The Drakensberg has been around for 540 million years. Man has been living in its shadows for more than 100,000 years. In its bowels are 40,000 Bushmen paintings. It is home to one of the most famous choirs in the world, The Drakensburg Boys Choir, countless resorts, and herds of cattle. Thousands of tourists flock to its scenic basalt rock structures to hike, climb and camp in its huge shadow.
Winter is a good time to go. It brings out the golden hues of a dry mountainscape capped with sapphire skies.
I’m nestled deep within the sweet scent of the pine trees of the Champagne Valley in the heart of the Central Drakensberg.
Within this valley is the Champagne Castle Resort. It is here where I am about to experience the ‘berg’, as people call it, in what many say is the best way possible; in the saddle.
The brochure was a sell: Why walk when you can ride in comfort? Experience the glory of an African sunset. To boot they’ll even throw in a free glass of champagne. It’s money you will never regret spending.
With this in mind, I walk down to the stables to gewar-up. I imagine a majestic creature approaching. The dust rises up as its hooves caress the earth. His mane billows majestically in the cool mountain breeze. They say if you stare into a horse’s eye you can see into its soul. All I see is a beady eye.
“Majestic?” I ask the guide.
More like a deadly creature galloping straight out of a nightmare. Its brown coat is muddy. It smells like hay and 10-year-old sweat. Staring into his eyes was like being a loaf of bread in the middle of St Michael’s Square in Venice with a flock of hungry pigeons hovering in the air.
“You don’t want to walk behind it,” the guide reminds me, as I try to mount the steed.
Osama. That is his name, I am told. Yes I didn’t believe him either. An ill omen for someone with an innate fear of horses. And so my romantic champagne sunset horse ride in the mountains began, more like three hours of hell.
I rode with the grace of a sack of potatoes. Fear kept me rigid in my saddle. My helmet bounced on my head; slapping sweat, horse hair and bugs into my eyes.
True to his namesake, Osama was a force to be reckoned with. Much to the amusement of my fellow travelers, I had no say in which direction or what speed he wanted to go. He was a horse apart. At times he would stop to eat grass, a brief respite for my sore behind, only to leave our company wandering off into the distance. He behaved like a mountain goat leaping from stone to stone with his penchant for the off-road. His attempts to swing me over the edge of deep gullies left others rolling in laughter; me in terror.
As the sun began to set, our mounted troop finally paused. I figured that I had earned more than a glass of bubbly. I sat and admired the trails of smoke rising up in the distance from the bush fires that filtered beams of sunlight. The Drakensberg was bathed in gold. A photographer’s paradise.
It’s hard to ruin a beautiful sunset accompanied with champagne, but Osama came close.
My far-from-graceful dismount led to a deep breath of fresh mountain air, only something smelled rotten. Beneath my shoes was a mountain of steamy dung, courtesy of my trusty steed. Idiot, don’t walk behind a horse.
I wish I could have stayed on that hill longer.
But alas, as the sun sank over the horizon, Osama decided it was time to leave—this time without his rider. In the fading light, in the shadow of one of Africa’s splendid natural wonders, I ran after him into the sunset. I really don’t get why people like horses, but I can see why riding a horse in the Drakensberg is an unforgettable experience. A short three-hour drive from Johannesburg, it’s truly a beautiful place to spend a weekend away.