A map of the Champagne Valley area. The mountain on the left is Champagne Castle and the larger one to its right it Cathkin Peak

As I have written previously, it is so important to discover your own country.

Ten years ago, we had friends from the USA visit us and we showed them as much of our province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) as possible. It surprised me how much we were able to show them and visit so m any places, within a 3-hour drive from our home, which we ourselves had not visited. It is important to see what is on your doorstep and we did that once again in January 2022 by visiting the Drakensberg, not for the first time. Wherever one is in this area, there are reminders that it is a World Heritage Site and it definitely deserves to be one.

Where in the Drakensberg mountains were we? We were in what is known as the Central ‘Berg in the shadow of two mountains called Cathkin Peak and Champagne Castle, at a resort called Mount Champagne. It is a beautiful resort nestled into a valley with 20 3-bed chalets (or units) all set in well maintained, attractive gardens. Our unit was at the top of a hill and so we had a lovely view down on to the rest of the resort. 

Our unit

The road from our unit down which we walked daily

Champagne Castle on the left and Cathkin Peak to its right

 At the lowest point was a meandering river which, due to continuous rain of almost a fortnight, was briefly flooded bringing down plenty of debris of trees, shrubs and grasses. There was also a large dam on which one may go boating, an oar was supplied in the unit, but it was an activity in which we did not partake. When we learnt that the dam was 3m deep I was convinced that it was best to stay far away.

Over the dam looking to the resort

An overflowing weir

Debris being washed down the river

Although there were not many different walk routes, each time we did decide to repeat a walk around the beautiful resort we saw new birds and flowers. Just having the opportunity to quietly appreciate the beauty of creation is so restful and so few take this opportunity in the rushed world in which we live today. The birds we saw included Egyptian Geese, a Hoopoe, Hadadas and a number of Wagtails, which are so cute. When the geese and hadadas were together it can get rather noisy.  We were visited by a Duiker and, believe it or not, a large crab! The crab ran across our patio and then sat beside the side door for hours. While out for his brisk walk one morning Trevor saw 2 baby Baboons which, we thought, gave us the answer to the big animals leaving their ‘visiting cards’ each night making it unpleasant stepping on to some of the grass, particularly around the wash line.

Hadedas and Egyptian Geese on another unit’s roof

Then there were the monkeys. When they came around no food or any items could be left on outside furniture and all doors and windows without wire mesh had to be closed. We had a few good laughs watching a monkey running along with a banana, orange and even a closed plastic container in its mouth. All the other monkeys in the vicinity were chasing them to get their share so not even the one with the prize was able to sit down and enjoy it. They are so quick and quiet that the fact that they have managed to steal something is noticed until later.

Having driven from Durban to Mt Champagne in foul weather and witnessing 3 accidents involving large trucks (lorries, HGVs) we pleased to arrive early evening in one piece. The accidents were all on the other side of the freeway (highway) for which we were very grateful. The first had been caused by a tree falling on to the freeway causing a truck to hit a small car, in the 2nd the truck had jack-knifed blocking all 3 lanes and the 3rd when 1 truck drove into the back of another. No serious injuries in any of these.

The miserable weather continued all night and for the next 2 days so there was little exploring that we could do. There were a couple of breaks during those 2 days so we were able to walk short distances until the rain started again. Then, on the 3rd day the sun shone all morning giving us an opportunity to visit local places of interest. As this is a popular tourist area in a farming community, there are some delicious eating places as well as craft stalls and fruit and vegetable shops.  We visited the 2 most popular, the Chocolate Factory and the Village Bakery. At the first, one is able to taste the variety of flavours of chocolate before buying. They are delicious. Unlike so many other chocolate manufacturers, this one makes 3 flavours for diabetics as well. On the same property are a Cheese Factory, a Brewery and a wonderful fruit and vegetable shop of farm produce.

The Chocolate Factory

The Tunnel of Hops showing what is used in the Brewery

The Village Bakery had the most delicious smells coming from it as soon as one entered the property. What a huge array of pastries, breads and rolls they produce. They make regular, vegan and gluten free but nothing for diabetics so I spoke with the owner who said that they had never thought about it but would now do so. As they believed that only sugar is the problem, I told them that carbohydrates are a bigger problem and they were surprised as most people are. I suggested that before they start baking, it might be worth chatting to a dietician.

On another day we drove in the opposite direction going closer to and higher up the mountain. There is a part of the road that is extremely steep and it brought back a memory my parents told me. There is an hotel near to the end of the road called the Champagne Castle Hotel and that is where they went for their honeymoon in 1946. At the time the road was gravel and, to be able to ascend this portion, my Dad had to stop and put chains on the tyres! Life has certainly changed as it is now black-topped but, sadly, very pot-holed, probably due to heavy rains. It appears that the locals have filled some of these with cement which seems to be effective.

