Drakensberg & Clarens on a Budget

A trip to the beautiful Drakensberg and Clarens proves that local travel doesn’t need to be unaffordable, or short on any incredible experiences. A 3 night, 4-day road trip cost us only R6 000 for two people. Here’s what we did and how we did it.

Drakensburg Clarens Travel

Andrew, my wonderful boyfriend, had wanted to take a trip to hike in the Drakensberg over a weekend and potentially stay somewhere nearby to make it a long weekend. We didn’t set out to do it on any particular budget but when we did work out the costs after, I thought it was worth sharing.

There is so much of the Drakensberg to see, so deciding was difficult. We settled on the Drakensberg Amphitheatre as Andrew was familiar with the area, and Clarens because of it’s not far from the Northern Berg. Clarens would make the long drive worthwhile as the nearest entrance to the peak we planned to climb is 350 km away from Joburg (well, my house). It’s one of the shorter drives to anywhere in the Drakensberg from Joburg too. Ands had done this specific hike up Sentinel Peak a few times before we started planning the trip, so his knowledge of the area made organising this trip so much easier!

We were ready to leave at around 10:30 but we didn’t actually get out of Joburg until 11:15 or so. We thought there would be a sweet spot of low traffic between 09:00 and 11:30 but roadworks, an accident and a police cavalcade had the M2 over Joburg backed up. After that, the drive was all smooth sailing. Padkos wise, I had prepared snacks in an effort to stay as healthy as I could on a road trip, Ands had bought his favourite treats with too. A quick stop in Harrismith for lunch lead to impressive service and a delicious sandwich from Mugg & Bean. I never thought that I’d say thank goodness for Mugg & Bean, but the vegan chickpea, spinach and egg free mayo toastie was everything I needed at that point (be sure to ask for it to be fried in oil, not butter when placing your order). A few hours of driving through scenic landscapes later and we made it to Witieshoek Mountain Lodge.

Drakensberg Clarens Travel

Witieshoek

The National Park that Witieshoek Mountain Lodge is part of has sweeping vistas wherever you turn. There is a small entrance fee to pay at the gate and the short, winding drive to the Lodge has viewpoints to stop at along the way. I’d suggest at least pulling over to take it in or hopping out the car to get some fresh air if you aren’t chasing daylight. Witieshoek Mountain Lodge sits on the edge of a mountain and accommodation options include basic backpackers,  or affordable but comfortable chalets and bungalows on a bed and breakfast basis.

Our room overlooked the valley but a short stroll showed us what we came for- the Drakensberg Amphitheatre.  The rooms have everything you need between mountain adventures- simple furnishings, a restful spot to hang out and sleep with a warm shower. The rooms have recently been refurbished, so while the deco is definitely not what Witieshoek is most famous for, it’s cosy and rustic. Luckily we made it there in time to enjoy a sunset drink outdoors before dinner.

Main meals are served in the Lodge’s restaurant and there is a bar area for people who’d like to socialise outside of their accommodation. Now, I’m fussy with food and I admit it. Being vegetarian also adds this as generally, rural spots in South Africa aren’t that clued up on vegetarian options. I was really impressed by the options on offer for lunch and dinner at Witieshoek. When I did request a meal that was off the set menu on a busier night, the staff happily helped me.

The resort just outside of Phuthaditjhaba, is run by the Batlokoa community and was founded by Cheif Wessels Mota. Chief Mota built a stone hut for backpackers in the 1950’s, twenty years before the foundations for Witieshoek Mountain Lodge were laid. The Lodge was gradually given over to the current Batloaka Cheif, Morena Mota and under his guidance, a partnership with the Transfrontier Park Destinations was formed.

There is a huge focus on sustainable tourism and preserving the area, with ownership and majority of the revenue going to the Batloaka people, many of whom contribute toward or work at the lodge.

Drakensburg Clarens Travel
Drakensberg Clarens Travel

Sentinel Peak Hike

We rose early on Saturday and had a buffet style breakfast at the main lodge.  Witieshoek kindly gives weather information to hikers and there’s also the option to book a hiking guide in advance. Conditions that day were set to be around 11°C and windy, with 1% precipitation in the morning. Having an off-road vehicle on the steep and often rugged road up to the Sentinel Peak Car Park was definitely a bonus. There were a few hatchbacks and sedans at the parking area, but I’d say try to book a shuttle from the Lodge to the car park if you don’t have an off-roader.

Starting out was a beautiful crisp morning with a gentle breezed as we set off on a paved path. Again, there are viewpoints very often on the path, so take it slow rather than miss out on something astonishing. After a while, the path slowly becomes steeper and more winding. There are some steep rock faces interrupting the path that feel more like rock climbing than hiking. After about an hour and a half, we reached the split in the path where you can choose to go up Beacon Buttress Gulley or take the Chain Ladders.

