On Day 3 of our Johannesburg to Cape Town road trip, The Hectic Route, we arrive at a playground for grown-ups, the Drakensberg’s Cathedral Peak, where we feel the wrath of the “Dragon Mountains”. 

Enter the Dragon (Mountains)

Today, we headed for the Drakensberg. Everyone who’d been raved about it so we were excited to see what the hype was about. Plus “Drakensberg” means “Dragon Mountains” in Afrikaans, which sounded pretty cool to us too.

The “must-do” Drakensberg hike from Karma Backpackers, where we spent last night after an eventful Wodehouse Trail hike, is the Amphitheatre Trail.

Unfortunately, we have another “must-do” that supersedes it: get to Cape Town by December 1. We didn’t have time for a multiple-hour detour, so we headed straight for our next destination, the Cathedral Peak Hotel in the Northern Drakensberg, instead.

Plus, it was my turn to drive and, like Chris, I was nervous about driving on the other side of the road, so the less I had to drive, the better.

Our host at Karma Backpackers, Lucha, told us the hikes at Cathedral Peak were just as beautiful anyway.

We were about to find out just how right he was!

Smooth Sailing

Despite my worries, driving turned out to be really pleasant.

The roads were surprisingly in good shape, they were much quieter than around Johannesburg, and there weren’t any crazy drivers trying to run us off the road (like in Kenya).

It didn’t take too long before I got the hang of changing gears with my left hand at 120km/hour and I could relax and enjoy a glimpse of rural South African daily life. Locals waited for small taxis along the sides of streets using different hand signals so the drivers knew where they wanted to go. We also began to notice people (mainly ladies) with red painted faces which made us curious.

rural house made out of clay and thatched roof outside of drakensberg
Rural life outside of The Drakensberg.

Along the way, road signs for “Fresh Coffee” and “Best Biltong: Unchanged Since the Great Trek” at The Outspan worked their marketing magic and lured us off the road to make a quick pitstop. There skipped the coffee and picked up some road trip snacks, biltong (343g for R129 = US $9.25), from two friendly ladies and continued our easy drive to Cathedral Peak Hotel.

Quick fact: Biltong is South African jerky, cured with sugar, salt, and spices.

freshly cut biltong pieces in bag
Spicy biltong, sliced and ready for snacking. “Unchanged since the great trek”!
lady selling us biltong in bergville
The lady inside the biltong shop wasn’t impressed when we asked where to buy wine at 8am.

cathedral-peak-signAn Adult Outdoor Playground

Neither Chris nor I knew much about the Cathedral Peak Hotel. All we knew was it looked to well-positioned for hiking the Drakensberg on the map and the reviews were good.

As we drove in and saw it surrounded by stunning mountains (South Africans love the word stunning), it looked small. But as we got closer we realized it definitely isn’t. It’s basically a village complete with a climbing wall, restaurant, multiple bars, a pool, pool table, golf course, tennis court, cabin areas, and small cottages.

And when we checked in and were given a calendar of activities and list of hikes to do, we started to feel giddy. Cathedral Peak Hotel is a grown-up outdoor playground!

looking towards mushroom peak

Hiking Mushroom Rock & Ribbon Falls

Ronald, the marketing manager who had invited us to stay at the hotel, recommended we kick off our stay by doing a five-hour loop of Mushroom Rock & Ribbons Falls. To guide us, he handed us a little piece of paper with instructions, which we supplemented with our Maps.Me GPS map, which also had the trail. (Download it. It’s free!)

close up caterpillar while hiking to mushroom peak cathedral peak drakensberg

close up protea plant with kim in background
Protea, a variety of South Africa’s national flower.

It took us an hour to reach Mushroom Rock, which actually did look like a mushroom and, more importantly, had amazing views of the Northern Drakensberg valleys below. The climb wasn’t too strenuous but the incline forced us to slow down and appreciate the wildflowers and insects.

mushroom rock drakensberg cathedral peak
Mushroom Rock was a good name, it really does look like a mushroom.

Around the corner (not part of the trail), is an amazing viewpoint where you can see a glimmering waterfall and the mountain ranges behind.

And the views kept on getting better.

As we continued along a ridge that circled the valley towards Ribbon Falls, the mountains above us appeared increasingly dramatic and massive. As if called on to enhance the effect and impress us further, clouds rolled in to darken the skies and the sound of thunder echoed off the mountains.

Or maybe it was the dragons saying “Hi” to us.

Kim hiking in Cathedral Peak

In awe of our surroundings, Chris…

…slipped on huge pile of green animal poop.

After regaining balance, he looked in front of us and spotted the culprit: an eland, a South African antelope.

We hurried forward to get a closer look and it wasn’t long though before we saw a couple…then a handful…then hundreds of eland.

It was like being in a National Geographic photo shoot. Grazing on the shrubs and grass, they gave us worried stares, and ran away as we approached, herded on by a massive old grey beast who was obviously the chief of the herd.

After the herd disappeared over a ridge, we continued towards Ribbon Falls. We made it, but it wasn’t very exciting compared to what else we’d witnessed. It had just as much water as a leaky faucet.

Avalanche!

On the home stretch back to the hotel, the thunder, lightning, wind, and rain started up again. I didn’t think much of it or even bother putting on my jacket.

But then I looked up the valley behind us.

Roaring down the mountains and through the valley towards us was a cloud that looked like an avalanche!

I put on my jacket as fast as I could, yelled at Chris to do the same and cover the camera and then, with a WOOSH, the avalanche hit us.

Rain, hail, and 75km/hour winds pummelled us. Luckily, there was a small cliff nearby where we could hide behind for some cover and hold onto some branches to not get blown away.

After about ten minutes of hurricane-type weather, it died down and we raced down to the hotel, worried another avalanche might stricks. The previously bone-dry paths that were now running streams.

What an adventure!

The Buffet That Actually Blew Us Away

Back at the hotel, we checked into our spacious room, showered, warmed up with some wine we’d bought on the way in, and got ready for dinner.

Relaxing in our hotel room at The Cathedral Peak Hotel

We figured the buffet dinner that was included with accommodation at the Cathedral Peak Hotel was going to be generic and mediocre like at most other big hotels.

But when we entered the dining room and saw the spread, we were blown away for a second time in a matter of hours.

buffet dinner at cathedral peak hotel

Especially Chris.

His pants probably got even wetter than they did from the storm when he saw the buffet.

I’ve always wondered what Chris was like as a kid. And that little boy came out tonight. Chris was so happy and excited about the dinner he was about to eat. And for good reason.

From roast beef to Yorkshire pudding, and sweet potato and eggplant lasagna, all the options looked delicious. There was an “Asian Station” consisting of stir-fry noodles with meat and vegetables, a delectable cheese plate with cheese varieties I’d never heard of, and enough dessert to make your insulin levels spike like never before. Oh, and there was a jug full of melted chocolate just in case the cakes and ice-cream didn’t quite do it for you.

We did the best we could to try everything, then crashed back in our room by 9 p.m., completely blown away by our first day in the Drakensberg Mountains and Cathedral Peak Hotel.

And eager for round two.

Next Up (The Hectic Route Day 4):
A Very Full Day at Cathedral Peak Hotel

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