sungubala and the drakensbergs
it was love at first sight: sungubala mountain as seen from sungubala tented camp in the northern drakensberg mountains, kwazulu-natal province of south africa. this escarpment of the mountain, while much more dramatically seen here, runs from the end of the eastern cape of south africa all the way north to ethiopia. deep below it’s sandstone is the hardened lava that birthed the mountains, raising an area of land now known as lesotho. for the previous generations of bushman that lived inhabited the area, the mountains provided a valuable fortress to defend against the boers and british. for some current inhabitants, it still protects them in less-than-legal trading of goods across the open international border. but for whatever the reason, the mountains have always attracted people from all over the world, and i was no different; turned into a little boy let lose in a giants playground. (warning: be ready for a long blog post)
our camp was barely a camping experience and more of a luxury hotel without the hotel… just the way it should be. you may sleep in a thatched-covered tent, but inside there are two comfy beds, in the morning a hot flask of tea is brought to your small porch, and the evening is lit by hurricane lanterns that hark back to rougher days. it’s romantic way to stay to stay comfortably in this environment without loosing the connection to the endless vistas, morning birds, and remnant smoke of the nightly campfire.
before breakfast was the best way to explore the trails leading through the mountains; leave at six am and be back to camp by eight. i’d pack my flask of tea in my bag, carabiner my mug to the shoulder strap of my bag, and make off with the map in my pocket. this time of year means the trails will be overgrown: some points the grass will be over your head, at other the trail will only be a shadow of a trail through the ferns. some mornings the fog drenched the grass with dew and built a permanent wall of white around me, but it was easier to mentally slide back into the adventurous atmosphere of the hobbit, which i just finished reading. the foggy mornings also forced me to concentrate on small, close-by landmarks to remember my trail and distinguish were i was going; turning mushrooms growing out of cow dung into a valuable trail blaze. i would only escape the fog as i descended the last hundred feet back to camp; it taunted me that while i would be eating breakfast the rest of the fog will clear from my trails.
some of my exploring i did with the family, packing apples, rusks and tea and like on our trip to cannibal cavern. it was once really inhabited by cannibals, but more frequently used by herders leading their animals through the mountains to graze. it was already a hot ten-o’clock by the time we reached it, and a waterfall at the mouth of the overhang served as a giants shower for us to cool off before making our descent.
we had other great adventures, like swimming the the cascades below the amphitheater, which took us around the valleys of the drakensberg. we were sure to always try to leave our car, tuna, in popular spots and at angles that made it look good against the scenery because of our first test at marketing greatguides.org. it was a shameless attempt by me to attract local attention. we got a lot of stares, but i will let you know if any website visits from the drakensberg actually occurs as most of the people there can only access the internet through their cell network.
the family and i really grew into the fabric of life in the drakensberg, spending most of our time there with our host family; around the campfire or hiking along the trails during the day.
my favorite day at sungubala started with this sunrise (better viewed in this panorama). the fog had already burned off the mountains when rachel and i left camp and retraced my steps on a trail i took on a foggy morning. we made a good pace, motivated by the giant cliff faces ahead of us and the sweeping valley below; all of which was invisible to me before. our trail took us to ‘echo cave’, a misnomer that i sadly adjusted to in this area. caves were not caves as we know them, but overhangs with exaggerated names. echo cave was an impressively tall overhang that breed a beautiful indigenous forest at it’s feet, covering everything with moss and lush plantlife. birds were busy soaring in the air above us, creating a playful pattern to their noise: a crescendo of bird calls, the whisper of fluttered wings, and then back ‘woods silence’. after enjoying our time in the forest, we headed back to camp just in time for breakfast.
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after breakfast, i left camp with roddy and cyndi, our great guide, to meet caiphus, a guide to the area that has been trained in a local guides program to benefit local communities. cyndi knows him well as she has employed him as a guide, host, and porter frequently on her clients’ mutli-day hikes through the area.
to get there, it was ten minutes on paved roads, another thirty minutes on dirt roads that were very heavily beat up with washed-out bridges, and then another twenty minutes on foot, walking up to the village along cattle tracks. this far from the beaten bath (of tarred roads actually), there are no power lines, water pipes, or other services; these people live off the land for most of their subsistence. the only growth of roads and services towards them comes right before elections, and funny-enough, disappears right after them too.
caiphus joined us before we hit the dirt road to lead us into his village. on our walk to where he stays, he pointed out the different houses, explained their connection to his family, and their roles in the community. most of the people in the area around where he lived were somehow tied to his family, through his grandfather or otherwise, and they all relied on each and the same resources: water holes and firewood, crops and cattle.
