It was only a six hour drive, but it felt like we travelled off the edge of the world. When we left Johannesburg early that morning it was cold and rainy. But still very much the city. The long highways that pulled us away from the big smoke gave no indication of the realm into which we were heading. The realization that things were different happened gradually. It came with the mist. That cold white, that thickened as we drove into it, muffled all sounds from outside. Approaching cars arose so quietly, their lights dim, all but extinguished by the cloud, they appeared to be no more than faded ghosts passing on their way to the valley below. All that existed was the sound of the windscreen wipers, the quiet breathing of the passengers and the music. Even that seemed to fade in and out as we wound our way higher into the Mountains of the Dragon.
The Drakensberg, the spine of our land, that rugged haunt of leopard and lammergeyer, baboons and black eagles, otters and porcupines. None of it could be seen in the veil that hung all around us.
We turned off the highway and headed deeper into the wilderness. The road lost its edges, narrowed, twisted and turned. It was slow going; the potholes, the sudden disappearances of the verge kept us vigilant and alert. We could see no more than five or ten yards in front of us and we kept climbing higher.
Then, a gate with the sign “Injisuthi” appeared and we crept through into the small valley. With the rain dripping around us we found our cabins and quickly unpacked the vehicle. We could hear the river rushing along below and could make out the foothills of the mountains that surrounded us. It was beautiful. It wasn’t Jo’burg. The campsite was quiet. Mist hung like memories in the thorn trees scattered across the flat, rough lawn and the smell of woodsmoke drifted past, promising warmth and tea.
The next day began early for some of us, while the rest drifted in and out of sleep, only to rise drowsily at ten. I confess it was only the promise of scrambled egg that finally got me out of bed. Breakfast was a lingering affair as we crunched our way through rusks, copious amounts of coffee and conversation. It was the kind of day one expects in the mountains. Perhaps it’s just me, but I feel cheated if I don’t have mist, rain, cold and log fires when I’m there. Each, left to their own devices, followed their own inclinations and hiked, fished, read or flitted in and out of each other’s cabins for more tea and conversation. There was no itinerary, no agenda, no programs planned and for that I was grateful.
Very quickly the slough of the city fell away and it became hard to remember that days actually had names. The second day there dawned with the sun melting away the mist. As each layer departed, more and more of the mountains could be seen. They rose, ridge after ridge, soaring higher and higher into the clean, blue sky. We were surrounded by soaring buttresses, dramatic cutbacks and rampart after rampart. A fire had raged across the mountain some time before and now the regrowth was pushing its way through the blackened remains of vegetation. The ferns, curling and brilliant had turned the mountain into a vast green carpet lying lushly, softly over the ragged foothills and crags. On the other side of the firebreak was Africa; the grass harsh, dry and almost white with desperation for water, and on our side it was the imagined Ireland. Startlingly green, and soft.
A short hike out of the campsite brought us to the yellowwood forest. It was a welcome relief from the heat of the day. The yellowwoods rose high above us, the soil, dark and damp beneath our feet. We followed the river, crossed at a narrow bridge and found ourselves at a small waterfall. It was pleasant to sit on the rock, our feet in the icy water rushing past over golden rocks, enjoying the shade.
We climbed higher on to the grasslands and made our way past the old kraal and dipping tank, the rocks blackened with age and fire. The mountains were too irresistible for some and they turned off and made their way towards loftier areas, while the others headed back down towards the camp.
That afternoon we went to the gorges. Here, children and adults alike frolicked in the freezing water of the pools, clambering from one rock to another, slipping and sliding as they made their way to the low hanging, but thunderous waterfall where they stood gasping with cold and delight as it pounded down on their shoulders. The climb out of the gorge was, for those of us who are unfit, breath-taking, literally.
That night, lying on picnic blankets, lanterns turned off, soft singing weaving through us and blessings being passed from one to another, it was easy to feel God around us. Especially as we could see a vast cloud of stars and planets hanging in the dark night sky above us. That wonder, often hidden by the city as it melts into the night, staining it with its dirty orange smog was magnificent. The night sky framed by the mountains was back, clean, and displayed across it was the reassurance of glory.
The way back was completely different to our arrival. The sun blazed and small African homesteads, villages and roads lay across the grasslands. Cattle, goats and skinny dogs ambled with blissful unconcern as we drove carefully around them. Some of the children saw the car and took up the typical beggars’ stance. But not all of them. The villages baked in the sun waiting, like Brigadoon, for the night and white mist to descend and cover them, completely hiding them once more in the icy, cold cloud.
Stand back! I have an imagination and I'm not afraid to use it!