The Drakensberg South Africa Walks


The Drakensberg

The 3,000m Cathedral Peak is the ambition for Julia Bradbury and her guide Zee, but she discovers that even the most experienced walkers need luck with the weather.


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Transcript


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South Africa is a country that always creates an impression.

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We know of its diverse population,

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the troubled history of apartheid,

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and its rebirth as a global travel destination.

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I've been a fan of this country for many years,

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but this is my chance to go beyond the obvious South Africa.

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To explore on foot, and take time to see how life

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and stunning landscape work today in the new South Africa.

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A country that's now keen to invite the world.

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Hello and welcome to the foothills of the Drakensberg.

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This towering mountain range is regarded as one of the most distinctive in the world,

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and is home to South Africa's highest peaks.

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I've come to explore this valley at the centre of the Drakensberg,

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because it encapsulates so much of the human history that has shaped this massif.

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These formidable peaks form an escarpment over 1,000km long.

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It dominates the province of KwaZulu-Natal, home of the Zulu Nation.

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And beyond it, there's a whole new country, the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

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Watching over the range in the distance, the most recognisable of the summits...

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Cathedral Peak.

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This soaring high-point dominates the valley.

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But, down here in the peak's shadow, there's some meaty history to get to grips with.

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Over 100 years ago in KwaZulu-Natal,

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British and Boer famously slugged it out.

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And before that, the arrival of the Zulus had already caused the indigenous San people

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to be driven out, up into the higher mountains.

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While it might look pretty intimidating, Cathedral Peak

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is actually a fairly well laid-out mountain for a walker.

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But it is a hefty proposition.

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At just over 3,000m it's by far the tallest mountain that I've tackled on any of my walks.

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And it isn't just the altitude that's a challenge.

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The weather out here can change at the drop of a hat. A bit like the Lake District.

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You've got to pick your day when you attempt a mountain of this scale.

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I'm hoping the weather's going to stay on my side for a crack at the summit.

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But, before I go anywhere near the peak, there's plenty to explore down here in the first part of my walk.

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It's a beautiful valley and I'm beginning to see why people have fought to be here.

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The province of KwaZulu-Natal is the focal point

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for people coming to visit this iconic range of mountains.

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The mountain chains form a natural border with the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

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At the centre of the range is the sparsely populated Mlambonja Valley.

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I'll be walking upwards to the head of the valley and the memorable Cathedral Peak Hotel.

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From there it's a 9km climb through different stages of mountains, to the summit.

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Back down in the village, the first leg of my walk kicks off.

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The sight of a walker still seems to cause a bit of a stir,

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never mind one with a camera crew.

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Any walker quite rightly can't wait to get up there and wander amongst the "Upper Berg",

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but there's a story to be learned here, before any climbing begins.

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That's why I'm starting this walk in this Zulu village.

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I've come to meet someone who knows about the mountain, the valleys and the history as well.

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-Hi, Zee.

-Hey, Julia. How you doing?

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Good. Good to see you. And we've got a little bit of sunshine, which always makes me happy.

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Zee was born in the Drakensberg and grew up amongst these mountains.

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She moved to Britain to study and work, but three years ago she realised she was homesick,

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and made the unusual decision to try and take to the hills to earn a living.

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You're a female Zulu mountain guide.

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I'm not being patronising but there aren't many of those around.

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Actually I've never heard of one but me.

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The South African nation is made up of so many different tribes,

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but the Zulu ethnic group is the largest?

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It is the largest, and...

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I would guess, throughout history, Zulu has been warriors and fighters.

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They are very famous for that.

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They might be well known but the Zulus are a relatively new people.

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They descend from the Nguni tribe,

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who moved into this region from central and east Africa.

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It wasn't until the 1820's that the warrior, King Shaka, united the Zulus

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and they notoriously emerged as one of the most feared nations southern Africa has ever known.

