Sunday, February 28, 2016

Drakensberg, South Africa: Hiking the Dragon Mountains and I Teach A 6th Grade Class

From the coast of Coffee Bay, our road trip continued inland to a region of South Africa called Drakensberg.  

What It's All About:
Drakensberg is a region in the eastern plateau of South Africa (means "dragon mountains" in Afrikaans) - it's a series of ridiculous amazing mountains, with some of the most breathtaking landscapes I've ever seen in my entire life.  The region is divided into North and South Drakensberg - Drakensberg is huge, so you can spend weeks exploring this area and not even see a fraction of all it has to offer.  The area's best known for hiking and camping, but you can also do so many other cool things - ride horses, venture into Lesotho (a small country surrounded by South Africa that borders Drakensberg!), or simply enjoy the amazing serenity and peacefulness the area has.

This view courtesy of 10 minutes into our first hike. Photos don't do the scenery justice. 

We spent 4 days in Southern Drakensberg, just near a charming little town called Underberg. Seriously, we kept meaning to leave, but kept extending because we had time and were so in love with the area.  I am wildly obsessed with Drakensberg; it is definitely one of the most naturally beautiful (and peaceful) places I've ever been in my entire life.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Arrived in Drakensberg and our charming little hostel, called Sani Pass Backpackers. Jess and I spent the evening poring over our hostel's huge wall of suggested hikes, and randomly chose a full-day one that sounded amazing.  
  • The next morning, armed with a random highlighted map, a sheet of instructions, and copious amounts of water, Jesse and I set out for what was promised to be a 6-7 hour hike. 

We seriously walked for 15 minutes past the lodge and it felt like we were in the middle of pure, unspoiled wilderness

Oh, just a stunning crystal-blue lake on the other side

I can't get over these mountain ranges

Oh god, we've already gone to photo overload 20 minutes into our 6 hour hike

  • So the path itself was kind of tenuous - there were places where huge grasses hid it partly, and parts where it disappeared completely or branched off in different faint directions. It was really kind of hard to follow. Not to mention our sheet of instructions literally had sentences like "Walk 15 minutes through the grass past the big rock. Turn off on the trail that branches to the left of the trees, but make sure to cross back over the rocks to find the trail as it slopes up. Do not take the path that is sloping up too much; take the other one."  WHAT ARE THESE INSTRUCTIONS.  
  • Soooo I'm only making these excuses because we may have missed the turnoff for the trail we intended (to the top of the mountain), and by the time we realized our mistake, we were too far past. So we continued on the trail we were on, which was a fun water-filled hike down into the canyon with tons of waterfalls and rivers and pools.  No regrets because it was AMAZING.

Walking into the horizon. 

Some of the ridiculously gorgeous valleys. These mountains go out as far as the eye can see.

The most stunning part was how alone we were. We seriously saw one couple early in the morning, and for the rest of the 8.5 hours, did not see a single soul.
I hope you've already realized that this post will be photo overload

And then we found a mini splashy waterfall 

Hiking down into the canyon

And then we found our own private wading pool to swim in!  

Jess and our personal tiny waterfall

First we had the lunch our hostel had packed for us. Noms.

Then swimming time!

Jess super-jumping in. The water was super cold but ridiculously clear and pristine. The mountain spring water here is all drinkable, and is rumored to be better than bottled water (I say "rumored" because I'm a weenie American who was too skeeved out to drink any because we've been taught to be terrified of dirt and waterborne diseases). (This may just be a "me" thing).  Jesse, however, slurped it all up and said it was delicious - ice-cold and dirt-free. 

My body went numb

  • We continued hiking afterwards - the trail got super crazy and we had to zig and zag across the river a couple times.  This trail was so remote that it was basically impossible to follow. It seemed like no one had hiked it in 5 years - there were parts where it would disappear entirely and we would just make up where we thought we were supposed to go (aka where the branches and trees looked like they were maybe open enough to let a person through).  I may or may not have had visions of that show "I Shouldn't Be Alive" on this trek.

We encountered all these giant rocks on the way. Exhibit A is tiny Jesse next to giant rock.

