The Drakensberg Vulture Trail

Posted by Teagan Cunniffe on 23 October 2018

Much of this mountain range, including Seletwane (pictured right) and the vulture-roosting site, fall on privately owned land.

Duration:  2 days

Type:  Guided

Level:  Moderately easy

I’m standing near the edge of the escarpment, a stomach-plummeting height above the valley floor. Around me swirl countless vultures. Slow, lazy circles bring them closer and closer to where I stand, until they’re just metres away. They’re watching me with bright eyes, heads cocked to the side, white feathers ruffling on their backs. The thin whistle of wind over wings makes a melancholic song as they glide through the air. I don’t have a head for heights so I hang back, but Callum Piccione and Shaun Vorster have no such qualms. The pioneers of this new slackpacking route are sitting casually on the cliff edge, legs dangling over the void as they watch the Cape vultures catching thermals. It’s surreal out here, so vastly different to Joburg where I was just yesterday. The Drakensberg Vulture Trail has turned out to be an unexpected escape from the urgent pace creeping into my life.

Remains of an old stone wagon road follow the mountain contours – perhaps once used by yellowwood loggers.

We started early this morning. Mist blanketed the dark sky as we gathered, clad in thick jackets and warm gloves, at Berghouse & Cottages in the Northern Drakensberg. There’d been snow on the mountains and cold trickled down our necks like icy water. Callum’s father,  Vaughn, bundled our daypacks into his bakkie and the cold engine coughed to life. Up and up we drove, over the Oliviershoek Pass, until we reached The Border Post accommodation where we turned off. These lonely cottages crest the border between KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State. It was along this invisible provincial line that we’d walk today. Vaughn gave us a running commentary on the area as we drove towards red sandstone mountains Trainee guide Xolani Mathebula joined us at the trailhead and we set off for the day’s 18-kilometre walk. We crunched along a gravel path and through a waist high outcrop of young gum trees, their silvery leaves tinged with purple. Cattle graze here, but by and large the land is open for eland, zebra and, evidently, hyena. The paws of a fully grown male were clearly imprinted in the mud on the path. ‘We’re aiming to make this into a conservancy,’ said Shaun, a qualifed nature conservationist.

They’ve been campaigning for a few years to lower farm fences. This would open up 10 000 hectares of land, linking Rugged Glen and Royal Natal National Park to the south with Poccolan Reserve and Sterkfontein Dam Reserve in the northeast, bringing the total area to around 20 000 hectares. Their efforts are on the brink of being realised. KZN Wildlife is keen to come on board and, thanks to a decline in cattle farming in favour of tourism, local landowners are becoming more interested in the proposal. Shaun and Callum hope to bring in truly wild, migratory eland. They want to bolster the stocks of various antelope, caracal and serval, as well as introduce blesbok and waterbuck. A herd of zebra clattered around the corner, startled by our presence.

 

The route follows part of the Drakensberg Northern Trail run.

Aside from their disappearing bodies, the landscape was uninhabited and vast. To the right: islands dotting Sterkfontein Dam, a huge body of water that stretches for almost 20 kilometres. To the left: Seletwane Mountain, its jagged buttresses scraping the sky and a coarse tangle of yellowwood forests and proteas texturing its slopes. Signs of life were everywhere, from the spoor of porcupine, baboon, eland and jackal to those unmistakable hyena prints that seemed fresher the higher we walked. Mist still obscured the famed views over the Free State. I didn’t mind – the cocooning effect of the ephemeral haze shrunk and muffled our world.

‘They’re watching me with bright eyes, heads cocked to the side, white feathers ruffling on their backs’

Suddenly, a pair of spur-winged geese shrieked past with arrow-like speed, breaking the silence. They’d come through Windy Gap, where we, too, were headed. ‘That’s where eland cross over into KwaZulu-Natal,’ said Callum. Up into the gap we walked, cresting the escarpment and heading towards the Babangibona mountain range. Ahead, the Little Drakensberg meets the Sentinel and the Amphitheatre. Despite the climb, we weren’t tired. Slackpacking really is a treat. To carry just your food and water for the day means you have far more energy to enjoy the trail. Which leads me to where I am now, at the vulture roosting site, roughly 2 000 metres above sea level. Their nests, composed of thin twigs strewn haphazardly along narrow ledges, were visible on the cliffs below. There are an estimated 9 400 of these birds left in Southern Africa. We spent more than two hours there, and to be in their proximity for so long, regarded only with mild curiosity, was a rare privilege. Finally, we pulled ourselves away from the spectacle and set off on the steep descent towards Greenfire Lodge, making one last stop at a rock-painting site. My legs felt loose and each stride was effortless. I didn’t think we’d already walked 15 kilometres and over a mountain range. Each step took us closer to food, comfort and a warm fire, but away from the magic of the vulture colony.

These mountain peaks were formed by a thick layer of basalt (180 million years old) resting on softer Clarens sandstone (200 million years old). This age-old surface is patterned by lichen and fissures.

The next morning, the wind was whistling through Callum’s fly-fishing rod. The trout dam at Greenfire Lodge is one of the few with continuously flowing water. This means that the fish introduced here in 1999 have been able to breed and maintain their genetic pool. The running mountain water is enough to facilitate the fertilisation of eggs laid by fat females and spawn a new generation. The trout here know nothing but this happy cycle: pristine mountain water and the looping path of birth and death. Sluggish mist blanketed the trout dam and mountains were reflected on its surface like an Impressionist painting. The graceful arc of the fly-fishing rod swooped back and forth, tracing invisible calligraphy, and the sound reminded me of the singing vultures high on the cliffs behind us. As the sun rose and mist streamed up the cliffs, we headed off on the final 18 kilometres along The Nook road. Although I knew I was walking back to reality, it was with a peaceful heart. It’s calming to know there are places just a few hours away from our daily lives where nature’s ebb and flow remain unhampered; a world that exists with or without us. In Shaun’s words, if we don’t take time to notice the beauty of what’s around us, then what’s the point?

Cape vultures were listed as endangered in 2015. There are about 90 birds at the colony we visited, one of only four sites in KZN.

Plan your trip

Getting There

The base camp is Berghouse & Cottages in Langkloof, Northern Drakensberg (three hours’ drive from Durban or Joburg). This heavenly spot, surrounded by miniature horses and spotty Appaloosas, is high up in the hills overlooking the Amphitheatre.

Need To Know

The 36km, two-night slackpacking trail runs up to Greenfire Lodge, which also has impressive views and cosy lodgings. There’s the option to extend the trail for an extra night to hike to Babangibona and enjoy trout fi shing at Greenfi re Lodge. You should be walking fit for the trail, but with regular stops and an unhurried pace, the hiking isn’t strenuous.

When to go

Callum advises avoiding the unpredictable weather in summer and winter. The best times are March to May and September to November.

What to bring

Weather can change fast so warm, wind- and waterproof layers are a must. Bring a daypack plus sunscreen, a hat, insect repellent and a water bottle. Binocs and a camera with a good zoom (100-400mm) will help you get close-up shots of the vultures.

Booking

The two-night trail costs R3,500 per person and three nights is R5,500 per person , including accommodation, food and guiding. thevulturetrail.com

 






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