Wartrail – a winter wonderland


Skiing down Ben McDhui, one of the high
mountain peaks in the New England and
Wartrail region.
(Image: South African Tourism)

• Kath Isted
Chair, New England Wartrail Community
Tourism Association
+27 45 974 9900
• Janet Viedge
Vice-chair, New England Wartrail
Community Tourism Association
+27 45 974 9261

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With the final draw over, the group stage matches scheduled and the official football unveiled, excitement for the 2010 Fifa World Cup is ramping up.

But what if you aren’t excited? What if magnificent stadiums leave you cold, and the idea of the crowds, the buzz, the drama and spectacle fill you with horror? Well, then you can head for the hills – literally.

One of the best places in South Africa to get away from almost everything is the Wartrail and New England region of the southern Drakensberg mountains, in one of the more remote parts of the Eastern Cape province.

With the World Cup playing in June and July, during the southern hemisphere winter, this little-known mountainous part of the country is likely to be covered snow, a far cry from what you’d expect from an African winter.

Mountain peaks such as Ben McDhui, Avoca and Snowdon rise to over 3 000 metres, tumbling rivers have carved deep sandstone gorges and caves, there is well-preserved rock art, and a host of adventures from fishing to horse riding.

Wartrail is long drive from anywhere, cellphone reception is extremely limited and the accommodation is warm and welcoming rather than five-star. But this is its appeal – a place you can throw snowballs then drink red wine in front of the fire. Somewhere you can escape the crowds.

There’s no shortage of farm-stay accommodation in the area so you can stay put or migrate between the dozen affordable fully-catered or self-catering guest houses. All have fireplaces and electric blankets, and specialise in home cooking, often using home-grown ingredients.

The key to enjoying the place is to bring good boots, warm jackets, beanies and gloves and get out with a make-shift sledge or a carrot for the snowman’s nose, enjoying some fun in the snow.

With its high mountain passes, which include Naude’s Nek, the highest pass in the Cape, and the challenging Bastervoetpad, Wartrail is a mecca for 4×4, quad-biking and mountain-biking enthusiasts who revel in challenge of the steep and icy tracks, but there are also easy trails too suited to kids and novices.

But the best way to appreciate the area is on foot. Here hikers are spoilt for choice, with numerous short strolls and day walks from the farms.

There’s also a five-night, guided and fully catered trail, the Wartrail Skywalk, which starts at Rosstrevor near the town of Barkly East, heads over the hills for around 15 kilometres each day to the farms of Pitlochrie, Balloch, and Reedsdell before ending at Bidstone, high up the valley. The trail is certainly not for the faint-hearted at any time of year, but if you’re reasonably fit it’s a must to really get a feel for wild mountain country.

En route, usually accompanied by the farm dogs, you climb spectacular peaks and ridges, watch lammergeier (bearded vulture) soaring overhead and enjoy some of the least visited, yet most accessible rock art in the country. It was here that rock art specialist David Lewis-Williams, co-author of Images of Power, based most of his early research.

Many of the paintings are easy to find, such as those among the craggy sandstone boulders behind Balloch Guest House, while real enthusiasts wanting to learn more about the techniques and interpretation of the paintings can sign up for a rock art tour with local fundi Dawn Green.

And then of course there’s the chance to swish down the white stuff on skis or snowboards, to drink glühwein and indulge in some après ski fun at nearby Tiffindell, South Africa’s only downhill ski resort.

If this all sounds too active don’t worry, it’s not all about adrenalin. There’s plenty to amuse those of a more leisurely bent. Anglers can tickle a trout even in the cold, and there’s a lovely tea garden at Reedsdell.

At the Old Dairy Restaurant at Rosstrevor, housed in a beautiful old sandstone barn converted from a dairy, you can while away the day enjoying the scenery in a sedentary fashion, reading, talking to the local people and learning more about the history the area.

The Wartrail area, situated below Lundean’s Nek, was the old border of the former homeland of Transkei and Lesotho. Its name comes from the days when King Mosheshwe of Lesotho sent cattle raiding parties over the Nek and through Mosheshesford to rustle the stock of the Xhosas living down in Elliot.

Returning to Lesotho with the cattle, Mosheshwe’s men were often pursued by the Xhosa and, instead of abandoning the beasts, they would drive them into the river to drown. This is the origin of the name of the river flowing through Reedsdell, the River Joggem, “eater-of-cattle”.

It’s hard to imagine such bloodshed when you survey the tranquil surrounds. Today Wartrail is a peaceful place, proud of its community projects, such as the Bruce Sephton Tennis Academy and the Masibambane Knitting Project.

The latter encourages rural women to start their own businesses by supplying them with skills training and equipment an providing a local outlet for their products – knitted beanies, scarves and children’s jerseys – which are sold, along with emu products made on site, in the Wartrail Craft Shop on Reedsdell Farm.

Of course the World Cup is just one good reason to escape to Wartrail, but this pristine wonderland is the perfect antidote to the stresses of city life at any time of year. You don’t need an excuse to head to wild mountain country.