Another 365 days over. Another insane New Years Eve music festival in Africa! Last year, I made a 2-day overland mission from Johannesburg all the way to Zimbabwe to see out the final hours of 2015 at the Vic Falls Carnival. For 2016, I decided to keep things local and go to a music festival my friends have been speaking about for years - The Smoking Dragon.
Situated in the Northern Drakensberg, the Smoking Dragon Festival is hosted by Amphitheater Backpackers and is surrounded by the gorgeous mountain range bordering South Africa and Lesotho, the highest country in the world. The area is home to the world's largest consolidation of cave paintings, the second highest waterfall on the planet and the biggest indigenous forest in the Berg. But once a year, this premier hiking destination comes alive with the sounds of the country's best local talent performing across four different stages.
Here is the only Smoking Dragon guide you need to book tickets, get there and welcome the New Year in one of the most picturesque parts of South Africa!
- Buying Tickets -
The first step in any festival mission is to buy tickets. Smoking Dragon sells a variety of packages to choose from that will match your needs. Whether you are just looking for something basic or want some added luxury thrown into your festival experience - there is something for everyone.
Full Weekend Pass + Free Camping
This is the most basic ticket and the one that my friends and I went with this year. The full 3-day pass gets you access to 350 hectares of the following:
- Cycle and nature trails down to the Mpande River and two nearby dams.
- Basic ablutions with hot and cold showers.
- Four separate stages
- Main food court and bar
Day Pass + Free Camping
If you cannot stay for the full three days, Smoking Dragon lets you still enjoy all the fun with their day pass. Check in time is usually around 10:30 and check out is the same time the following day. You will still have access to basic ablutions, all the stages, the food court and the nature trails.
Makhalwane Festival Ticket for Amphitheater Backpacker Members
If you are a member of the backpackers, you can pick up VIP tickets at a discounted price as well as access to the VIP area and all its facilities.
Sign up here to become a member.
The VIP Experience
This is the ultimate glamping festival experience! The Luxury Tent Package includes the following:
- 2 stretchers
- 2 mattresses
- 200 thread cotton blankets
- Electric lantern
- Plug point and a table
The ticket also includes access to the lodge, the pool, sauna, jacuzzi, private bar, self-catering kitchen and free hot showers.
The Pink Package
The Pink Package is an LGBQTIA friendly package that comes with its own campsite, stage and transport options. It is designed to support the LGBQTIA community and provide a safe, fun area to be yourself. It is the first time the festival has hosted this initiative, and I hope they continue with it for 2017/2018. The ticket includes:
- Access to the VIP area
- Return Pink bus to and from Joburg to Durban with snacks
- Pink Goodie bag
- Full Weekend Festival Ticket
VIP Economy Tent Package
If you want access to the VIP facilities with minimum frills, this is the package for you. The ticket includes:
- Basic two man tent with roll-up mattresses and sleeping bags
- Access to the VIP area
- Full Weekend Ticket
- Getting To The Smoking Dragon Festival -
There are many ways to get to the festival that will suit any budget. Whether you are keen for a quick road trip or want to literally land your plane at the festival.
The Smoking Dragon Festival is only a short three hours drive from either Johannesburg or Durban, making it the perfect pit stop point if you want to visit any of those two South African cities after the festival.
If you are looking to splurge and arrive at the festival in style, you can make use of the amphitheatres private airstrip. Alternatively, you can fly into Johannesburg or Durban and Smoking Dragon can help you organise overland transport to and from the festival.
This is the option I used for my trip. I look the Greyhound bus from Cape Town to Harrismith. I then organised a lift through the Smoking Dragon lift club. However, if you don't feel like getting into a car with strangers, the festival does offer a shuttle service to and from Harrismith for R 300 one way.
The Baz Bus is one of the best ways to get around South Africa for backpackers. The mini bus goes door-to-door to numerous backpackers around the country and is an awesome option if you don't have your own transport. It will save you time; you will meet fellow travellers and be dropped right outside the festival without having to change transportation modes.
Albeit, the Baz Bus is not the cheapest option, with a one-way ticket between Jozi or Durbs costing just under R 500.
I did decide to use the Baz Bus after the festival to get to Durban as I did not want to backtrack into Harrismith to get to one of the bigger buses. I usually choose the cheaper route, but as Baz Bus does cover many areas like the Northern Drakensberg, that regular buses don't, it makes the splurge worth it.
- Smoking Dragon Accommodation -
If none of the camping options for the festival speaks to you, there is a wide variety of accommodation to choose from in the nearby area.
Amphitheatre Backpackers Lodge
Festivals goers can stay at the lodge and be charged according to their accommodation type. Choose from mixed-sex dorm rooms that come with their a shared bathroom and hot showers or a range of private rooms that can accommodate anything from two people right up to your whole New Years crew.
If you would prefer to sleep offsite and have a peaceful nights rest away from the crowd, there are a variety of nearby lodges, guest houses, hotels and resorts that can fit any budget.
- What To Bring -
The Drakensberg during late December and the beginning of January feels like being trapped under Satan's armpit. You are going to sweat your body weight and sleep no later than 7 am thanks to your tent transforming into a glorified sauna.
That being said, the two most important things to bring with you is water and sunblock!
But there are a few other things to add to your checklist:
✓ festival ticket (duh)
✓ blow-up mattress
✓ phone charger
✓ camping chairs
✓ cooler box
✓ a towel
- What To Eat -
This festival surprised me in so many ways. One of the biggest was the vegan-friendly food vendors.
Not only is the backpacker's kitchen menu filled with vegan options, but there was an actual vegan food stall! There were delicious lentil burgers, pancakes and fruit salads. For non-vegans, Smoking Dragan had plenty of options ranging from braaivleis (meat), pizza, boerewors rolls and more.
If you are keen to be the chef, pack your braai and cook up a storm at your campsite! VIP ticket holders can also make use of the communal kitchens and braai area at the backpackers.
And most importantly, don't forget your booze and ice! If you run out, there is a shooter bar and a shop just down the road called Die Outspan that sells overpriced ice to the desperate and needy.
- What To Wear -
Anything that is light and breathable. There is a dam right by one of the stages, so if the shower lines are too long and you need to cool off, put on your bikini, grab your inflatables and go chill off in the dam while listening to some of the best local music. I once again spent a festival in harlem pants, flowy skirts and tie-dye dresses before moving on a hoodie in the evening.
Here are a few essentials to bring along:
- Flip flops for the day and closed shoes for the night
- A light jacket for the evenings
- Swimming costume
- Sunglasses and a hat
- What To Do After The Festival -
Yes. After the festival. If you want to make the most of your time in the Drakensberg, I cannot recommend enough booking yourself into the backpackers at the end of the three days. Whether you keep on camping like I did or move into one of the actual rooms, it is a fantastic way to explore the area once the mass exodus has left Mordor.
Amphitheatre Backpackers offers a range of activities that suit different fitness levels and interests. Choose from hiking the Tugela falls in Lesotho, rock climbing, abseiling or exploring Cathedral Peak!
Whatever you choose, the Smoking Dragon Festival is the perfect place to base yourself for a weekend of stomping the night away and exploring the incredible natural beauty the region has to offer.
Be sure to check out Smoking Dragon's website for more information on their 2017/2018 New Years event!
Do you have tips for surviving the Smoking Dragon Festival?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hey, I'm Lauren! I'm passionate about inspiring young South Africans to travel for less and sharing my experiences and how to navigate the endless visa paperwork along the way. When I'm not busy preparing for the inevitable zombie apocalypse, I'm having a travel fail somewhere and geeking out in countries all over the world. Connect with me on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat!