Into the Drakensberg, Inspiration for Lord of the Rings

The early Afrikaaner trekkers called them the Drakensberge, Dragon mountains, but the Zulus call them uKhahlamba, the Barrier of Spears.

But whatever their name, these magnificent mountains, South Africa’s highest, are part of the Great Escarpment that stretches from KwaZulu-Natal up to Mpumalanga and Limpopo, and comprise the World Heritage Site of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park – the first such in the country to be recognized for both its cultural and natural attractions.

The mountains are not only spectacularly beautiful, they also have an almost undefinable presence. If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, you won’t be surprised to hear that Tolkien’s inspiration for his fantasy realm of Middle Earth was born here.

Drakensberg, rock art
Drakensberg, rock art

There’s so much to see and do. The Drakensberg is home to some of the finest rock art in the world – estimates put the number of San rock paintings at over 40 000 at some 550 San rock art sites. You’ll find some of the most spectacular displays at Giant’s Castle, Injasuti and at the Kamberg Nature Reserve, among many other iconic sites. (Tip: take binoculars with you to get really good views of long-ago hunts, battles, trance dances and animals such as the mighty eland, which played a major role in San mysticism.)

If you want to get active, the Drakensberg is a hiker’s dream. Take three- to five-day overnight trails deep into the mountains, or short day hikes in the foothills, or climb on the back of a sturdy pony and marvel at the awesome scenery that way.

The shopping is superb . Buy a unique piece of sculpted and hand-painted pottery from Ardmore Ceramics, where over 60 Zulu artists create such memorable collectors’ items that the Queen of England has one on her mantlepiece at Balmoral, as does ‘M’ in the James Bond movies.

Shop till you drop on the Midlands Meander – the famous craft route that has over 200 establishments. Choose between leather footwear and handbags, pottery and paintings, clothes, artisanal food, glassware, jewellery, and hundreds more handmade and handcrafted items.

The Drakensberg accommodation is legendary, from family hotels, friendly B&Bs, and attractive self-catering options, to fine hotels and well-known restaurants.

Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse
View of Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse

Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse is one of the Drakensberg’s most sought-after stays.

I first visited many years ago, when Richard and Mouse Poynter had just returned from a year-long cooking spree around Europe. They renovated the old 1936 family farm at foot of the Drakensberg range near Giant’s Castle, and began to create one of South Africa’s most iconic gourmet establishments.

Eleven lovely rooms, all uniquely themed (think the Swedish Naturalist room; the Darjeeling room; the Postcard room, among other quirky spaces) huddle round the trout-filled lake at the foot of the mountains.

But although the accommodation is comfortable and inviting, it’s the food that you really come here for. Richard, not only a master chef but an actor manqué, talks you through every course of his 7-course sumptuous dinner menu with flair, wit and in-depth culinary knowledge before you sit down to dine at night. It’s a show all of its own. Homegrown or local produce coupled with salmon freshly flown in from Norway, or mouthwatering chicken pie, followed by blackberry and apple crumble (with lashings of cream, of course). And that’s not even a tiny selection of what’s on offer. Don’t come here if you’re on a diet. Come if you love good food. Mrs Beeton would have loved Richard’s recipes.

And take comfort, with Giant’s Castle and its amazing rock paintings only a stone’s throw away, you can easily (no, not easily!) walk off the calories after breakfast.

It really is as good as it gets – world-class food and a world-famous Heritage Site…but be warned, nobody visits Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse once – like the Drakensberg itself, it’s addictive.

Get in touch with one of our travel experts for your next adventure visiting the Drakensberg or any other destinations in Southern Africa.