Tent Travels: A short visit to a special place.

View from our campsite.

FOR all sorts of good reasons, we’ve had a chance to do a bit of interesting meandering around our gorgeous province over the last few weeks.

We’ve even been brave enough to leave our sunny, warm-all-year-round South Coast to do some winter camping in the cold, inland parts of KwaZulu-Natal.

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It was a bit of a chilling experience at times but we thoroughly enjoyed our cool KZN explorations, visiting some of our very favourite places and seeing them in wintry mode. Green and pretty as they are in summer, there is something so dramatic about our stark winter landscapes.

Generally we were lucky with the weather, which never got too seriously cold, and we managed to cope with the moderately plunging mercury just fine. If you have the right equipment and clothing, cold weather camping is not as scary as it sounds.

Our first bit of meandering involved a week in a Champagne Castle cottage, with a couple of days of camping tucked onto either side of the week. We were back home for just a short time when we set off again when my younger son and his family arrived from Australia.

Mfomfeni view site.

For about two weeks that went far too quickly, we did some wonderful travelling with them and my elder son and his family. Holidaying with four grandchildren, aged one, two, three and five years, and being able to share our love of wild places with them was a sometimes wacky but always wonderful experience.

We’ve also used our our little KZN meanderings to work towards a goal we’d set ourselves at the beginning of this year. We are trying to complete 20 parkruns at 20 different venues in South Africa to earn our parkrun tourist status.

If you haven’t heard about parkrun, it is a global movement that encourages ordinary people to run or walk one of the free, timed 5km parkruns held in more than 100 attractive venues in South Africa and at other parklike places all over the world, every Saturday morning.

You earn commemorative shirts for completing 50, 100 and 250 parkruns, which is a wonderful way to motivate runners and walkers to stay involved.

Then there was another good reason to set off on a small walkabout. Last year, we acquired an elderly VW Kombi camper and took it to Kruger for 11 days. We loved the mobility it gave us and convinced ourselves that a camper would be the way to go.

The vehicle was rather elderly, though, and we also still wanted a 4X4. The vehicle wasn’t ideal so we eventually sold it and our bakkie and acquired what we hope will be a perfect vehicle for our future travels. It is also a VW Kombi, but it is almost new and is a long wheel base, 4motion (4X4) model.

We acquired it shortly before we left for the mountains and didn’t have time to start fitting it out as a camper, so the camping part of our trip was a little disorganised. All the same, we were so looking forward to trying out our new acquisition. We were thrilled with it and and even this little excursion convinced us that a camper van was the way to go.

Kudu come down to the pan for a drink.water

Our first stop was one of our favourites of South Africa’s smaller wild places, lovely Weenen Game Reserves in the Midlands. It is a particularly scenic spot, has a wonderful African feel about it and is one of the best birding venues in the Midlands area.

We did a slow trip to Weenen as we needed to do some business in Durban along the way and we only arrived mid-afternoon. Instead of putting up a tent, we parked, scrabbled around inside our vehicle a bit and set up our table, chair and camp kitchen.

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It took minutes rather than the usual hour it takes to set up our tent and we realised that once our camping system had been perfected, setting up camp would be even less of a chore.

As our new vehicle sports metallic paint, we planned to have a protective film applied to the bodywork but had not yet had time to do this so Bill didn’t want to drive on any of the rougher, narrower roads in the park where the paintwork might be scratched or damaged.

We decided to take a drive to our favourite sunset spot, the lovely Sanctuary picnic area, but to avoid doing the 4X4 Tierskloof route home. It is one of the most scenic routes the park has to offer but there are plenty of other great routes to do.

Full moon rising over Weenen.

The bird-filled, tree-shaded Sanctuary Picnic Site, which offers panoramic views of the surrounding park, was as lovely as ever and we spent a happy evening there, ticking off some interesting birds and doing some tree hugging. Although it was officially winter the park still looked quite summery in places, the thorn trees-dotted hills quite green.

The fence around the picnic site has long been removed but the attractive stone and wrought-iron entrance to the picnic site has been left standing to remind visitors that Weenen people had set the area aside as a bird sanctuary as part of the 1938 Voortrekker centenary celebrations.

Originally it was called Centenary Park and I can imagine crowds of picnickers from the town of Weenen spending wonderful family days there over the weekends and holidays.

It must have been a popular spot for day excursions back then but what makes particularly special for us now is the knowledge that it has become the heart of a well-established 5 000ha game reserve.

The campsite, where we spent the rest of the evening, is lovely – a series of interconnected ‘fairy rings’ in the long grass, shaded by statuesque paperbark acacias (Acacia sieberiana).

The camp is set in a grassy saucer surrounded by thorn-tree dotted hills and overlooks a dam wall and a game-rich marshy area that in summer is green and squelchy. When you camp at Weenen it is not uncommon to be able to watch a march-past of stately eland from your campsite.

We were planning to build a sleeping platform, under which there would be storage space, in the back of our new camper but hadn’t had a chance to do this yet, so our sleeping arrangements were a bit Heath Robinson. All the same we were quite comfortable and probably warmer than if we’d been in a tent.

It was very frosty next morning and we grabbed our fleeces, beanies, gloves and scarfs before venturing out to make our morning coffee. We were only spending one full day and another night in Weenen so we wanted to make the best of our time there.

After packing up our cooking box we took a roundabout route to the Umtunzini Picnic Site where we made breakfast then wandered over to the viewsite overlooking the fertile Bushman’s River and surrounding rocky hills.

Sanctuary picnic spot, with our new acquisition in the background.

A furrow leading from the river to the nearby town of Weenen was a reminder that this was Voortrekker country. The nearby town was laid out by trekker settlers in 1838 and the name is an echo of one of the violent episodes in their history.

Weenen means weeping and the name chosen for the fledgling town was a grim reminder of the recent massacre of a Voortrekker party by Dingaan’s warriors. The town founders built the channel in 1841, no mean feat considering they had no surveying instruments.

We took a slow drive back to camp, via the Mfomfeni picnic site, another lovely spot in the park, enjoying good game viewing and birding and views of the undulating thorny scenery.

Another cold morning followed a snug and comfortable night. We were soon packed up and ready to drive to the Champagne Valley cottage where we would spend a week.

As always, we were sorry to leave Weenen, particularly as we’d had such a short time there. Not only is Weenen an interesting and scenically beautiful park but the facilities, camp, roads and the park itself are so perfectly maintained.

The friendly, helpful people who care for this little KZN jewel keep it polished to perfection and they really deserve a pat on the back for their hard work and dedication. It is all part of what makes a visit to this special place such a treat.

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  AUTHOR
Judi Davis
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Tent Travels: A short mountain meander