Although camper trips are not my first choice of assignment as a freewheeling Getaway journalist, they make perfect sense for our family. They offer the joys of camping without the hassle of tents and we can follow our noses without too much planning. And for us that is a real holiday.
We set off from Cape Town at first light, with the boys (Liam ,11, and Dane, 10) asleep in the back, and followed the Voortrekkers’ route over the Cape Fold Mountains into the interior. Vineyards gave way to fruit trees and open plains until timeless flat-topped buttes and mesas filled our wide horizon.
We reached the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein with our stomachs grumbling. A doorman, dressed in period costume, welcomed our band of sleep-creased travellers with the same polished routine of songs and jokes he regales to VIPs off The Blue Train. By the time we had extracted the kids from the camper and into the hotel, his fibs had us chuckling through a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and sausage.
We drove through the Karoo and its windmill-studded farms, past tiny towns with church spires, before reaching the towering landmark of the Three Sisters, and eventually the fertile Orange River valley. Here we found a campsite at Gariep Dam and for the first of 16 nights plugged our modern caravan into the mains. Voila! The lights worked, the air-con droned, we had plugs, a microwave, sink and stove. The motorhome was fitted with alles, from glasses to braai tongs, and we had dinner ready in a snap and then played Monopoly until our eyes grew heavy.
The next day we drove east towards the high ramparts of the Maluti Mountains, bordering Lesotho. The poplars were yet to turn their frostbitten gold, but the palates of pink, white and purple cosmos were a sight. A long-time friend, Lucy Hooley, who runs a horse riding stable nearby, suggested we stay at Lesoba Guest Farm midway between Fouriesburg and Clarens. It’s a family-run farm offering camping and quaint cottages, with lambs to feed, fish to catch and yellow sandstone cliffs that reflect in the still waters. Here we got into slow time and enjoyed horse riding with Lucy and her husband Fritz.
Also read: A pet-friendly road trip through South Africa
The next day we stopped in Clarens, which has dozens of galleries and is a haven for artists, and then skirted the northern Maluti Mountains past Golden Gate National Highlands Park to the Basotho Cultural Village where the distinctive architecture, music and traditions of the Basotho people are proudly recorded.
More than a decade before, a medicine man told me predictions about one day being married and having children. This time, a much younger sangoma threw the bones for the boys and gave them good advice about not fraternising with ‘bad people’.
Soon we were within sight of the Drakensberg. The high ramparts are all that remain of a deep layer of volcanic basalt that once covered the entire region, and beneath are older deposits of sandstone, shale and conglomerate, all of which tell a fascinating story of deposition, erosion, upheaval and continental drift.
We started our explorations at Royal Natal National Park. It’s a special place, which has the gushing Tugela River at its heart and the rocky arms of the Drakensberg spread on either side, creating the Amphitheatre. We camped on the wide lawns at Mahai and spent our days exploring the mountains and swimming in the crashing waters of the Cascades. There were also trout to catch, but only on fly, which miffed Liam who stood on the banks with his conventional rod looking hungrily at the swirling fish.
After two nights, we headed for Dragon Peaks Mountain Resort in the Central Berg, which was within melodious earshot of the Drakensberg Boys Choir School and beneath the mighty Cathkin Peak. Liam was delighted to find he could fish the giant carp and tilapia any way he pleased and Dane, who is always happiest when he is wet, was thrilled to find a huge pool.
The busy Easter weekend and three days of wet weather was approaching and we decided to find some solid shelter in a chalet at Giant’s Castle. With its rolling hills, stunning vistas and wonderful walks, Giant’s has always been particularly special for Jen, who came here often as a child – it was here that her dad’s ashes were scattered when she was just five.
Standing on a bank of the Bushman’s River, where he had so loved to fish, soothed by the flowing water and glorious views, the boys shed tears as they thought about the grandfather they had never met. But when Dane told his long-lost grandpa about iPads, mobile phones and other technology, the serious mood lifted as we fell about thinking that he must be having a chuckle at us all.
We visited Main Caves at Giant’s Castle, where Dane, in particular, was fascinated by the spectacular rock paintings that record so much history of the San. Shamans did most of the art during a state of trance and it is interesting that the hallucinogenic imagery bears very strong similarities with other artworks produced by Aborigines on the other side of the world in Australia.
A storm was now approaching and, like the San who fled the icy winter weather, we headed south over bumpy, but beautiful roads and through rolling lavender-covered fields. We were now in the picturesque Midlands, known for its art and crafts and little towns stitched together to form the Midlands Meander.
At Ardmore Ceramic Art, Fée Halsted has kindled the creative spirits of numerous untrained local artists over 25 years, producing an exuberant style of pottery which has found its way into collections in New York and London. The acclaimed auction house Christie’s has acknowledged Ardmore artworks as ‘modern-day collectibles’.
We were tempted to linger in the Midlands and partake of the artisan beer, chocolate, honey and crafts but with black clouds looming, we headed for the coast.
The boys were yearning for a city fix and begged us to take them to uShaka Marine World in Durban. We arrived in our van at first light and joined the Easter crowds streaming in. The boys could barely contain themselves. All day, they were a blur as they swam, viewed sharks from a cage and rode water slides. But as the light started to fade, so did they, and we had no plans of where to go or where to sleep.