And then we came to the edge of a canyon with a giant waterfall!  I know it looks like a tiny baby waterfall.....but trust me, it's giant.  We then took a detour and hiked down into this canyon to try and access the pool at the base of the waterfall.

After hiking down a crazy slope for over half an hour, NAILED IT.

Another totally isolated private swimming hole with waterfall.  We swam in this one as well.

And then continued on our way

Our completely not-helpful list of hiking instructions said we had to cross the river 3 times for this hike.....and we crossed it 5. Which means we somehow accidentally added in 2 unnecessary river crossings. Oops.  MAYBE THEY SHOULDN'T HAVE MADE THE TRAIL SO IMPOSSIBLE TO FIND ALL THE TIME.

We finally made it to the highway. This part was a win. Because our instructions told us we were supposed to hit the highway and then walk 2.5km along it back to the hostel.  Jesse is celebrating by planking.

Halfway home along the (totally deserted) highway, there was a fancy lodge that advertised scones. So we obviously stopped there and had tea, scones and ice cream. Just a normal mid-afternoon snack.

  •  Over 9 hours after we initially set out, we finally arrived back at the lodge.  Kind of close to the 6 hours it was supposed to take, except not at all.  I guess they don't factor in all the swimming/river crossing/ice cream detours, which is weird, because these are all completely necessary stops. We were exhausted, but it was, by far, my favorite hike I've ever been on in my entire life.
  • The next day, I became a 6th grade teacher at a local school.  See "Moment of the Day" below.

Moment of the Day:
The next morning, Jess and I got a little bit of a late start to our day and had to change our plans to go to Lesotho at the last minute.  I had seen a flyer in our hostel the day before that there was a local elementary school where you could volunteer for a day, so I thought we could do that. We tried to call the school but no one answered the phone - seeing as it was so last-minute, our lodge host recommended we drive to the school directly to ask them about volunteering.

We seriously pulled into the school at 11:25AM - Jess and I found three ladies sitting in one of the classrooms (the kids were on lunch break). We asked about the volunteering thing, and one of the ladies goes "Yes. You can help today. Class starts at 11:30."  She escorted us to a 6th-grade classroom, goes "You have 5 minutes - you teach", and then vanished.  THERE WAS NO TEACHER. WE HAD TO TEACH THE CLASS.  And we were totally, completely unprepared.

The 6th grade class all came in 5 minutes later, giggling and super excited that these two strangers were standing in their class. Holy. panic. Imagine 15 faces just staring at you expectantly. Thank God Jesse is an English teacher, because we kind of just made up the lesson for the day.  Really, half the time was just spent trying to figure out what the heck these kids were supposed to be learning and how good their English skills were.

Sample convo with the kids:
Jess and I: "What textbook are you guys using?"
Kids: "This one!" *all pull out different textbooks*
Me: "Wait - which one of these textbooks have you been using in class though?"
Kids: "Yes!"

Seriously, something we've learned is that a lot of the locals here like to please foreigners, so their answer is always "yes" because they want to be agreeable, whether or not they understand what you're saying.  Cue mass confusion.

Long story short, Jesse and I spent the time doing a quick introduction game, then trying to get through the various lesson plans (the kids' English ability all varied wildly - some were amazing, and some were a little more nonexistent), then did some reading, and then just ended with a game of Pictionary, which the kids loved.

I'm fairly certain this class doesn't really have a teacher - the lady we talked to mumbled about the teacher being somewhere else, but the fact that we randomly showed up and there happened to be no teacher was so sad!  We met another backpacker at the lodge later who told us he had gone to the school the week before and had the exact same experience - he showed up, was thrown into a class with no teacher, and was expected right then and there to teach.  I think resources are fairly limited in this stretch of the world, so the kids kind of just make do with what they have.  The kids were adorable, eager, and incredibly charming.  The kids naturally broke into little groups when we did the lesson plans and the ones who were stronger in English helped the weaker ones. It's clear they've kind of formed their own little groups and structure with the lack of a teacher.

My new 6th grade class.  These kids love foreigners. It's incredibly rural out in this section of the world, so they're charmed by everything.

The kids are enthralled with their books, obviously.  I am apparently appalled by something.

True to form, I loved it. I wanted to go back every day.