is the kind of place you want to steep in, sipping the days slowly. I could easily see myself disappearing into those endless emerald hills, to finally become the wild little thing I’ve always wanted to be.