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You said it yourself, Zulus are warriors. I have a Xhosa friend

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and he tells me that Xhosas are dancers and Zulus are fighters.

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I haven't heard the expression "Zulus are walkers".

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We don't walk.

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-But you do!

-Yeah, yeah. But we don't walk for pleasure.

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I mean, you walk to get your water,

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you walk to get your cows up in the fields, you don't walk for pleasure.

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-So you've broken the mould?

-Yes, pretty much.

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Before I explore the mountain landscape that Zee loves so much,

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let's take a look at the route I'll follow.

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After leaving this colourful village behind, my 20km, two-day walk kicks off.

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I'll steadily wind my way up the Mlambonja Valley.

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Day one finishes with the welcome sight of Cathedral Peak Hotel,

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my overnight spot.

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The next day my climb follows the traditional walkers' route.

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After swinging round into a hidden valley, my walk steps onto the next mountain tier.

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The shoulder of Swine Hill gives broad mountain panoramas,

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and leads to a steep gully known as Orange Peel Gap.

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This is the gateway to the upper tier of the Drakensberg,

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where the path takes me to Bugger's Gully

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and the base of the peak itself.

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The final steps are an impressive scramble up the eastern face of Cathedral Peak,

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and onto the summit top, with views along the escarpment and into Lesotho.

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Back down in the valley there are some surprising and colourful discoveries in store.

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Hey, Jules, this is our national flower.

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The Protea. Is it not just beautiful?

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It's so striking. I actually love it before it flowers as well,

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because it reminds me of a globe artichoke.

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-All tightly bound together.

-Yes.

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But another thing that you could be reminded of is our cricket team, that beats the English team all the time.

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Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK. I get it, I know.

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We're not very good at cricket. I don't care, I don't like cricket.

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Already in my walk, I can see how changeable conditions here can be.

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A build-up of clouds often leads to thunderstorms in the afternoon.

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A bit of a problem for walkers like me.

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But it does add a certain air of mystery to the place.

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Did you know that, apparently, The Lord Of The Rings was inspired here, in the Drakensberg?

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-Really?

-Yeah.

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So Tolkien must have been here?

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He must have been around here, of course.

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I must admit there's a real "Lord Of The Rings" feel to this part of the valley.

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But, it's unlikely that Tolkien was ever actually here.

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He was born 350km away and left South Africa when he was three.

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Still, there's no denying the atmosphere is both magical and eerie.

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Just look around you, it's very mystical as well.

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You could imagine little Hobbits running around, can't you?

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I hope we don't get ambushed by Hobbits.

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That would be an interesting hike.

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Do you think we're ever going to escape the mist?

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My walk now heads upwards,

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to one of the many hidden caves scattered around these mountains.

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It's an opportunity for Zee to show me some of the intriguing remains

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left behind by the valley's earliest residents, the San Bushmen.

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OK, Jules. I didn't make you walk all this way for nothing.

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Ha-ha! Good.

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-Oh, look at these. Cave paintings.

-Yes.

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These are San paintings. You may know them as Bushmen.

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-The San Bushmen.

-Yes.

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You are looking at basically the history of Drakensberg, we call it the world heritage site,

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because it's got so many of these paintings around.

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About 35,000 - 40,000 of them around.

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-That's an enormous amount.

-It is.

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Dating back to about 4,000 years ago to recently, like 1800s.

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-And have these been dated?

-No, not yet.

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So they could be 4,000 years old, or they could be 180 years old.

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So what do they depict, what do they mean?

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Elands are very important in their history. That's their totem animal.

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They believe that the Gods have given them the eland,

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so that they can sustain themselves and draw spiritual powers from the eland.

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They are gaining strength and power from the animal?

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Yes. So it's not only for food but it's also for religious purposes.

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-So these are messages, these are stories?

-These are stories.

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You've got these running men, very wide legs, and then, seemingly falling or diving?

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It's an attack, you see them running away.

