Trails in the Drakensberg
Words & pics by Anzet du Plessis
SOFT-ROADER BREAKAWAY, KIA SORENTO 2.2 AWD
As South Africans, we are blessed with so many attractive holiday destinations that a list of places to visit within our borders could very well be a few pages long.
It’s easy to think of the Drakensberg mountains in KwaZulu-Natal as just another sightseeing destination. But it shouldn’t be. There’s something special about the towering Amphitheatre in the northern part of the range, the deep gorges and imposing walls of rock that tower over the valley below. It’s as though this is where the earth ends, and that there could be nothing behind them.
If you are a keen photographer, a hiker and/or adventurer, and you haven’t been to the Drakensberg, you haven’t done yourself justice. Some of the trails may be tough, but the rewards are exceptional, and there is plenty to do in the area other than hiking.
We travelled to the northern Drakensberg to make a shortlist of hikes, places to see - and roads not to take.
Our route this month was fairly simple, starting from Johannesburg and taking the long and tedious N3 as far as Harrismith. There we turned off towards Phuthaditjhaba and followed the road right up to Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge.
Be warned, however, that you cannot get to Witsieshoek via the Royal Natal National Park as your GPS is likely to tell you to do. You must drive down towards Phuthaditjhaba from Harrismith.
To get to the Royal Natal National Park by car, drive back up the same road towards Harrismith and turn off to Sterkfontein Dam. However, this road is dotted with inactive roadworks and has a poor surface that will take some time and patience to negotiate. Traffic flows both ways regardless of the stop-go system.
The only other option is to stick to the N3 towards Durban, turn off at Bergville and then travel to the park and Little Switzerland – a far more tedious affair.
The roads in the northern Drakensberg are not well maintained and have been the subject of some controversy and dispute about who is responsible for them. The gravel road towards Sterkfontein Dam, as mentioned, is marred by roadworks and an uneven surface, and the tar around Little Switzerland and the Royal Natal National Park is not much better. We were grateful for the improvements made to the new Kia – and for the things in the vehicle that hadn’t been tampered with.
The body itself has remained largely unchanged, with only the height reduced by 10mm (to 1700mm) due to the lowered suspension ride height.
The 2.2 CRDi turbodiesel engine now exclusively offered in the range produces more power than the original 2.5 version – a whopping 146kW and an equally impressive 436Nm of torque. This engine is the same unit seen in the previous generation, but has a new exhaust recirculation system, which reportedly cuts the production of nitrogen oxide and reduces CO2 emissions.
While South Africans may remain in denial about the downsizing trend we’ve seen in both diesel and petrol engines, it’s impossible to ignore the leaps that have been made in terms of engineering, with smaller engine producing more power and better distributed torque than their inefficient predecessors. The 2.2 turbodiesel in the Sorento reaches maximum torque output as early as 1800 r/min, making it far more adept as an off-roader than one might expect from a crossover.
The six-speed automatic ’box is a smooth and effortless transmission system and is offered across the range.
With torque peak at a low 1800 r/min and a responsive transmission system – even in Eco mode – the gearbox makes for a great city vehicle. Getting going from that slipway or stop street is no effort at all – proof again that engineering has come a long way, and that an engine is only as good as the gearbox it’s mated to.
The Sport mode allows you to select gears manually, but we found ourselves using Eco mode for the duration of the trip, without ever feeling the frustration of an under-powered engine or sluggish gear change.
As with most crossovers – and at a time when fuel prices are a major concern – the Sorento doesn’t drive all four wheels permanently. It employs an adaptable AWD system, as it has done from the first generation.
Engine torque in its entirety is delivered to the front wheels for as long as possible – on the open road and from robot to robot. This means we could benefit from the lowest possible fuel consumption on the long road to Witsieshoek, driving what was essentially a 4x2 while cruising on the N3.
When it comes to less stable surfaces – like the winding gravel up to Sentinel Peak, or the potholed roads of rural Natal and the eastern Free State – the Sorento’s drive is adjusted. Once slipping is detected on either of the front wheels, torque is transferred to the rear axle. Up to half the engine torque can be redistributed, and a “Lock” mode allows you to keep that 50/50 split in place. We’ve seen this option come in handy on particularly loose surfaces, when a sandy stretch suddenly appears on a gravel road, or when fine gravel ruins any sense of traction.
On this trip, however, the Lock mode was never required, and the torque-redistribution system was all the help we needed on the back roads.
