Johannesburg & Drakensberg. Hiking Tugela Falls


24/12, The Drakensberg

In the hip Maponeng district of Johannesburg the usual artsy-fartsy crowd gathers as we pack the tent, food supplies, several 5l water bottles and fill up the additional 40l tank. The kit should theoretically more than fulfill all our needs for the next three months, as we will make our way west, down through Drakensberg and then along the Cape coast, and eventually to Namibia and perhaps Botswana or Zimbabwe. But there’s no doubt in my mind that some key elements will eventually prove to be missing, while other will unavoidably break. And that’s okay. This is the way of adventure. Over the various journeys that we were fortunate to carry, some of which changed our lives forever, both I and Jon got acquainted and accustomed to the wonderful but nervous feeling that accompanies the start of a new odyssey. Now I wallow in the anticipation. I enjoy the stress. I even accept the fear, as I know that once we are rolling, all the doubt and the worrying and the fights we had will be forgotten.

In Romania people often say: “How can you be so brave?” and I shriek, even if I am very much thankful for the underlining compliment. I have to say, I do not feel brave, ever. I believe to be someone just exploring where fear leads, while still being quite afraid of my own shadow. Even after riding a bike to Mongolia and back, I still cannot fathom riding alone outside my adoptive town of Bucharest. I constantly yearn the boundless freedom of camping in the wild, but when I do, there are still nights when I wake up in cold sweat because of a distant bark that I imagine to be a leopard. My real good fortune, however, is that this fun, and sometimes dangerous life of a modern-day adventurer is in my case a family affair. Jon, my partner in crime and travelling mate, is a brave man indeed. He sleeps like a rock when hyenas patrol our camp, and rides on the steepest slopes with a steady hand. Together, we feel privileged to be able to share with you our humble adventure journals, through social media, our book(s) and in various articles published in Romanian and in English.

Speaking of books, we have been promising our English audience a paperback translation of Oyibo, the story of our motorcycle journey around Africa. Working as often as we could, between trips and regular jobs, whenever the peace of mind of city existence allowed it, we have barely managed to grasp that this project is a different animal. Please, bear with us. We will make it happen. Meanwhile, as a further incentive and practice, we have decided to journal this trip in English only. Apologies to our Romanian audience, who may forgive us for providing bilingual texts only now and then.


Now let’s get back to Jo’Burg or Jozi city as its residents call it. It’s Christmas Eve and we are feeling the crunch. Having arrived in town a week earlier, after researching the process of buying and registering a vehicle in South Africa as a nonresident, and with a shortlist of 4x4s for sale in hand, we must say that the real thing has proven much more complicated. However, we’ve managed to close a deal with the owner of a 1990 Toyota Land Cruiser, with 395,000kms on the clock.

A word about our brief stay in South Africa’s financial capital. If 6 and a half years ago we experienced the more intimate aspects of Jo’Burg, in Soweto, up the hills, in downtown and the suburbs, this time we’ve picked some touristy highlights. The visit to Apartheid Museum was the most emotional. The repeat runs to Dosa Hut restaurant in the Indian quarter the most satisfying. The eclecticism of Maponeng, with its galleries, street performers, and unapologetic gentrification, the most fun. Gauteng, the Place of Gold, has something for all. Great food, a vibe, slums, traffic jam, bohemian secondhand shops, ethnic markets, and a completely useless sewage system that floods the city at the faintest rain. We had quite a laugh when we realized that we had lost the licence plate of our rental Picanto while driving through one the flooded streets, but even more when we turned back to look for it, and found the number on the bottom of the small lake that had formed at the junction.

So we have our vehicle. A bit rusty at the edges, it grunts when it should howl, but this thing kicks balls. It will carry us just fine where we want to go, and we will miss it when we will eventually sell it to someone else. Today we are just chuffed to avoid getting stuck in the city over Christmas and the New Year holidays. We do get stuck in several gigantic shopping malls, buying bits and bobs for the road ahead.

Johannesburg & Drakensberg

To our joy, the first night of the trip finds us in a bush camp, with a view of Drakensberg mountains. We pull the chairs and sit down with a cold beer. Wow. This is crazy. Compared to the minimalist pantry of our motorcycle adventures, we are now stocked to the brim. The first proper meal of the trip has to be postponed for another night, when we move camp to what in this neck of the woods is called a “backpackers.” Another South African classic, along with the art of “braai”-ing meat on the open fire and the habit of marking the transition from day to evening with a “sundowner,” a drinking ritual that originated in South Africa during British rule. Colonists used wind down the day in a location that took advantage of the spectacular South African sunsets, while, more practically, they sipped on tonic water or gin mixed with quinine, to stave away malaria. It’s said that Winston Churchill once proclaimed, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.” Nowadays there is no malaria in South Africa anymore, but the casual sundowner cocktail has stuck and is still enjoyed countrywide as pre-dinner drink, similar to the Italian “l’aperitivo” or the French “l’apértif.” I can tell you that we are both more than happy to practice.

On Christmas Day, which we don’t necessarily celebrate, we wake up around 4, and at 5 we are already rolling. After 2 hours of driving among clouds, we reach the gate to Royal Natal National Park, pay our fees, grab our backpacks and start climbing. A winding path takes us to a fork in the road where we can either continue left, via a steep gully, or hike another couple of hundred meters to the famous steel ladders. Jon’s fear of heights notwithstanding, we take a right. The ladders prove worthy of their fame, but we arrive on the plateau in good spirits, if a bit shaken and stirred.

Even if we are in the midst of summer, this is the third year in a row of severe drought in Southern Africa. The mighty Tugela falls is just a trickle. We sit on the edge for a quick picnic, clouds rising from the abyss, air thick with mist, sun blasting,.

We decide to return on the alternate route, via a steep climb which ends at the top of the gully, where we begin our scramble back to the main path.

Only an hour or so later when we reach the parking we realize that we have forgotten to put the long sleeve shirts on. We have now proper bakkie arms as they say around here, and sunburnt ears and necks. Even with all the Aloe Vera gel in the world it will take days for the pain to go.

A drive along the backroads of kwaZulu-Natal reminds us of another side of the rainbow nation. This was one of the last provinces to abolish Apartheid, and at the time it endured many a violent clashes between different ethnic groups. Here villagers are still predominantly poor and black, and tourist are predominantly well-off and white. Wild camping is also increasingly difficult, as most land is either farmed, built or fenced. Another stopover in an official campsite and then we are at the foot of Sani Pass, about to hop for a couple of epic days into Lesotho.