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-That's a death scene right there.

-Ah.

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-These cave drawings are done by San Bushmen.

-Yes.

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-You are a Zulu.

-I am, I am.

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-Is it fair to say you were enemies?

-Never.

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There was a little bit of a misunderstanding.

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-A misunderstanding?

-It was.

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You see, San people lived a nomadic life.

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They never used to have a sense of possession, moved from place to place.

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Don't own nothing at all, and they never had a concept of ownership. OK?

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And then, in came the Zulu in this valley.

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Zulus were farmers, they had cows, they had sheep.

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-They had possessions.

-They had possessions.

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They had livestock.

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And then San people, for the first time in their lives,

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see these big animals, bigger than an eland actually.

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And they walk quite slow, it was an easy kill, OK?

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-They're hunting farm animals?

-Yes.

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They're hunting cows.

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'For the Bushmen, it was this animal poaching that landed them in serious trouble.

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'The Zulu farmers chased the San further and further

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'into the higher mountains, eventually pushing them out of the Drakensberg altogether.'

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It is amazing to think that this is where the San Bushmen stood.

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This is their view.

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Imagine if that was your house, Julia.

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I wouldn't mind that at all.

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I wouldn't mind that at all.

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Just down from the cave is my final goal at the end of day one.

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Luckily for me, and countless other walkers, it's a rather special overnight refuge.

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One man made this isolated spot accessible.

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Albert van der Riet was a young white farmer with a very ambitious goal.

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Lacking maps, money and even a road, he decided to build a hotel here.

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I've arranged to meet someone who's been visiting this spot

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for more than 50 years.

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It's an extraordinary position, this hotel.

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And Albert is the man who had the vision to put it here.

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Well, he was looking for the ideal place. And he came hunting here.

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He came to hunt in this valley,

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and he thought this was the ideal spot.

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But logistically, it was a nightmare?

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Of course it was, I don't know how he thought he'd ever succeed.

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Building a hotel at the head of an inaccessible valley was a serious undertaking.

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But its proximity to the peaks has brought generations of walkers here.

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It was the very thought of wandering these mountains that first attracted Brian.

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He's remained a firm fan ever since.

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He's even written a book about the hotel's history and his experiences here.

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It's so different from anything else you can find anywhere else.

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A diversity of nature...

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-Its uniqueness.

-What about the weather?

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The weather is beautiful.

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Horrible.

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-Generally, as unpredictable as a woman's character.

-Impossible!

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Have you ever been caught out?

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I've been caught several times, yes.

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-I've been caught several times.

-Badly?

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Badly, yes.

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Yes. Unexpectedly and badly.

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It was a mammoth storm which raged on for three or four hours.

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There was a huge clap of thunder... and a flash of lightning.

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I looked ahead, and I found that the porter who was carrying our pack,

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had been struck by lightning.

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-He'd been struck by that bolt of lightning.

-Blimey.

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-He'd been thrown to the ground, he was paralysed from the throat downwards.

-Did he live?

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He survived, and he was on his feet again in about three or four months.

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-I've actually still got the pack, from thirty years ago.

-This one?

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This is the one.

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And, I've actually got the spot in the pack

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-where the lightning struck.

-Oh, my Lord.

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It came through the pack,

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and even struck the billycan inside, here,

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and left an indentation on that, too.

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So, your poor guide was carrying this?

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You can imagine, if it dented the pack, it had some impact on him.

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It was really a shocking storm, which killed other people in this valley as well.

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It's been a bit ominous talking to Brian.

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Tomorrow is my big walk to the summit,

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but the slightest hint of thunder and I'll be heading down.

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Day two, and rather worryingly, the weather doesn't seem to be improving.

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It also requires a painfully early start.

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It's an 18km round trip from the hotel to the summit, which most hikers tackle in one go,

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averaging eight to nine hours of steady walking.