The new Sorento’s safety improvements don’t end with the body shell. It has six airbags and a host of assist systems such as roll-over protection, brake assist (BAS), cornering brake control (BC) and EBD. It also has an electronic stability control system (ESC), ABS, hill-start assist, active headrests and Isofix seat anchors.
As a touring vehicle, the Sorento SUV had all the elements we needed for a trip to the Drakensberg -- space that is easy to use, a dependable diesel engine, gravel-beating suspension and a good all-wheel drive system. It’s an ideal adventure companion to a place like Witsieshoek and the Royal Natal National Park, where you don’t require a full-time 4x4 but just that little bit of help to get you through safely.
Sentinel Peak, which juts out of the rocky escarpment roughly seven kilometres (by road) from the lodge, is a famous climbing challenge. A mountaineering route to the top was established more than 100 years ago.
Climbers Wybergh and McLeod were the first to officially ascend the peak in 1910, and a centenary hike was held in 2010.
The peak is about 3 165m above sea level and the climb is for experienced mountaineers who must be accompanied by a guide.
There are several routes up the mountain, the most famous of which is the Angus-Leppan route.
In 1959, Pam and Peter Angus-Leppan established the route. We heard stories about the couple going up the mountains with an infant strapped to Pam’s back in a banana box. Another time, they had to rush down the mountain in time to collect their children from their baby-sitting parents, who were due to leave for home from Durban harbour!
For their time, the Angus-Leppans were highly successful climbers who pioneered unconventional and taxing routes with far heavier and less reliable climbing gear than is available today. A traditional climb, with period equipment, was conducted in their honour on the 50th anniversary of their first ascent.
These days, it is one of the more popular routes, as it is considered one of the easiest. That’s not to say it’s for beginners. It’s a long way down if there is a misplaced step. The route keeps climbers in the sun for the most part, and has spectacular views. There are also several long hikes in the Amphitheatre, via Mont-Aux-Sources, which the lodge can organise. (Alternatively, see Scott Ramsay’s article in this issue for his guide of choice). The massive and seemingly never-ending chain ladders are something to see.
There are overnight hikes as well as “slackpacker” tours -- for those beginner hikers who prefer to walk with a guide during the day and sleep in lodges at night.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
Slackpacker route: Contact Paul Colvin of Underberg Hideaways: 082 323-4022 or [email protected]
Of course, while the area is famed for its hikes and climbs, it’s a perfectly suitable destination for those wanting a break from the city lights or a bit of light adventure. The Royal Natal Park, the famed Little Switzerland resort, with its new restaurant (with coffee worth making a detour for), several adventure farms and a great lunch spot at the Tower of Pizza are among the attractions in the area.
Tower of Pizza: With a great alfresco area and delicious pizzas, this is a great lunch spot following your visit to the Royal Natal National Park. Find them about 10km from the park on the Bergville road. Be warned that they don’t accept cash, as a “safety issue”, so make sure to have a credit or cheque card on hand.
You can also book a flip in a helicopter over the Drakensberg at the restaurant, and there’s a nine-hole golf course nearby. Go to www.towerofpizza.co.za for more information.
Royal Natal National Park: See Scott Ramsay’s article for detailed information on this wonderful national park.
Little Switzerland: This popular and picturesque little hotel occupies a prime spot in the northern Drakensberg, and the Coyote restaurant is the perfect breakfast stop. The deck looks out on the valley and dam below, and it’s just a short drive from there to the park. Go to www.lsh.co.za for information.
All out Adventure: Find this adrenaline-junkie’s delight down the road opposite the Tower of Pizza. Follow the signs. Activities include mountain biking routes of up to 50km, “SA’s fastest cable tour”, quad bike trails and a 17m free fall “King Swing”. They also have paintball and an “adventure zone” for kids. The patient staff will assist daredevils of any level of experience level. The facility has a coffee shop and is open from Wednesdays to Sundays, 09h00 to 16h30. Go to www.alloutadventures.co.za or contact 036 438-6242 or 082 406-8980.
Horse riding: A popular activity in the northern Drakensberg. Go to www.drakensberghorseriding.co.za for more information.
Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge has an old-world charm, with rondavels that dot the ridge of the hill and look right up at the Amphitheatre. With the rondavels now becoming outdated, the lodge has wasted no time in building new, modern rooms with one of the most magnificent views in SA. With fresh eyes, the newly appointed management couple, Kevin and Yvonne van den Bergh, are working to refresh the lodge, while they themselves explore the secrets of the mountains so that they know exactly what would suit each guest’s needs.
