By Garth Johnstone
It’s not the first time I’ve missed a marker in the Berg and ended up trekking kilometres past the intended route. Durrrrr! Dummy!
But it was definitely the most entertaining, as I was with my mate Johnny Nel, which turned it into a fun experience.
Two dummies together retracing our steps, and rather shame-facedly, taking a bit of a cross-country route (cue boulder hopping and lots of stumbling) to find the correct path.
As Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together”, and it did eventually, with quite a lot of cursing and laughing thrown in.
It’s hard to get the grumps when you’re in paradise, in this case spending a leisurely day out at Lotheni Reserve, about 70km from our homes in Nottingham Road. Leisurely, as in two toppies taking a mellow hike into the unknown, exploring a reserve neither of us had visited before.
You eventually run out of superlatives if you’re a regular visitor to the Berg, and can easily slip into cliché-land, but Lotheni is quite simply a beauty. I’d heard a lot about it before finally making it there, and it certainly lived up to its billing. Before you get to the nature reserve you take a right turn at Lotheni village, an idyllic spot next to Lotheni river flowing with pristine, mountain water, and drive past kraals, with fat, healthy-looking cattle. Less than 10 kilometres later you drive through the Ezemvelo gates.
The office and camp site is immaculately maintained and the brush cutting team had clearly been hard at work before Easter weekend. At Lotheni there are about 15 chalets, three more private cottages and a camping ground with space for dozens of groups of campers. The views from the camp site are (cue one of those clichés) spectacular, or should we opt for breathtaking? You can definitely imagine yourself sipping a chilled beer or glass of vino while enjoying that view as the sun goes down.
Our hiking mission was a bit of “gemors” from the start, and we were entirely to blame. I always read up about available hiking routes at resorts before getting there and get the low-down from bloggers and experts. David Bristow’s Best Walks of the Drakensberg is a regular reference. But this time, I forgot to do my reading and we were unprepared and a bit clueless as to where to go.
I won’t bore you with the details, but in summary … we made a false start when we walked up the road leading to one of the private cottages and had to do a U-turn; and then throughout the day missed numerous signs on the trails. In our defence, the route to Yellowwood Cave was rugged and it was hard to stay on track. The signage could use some work too; signs are small and often obscured by grasses. Some arrows on rocks or new signage would help, if possible, and it would be a good idea to add distance to markers.
Having said that, the walking is beautiful as you hug the river’s edge and eventually ascend up to the cave, which is a small affair judging by what I’ve seen in places like Highmoor, but with a beautiful setting that looks out over an ancient-looking Yellowwood tree forest perched above the river. We welcomed the cool of the cave and took our time to dry wet boots and enjoy a brew, while catching up on some Midlands skandaal.
Then on the way back we made a rookie’s blunder where we walked past what was, in hindsight, an obvious split in the path and ended up veering off away from our starting point, the camp’s reception area. When we should have been marching triumphantly home to a hero’s return, we were now heading towards a rather ominous looking climb up a massive hill. No deal for two ballies ready to get a cool drink and put the feet up.
So we did some backtracking and knee-jarring boulder hopping, just a little cheat to get back on track, and within half an hour were sort of heading in the right direction. A little battered but full of smiles we made it back, registering about 17km on Johnny’s clever App thingo.
So why Lotheni, what makes it more special than other private and Ezemvelo offerings in the Berg area?
We immediately noticed how clean and well-maintained the camp was and give the staff credit for the upkeep of this immaculate facility. Both of us also commented on how wild and remote the place is. When you’ve hiked about 5km into the reserve you cannot see a soul about, or any other signs of “civilisation”. The quiet is almost noisy, if that makes any sense. While we didn’t see a great deal of wildlife, there were plenty signs of it in the tracks, stomped up grass and scat lying around.
The clincher, personally, is that after less than an hour-and-a-half’s driving, you can be right off the beaten track and in one of those timeless, wilderness gems, where not too many people come to kuier.
IF YOU GO:
*From Nottingham Road, about 70km – 40km of it on dirt road.
*It’s best to have a vehicle with decent ground clearance because the dirt road is rugged, although decently maintained. If there has been serious, consistent rain check that the road is passable before leaving.
*From Durban it’s about three hours’ drive.
*When hiking bring warm clothing, as conditions can change dramatically and quickly in the higher elevations.
*We were never too far away from water but suggest you bring at least one litre per hiker for a day hike.