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It's not that often, when you set out on a big walk like this,

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that you can see the goal, but there it is.

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It's hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of Cathedral Peak.

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Thrusting 3,004m upwards, it's got almost architectural proportions.

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This cathedral has even got its own bell, the smaller but perfectly formed peak to its side.

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I'm just hoping the weather holds out long enough

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so that I can get up there for a closer inspection.

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The Drakensberg are one of South Africa's top destinations,

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a kind of English Lake District and European Alps all rolled into one.

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Unlike their Alpine counterparts there are no shortcuts via cable cars.

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The only way up is on foot.

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It's amazing how quickly you find yourself in isolation.

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There's nobody here.

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Just the baboons.

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The morning mist seems pretty determined not to lift.

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No sooner have I begun to make progress on my walk, than the path ahead goes completely out of sight.

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It's not too long before the weather really closes in.

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I might have got used to rain on my UK walks, but a deep rumble

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in the distance does not bode well for the rest of the day.

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-Whoa, lightning.

-It's not safe to go up.

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Whoa!

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See, that's exactly what Brian warned us about. Let's go!

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-Exactly, let's get out of here.

-It's getting scary.

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Now we've got to be careful.

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This might be exhilarating weather to watch,

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but in these conditions the mountains are no place to linger.

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My walk is well and truly over for today.

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It's proving decidedly tricky to experience the freedom of these isolated mountains.

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But, as luck would have it, day three brings an altogether different perspective.

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An unexpected break in the weather means I'm able to make one more stab at the summit.

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It's difficult to believe that this is the same spot as yesterday without the rain.

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You can actually see, and look at that vista.

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With a spring back in my step the action turns up a notch

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and my walk penetrates the next tier of the Drakensberg.

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Here, I'm almost entirely surrounded by a wall of mountains.

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Far above, the towering spire of my cathedral continues to beckon.

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We've just stepped up onto another world.

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Imagine if we hadn't have done this.

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-No.

-No.

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As I make my way up Swine Hill the difference between the "lower" and "upper" Berg

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becomes even more clear.

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It's quite unlike any mountain range I've ever walked before.

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These cunning little inclines that just get you.

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They do.

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It's taken over 150 million years to shape and mould these peaks.

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When the world's original supercontinent broke up, Africa was pulled apart.

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Molten lava erupted through giant fissures,

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creating these mighty ridges, some of the oldest on the planet.

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Julia, take a good look at the mountain.

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This is the last time you're going to see the full view of Cathedral Peak up until we get very close to it.

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So enjoy it.

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How can you not enjoy it?

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Enjoy. Take it all in.

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Nice cool bit of cloud.

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There's little chance to draw breath and look back down on just how far I've come.

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I now face one of the major challenges of the walk, a gully climb.

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This is a serious bit of uphill effort.

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At 2,420m, Orange Peel Gap is over 1,000m higher

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than the UK's Ben Nevis, and more than twice the size

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of Scafell Pike. Back in the good old days the reward for reaching it was an orange.

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Leftover peelings mark the spot.

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Oh, it's like a wilderness window.

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Yes, this is the Upper Berg.

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We made it!

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We have, we have.

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Look, look at that. And then you look back behind you.

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It's this little gap of gorgeousness.

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Completely surrounded.

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This is the halfway point of my walk today.

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It's been three hours since I started out, so an ideal spot for a rest.

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I'm finally in the Upper Berg.

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-So this is where people do eat the oranges?

-Yes.

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No orange peels today, though.

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I've come to realise this isn't just a walk up one mountain.

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There are lots of intriguingly named peaks and mini features along the way.

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Julia, that area that you look over there is called Mweni.

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-Mweni.

-Yes.

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It means - it's Zulu - it means 'finger'.

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So that's the Mweni area.

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-It's the finger range.

-Yes. The finger range.

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These simple, but literal names sum things up nicely.

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Ahead of me, I can make out the peaks of the "Three Puddings", another apt name.