we knew we were really ‘away from it all’ when we reached caiphus’ homestead and phone-stand: a stick that hold his cell phone in the exact spot where there is service. two inches in any direction and the service vanishes, but he can leave it here and wait for it to beep for sms’s. in his homestead he has a rondavel, two houses, and a ‘beehive’ hut. behind cyndi in the photo, you will see a variation of the typical rondavel which we have seen for most of our trip now. it is a traditional style of building homes both of the zulu and of the xhosa. caiphus’ rondavel serves as a guest house and meeting place when he has visitors and was very well built over twenty years ago (your couldn’t tell by looking at it). the two homes in the homestead are built in the same way, from mud/grass bricks and plaster, and house his wife and him in one, and his father and mother in the other. they are two-room homes with a bedroom and common room in each of them. in front of caiphus’ house, you can see the solar panel that he is trying to add to his roof: something completely new in his area. the first set were stolen from him, but now with a single panel from the manufacturer, he hopes to weld it on so it will stay for good.
the building style i hadn’t had a chance to really look at before was the ‘beehive’ huts; they are built by the zulus and are everywhere in the kwazulu natal area. the grasses that make up the roof are harvested locally in december, only being allowed to be cut, collected, and woven by women. the ‘december(ish)-only law’ of the people actually is a combination of the best harvesting time of the grass and also to protect it from being cut down in a way that would harm the environment. the roof is woven together by the women in intricate patterns, distinguishing them from the taller, big-brother-like buildings of rondavels. inside, the right side is for men only, and the left side is for women. this allows for the men to sit on the right side and not have to turn (to their right-hand side) to attack anyone coming in through the door. the doorway is really low so that anyone entering has to duck low, exposing the back-side of their head and neck to the people inside (they really had these houses thought out… except what if you are leaving because someone is burning your roof?). anyway, this beehive was used mainly just as a kitchen, with the tools for cooking just stabbed into the woven grasses and branches, all turned black layers and layers of soot.
we enjoyed a traditional zulu meal for lunch, with sweet, soft susu ‘inkhomani’, a potato and maize mix, and ‘ndoko’, a sorghum desert. As we took our time eating lunch, word spread that we were visiting, and many people gathered outside. We could hear drums playing as boys practiced singing and dancing, and the sounds of tin-shakers on the ankles of sangomas drifting in through our window.
before zulu boys can dance, they must sing. their songs and dances are about their zulu culture: how to do things, what to eat, and stories. as they sat there, mostly in plain clothes, it was easy to see the undercurrent of these traditions running through their culture in today’s south africa. these are the same songs, passed along parent to child, and the meanings behind them are not lost; they play a vital role in maintaining daily life.
zulu dancing is known and distinguished by it’s kicking. their are other movements that must be taken before you start kicking, but the kicks are dramatic, high, and to the beat of the drum. ask why they kick, and you will get ‘we kick to show we are stronger than others. no one can kick as high as we can.’ it is true. girls also dance with kicks that go very high, but they are not allowed to fall down like the boys do once they are done. these styles of dancing are imitated by the children at a very early age, and you can see the bright twinkle of pride in their eyes as they do their best to kick to the sky. behind the sounds of the singing boys, the drum, and the stomped grass, the go-gos, grandmothers, call out in an ‘alalalalala’ noise that merges in with the rhythm of the music and dancing.
the sounds of the drum attracted yet another sangoma, bringing our total to three; we must had truly had the ancestors calling on us that day. the sangomas are the ‘healers’, ‘witch doctors’ and diviners for the communities. if you are sick, see a sangoma. if you are having bad luck and want to know why your ancestors would possibly be upset with you, see a sangoma. they are powerful people within the community, and are both male and female. after our other performances, the sangomas wanted to show that old people can dance too, and offered us a performance (video clip of performance).
at the end of all the performances, caiphus stood up to translate between our two groups. first, we were thanked for coming to visit their village and watching them perform. we thanked them in return, and explained what we wanted to do with the video, photo, and audio we took: we want to post it online for people all over the world to be able to watch and learn of your family, valley, and culture. we want them to be able to learn and then come here, stay with you, and visit listen and watch your performances first-hand (if you want to visit, contact me or watch the youtube video for details). they thanked us again, and we all left happy to have had the chance to spend the afternoon together. i promised caiphus later to return to show them the footage and photos, or at the very least be able to give them to cyndi who would do the same. i plan on doing by best to fulfill my promise and return to these people who shared so much with me.
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we were in the drakensberg because of this woman, cyndi jonker. it is because of her that i had such an amazing time in the draks. she has a heart larger than the drakensberg mountains, and it’s love for the people, plants, animals, and unique landscapes of the drakensberg flows stronger than any of the rivers produced here. on my last day in the draks, cyndi and i took a morning hike around the base of sungubala mountain, and it was by far my favorite hike. it was a perfect way to part from the mountains, and in leaving, i felt like i was family.
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in cyndi’s profile recording, she said as she vacationed here for years, every time they left she would ‘cry and cry and cry all the way back to jo’burg’. i could relate: i left a piece of myself in the mountains, and as we drove away i could feel it pulling on me. even two weeks later, as i write this post, it is hard for me to really compare my time there two what i am doing now (even though i am very happy now). looking at this last photo still pulls at me, and i know for a fact that i will have to return to the drakensberg to find the piece of myself that i left behind.
hope all is well,