Bubbles & Ballooning in the Drakensberg Mountains
AUGUST 2023 ISSUE
NESTLED IN the heart of the Drakensberg Mountains is Champagne Castle Hotel. This historic property has the olde worlde feel of an early 20th century hotel, think the Overlook Hotel (The Shining) crossed with Kellerman’s Mountain House (Dirty Dancing).
The Drakensberg Mountain range is the highest in South Africa, rising to more than 3,400 metres, extending roughly 700km and straddling both South Africa and neighbouring Lesotho.
An easy three-hour drive north-west of Durban, the area has been declared a UNESCO Mixed World Heritage Site. It is home to various endemic plant species that are found only in these mountains as well as certain globally threatened grassland birds.
The many caves and rock shelters house the largest and most concentrated group of San Rock Art paintings in Africa south of the Sahara. In addition, the area is beautiful. Dramatic cliffs, majestic waterfalls and deep green valleys under a huge sky.
Named after a nearby mountain peak, Champagne Castle hotel has amazing views of the Central Drakensberg Range. There are many walking trails nearby with guided hikes available daily.
The hotel has grown from its origins as a hostel housed in thatched rondavels but has kept the same look and feel. The buildings are thatched, painted a bright white and scattered across the property.
The main area of the hotel provides living areas with roaring fires and comfortable armchairs. The bar is welcoming and cosy. Outside, a large patio overlooks the pool and provides a relaxing spot to be awed by the memorable vista.
Meals are buffet style, served in a large restaurant. The accommodation is spacious and functional. The Deluxe Mountain View rooms each have a spectacular view of the mountains with a balcony or patio to sit and soak it all in.
Local wildlife includes baboons (guests are warned to keep windows and doors closed), monkeys and a family of peacocks roam the property. The spa provides a range of treatments at an affordable price. There is also horse riding, fishing, tennis courts and lawn bowls.
There is a wide range of adventure activities in the area including white water tubing, helicopter scenic tours, canopy ziplining and hot air ballooning.
Taking a short walk from the hotel, we make our way through a forest of giant eucalyptus reminiscent of Australia. No koalas but instead vervet monkeys peer down at us as the trail meanders upwards.
After about 15 minutes, we leave the forest behind and are in open meadow dotted with wildflowers and overlooked by towering escarpments. The walk is dissected by many streams and small valleys. After 30 minutes we can rest on a large outcrop and admire the impressive views.
The walking trails criss-cross the mountain range and suit all levels, providing a simple stroll to take in the views through to a challenge for the most adventurous hiker.
After a chilly early morning start, we meet at the launch site and gather around the fire while waiting for the crew to prepare the balloon. In no time, the basket is ready and the balloon half inflated.
We scramble into what seems like an incredibly small basket. There are 11 of us plus the pilot. It is pretty cosy. I am 187cm tall and am not liking standing next to the edge of the basket, it just does not come up high enough. So, I huddle in the centre, having to duck each time the gas burner ignites otherwise risking a burnt scalp!
The balloon ride is incredibly peaceful. In the periods between the burner, the quiet is absolute. We have views towards the mountains and across the large valley. The flight takes about 40 minutes before we set down next to a field. We celebrate with a glass of bubbles before heading back to the Drakensberg Ballooning headquarters for breakfast.