The hiking paradise of Highmoor Nature Reserve has likely the highest campsite in the Berg, with views that need to be seen to be believed.
Words: Andrea Abbott
Pictures: Andrea Abbott and John Abbott
He paused, sat back on his haunches, and called out to unseen others. Wahoo! The bark cut through the silence. It bounced off the giant and died. With an air of insouciance, the baboon resumed his rolling gait, disappearing quickly into the deepening gloom. And now it was as if John and I were all alone, two insignificant dots in the immense space of Mkhomazi Wilderness Area in the Maloti-Drakensberg Park.
Proclaimed as a wilderness area in 1973, the 54 000ha Mkhomazi region contains four Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife nature reserves – Vergelegen, Lotheni, Kamberg and Highmoor. It’s a favoured region for serious hikers. In a blog I read, one seasoned rambler describes his solo, six-day trek from Kamberg to Highmoor and back again. In all that time, he never saw another person.
We’re not quite that intrepid. Preferring to return to a measure of comfort after a hike, we were camping at Highmoor which is in the central region of the Berg at the head of the Kamberg Valley. It’s perhaps one of the least known of the Berg reserves yet, with the great wall of Giant’s Castle presiding over undulating grasslands that stretch as far as the eye can see, and at 1 960m, it has panoramic views that rival the best in the Drakensberg.
Highmoor is not just about those grand views. The access road alone is worth the journey. Tarred and in a mostly fair condition, it winds steeply up through a picturesque valley carved by the Little Mooi River, lifeblood to farmers in the Kamberg Valley.
Massive boulders lie strewn across the folded hillsides as if the giant himself had been throwing tantrums. It’s worth stopping to take a walk down to the river, especially during spring and summer when wildflowers, many endemic to the eastern mountain region, stage their annual parade.
Facilities at Highmoor are rustic. They include a picnic site with a couple of braai tands for day visitors, and a charming little campsite about a kilometre from the reception office. The camp comprises eight neatly maintained sites, each with a tap but without plug points. There are two hot-water showers. The campsite is said to be the highest in the Drakensberg.
We forgot to take our GPS but when we climbed a short hill soon after arriving, our coast-conditioned lungs assured us that we were in a very high place. So did an unopened bag of crisps that, succumbing to the reduced air pressure, inflated to resemble a balloon.
Buddleias and leucosideas (Ouhout) bushes surround each site, providing wind shelter, shade and privacy. The chances are that if you go mid-week and out of season, you could find you have the place to yourselves. We had just one neighbour, Clinton, a keen walker who returns regularly to Highmoor lured by the network of trails that fan out from the office into truly remote areas. They’re all ‘there-and-back’ paths which, in theory, means walkers shouldn’t get lost.
“Sometimes people do get lost,” ranger David Mtshali tells us when we check in at the office. He points to a newspaper cutting pinned to the wall. It records the incident of an octogenarian visitor who went walking and failed to return to camp. The rangers set out to find him. Fortunately, because of the Mountain Rescue Register that all walkers must fill in to indicate which route they’re taking, the rangers knew where to start. “We called and whistled and eventually heard him calling back,” David tells us. “He’d strayed off the path.”
On the afternoon we arrived, Clinton recommended we walk to Aasvoëlkrans Cave. But by the time we’d heaved ourselves out of our camp chairs (how easy to fall into a complete slump once the tent is up and there is nothing else to do but enjoy the all-enveloping peace and beauty) and pulled on our hiking boots, the day was almost done.
At the office, David advised against the Aasvoëlkrans hike. “You’ll be coming back after sunset,” he said and suggested we stroll instead to the four dams (two stocked with trout) a short distance to the west. It was next to one of those dams that we stood gazing on the giant. We’d hoped to spot the pair of Wattled Cranes that nest in that locality, but no one was home. Those rare birds are among several threatened species that occur in the Drakensberg.
Some, like the Bearded Vulture, are endemic to the region; others like the Yellow-breasted Pipit that breeds in montane grassland, are losing habitat rapidly. In the Pipit’s case this is largely because of afforestation of the grassland.
We’d have hung around the dams longer but an ominous rumbling and a spattering of rain sent us scurrying back to camp. From a safe place, Berg thunderstorms with their dramatic lightning strikes are a sight to behold. But to be out in such a storm (as we have been once) is terrifying. This time, though, we needn’t have worried. The rumbling proved to be a false alarm and, as darkness fell, the clouds dispersed, paving way for the star-spangled spectacle we’d hoped for.
First up was the Southern Cross that sat low in the southern sky. Higher up were its two bright pointers, Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri. Scorpio then arrived, reaching across the universe and featuring the giant red star, Antares. But as the Milky Way materialised and more stars emerged, the constellations became less distinct. It was as if they’d drowned in all that brightness.
That’s just part of the picture. Look through a pair of binoculars and you’ll see more stars than your mind can comprehend. To gaze at such a sky is to look into infinity. Sadly, light pollution means that very few people ever experience the majesty of a clear night sky.
In the morning, having come back to Earth, we headed out to Aasvoëlkrans Cave. It’s four kilometres from the office and is one of two caves in Highmoor – the other is Caracal – where hikers may camp overnight.
Caves aren’t our scene so we did the eight kilometre round trip that took about four hours. The going is easy for much of the way, the trail following contour paths and cutting across mostly level grasslands that in spring and summer are flower gardens. Along the entire route, which was ours alone both there and back, the views are stupendous. Once, we found ourselves on a plateau from where we could see right across to the peaks in the Northern Berg.
The path down to the cave is a different beast altogether – steep and treacherously strewn with loose scree. The safest way to reach the bottom is to shuffle down on your bottom (wear your oldest clothes). The spacious cave has its own water supply in the form of a waterfall that plunges down the cliff face into a natural swimming pool – a welcome sight after a long walk on a blisteringly hot day.
You’d expect to find rock art in the cave but other than some modern-day scribblings, there are no paintings. However, Clinton told us that there are some formidable panels elsewhere in Highmoor but they’re difficult to find and the path there is perilous in places. He offered to take us to see them but having shuffled, heart in mouth, down to Aasvoël and clawed our way back out again, we’d had our fill of adrenaline. Next time, perhaps.
- Take the Nottingham Road off-ramp from the N3. At Notties, continue on the R103 to Rosetta. Turn left opposite The Ugly Duckling onto the Kamberg road. After about 30km, a dirt road forking to the left takes you past Glengarry and Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, up to Highmoor.
- Journey time from Nottingham Road is about 45 minutes. Stock up there on any provisions you might need.
- Campsites, overnight caves and fishing permits must be booked in advance through Ezemvelo central reservations 033 845 1000
- There are various accommodation options in the area for non-campers.
- Highmoor Nature Reserve: 033 267 7240