The steep hill and corner can be seen at top left

On our way we passed the Birds of Prey and Reptile Centre, both of which we had visited previously so didn’t stop there. When we were there some years ago, we watched a presentation by a handler on training of these birds. The birds were also encouraged to fly low over our heads which was quite nerve-racking but all over a really worthwhile thing to see.

At the very end of the road is Monk’s Cowl named after the peak between Champagne Castle and Cathkin Peak. We were disappointed at what was offered there. A craft shop and guided walking tours are advertised but there was no one at the tours office even though the opening hours written on the door indicated ‘ that there should have been. On entering the Crafts Shop there were signs that Covid protocols had to be followed but, where there was a big sign saying ‘sanitiser’ there was nothing and when I asked for it, 1 of the 2 women sitting behind the counter, neither wearing masks, reluctantly raised herself and brought the bottle. After a good look around, I waited in front of the 2 of them to ask about, after waiting 30 secs for one of them to acknowledge me, I left. With little else there we returned to Mt Champagne. It had taken less than an hour to do this trip but we had managed to get some beautiful photos.

Monk;s Cowl

Mountains above Monk’s Cowl

The final full day of our holiday dawned beautiful and bright. We hadn’t planned anything special except to go out for dinner as we habitually do when we have a week away. We decided to get as much packed as possible to be able to leave early (8am) the next morning as we planned to visit the Chocolate Factory and vegetable shop on our way home. So, on this last day we went for an early morning walk as usual and then tidied up our chalet. We had planned to go for an afternoon walk as well but at 2pm the rain came pouring down again.

We went to a restaurant at a next-door resort, Dragon Peaks, for dinner and were grateful that the rain had ceased. Once again, it was very difficult to find a meal which could be safely eaten by a diabetic but I did end up having a really delicious smoked trout salad while Trevor was able to have a rump steak and chips. Unfortunately, no dessert.  While we waited for our meal, we enjoyed glorious views of the mountain called Dragon’s Back as well as the bird-life. As we were right at the dam, which was filled with reeds, we watched the wonderful spectacle of the birds which spend the night in the reeds gather and then drop as one into the reeds. It reminded us of our visit to Mt Moreland just north of our home, to watch the Barn Swallows do the same. Thousands circle in the air and then in a split second they are all gone. Other birds coming home for the evening included White Ibis who all settled in one tree, herons which lined up along the rail of the jetty and a lone Egyptian Goose. Coming on to the verandah were plenty of Pigeons, Red-Winged Starlings and Wagtails. As there were not too many diners out there, pickings were minimal. Unfortunately, as it was dusk it was not possible to get any photos. These 2 we took the day before.

The jetty at the dam at Dragon Peaks. The mountain is Dragon’s Back

A Waterwheel built in 2021 at Dragon Peaks Resort

We were also entertained by a group of half a dozen young men sitting under the Boma with a thatched roof. They had a long stick and were jumping up and poking at something in the roof above their table. We wondered if it was a snake but nothing seemed to come down to earth. Eventually they moved to another table. After we had finished our dinner I, always inquisitive, had to ask what it was all about, Apparently, it was a Pigeon which kept dropping its ‘calling card’ on to the table. When one landed in a very precious beer, they all gave up and moved. I told them that the message was that they had drunk enough.

We were ready to leave just after 08:00 as planned but were delayed for 5 minutes by a Bushbuck and 2 Egyptian Geese who came to say good-bye. As planned, we stopped at the Chocolate Factory again and bought 4 more of their delicious diabetic chocolates, 2 of which we gave to a special friend for her upcoming 91st birthday. She was delighted. The return journey was uneventful until we were about 10kms outside of Pietermaritzburg which is an hour’s drive from Durban. We encountered a long, unmoving line of traffic which we discovered was due to roadworks about 5kms ahead. In fact, it was 3 lines of vehicles, 2 of trucks (lorries) and 1 of cars which inched along at a slightly faster pace than the trucks. All in all it took 45mins to cover 10kms!

Visiting Bushbuck

Egyptian Geese

The Freeway delay

We exited from the freeway at Pmb and went to visit a cousin and her husband who have downsized to a Granny flat which they call ‘The Hutch’, probably because it is small and they live on Hutchinson Road. After coffee and a chat we continued our drive home.

Where next will you visit in your country?

Sunset over the mountains