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Drakensberg – the thrill of the space

Space. Great, big expanses of it, as far as the eye can see. I didn’t know how much my soul thirsted for it. But the southern Drakensberg and surrounds will show you that, if you allow it to, and so much more.

Space is a funny thing – swathes of land on which we might, in modernity, make the mistake of saying there is ‘nothing’. You know, those places in the middle of ‘nowhere’.

With a population of just 899, according to the 2011 Census, Creighton, a little dot on the KwaZulu-Natal map, is one such middle-of-nowhere place, with plenty of space. My journey begins here, on the sun-drenched platform of a middle-of-nowhere train station, where an excited crowd has gathered. Having been warned that winter – and even spring – in the high-lying parts of KwaZulu-Natal where we’re headed, can be worlds apart from the balmy, tropical temperatures of Durban, I’m wrapped up in all my layers, which are disappearing rapidly as the day warms up.

I wander up and down the platform, taking pictures of the gleaming red carriages and the engine – GMAM no. 4707, or ‘Lindie’ as she is nicknamed by her driver. Suddenly she belches a cloud of inky smoke, surging to life. I clamber aboard and begin exploring the coaches – the dining coach, with its carpeted floors and wooden beams across the ceilings, and the lounge coach, furnished with plush armchairs and sofas upholstered in stripes and florals. I’m headed for the very front, where a doorway opens out onto a platform, exposed to the fresh air and the expansive scenery that we’re now travelling through.

Unspoilt beauty

The landscape offers a raw, unspoilt beauty, soothing away my stresses as the train gently plunges forward along the tracks. It’s a landscape dotted with colourful huts here, and cows there, grazing placidly along the tracks. The main attraction, though, is the aloes. In June and July every year, they burst into fiery bloom, adorning the hillsides with a crown of striking colour. During these months, the steam train operates on weekends, repeating this three-hour journey between Creighton and Riverside for the thousands of visitors who descend upon the little town for this annual spectacle.

With the wind against my skin and soot in my face, hair, all over my clothes, even, yes, landing in my drink, I am awed by the novelty of travelling by steam, delighted by every sound, sight and sensation.

But this is not the only angle from which to enjoy these views. On the weekend of the annual Creighton Aloe Festival, Hot Air Ballooning SA comes to town, and you can embark on an airborne voyage in one of their magnificent, multi-coloured balloons and see it all from above. This is the stuff of bucket-lists, and butterflies in tummies.

If you’re afraid of heights, and I have a healthy respect for them, this does feel like a very brave endeavour. You can remind your mind repeatedly of the science, but when you’re being tugged up off the ground, higher and higher, and drifting along, in a heavy basket full of people, with a few ropes tethering you to a ball of hot air, your imagination can do some drifting itself. But I soon relax and take in the moment, the feeling of absolute freedom, the farmlands, forests and distant horizons.

A taste for adventure

If that’s not adventurous enough for your taste, it’s not even 50km to Bulwer where you’ll find Wild Sky Paragliding at the foot of Bulwer mountain. If you’ve ever had the urge to trot off a high cliff and fly with the birds, this is the place to try paragliding.

The Bulwer or Amahwaqa mountain is an excellent flying site. It has friendly grassy slopes for beginners, reliable breezes, several hills that allow flying into various wind directions and spectacular views. Simply standing atop the mountain is breathtaking enough, with vistas that stretch as far as the eye can see.

As wonderful as camping can be, adrenaline-fueled days call for a cushy and comfortable night’s sleep and that’s just what you can expect at the Premier Resort Sani Pass.

With its Ezemvelo Nature Reserve surrounds, the Resort is all mountain views, leisurely activities and spacious accommodation.

Hiking and biking trails, indoor and outdoor swimming, spa days, tennis or volleyball – the choice is yours. Surrounded by mountains, this southern Drakensberg resort is the home-base for 4x4 excursions up the famous Sani Pass, which climbs precariously into Lesotho.

*Additional reporting by Nicci Collier.

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