Situated in the Northern Drakensberg at the base of the magnificent Sentinel Peak, Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is the only lodge within the vicinity of the town of Phuthaditjhaba and close to Golden Gate National Park, Royal Natal National Park and the town of Clarence.
We stay in Roodepoort in the north west of Johannesburg and the trip is a short 365 kilometers on the N3 heading toward KZN, making it a great stop for a weekend break.
When driving down don't forget to appreciate the amazing scenery on the way to the lodge...
We arrived on a Thursday, just three days after the lodge experienced an amazing snowfall. Here is a video that Jan, the lodge manager, took of the snow...
This is what was left of the snow 3 days later when we arrived...
Witsieshoek is a magical place and worth experiencing not only for its most spectacular views imaginable; great landscapes, flora and fauna but also for the endangered bearded vultures that soar over the Drakensberg mountains.
The lodge is perched on a hill with stunning views of the famous Sentinel Peak, Mont-Aux-Sources and Amphitheater.
The main building has the information center, lounge with two fire places, a library, restaurant
and a small curio shop...
The restaurant has a lovely view of the rolling hills and valley below and faces north-east so you get the warm sun greeting you at breakfast and lunch.
Accommodation is on a bed and breakfast basis, with a lovely buffet spread each day; cereal, muffins, fruit salad and yoghurt, scrambled eggs or other egg of your choice can be ordered, bacon, tomato and sausages.
Lunch is from an a la carte menu which has a variety of delicious meals to choose from such as fish and chips, steak, egg and chips or chicken schnitzels.
Dinners are served buffet style; there is a choice of two salads, bread or rolls, a soup of the day, veggies of the day, two starches like roast potatoes and rice with a main dish. Each day the main dish changes; during our three day stay we had beef stew, savory chicken and lamb – all most enjoyable!
The bar area is small and cozy. Drinks can be ordered from the bar area, lounge or from your waiter at the table in the restaurant.
The lodge even keeps the mugs warm on a warming tray. We have seen this done at only one other lodge yet it's a brilliant idea - who wants cold coffee?
Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge accommodation offers spectacular views of Sentinel Peak and surrounding scenery of the Northern Drakensberg. There are three kinds of accommodation available at the lodge:
There are 5 large rustic but cozy bungalows on the hill just behind the lodge’s reception and restaurant area, which are Witsieshoeks longest standing source of accommodation - Maluti, Magalies, Drakensberg, Langaberg and Soutpanberg each offers en suite showers, wall heaters and new furnishings.
The Sentinel chalets 1 – 8 are newly renovated with floor to ceiling windows with stunning views of the majestic Sentinel Peak and the Amphitheater, which you can appreciate without even having to leave the comfort of your room.
Each chalet has a tea and coffee station, electric blankets, an oil heater, King size bed, en suite bathroom and furnished with locally-made curtains and carpets that reflect the style and colors of the Batlokoa community.
The Hiker’s Cabin is located just below the main reception area of the lodge and is the perfect option for backpackers on a tight budget.
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Hiking - the area around Witsieshoek is a hiker’s paradise and must be added to your list of activities, with prominent parts of the Drakensberg easily accessible, including the intrepid journey from Sentinel Car Park, up the chain ladders to the escarpment and on to the source of the Tugela.
Rock Climbing - with the rugged terrain, unpredictable climate and an assortment of different graded peaks, the Drakensberg is a haven for serious mountaineers.
Local arts, crafts and culture - if you are interested in local crafts, then this area is wonderful for both crafters and artists.
Bird Watching- there are 300 recorded bird species in the area including the threatened Bearded Vulture and Lesser Kestrel. Other endangered species in the Drakensberg region include the large Wattled Crane, the cliff-dwelling Cape Griffon and the Cape Parrot.
The Vulture Restaurant is one of Witsieshoek’s many draw-cards and the highlight tends to be the bearded vultures.
Jeremiah, the Witsieshoek ‘bird-whisperer', places bones from the restaurant kitchen at a specific site close to the newly refurbished chalets in the mornings (weather permitting) to draw the incredibly handsome Bearded Vultures closer, making it an ideal place to photograph these magnificent creatures.
We also saw 4 grey rhebok or Vaal rhebok as they are also known and 4 horses gracing the hills while we waited for the 4 vultures to eventually appear!
After staying at Witsieshoek for just 3 days we have come to the conclusion that this is a photographer’s paradise; from landscapes, to photographing the Bearded Vultures to the magnificent sunrise and sunsets over the mountains - it has it all.
On day one we had just crows at the vulture restaurant. On day two we had the jackal buzzard joining the crows and then on day three we had four bearded vultures come down one at a time - hence we suggest a minimum of a 3-day stay!
You can either photograph the birds from the top or from a stone structure/hide at the base of the hill. If you choose the top position you will be facing primarily north so the lighting won’t be great and you may get busy backgrounds.
The hide (old ruins of a house) at the base of the hill was our favorite position as it faces south so most of the day it is good for photography.
The backgrounds of your images will also be cleaner with mainly the sky as your background. While waiting for the birds you can photograph the Sentinel and various creatures that come to visit at the hide...
If you spot meter off the birds you will get a better exposure as the sky can be bright, especially if there are clouds.
Jeremiah puts the bones out on a rock but first holds the bones up so the vultures can see them but the crows are usually the first to arrive!
The vultures tend to fly past and observe the area before landing to take the bones so you need to be patient. We have seen them at 09h00 (flying over), 11h00 (landing at the bones) and 14h00 (again, landing at the bones).
And on the one day we had a Jackal Buzzard visiting the vulture restaurant…
The vultures generally take the bones and then drop them behind us onto rocks below to shatter them and extract the marrow.
The wind can blow hard so it’s wise to ensure your shutter speed is high enough – we recommend anything from 1/2000 sec to 1/4000 sec. Don't be afraid to push your ISO up - it's better to have a grainy image than a blurred image!
The bearded vulture is commonly known as the lammergeier, from the German for “lamb-hunter”. However, environmentalists rather encourage the use of the modern Bearded Vulture name because the ‘lamb-hunter’ name is both inaccurate and part of the reason for the demise of the birds.
There is another vulture hide further south, at Giant’s Castle, but Witsieshoek is our number-1 destination to photograph these wonderful raptors for a few reasons:
· Witsieshoek is just a 4-hour trip from Johannesburg while the other hide is a further 2 hours travelling
· At Witsieshoek you can arrive or leave at any time but the other hide is in a park and there are strict gate opening and closing times
· The Witsieshoek vulture restaurant is just 100 meters from the chalets while the other hide is 4 kilometers away from the accommodation and you need a 4x4 to get there. The road is not in good condition so the 4 kilometers can take you at least 30 minutes to do. At Witsieshoek it’s just a 2-minute stroll to the vulture restaurant.
· The other hide needs to be booked months in advance and can hold just 3 people while at Witsieshoek you have a choice of using the ruins, that can hold around 6 people comfortably, or photographing from the top, and no booking required.
· A second hide has been built at Giant’s Castle, which is not as popular as the original hide, but it has reduced the number of vultures that come to the original hide.
For more information or to book your stay please visit the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge webpage.
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