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Can't quite decide whether they're sponges or dumplings.

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Which language to use for these mountain names also seems to be the cause of some debate.

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Cathedral Peak is no different.

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In Zulu it's Zikhali's Horn, named after the son of a fierce chief

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who came here to escape an assassination plot.

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There are now calls to get rid of the English name and use the traditional title instead.

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As my walk climbs higher, a different issue begins to emerge.

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There might be blue skies, but there's also tell-tale signs of changing conditions.

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When Zee makes one of her regular weather checks,

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we begin to realise those signs are right, and higher up from us the weather is beginning to change.

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Zee's just had the news that there are more storms on the way.

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We are two-and-a-half hours away from Cathedral Peak from this point.

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We could get there, but we wouldn't make it back.

0:25:560:25:59

We'd be caught in more thunder and lightning. Which is not an option.

0:25:590:26:02

So the agonising mountaineering decision

0:26:020:26:05

is that we have to turn around, and go back down.

0:26:050:26:08

Again.

0:26:080:26:09

These blue skies won't last for long,

0:26:120:26:14

and before the weather closes in

0:26:140:26:16

I've just got to try and see the elusive peak.

0:26:160:26:19

Come on, let's get one last view.

0:26:210:26:24

Well, that last scramble was worth it.

0:26:290:26:32

It was.

0:26:320:26:33

So we're about 2,500m up here,

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which is about 8,000 feet.

0:26:410:26:43

What's this summit called?

0:26:430:26:45

-It doesn't have a name.

-Doesn't have a name?!

0:26:450:26:47

No. It doesn't have a name.

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That would be unheard of in the UK, to have such a mega-mountain without a name.

0:26:500:26:55

-Unfortunately, none.

-All right, blame it on altitude sickness

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and a moment of megalomania, I hereby name this Zee Bradbury Peak.

0:26:590:27:06

That sounds good. It sounds good.

0:27:060:27:09

Well, we had to get something. Something to show for all of this.

0:27:090:27:12

There's an obvious disappointment at not making it to the top.

0:27:190:27:22

But this is still my biggest mountain and certainly the first I've ever named.

0:27:220:27:27

Wandering around this alternative summit, I can see how far I've come.

0:27:300:27:34

But the real reward is in simply being here, finally standing amidst

0:27:340:27:39

the high mountains, at the very heart of the Drakensberg.

0:27:390:27:43

It might only be a fleeting moment but it's a high point, in every sense.

0:27:450:27:49

And finally, I'm gifted with a clear view of Cathedral Peak.

0:27:490:27:55

This excursion has reminded me that every walk is different.

0:27:570:28:01

Every mountain, every fell, every Munro, every kopje, every hill.

0:28:010:28:07

It doesn't matter how much planning you do, things will probably change.

0:28:070:28:11

I will make it up Cathedral Peak one day,

0:28:110:28:14

but I wouldn't change this adventure for all the sunshine in Africa.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:500:28:53

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:530:28:56

Having tackled treks across the UK, Julia Bradbury embarks on a grand adventure in South Africa, setting out on four different walks that explore its claim to be 'a world in one country'.

Julia is a regular visitor to the Rainbow Nation, but this is her chance to go far beyond the normal tourist destinations to a series of increasingly remote locations. However, these are walks that any reasonably adventurous walker could embark on and they offer a fresh and personal perspective on a friendly and fascinating country that is often misunderstood.

Julia moves to the interior for her second walk and the grandest mountain range in southern Africa, the Drakensberg. The 3,000m Cathedral Peak is the ambition for Julia and her Zulu guide Zee. As she quickly discovers, even the fittest and most experienced walkers need luck on their side when it comes to the dramatic weather of these mountains. With Zulus, Brits and Boers to provide the history, this is an outing filled with drama and fascination, set against a backdrop sometimes described as the most beautiful on Earth.


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