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4×4 feats and a country retreat at the foot of the Sani Pass

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The dragon’s spine, or uKhahlamba in isiZulu, meaning ‘the barrier of spears’… the Drakensberg’s mysterious names evoke this mountain range’s dramatic appeal. Known to locals simply as the Berg, this pristine area encompasses plunging valleys, crystal clear rivers and streams, breathtaking views and a diverse range of fauna and flora.

The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, a World Heritage Site, is part of a much longer mountain range which encloses the central Southern African plateau. It protects stunning natural mountain wildernessareas as well as a cultural legacy of ancient rock art by southern Africa’s earliest inhabitants, the San people.

Within this great escarpment is the infamous Sani Pass, the only access point between KwaZulu-Natal and the interior mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. A tourist attraction in its own right, the pass is a drawcard for people looking to experience its giddying splendour and treacherous hairpin bends. Situated at the foot of the Sani Pass, Mkomazana Mountain Cottages are the last stop before the dirt road ascends the mountainside.

Nestled between a hillside and the Mkomazana River, Mkomazana Mountain Cottages were originally a trading station in the 1800s. Today the self-catering establishment boasts three spacious six-bed houses and two two-bed cottages that exude country comfort and charm. Coot Cottage is situated near one of the dams where guests can enjoy the abundant bird life on offer. They may even spy the baboons who visit the area regularly. Stone House with its lovely big garden is perfect for cricket matches or a soccer game. While the accommodation is self-catering, long time housekeeper Mavis cooks up a fresh batch of scones daily and delivers them to guests. Arguably the fluffiest and lightest scones in this part of the Southern Berg, they are worth packing the strawberry jam and cream for. With its 20-bed dormitory (bring your own linen) and games room, Mkomazana is also perfect for families or groups of friends planning a special occasion or holiday.

For those looking to stretch their legs, there are an abundance of hikes in the area as well as two hikes which can be done directly from Mkomazana. The mountain walk (named Heartbreak Ridge by the owners), is ideal for young kids who can test their endurance climbing to the first contour. There is also a cluster of wattle trees nearby where I took the opportunity to try my hand at ‘wattle-bending’. Despite my 39 years, I managed to get up the tree and let it bend under my weight with minimal scratches and no pulled muscles. For the more adventurous, this hike can extend to ‘salt and pepper’, two outcrops sitting side by side on the next contour, for an approximately four-hour walk. Other activities nearby include mountain biking, fly fishing and golf.

In the 1800s only horses and mules could ascend the Sani Pass. Now this 19-kilometre rocky stretch of road attracts tourists looking for a four-wheel drive challenge. Taking three to four hours to complete, and only open to four-wheel drive vehicles, the drive starts easily enough but soon deteriorates into chassis-grating boulders and teeth-rattling corrugations. Mud or snow or both are quite common in the winter months and require extra skill and guts to get through those inevitable slippery bits. Finally, the notorious hairpin bends at the top will have you alternatively staring down the pass or up the mountainside, leaving you enthralled or terrified depending on your disposition towards heights. At the top, passport control awaits and then it’s onto Sani Mountain Lodge where the Highest Pub in Africa can be found. A great stop for a day trip, the lodge offers hearty meals, warm hospitality and some alcoholic sustenance for those who’ve suffered a little vertigo. The area also features a few rustic shops where visitors can pick up some Basotho artefacts before heading back down the pass.

After some bone-shaking adventure, peaceful Mkomazana awaits at the bottom of the pass with a roaring fire and tranquility. The most important thing to do now is put your feet up and relax.

Note to four-wheel drive enthusiasts: Tarring the pass is planned but has not yet commenced. There is still time to tick this one off your bucket list.

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