If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen several posts talking about my fear of heights after this hike. If going up a sheer cliff face on a chain ladder is off the table for you, the gulley might appeal to you. To me, the gulley looked like rock climbing at a very steep angle for double the time that climbing the ladders would take. Andrew kept telling me that I didn’t need to go up to the top if I saw the Chain Ladders and I didn’t want to climb them.

At this point, I hadn’t made up my mind yet. We took the fork in the path leading to the chain ladders and this is where the path slowly becomes less and less defined. Being in such a natural beauty, as untouched by humans as is possible when making way for humans to experience and treasure that beauty, is a balm for the soul. It makes every step worth it.

By the time we did get to chain ladders I was still indecisive but having got that far, I figured I may as well try. And it was tough.  I was facing a childhood fear. The wind was whipping around the cliff face. Seeing the sky in my periphery made my heart beat even faster. To be honest, the only things that kept me going were lessons I’d learned in yoga; control the breath, have a fixed gaze point, slow steady movements. Two sets of chain ladders later we made it the top.

The plateau stretches as far as the eye can see and is a little deceptive- you’ve conquered a cliff face but it looks like you’re on flat land… A walk of about a kilometre later, we were at the edge of the escarpment. The Tugela Gorge dropped 1000m below our feet. There are ripples and folds of landscape as far as the eye can see. It was breathtaking. Especially as the gales had picked up fearsomely leaving us winded and the temperature had dropped.

So we trekked across the plateau again post haste to get out of the wind and bumped into some French hikers who had just made it up to the top. The wind had worsened, going down the chain ladders it battered us and I had to hook my elbows through the loops to stay on. Though Andrew and myself are reasonably fit,  at times we had to catch each other between steps that were precariously close to the edge. I

thought I must have looked drunk at one stage, swaying as I walked. Hikers are advised to add thirty minutes to the time it took them to descend when working out how long it’ll take to get back. That wind and cold made it feel like there was more extra time to me. I started getting grumpy, wanting a hot bath and book and told Andrew I’d hit a wall.  Eventually our plodding along had the car park in sight, but it still felt so far away and I plonked down on the side of the path like a toddler about to tantrum. Then two perky hikers with accents from somewhere in Europe passed us merrily, upright and all smiles under their hooded jackets.

We’d seen them on the plateau, so how did they have so much energy? If these two could take the cold and the wind, having done what we had done and been ok, I should be able to do the same. Surely..? I tell you, I’ve often been happy to see Andrew’s SUV but never as happy as rounding the corner back to that car park. And the best part? A hot shower and clean soft bed linen for an afternoon nap.

Drakensburg Clarens Travel
Drakensburg Clarens Travel

Our second and final evening at Witieshoek was very relaxed and another early night.  The wind rattling our bungalow windows made us so grateful to be somewhere well sheltered. At times it sounded like thunder, but there was no storm. We found out at breakfast the next morning that no, it wasn’t normally this windy (“Please visit us again in Summer!”) and the winds the day before reached 50km per hour!

Golden Gate & Clarens

Our next stop was Clarens. Our check-in was from 14:00 meaning we could take the scenic route through the majestic Golden Gate National Park. There are a few meandering trails off the highway running through Golden Gate National Park where you can take your time and see even more of the park’s splendour. It well worth it to see the red mountain, lichen rock face, pink and golden grasses and maybe catch a glimpse of game like zebra or buck. Be wary of baboons though.

Once we were in Clarens, we did what all tourists do in Clarens and went to Clarens Brewery for a tipple and a snack. The complimentary tasting trays served are famous for a reason; try out 9 samples of there craft beers, ciders and artisanal gin and tonic then decide which you’d like to order. A short walk around the town square later to look at deli’s, art galleries and small local shops had willed away enough time to shop for dinner ingredients and make our way to the Air B’n’B Andrew had found for us. What an unknown gem this spot is.

Drakensberg Clarens Travel
Drakensberg Clarens Travel
Drakensberg Clarens Travel
Drakensberg Clarens Travel

The Loft Room at Craigrossie lies just under 10km from Clarens, in the direction of Golden Gate National Park. It’s a small game farm and trout lodge with a single room in a loft, offering views of the Maluti Mountains in front of the two dam on the property. The hosts say that if people want luxury, they should go to town but we found it luxuriously filled with all the creature comforts of home. Every inch of the small space has been carefully thought out to maximise functionality. It’s a self-catering unit so for the first time that weekend, I could cook for us! After settling in we walked around the dam and had wine as a sundowner on the small private patio adjoining to The Loft Room. When the sun had sunk down over the mountains, the temperature dropped fast. We snuggled up inside to snack on the chocolate truffles provided, play card games and watch some TV. Funnily enough, the 8 o’clock movie that night was about two strangers who were stranded on a snow cover mountain, left to depend on each other. After the activities the day before, it felt almost too close to home.

