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Christmas in the mountains

Andrew Harding | 10:20 UK time, Saturday, 25 December 2010

Dancing in the Drakensberg mountains

There is usually dancing at Christmas

A low-slung car packed full of beer crates was being unloaded halfway up the rutted mountain track. Two boys were sliding along the grass nearby on a home-made wooden sledge pulled by two grunting bullocks.

A little further up the bright green hillside a man was walking behind two donkeys playing a tune on a small red accordion.

"It's a time to be happy," said Caiphus, a local farmer, as he and his family prepared for Christmas in the Mnweni valley - perhaps the most jaw-droppingly spectacular, secluded corner of South Africa's Drakensberg mountains.

Walking along a mountain track in the Draksenberg mountains

Christmas is celebrated in local style in all corners of the globe

Caiphus's sister was back for the holidays from her sewing job in Johannesburg. A born-again Christian, she would be walking seven kilometres down the mountain on Christmas morning to the tiny local church. During term time Caiphus's young children make the same journey on foot each day.

As the sun dropped behind the dark ridge of the escarpment high above the family's thatched hut, Caiphus's oldest boy - eight years old now - began clambering up a steep rocky hillside to fetch five errant goats.

"We will dance, of course," said Caiphus with a smile. "We always gather and dance at any happy occasion. Perhaps we will brew some local beer too."

He looked around the idyllic valley, at the smoke filtering through thatched roofs, the steady roar of the nearby stream, and the maize crops growing on the gentler slopes. A noisy, opinionated gaggle of geese waddled past.

"We have problems here, of course," he said. "They come from Lesotho to steal our cattle - they use magic to send us to sleep so we don't hear them. Aids is a big problem too. And we are still waiting for electricity, and the road, and toilets.

"The politicians keep promising but they do nothing. Still, I say to people that we are blessed. Things are getting slowly better here. And even if you have no job, you can still get by if you have cattle and some maize."

I've been lucky enough to spend most of the past week with Caiphus and my family, trekking through a small portion of the Drakensbergs, sleeping in a mountain cave, and in his family's home.

He and some colleagues have set up a tour company taking small groups around the valley and beyond. It has been a magical end - well, almost end - to a busy year.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented on this blog in 2010. Why not write in and tell us how you're passing the holidays? Best wishes wherever you are.

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