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Smoking Dragon

Smoking Dragon

Dec 2013

Words Jennifer Stern, pics Johnson Chen

If you’re still wondering what to do on New Year’s Eve and don’t want to be in the city but also don’t want to be crowded cheek by jowl in some oh-so-popular holiday destination, Smoking Dragon may be what you’re looking for...

Like all really successful events, it started small. Ten years ago, Ilsa and Linda, who own and manage Amphitheatre Backpackers in the Northern Drakensberg, threw a New Year’s Party. It was such a success, they did it again the next year and then it started growing and growing, until it is now one of the best music festivals around. 

That’s not just hype, it is a bit different. Firstly, there is only one stage – and that’s a good thing not a bad thing. It means festival-goers won’t have to choose between two bands on at the same time but, even more important, it means that up-and-coming bands that may not yet have made a name for themselves will get the chance to be heard without having to compete with more established artistes on other stages.

And that’s part of the whole ethos of Smoking Dragon, with the event featuring a whole bunch of sharing innovations this year. As well as showcasing a range of live SA bands, Smoking Dragon is offering performers a profit-share. And the performers will also be running workshops with local wannabee musicians in the days leading up to the event. It’s a pretty isolated area, and the local youth don’t get much opportunity to access this quality of performance input so the workshops are potentially life changing. What’s the bet we’ll be seeing some local musos on the stage next year?

It’s not just a drunken party in the mud like some festivals. For starters, it’s kept small with tickets limited so it will never get seriously crowded and the facilities – ranging from super-clean loos to fun and funky kids play zones – will not be unduly pressurised. And there are great day walks nearby, rock art and cultural tours so non-musical partners can take time out from the buzz.

Getting there is super-easy. It’s an almost equidistant drive of about 280km from Durban, Joburg and Bloem, and there is a pickup from the bus stations at Harrismith right to the door. The Baz Bus is also offering festival specials so the way to Smoking Dragon has been well smoothed. 

Bands include Bittereinder, Desmond and the Tutus, The Peppercorns, Beach Party, the Dollfins, Black Math, Rise and Black South Easter. The focus is on live music, but local DJs Michael Lesar, Davina Sotori, Veranda Panda, Dr Khumalo and others will keep the sound-waves wafting across the foothills of the Drakensberg throughout the wee hours of the morning.

Roofed accommodation is fully booked for this year, but camping tickets cost R500, and VIP camping tickets cost R600. The VIP option gives you access to all the great facilities at Amphitheatre Backpackers (one of only a few of SA’s five-star backpackers lodges). These include a pool, sauna, bar, restaurant and self-catering kitchens. And if you are turning your nose up at that option, it is clear you haven’t been in a backpackers since the early 1990s.

And if you can’t make it this year, there is always next year, when it will probably be even better.

For more info, check out

Nightjar Travel