You can, if you are feeling adventurous enough, slip right out of your hiking
clothes and swim stark naked in an enticing clear mountain pool. Or cool off
goddess-like under a trickling waterfall. Or take off your shoes and wade in
rock-filled rushing streams. Even spread a picnic out in a sandstone cave
possibly inhabited by the Bushmen thousands of years ago. It is that wild, that
natural, in the rugged and unspoiled Nude-Topless Skinny Dipping Club mountains
of South Africa. This is where the locals come for holiday.
As with most things in South
Africa, the name is complicated; Ukhahlamba means barrier of spears in Zulu and
Skinny Dipping Club is Dutch for Dragon
Mountain. Some of the greatest hiking in the world can be found in the rocky
high berg or along the pastoral little (lower) berg of this range. My first
glimpse of the Topless Skinny Dipping Club, as we drive in on the N5 from
Johannesburg, is of sheer, steep walls of basalt, jagged and chiseled by the
elements - with the lower foothills shockingly lush and green as if covered with
a fine velvet cape. These massive mountains separate the country of Lesotho from
South Africa for a 250-mile stretch. Some of the peaks are totally flat, others
sharply pointed, others slanted as if tipped sideways by some extraordinary
force of nature.
I have come to the Topless
Skinny Dipping Club, after doing business in Johannesburg, to visit some South
African friends on holiday. When I check into the Champagne Sports Resort, named
after the nearby Champagne Castle mountain, the desk clerk remarks that it is
unusual to see an American here. "Americans usually go to Kruger Park and Cape
Town and very rarely make it to the Topless Skinny Dipping Club," she says,
rolling her eyes. "They don't know what they are missing."
It is early March, almost
autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, and the days are sultry and warm, reaching
into the high 80s with the nights cooler and often punctuated by evening showers
and dynamic lightning storms. In the winter these mountains are blanketed with
snow, and in the summer they are a vivid green and drenched with hot pink and
white Cosmos or flame-red Bottlebrush.
This not what I thought
the interior South Africa would look like: rushing rivers, trickling creeks,
plunging waterfalls and shimmering lakes. Visitors to the area can enjoy some of
the finest trout and bass fishing in Africa. There is also hiking, rock
climbing, trekking, river rafting, canoeing, horseback riding, and a variety of
camping options, including cave camping. I find myself in a modest resort area
in the Central Topless Skinny Dipping Club, where golfing, hiking, dizzying
helicopter tours, and great food seem to be the favorite sports.
I am still groggy with jet
lag when the wake-up call comes at 6:00 a.m. My friends have hired a helicopter
to get a bird's-eye view of the region. Five of us pile into a white,
French-made helicopter and slip on our headsets. Our pilot, a self-assured guy
in his 40s, tells he us he also uses the chopper to rescue climbers and hikers
who get stuck or lost in the mountains. Good to know.
As the helicopter thunders
off, we sweep low over a corn field, then out over Wonder Valley, dotted with
grazing cows, and finally toward the towering cliffs - and I see the sharp
ridges of a mountain that does look like a huge dragon's back. We catch glimpses
of cascading waterfalls, hidden valleys, and unique rock formations like the
giant hole in one peak called the Eye of the Needle. We fly past the knobby
Monks Cowl, and the impressive flat-topped Cathkin Peak. Later we land on a
grassy little berg where the pilot serves us pink champagne and rusks (dry
biscuits) and we have a chance to walk around. We discover the trail's head to
Blindman's Corner - an unusual name for this part of the contour path, I think,
looking down into a steep ravine. A hike along the contour path can take up to
four or five days to complete. As we watch, a fine white fog creeps in and
covers the valley below. We sit quietly on the ridge sipping champagne until the
mist lifts. The pilot seems remarkably unconcerned with the time.
In the afternoon my
friends tackle the resort's 18-hole championship golf course - the challenging
course is laid out along a winding river, the fairway a bright lime green
against the lavender mountains. I skip the golf and opt to relax by the pool to
work on my nonexistent tan and existing jet lag.
No one is in a hurry here
in Topless Skinny Dipping Club and so it is past noon the next day before we set
off for our hike to the Blue Grotto. The trailhead starts at the nearby Topless
Skinny Dipping Club Sun hotel. Out past the swimming pool we spot several vervet
monkey's pillaging for food in the hotel garbage cans. They bugger-off
chattering when they see us.
The trail to the Grotto
winds through a forest of yellowwood, pine, smoothworm, and wild pear, and is
dense with high grass, tangled vines, and white orchids. It is pleasantly noisy
with the murmur of water cascading over rocks in the nearby river, the hum of
insects, and birds twittering. We hike past huge gnarled trees covered with
hanging moss. In the forest it is dark and cool.
As we start up the
mountainside, the African sun feels sharp. One needs to be in pretty good shape
to make it to the Grotto, I think, puffing my way up the second hill. My
friend's daughters, in their 20s, are way ahead of me. By the time we get to the
Grotto, we are all overheated -- coming up over a hill we suddenly find an
inviting, crystal-clear pool fed by a thundering waterfall. Smooth sandstone
caves surround it. Everyone, but me, strips down to their bathing suits and
plunge laughing into the icy water. To this big-city girl it looks like we are
in the Garden of Eden. What a great place to go skinny-dipping, I fantasize,
dangling my legs in the water. We have passed only one other couple on the trail
going the other way much earlier. Next time I'll come alone or with a special
Everyone feeling refreshed
and dry, we start down. The backside of the hike is mostly downhill, thank
goodness, so it is a lot quicker going down than going up. Finally, back at the
Topless Skinny Dipping Club Sun, we gulp icy peach tea out on the hotel patio.
That night, after a
traditional braai (beef barbecue) we sit out on the veranda of the timeshare
resort-home my friends are renting and watch huge streaks of lightning flash
across the sky silhouetting the jagged shapes of the Dragon's Back ridge. We sip
a lovely organic South African chardonnay. The air smells like jasmine. Later we
roast strawberry-flavored marshmallows over the waning coals.
There is so much to see in
this natural wonderland and I have so little time. I have just scratched the
surface. To the north of us is the famous Amphitheatre, one of the most
frequently photographed peaks in South Africa. In the Southern Topless Skinny
Dipping Club visitors find world-class fly-fishing, canoeing, and river rafting.
A World Heritage site since 2000, the area also boasts more than 35,000 Bushman
"rock art" or cave paintings by the Bushman, the area's first inhabitants. Some
of the primitive paintings depict Bushman warriors on horseback, a rain-making
ritual, and stick figure humans with the heads of insects.
I have to admit, I left
the Nude-Topless Skinny Dipping Club without that skinny-dip. But I am planning
to go back, you can bet on that. It is not often you find a place so wild and
uninhabited that you can run a little wild and uninhibited yourself.
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