Our stay at The Loft Room at Craigrossie was so special, it’s the perfect place for a romantic weekend away. No expense is spared with a fully equipped kitchen, a Nespresso machine, a beautifully furnished compact bathroom and high thread count linen.  They’ve thought of everything.  It got very chilly (-2ºC) but the air con and additional heater took care of that. We had locally made rusks with French Press coffee using a Highland Coffee Roastery blend, roasted and brewed in Clarens before a simple breakfast. I didn’t want to check out but four days of exploring had almost come to an end. With a warning from our Air B’n’B hosts about the road north of Clarens being busy and full of potholes, we headed back through Golden Gate Park, stopping off to look at a Black Bearded Vulture Hide along the way. The vultures weren’t coming out to feed though… and neither of us are big bird watchers anyway. Then the road towards Reitz, meets up with Warden and the drive through the countryside was really pretty.

Drakensberg Clarens Travel
Drakensberg Clarens Travel

Food

Since I started actively taking better care of myself and learning how to eat right, the way I eat when I socialise-and travel- has changed. I don’t want to say “It’s gotten harder”, because it hasn’t. It takes a little more planning and sticking to my guns when it comes to willpower because I don’t have my everyday habits to fall back on in these situations.

I didn’t take any images of the food prep I did for the trip. Rookie blogger error, I know. I really didn’t think it would make as big of a difference as it did to the trip, but that’s some positive hindsight. Before we left, I had no idea what the food would be like at Witieshoek or what would available in Clarens. What I could control were my snacks for between meals and the Clarens breakfast if I packed cleverly.

Using pantry staples I made some popcorn flavoured with chilli flakes and salt, to replace chips. Using half a tablespoon of oil and your own seasoning can make a huge difference. For a protein fix while Andrew had biltong, I packed a cup of toasted pumpkin seeds, almonds, Body by Wild’s vegan protein powder and the trail mix I keep in my handbag. For my sweet tooth, I made a batch of ‘Cookie Dough Balls’ from chickpeas with chocolate chips and packed some date bars and Lindt slabs I’d bought on special at Woolworths. Add in fruit and we were good to go for at least three days, I thought. It lasted the whole trip!

I did indulge in a packet of chips (family size, not the 25g packet. I have no regrets), some packets of Mini Cheddars and Strawberry Wafers that Andrew had picked up for us.

I’ve already mentioned the life-saving toasted chickpea sandwich we had from Mugg & Bean, these are not on the menu at the take-away counter so ask for them from the main restaurant. That evening we decided to carbo load for the hike on veg pizza and pasta. Breakfast the next day for me was some fruit and muesli followed by baked beans, a grilled tomato and a slice of brown toast. Witieshoek does offer a lunch pack for day hikes at an additional cost, but we grabbed some bananas and apples from the breakfast buffet table and had enough for lunch from the prepacked snacks.  Andrew got some instant soup which we had after the hike when we weren’t hungry enough to leave bed but were still quite peckish.

Post-hike dinner was a chickpea stuffed roasted red pepper with a tomato and coconut milk sauce. The portion was massive but I ate the whole thing. Breakfast the next day was roughly the same, I ate a little less as I wouldn’t be climbing a mountain but sitting in a car that day. We unashamedly grabbed muffins and more fruit from the buffet table. A big breakfast and snacks in the car kept us so full that we just had a focaccia to share at the Clarens Brewery that afternoon. We shopped in Clarens and found ingredients for a simple one-pot pasta with tomatoes and mushrooms. The Loft Room at Craigrossie had all the spices and condiments we needed to make it taste nice. I knew in advance that our accommodation in Witieshoek had no mini-bar so I packed Rude Health 5 Grain 5 Seed Porridge from Wellness Warehouse as a dry good breakfast for Clarens. As I couldn’t keep almond or oat milk fresh for 3 days outside a refrigerator, I just used water and it still came out really creamy. I cooked enough pasta for 4 servings and that became our lunch for the ride home.

It was a high carb weekend, but it was also the right time to relax on eating I figured. Most of the food I ate had a high amount of veggies but not as many as I usually eat. Metagenics UltraFlora Balance saved my stomach on this trip, this is also available at Wellness Warehouse.

Drakensberg Clarens Travel
Drakensberg Clarens Travel
Drakensberg Clarens Travel

Budget

In the infographic below is a little breakdown of our budget for you to follow. I considered writing a paragraph about it, but when it comes to numbers I just think between in lists.

Drakensburg & Clarens Travel Budge

Our time in the Drakensberg and Clarens was exceptional and we made memories I’ll also treasure. I purposefully did not set expectations for the trip or myself, even if had they would have been blown away.

Drakensberg Clarens Travel
Drakensberg Clarens Travel

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