The gem of the lodge is the restaurant, also rondavel-shaped. The front of the dining area looks out onto the valley below through large, curved windows that allow the sunshine in. From here you can watch the bird life outside – even the vultures that are drawn to the lodge every Sunday when food is put out for them in a quiet spot.
The lodge, which organises hikes for guests, is operated by the Transfrontier Park Destinations group with the dedication that travellers have come to expect from them. It is owned by the Batlokoa community.
Rates: The new chalets are R520 per person per night sharing, bed and breakfast. There is a special offer until 12th December of R450 per person, for a minimum stay of two nights. The old bungalows go for R354 per night.
The Kia Sorento started out in 2002 as a Fortuner-Traiblazer-like bakkie-based SUV with a ladder-frame chassis and plenty of features for the time. These included dual airbags, curtain airbags, a shift-on-the-fly 4x4 system and intelligent AWD as standard.
The Sorento appeared in SA in 2003, with a 2.5-litre diesel engine or a 3.5 V6 petrol version. The diesel model produced 104kW of power and 320Nm of torque, and had the same four-wheel drive configuration as the first incarnation of the mid-size SUV sold in the US. With a suspension system tuned by Porsche, great use of space inside and 203mm of ground clearance, it was well received.
Since then, the Sorento has evolved into a crossover vehicle, with all the refinements and comforts of a sedan.
The second generation Sorento adopted the new family face in 2009, designed by Peter Schreyer. He dropped the heavy chassis for a lighter unibody frame with independent suspension.
Earlier this year, the Sorento was refreshed again, with far more improvements than people may realise. Exterior changes were limited, which gave the impression that the 2013 model was simply a facelift. There was a new front bumper, headlights, LED daytime running lights, re-shaped taillights with LEDs and a colour-coded bumper. But under the skin the chassis had been strengthened, with a torsional stiffness increase of 18% to improve the Sorento’s ability to absorb impacts.
The interior finishing has been improved. There is a new instrument cluster and eight-inch display screen, as well as a panoramic sunroof (which is optional, but it was a great facility to have in the Royal Natal National Park).
The black leather upholstery and satin chrome finish give a luxury feel. Other comforts include a power-adjustable driver’s seat, a rear-view safety camera, a start/stop system with a smart key and a Bluetooth hands-free communication system, which is standard on all Sorentos.
On the open road, we soon appreciated the significance of the changes to the Sorento. The improvements in general quality and feel are easily noticeable. The entire body has been reworked, and the low noise levels as well as lack of vibration and steering wheel feedback were apparent on the tar and later on the dirt roads.
The Sorento gives a quiet, comfortable ride – great for a long trip. The suspension set-up has been left unchanged, but the ride quality shows a definite improvement. According to Kia, the Sorento still has MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link setup at the back, but both sets of frames supporting the suspension have been redesigned to be stronger and to better dampen vibrations from rough surfaces. This may sound like marketing talk, but the difference was obvious for both driver and passengers.
Our Sorento was the seven-seater AWD derivative -- one of two models on offer. The boot space, with the rear row of seats down, easily swallowed our luggage and camera gear. We threw in a few duvets as well -- in preparation for the cold that is the Drakensberg in August.
If you are a hiker, climber or abseiling enthusiast, the northern Drakensberg is just the place for you. Not only are the trails diverse, challenging and unpredictable because of the weather, but they are steeped in history.
KIA SORENTO 2.2 DIESEL AWD
Engine: TCI four-in-line, intercooled, twin DOHC
Displacement: 2199 cc
Torque: 436 Nm
Gearbox: Six-speed auto
Fuel tank capacity: 70 l
Towing capacity: 2000 kg
Drive system: AWD with default to FWD
Assist systems: ABS, EBD, Brake assist system (BAS), Hill-start assist control (HAC), Cornering brake control (CBC), TC and Roll over protection (ROP)
Ground clearance: 185mm
Price: R479 995
Quoted fuel economy: 8,8 l/100km
A two-wheel drive model is also available in the Sorento range, with the same 2.2 diesel engine and transmission, but with five seats.
Standard features: roof rails, auto dual zone climate control, cruise control, auto light control, front/rear park assist, satellite controls on steering, lumbar support, aux/usb.bluetooth, (and on AWD) start/stop button, FlexSteer system, heated/ventilated front seats, rear view camera, self-levelling suspension
Source: Leisure Wheels