Not being familiar with South Coast campsites, I had bought a camping and caravanning magazine and read about what seemed to be a little jewel on the coast. It was called Mac Nicols at Bazley Beach and the author wrote that anyone who wanted to see how a caravan site should be run should go there.
The resort, just 80 metres from the beach and on the shores of the Ifafa Lagoon, has been family-run since 1971 and is the sort of place where families come year after year. As luck would have it, we found a place. Mac Nicol’s is run with heart and care. There are soccer games, boat cruises, use of canoes, outings to private beaches, night-time crab hunts, downhill bike rides, morning tea and scones at the pool – and all of these extras are free.
We loved Mac Nicol’s and stayed and stayed and stayed… until our time was spent and, after 16 days on the road, we set off for home. We stopped at the foot of Barkly Pass for a night and then spent our last night, somewhat sadly, on the banks of the Serpentine River in Wilderness.
We loved our adventure: having picnics, playing old-fashioned games and sleeping head to toe. What an intimate camping experience it had been in our mobile house – and how easy compared to the hassle of tents. I would never have thought it possible, but I had, after all these years, evolved into a caravanning kinda guy.
Camper van hire
We hired a four-sleeper Avalon Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. The high season rate was R1870 per day with optional insurance of R400 per day. Take the insurance for peace of mind. If you reverse into a Mercedes in this big beast without insurance, it will turn into a very expensive holiday. It was not a cheap holiday, but what made it special for us was having a home on wheels and never having to unpack.
Contact: 0112305200, maui.co.za
Things to do
1. Ride a horse in Fouriesburg
The hosts are great and I wish we’d had time for an overnight ride (on request). From R120 per horse per hour.
Contact: 0723719732, www.fouriesburginfo.co.za
2. Visit the Basotho Cultural Village
Visit the Basotho Cultural Village in Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
Contact: 0582550909, sanparks.co.za
3. Walk in the Giant’s Castle Game Reserve
Take a guided walk in the Giant’s Castle Game Reserve to see the cave paintings, just 30 minutes from the main rest camp. Day visitors pay R35 per person conservation fee.
Contact: 0338451000, kznwildlife.co.za
4. Visit Ardmore Ceramic Art
Invest in art or just browse the stunning pieces at Ardmore Ceramic Art. From R645, depending on the piece you choose.
Contact: 0339400034, ardmoreceramics.co.za
5. Visit Piggly Wiggly
Join the throngs at Piggly Wiggly in the Midlands, which offers everything from candle dipping (from R60 per person) to miniature train rides for kids (R20 per person).
Contact: 0332342911, pigglywiggly.co.za
6. Experience uShaka Marine World
Get wet and wild at uShaka Marine World. Check their website for rates.
Contact: 0313288000, ushakamarineworld.co.za
7. Walk the Giant Kingfisher Trail
Walk the Giant Kingfisher Trail in Wilderness. There are an abundance of turacos and a stunning waterfall at the end of the trail and canoes for hire if you want to explore the winding course of the Serpentine River. R32 per person conservation fee per day.
Contact: 0448770046, sanparks.co.za
8. The Wild Oats Community Farmers Market
Visit the Wild Oats Community Farmers Market in Sedgefield. It’s open on Saturdays and has got to be the best market in South Africa.
Contact: 0448831177, wildoatsmarket.co.za
Places to stay
1. Gariep Forever Resort, Gariep Dam
A good stopover with large open areas, a restaurant, putt-putt and all the stuff you can expect at a resort. Pick a stand near the dam. Stands with electricity are R320 to R400 per night (four people).
Contact: 0517540045, forevergariep.co.za
2. Lesoba Guest Farm, Fouriesburg
Stock up on self-catering supplies in Fouriesburg and enjoy a farm-style welcome, feed the lambs and watch reflections in the water. Fridge and kitchen available. Stands from R400 (four people).
Contact: 0582230444, travelground.com
3. Royal Natal Mahai Camp, uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park
Fantastic open sites, but some of the lower sites can get a bit muddy if it rains. R400 (four people).
Contact: 0338451000, kznwildlife.com
4. Dragon Peaks Mountain Resort, Drakensberg
Camping costs from R120 per person and budget accommodation from R240 per person.
Contact: 0364681031, dragonpeaks.com
5. Giant’s Castle, Drakensberg
There’s no camping here but there are cottages with garden or mountain views. From R600 per person, including breakfast.
Contact: 0338451000, kznwildlife.com
6. Mac Nicol’s, Bazley Beach
This place was made for kids and has a great holiday programme. The shop does daily special takeaways and you can buy everything from boerewors to beers. Camping from R170 per adult and from R85 for kids.
Contact: 0399778863, macnicol.co.za
7. Wilderness Ebb-and-Flow Rest Camp, Wilderness
A campsite between the forest and mountains. Pick a stand on the south side near the river. From R380 per stand for four people.
Contact: 0448771197, sanparks.co.za
Where to eat
We self-catered for the most part, but can recommend lunch at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse in the Drakensberg. Take care over the bumpy, dusty roads as they’re not great for motorhomes.
Contact: 0332677243, cleomountain.co.za
Also see: Road tripping through northern Botswana in photos
This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.
Please note that while all prices were correct at time of publication, they are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please be sure to check with them before travelling.