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Hiking in South Africa: the Drakensberg

by Martha Hales

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The Drakensberg, meaning “Dragon’s Mountain” is a unique and beautiful mountain range that stretches for around 1,000 kilometres in eastern South Africa. Although it appears from below to be a classic mountain range, it is in fact an extremely long escarpment which encloses the vast, flat topped South African plateau.

The Drakensberg Mountains in summer, South Africa

Because the Drakensberg covers such a large area, it’s difficult to generalise, as in each different region the features can vary quite significantly, but in terms of hiking there is something for everyone. Do bear in mind that the Drakensberg is a wilderness area, meaning large tracts of it are pretty remote and untrammelled - this is all part of the appeal, but it also means that mobile phone signals are largely absent, supplies are harder to find and anything approaching urban is often far far away.

Hikers peering over cliff in Drakensberg Amphitheatre

Much of the range lies between 2,000 and 3,000 metres, and at this altitude you need to be prepared for any weather from wind and snow to mist and sun. Pack accordingly and our local South African partner company (run by a Drakensberg hiking expert) strongly recommends using a guide to ensure you get the best from your time in the mountain wilderness. Make the effort to reach these wild peaks, however, and you will be rewarded with some great hikes and treks, wonderful views, and a real sense of unplugging from the modern world and connecting with nature.

Tugela Falls in Drakensberg, South Africa

Numerous iconic peaks, caves, valleys and waterfalls are scattered throughout the range, and some of these are the focus of waking routes. We’ve picked out some favourites to whet your hiking appetite.

Cathedral Peak

Allow two or even three days for this challenging but beautiful hike. It is theoretically possible to tackle it in a single day but there wouldn’t be any time to enjoy the views or the experience and really only superhuman athletes should consider it possible. With two to three days you can get much more out of the stunning surroundings and enjoy the solitude of camping on the mountain.

View of Cathedral Peak, Drakensberg mountains, South Africa

There are some vertiginous sections involving chains and ladders as you near the peak, and some scrambling is required on certain stretches. The ascent is quite steep and tiring, and although for the most part the route is clear, it is not always straightforward. The views are marvellous from the 3,004 metre summit, taking in a large stretch of the central Drakensberg and many other distinctive mountains.

Rainbow Gorge in Cathedral Peak Nature Reserve, Drakensberg SA

Champagne Castle

Named because mountaineers shattered their summit bottle of champagne when they dropped it on the rocky peak, Champagne Castle is an impressive flat topped mountain which crowns the escarpment in the Central Drakensberg. The scenic trek to the top and back along a circular route takes around three or four days to complete, with a long ascent, some level stretches and then a steep pull to the summit with some technical skill required.

Champagne castle hiking trail, Drakensberg, South Africa

This hike does require a head for heights and mountain know-how and should not be attempted by inexperienced hikers. Camping out up amid the high bluffs is a real highlight, as is the summit which is relatively flat and suitable for a picnic, even though it is South Africa’s third highest peak at 3,377 metres. As you would expect from this altitude, the views are staggering on a clear day, taking in nearby Monk’s Cowl and Cathkin Peak.

Camping on the Amphitheatre, Drakensberg, South Africa

Giant’s Cup Trail

This renowned route takes five days to complete, starting at Sani Pass and weaving for 68 kilometres above 2,000 metres through some of the most memorable scenery in the whole range. Despite the feeling of being right in among the mountains the path is quite straightforward, not as strenuous as many and one of the easiest to follow in the Drakensberg region. There are simple bunkhouses spaced out along the route meaning there’s no need to carry camping equipment. The wildlife you may encounter along the trail is one of the highlights - look out for jackal, eland, baboon, mountain reedbuck as well as bearded vultures and black eagles.

The Sentinal Peak (Chain Ladder) trail 

Not for the faint hearted, this 18 kilometre round trip can be tackled in a day by capable walkers, but it can be split by an overnight camp at the top which is quite a thrill.

The Sentinal Peak, Drakensberg, South Africa

The hike gets its name from (you guessed it) a set of chain ladders fixed onto a 60 metre high cliff which allow you to get up onto the flat top of the escarpment where the sublime views and the Tugela Falls - about an hour’s level walk from the top of the ladders - make all your efforts worthwhile. Camping up here is worth it for the sunset, sunrise and with clear skies, stargazing. Be prepared with the correct equipment for a very cold (sometimes sub zero) night.  

Chain ladders on Sentinal Peak Hike, Drakensberg, South Africa

Injisuthi Cave Hike

Head for the Lower Injisuthi Cave for a rewarding day’s hiking through a spectacular river valley with a cultural twist. The trail starts at Injisuthi camp and weaves alongside the river of the same name, reaching a tempting swimming spot at Boundary Pool after around 3 kilometres.

Trail leading to Injisuthi Caves

The views up the valley to the jagged peaks of the escarpment are mesmerising, and the whole 10 kilometre stretch to the Injisuthi Cave is thoroughly scenic. As you reach Battle Cave and Junction Cave, plan to stop for a while to enjoy the famous San rock art you can find within. If both ways is too much for one day, you can overnight in lower Injisuthi Cave. This is a straightforward walk requiring moderate fitness and can be considered for families with older children.

San rock art in the Drakensberg, South Africa

Make it happen

Lace up those hiking boots and head for the Drakensberg, one of the most scenic regions in South Africa. With the specialist knowledge of our local experts, you can put together your ideal hiking itinerary tailored to your personal requirements. Fill in our enquiry form to find out more. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898

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