Towering peaks, tumbling rivers and well-preserved rock art sites are just a few of the attractions in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park. Here we cover five of the absolute best.
Best Adventure Hike: Cathedral Peak
Every mountain lover should pay homage to this distinctive peak that dominates the skyline of the Northern Drakensberg. A long day out with some exposed scrambling – most hikes take around eight to ten hours – it’s only for the fit and adventurous, but the views and the exhilaration of the climb make it worthwhile. Inexperienced hikers should take a guide, who’ll use a rope to secure the tricky sections.
The trail starts along the dirt track leading off the sharp hairpin bend just below Cathedral Peak Hotel. After ten minutes you’ll need to wade a wide river then pick up the trail in the reeds on the other side. The path zigzags up
to a sandstone cliff band then contours around past a small waterfall.
After an hour or so of sustained uphill you’ll reach a path junction. Ignore the path to the left and stay on the ridge, which takes you to a slippery, vegetated gully leading up to Orange Peel Gap.
At the saddle, turn left onto a rocky path that contours around to the Nxwaye River Valley, which you ascend for about half an hour until you reach a steep and eroded section known as Bugger Gully (you’ll understand the name when you struggle up it on tired legs).
Scramble up this until you see an obvious path to your right that leads up towards the lower rock bands of the summit pyramid. Now comes the tricky part. Follow the cairns through several rock bands and overexposed slabs until you reach a gully with a chain ladder. From the top of the ladder continue on up and, still following the cairns, skirt around until you find the route of the final exposed scramble to the summit.
Tip: The hotel offers free, daily, guided hikes for their guests. The guided Cathedral Peak hike is every Wednesday and Saturday. Private guides can be hired on other days.
Where to Stay: Cathedral Peak Hotel, one of the grand old dames of the Drakensberg, is well worth saving the pennies for. Otherwise there is a very pleasant Ezimvelo KZN campsite in the trees near the base of the trail.
036 488 1888, www.cathedralpeak.co.za
Best Gorge Walk: Thukela Gorge
One of the most popular hikes in the Drakensberg, the Thukela Gorge trail has a bit of everything – a magical journey through a narrow gorge, refreshing rock pools, diverse vegetation and, the cherry on the cake, panoramic views of the iconic Amphitheatre. It’s a fairly long but straightforward out-and-back hike that takes six or seven hours, the perfect family outing.
Pick up the trail in the car park at Thendele Camp, in the Royal Natal National Park. The well-marked path initially drops down to cross a river then meanders through the protea bushes and forests of the Thukela Valley.
After about six kilometres, the valley narrows to a steep-sided gorge in which there are several crystal-clear rock pools – good spots to cool off and observe the beautiful shapes and patterns that, over the eons, the river has exposed as it cuts down through the sandstone layers.
A short walk along the river bed brings you to a ladder. Here you have choices. If the water level is low, continue in the river bed, boulder-hopping your way to a very narrow section known as The Tunnel. Wade through then continue until the gorge opens out again and you’re confronted by a jaw-dropping view of the Amphitheatre. Alternatively, if the river’s high, or you don’t fancy wading, you can shimmy up the chain ladders on the right bank and scramble up a steep gully to feast your eyes on the same vista.
Tip The foot of the valley that enters the Thukeka Gorge right opposite the ladder offers splendid views of another iconic landform, Devil’s Tooth – the spire between the Amphitheatre’s Eastern Buttress and the Inner Towers – a great spot for a picnic.
Where to Stay The self-catering chalets at Thendele Camp have the best views in the Drakensberg. There’s also camping in Royal Natal National Park at Mahai and Rugged Glen. 033 845 1000, www.kznwildlife.com
Best Rock Art: Game Pass Shelter
Most visitors to the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park go for the natural attractions, but the cultural heritage, particularly the wealth of rock art sites, was a key factor in the park’s inscription onto UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
Some 550 sites amounting to more than 40 000 individual images have been recorded within the park’s boundaries. Game Pass Shelter in Kamberg Nature Reserve is one of the most accessible and rewarding natural galleries. One of the first sites to be seen by
Settlers, the shelter is often referred to as the ‘Rosetta Stone’ of Southern African rock art, as it was here that archaeologists first uncovered a vital key to understanding the symbolism of San rock art.
