Tent Travels: Winter magic in the Champagne Valley

The cottage's lovely winter garden.

THE Drakensberg’s Champagne Valley is well named. Its sparkling mountain air really does have the crisp effervescence of a good glass of bubbly – and spending time there is always a celebration.

In recent years we’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Champagne Valley so returning there to spend a week in our regular cottage had a distinct home-coming feeling.

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We love camping but we were looking forward to spoiling ourselves a bit, staying in the extremely comfortable cottage and taking things easy.

And that is just what we did. Our wonderful sunny veranda is the perfect spot to while away a few hours and we spent many an afternoon there reading and admiring the garden and the mountains that towered over us. The early winter garden was lovely, the aloes and azaleas in glorious bloom and the trees still wearing their gold and red autumn foliage.

The horses go home as evening falls.

The garden boasts an amazing variety of resident and visiting birds, too, including the bright sunbirds that like to hang around the aloe flowers so our bird books and binoculars were always close at hand. A little birdbath in front of the veranda was popular and as our avian visitors liked to take their baths in the evening, they provided us with wonderful entertainment at sundowner time while we caught the last wintry rays of winter sunshine before heading indoors for the night.

Best of all, though, was the marvellous fireplace the cottage boasts. Coming from the warm South Coast, our wintry night in front of a fire, with glasses of good red at hand and hearty casseroles bubbling away in the oven, were always such a treat.

It all sounds rather slovenly and lazy, but we did earn our leisurely afternoons and evenings. Bill and I love walking and the Champagne Valley offers great opportunities for indulging in this activity.

The Drakensberg Sun grounds, near the estate where we were staying, has some lovely walks, including the short, easy one around the dam. The hotel grounds are magnificent, planted out with veritable forests of different yellowwood species and other high-altitude trees, so doing the round-the-dam route made for some very pleasant strolls. Quite often we would work up an appetite for supper with a later afternoon saunter round the dam.

We also did the two of the hotel’s other, more strenuous walks. The Blue Grotto walk is well worth doing as it follows a stream through magnificent riverine woods to the prettiest little grotto.

Bath time for our avian visitors.

It involves a bit of scrambling and is quite long, but it is fairly easy. Not surprisingly, it is popular with visiting families.

My favourite of the walks in the hotel grounds is the Fern Forest walk. It also follows a stream through a fairytale woodland but it involves plenty of scrambling, rock hopping, stream crossings and some steep ascents and descents. Eventually, walkers have to scrabble up a steep, long uphill section that really tests your fitness but it is worth the climb. When the pathway eventually takes you up to a high ridge, the views are exhilarating.

Winter has painted the valley reds and browns.

Some of my favourite walks are in the Monks Cowl reserve. We didn’t get round to doing the long, uphill slog to the Sphinx rock formation this time. However, there is a lovely little walk to Sterkspruit Waterfall that we normally do when we are feeling a little lazy. On this visit we walked to these falls then did a long and very scenic detour back to the start via Nandi falls. A new route for us, it was a long haul and kept us busy for a whole morning, but it was a lovely, scenic, relatively easy walk and I would heartily recommend it.

A crisp winter’s morning in the sparkling Champagne Valley.

We also added to our parkrun tally by trying out a fairly new parkrun, but enough of all this exercise. I will tell about it next week.

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Judi Davis
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