Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cathedral Peak

Last weekend I discovered a very positive new aspect of SA - walking in the mountains. I stayed at the wonderful Cathedral Peak hotel in the Central Drakensberg, a four hour drive from Joburg. The hotel has a large number of rooms but is very well organised - first thing in the morning guides take small groups of guests on walks of various lengths and difficulty, and you can also ask for printed instructions and go off on your own - though you're asked to sign a register saying where you're going in case you don't come back. This seems to be safe, as long as you don't break a leg or step on a snake - the hotel is inside the fenced and guarded Kwazulu Natal Wildlife Protected Area, and apparently the only people you're likely to meet on the mountain paths apart from other hikers are marijuana smugglers coming over the border from Lesotho - you're advised to ignore them, and then they'll ignore you.

Grass (or "veld") fires seem to be a feature of the landscape all around SA at this time of year - I saw a live one from the motorway - a thin line of fire, not very high, which leaves most of the trees unaffected but scorches the ground. Apparently for many plant types this is a requirement of their life cycle - Protea seeds, for example, are only released with the heat of the fire, and then grow easily in the carbonised soil. On my first walk last weekend we spent quite a lot of time crossing a zone that had had a fire a couple of weeks ago - leaving an other-worldly landscape of black earth, blackened plants, and bright green shoots of new growth. Against the backdrop of the magnificent mountains, this was an extra dimension of wonder.

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