As with all of the Berg’s natural galleries, the shelter can only be visited with a guide. Three-hour tours to the shelter leave from the Kamberg Rock Art Centre at 9am and 11am each day. The walk over the undulating grasslands of the Berg foothills is easy as far as the waterfall (which you’ll reach after about 45 minutes). The final section up to the cave is a bit steeper but perfectly manageable even for the unfit. Take it slowly and listen for the encouraging calls of Red-winged Starlings.
The community guides will help you discover the other treasures of this lovely little reserve, pointing out floral treats and birds including, if you’re lucky, soaring Verreaux’s Eagles and Lammergeiers (Bearded Vultures) that frequent the vulture restaurant at nearby Giant’s Castle.
Tip: Kamberg is one of the quietest Berg reserves but is popular with birders. It has some lovely gentle meanders and is well worth a visit even if you don’t go on the tour. The Rock Art Centre has a fascinating audio-visual presentation on Game Pass Shelter and the rock art of the park.
Where to Stay: Kamberg Camp has rustic self-catering cottages and lovely, en suite, two-bedroom chalets. 033 845 1000, www.kznwildlife.com. Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, a 25-minute drive on the Highmoor road, is a real spoil that will be particularly appreciated by gourmets. Keep a lookout for Wattled Cranes on the drive. 033 267 7243, 071 687 7266 www.cleopatramountain.co.za
Best Pools: Marble Baths
With its splendid views of the Drakensberg Escarpment, and waterfalls, rock pools and water slides, Marble Baths in Giant’s Castle Nature Reserve is one of the most popular hikes in the Central Drakensberg. This easy, 18-kilometre trail, which starts at Injisuthi camp, is well-marked and can be done either as an out-and-back hike along the Injisuthi River or as a circular walk returning via Grindstone Caves. Either way, allow six to eight hours for the outing as you’ll want to spend time taking in the scenery and chilling at the pools. Pack a picnic and bathing costume.
Tip: With only a couple of moderate uphills, this is a good family hike that even pre-teens will enjoy. Consider making a weekend of it, over-nighting in one of the two Marble Bath caves (book in advance through central reservations below).
Where to Stay: Injisuthi is one of the nicest of Ezimvelo KZN Wildlife’s camps. In addition to camping and self-catering cabins, there are three safari tents. 033 845 1000, www.kznwildlife.com
Best Views: Amphitheatre via the chain ladders
The views from the top of the Drakensberg Escarpment take some beating, but most routes to the 3 000m-high plateau involve some seriously long, hard slogs. Not this one. Although a return trip will take the best part of a day, a high-altitude car park, and chain ladders that allow you to scale an almost vertical rock cliff, make this the easiest way to the top of the escarpment, other than driving up the Sani Pass.
From the Sentinel car park, the path climbs steeply via a series of zigzags, then ascends towards the base of the great block of the Sentinel. The main trail continues right at a fork, with the minor path to the left leading to a viewpoint over Thukela Gorge – a worthwhile, short detour. Once at the base of the cliffs, the gradient eases and you contour around the Sentinel to a gully where there are two sets of chain ladders – an older set that dates back to the 1930s and a slightly more stable, newer set. Climbing them is a bit scary but, unless you have a serious fear of heights, you’ll be fine. Take it slowly and don’t look down.
Keep on up, via a large cairn, to the high point and soak in the far-reaching views. If the weather is good, and you have time and energy to spare, continue on the obvious path, cross the river and walk south for a couple of kilometres to the top of the Thukela Falls, with combined drops of 948 metres that make it the second-highest waterfall in the world (after Venezuela’s Angel Falls).
The vistas of the Amphitheatre bookends – Sentinel and the Eastern Buttress – and over the jagged peaks and pinnacles of the Northern Berg, are stunning, particularly in the early morning when sunrise and early-morning mist add to the atmosphere.
Tip: It’s high up there so carry gear for foul weather, and emergency food and equipment, in case the weather turns rapidly. And it goes without saying that you should tread carefully. You’re right on the escarpment edge and it’s a long drop.
Where to Stay: Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, seven kilometres from the trailhead, has very comfortable rooms and a restaurant. They can organise guides as well as transfers up the poor dirt road to the car park. 058 713 6361
073 228 7391, www.witsieshoek.co.za
Pictures Shaen Adey, Matthew Holt and George Brits