Ed’s letter: Take me to church

Posted by Justin Fox on 20 January 2020

The mountain gods were angry. We stood in the mouth of a cave and watched the approaching storm. The light turned an eerie purple, the sun disappeared and soon the basalt spires were shrouded in grey. Lightning split the gloom. Thunderclaps echoed between the sandstone ramparts, building to a continuous roar. The rain arrived in solid sheets.

Image: Justin Fox

It felt religious: the gods hurling down thunderbolts to test our faith. Indeed, the Drakensberg has always been a holy place. San shamans painted images of the spirit world in its caves, while the amaZizi sought spiritual sustenance in its heights. Voortrekker predikants looked upon these mountains for examples of their God’s work, while British settlers were certainly thinking in religious terms when they named the crags: Cathedral Peak, the Bell, Organ Pipes, Twelve Apostles, Mitre and Monks Cowl.

No sooner had it begun, than the storm passed and the valley was rinsed in clear light. The slopes tinkled to the sound of running water and leaked the musk of drenched heather. Enchanted by the view, I thought of how today’s climbers and campers also visit the Berg as a form of pilgrimage. Humbly dressed in T-shirts, shorts and hiking boots, they come to worship in the House of Nature at its most sublime.

The storm marked the start of a week-long meander along the Drakensberg’s eastern flank. Next morning at Thendele Camp – perhaps the loveliest setting of any park accommodation in the country – we rose with the sun. Hiking up Tugela Gorge, the air was crisp and shrill with the chirruping of sunbirds. Our path traversed protea grassland, dipping into kloofs of Afromontane forest thick with yellowwood and ironwood trees.

The gorge narrowed to a corridor of sandstone, its walls stretched to the heavens. Entering a cleft, we waded along a stream before emerging into a bowl of rock where the view opened up. Perfectly framed in the gap, the Amphitheatre loomed above like a giant altar. Five kilometres across and a kilometre high, it’s one of the great Drakensberg vistas.

Over the ensuing days we explored the Mlambonja (Cathedral Peak) and Champagne valleys. We found a rival to Thendele in Giant’s Castle Camp with its spectacular location above the Bushman’s River. Try to catch this valley at dawn when, as a San once described, ‘the white bull tears the black blanket of the night with his red horns.’ Find a rocky perch and watch the tide line of shadows descend as sunlight fills the kloofs. Above, the Castle towers in golden light, lord of all it surveys. How to describe such moments as anything other than secular worship?

For the San, this valley was a last refuge before finally being expelled from the region by white settlers. Close to Giant’s Castle Camp is Main Caves, home to one of the Berg’s artistic treasures. The San rock art depicts figures hunting eland and grey rhebok across a wall of sandstone. The focal point is a procession of elongated therianthropes – half-man, half-animal figures – that represent a mediation between this world and that of the spirit.

Looking at the ghostly figures, you feel the tremendous power of the site. It’s easy to understand how these mountains have exerted such a strong spiritual tug for hundreds of generations of humans. The religious world of the San appears strangely present here, their connection to us much less tenuous than time and history would suggest.

Standing in the mouth of the cave, I thought about modern humans’ need for a spiritual dimension to their lives. One way of connecting to something greater than ourselves is through nature. And it could hardly get more affecting than the view from Main Caves on a sparkling summer morning with the air pure Champagne and everything before you on a godly scale.

In this issue, Matthew Sterne explores the valleys and foothills of the Drakensberg in search of its best campsites (page 72) and the many activities in each region to keep you busy.

This month, we also say bon voyage to Associate Editor Caroline Webb who is leaving Getaway … bound for Eswatini for a short visit, which might well turn into a long one.

Happy travels!

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