On this hiking trip, we traversed the very remote and incredibly beautiful Drakensberg mountain range. Due to the altitude, the flora and fauna is very different to those commonly found in South Africa. The untouched wilderness, breathtaking views and unique campsites makes this a once in a lifetime hiking experience. Especially when the sky is clear, you get amazing views of different rock formations, peaks and green valleys.
It’s highly advisable to get a guide to lead you through a nearly untouched landscape with only few trails that cut along the Drakensberg mountain ranges. You will be alone for most of the three days and the guide can show you spots only locals know of. Of course, sleeping in a cave above the clouds is already reason enough to do this trek. This hike is an unforgettable experience we can only recommend!
Drakensberg – General Information
TOTAL LENGTH: 32km
START – Finish: Nature Conservation Office in the Cathedral Peak wilderness area – loop.
SLEEPING FACILITIES: None – sleeping in tent or cave.
BEST TIME TO GO: Each season has its pros and cons. The summer in the Drakensberg is much warmer and the days are longer, but the weather is also less stable and heavy thunderstorms are common. Expect the greenest green during the spring and summer season though. Autumn and winter are known for having crystal clear skies, amazing views of the Drakensberg mountains but temperatures below zero are common during the night.
WHERE TO REGISTER: Nature Conservation office at Cathedral Peak wilderness area (sign in and sign out).
DIFFICULTY: Very strenous and physically demanding, especially during the hotter months. Expect to reach hights of up to 3000m.
IMPORTANT NOTES: Drakensberg area is not well (or at all) marked – to do overnight treks, you most probably need a mountaineering guide. Do not underestimate the influence of the high altitude (about 3000m) you are hiking in! A very good level of fitness is definitely required. Since you will walk along the border to Lesotho, it is advised to carry your passport with you all the time. If you don’t have a car, we would recommend to stay in Pietermaritzburg the night before you start the trek and organize a pick-up with your guide. In case you have a car, you could simply meet the guide at the Nature Conservation office at Cathedral Peak.
The first day didn’t exactly begin as we had planned. First, our guide asked for double the money that we had calculated. Second, the drive to the Drakensberg area took much longer than the expected 2 hours. What a start!
After registration at the Nature Conservation office, we finally started the hike at 10 am at an altitude of about 1800m. We first had to pass a beautiful and unbelievably green valley. However, we were mercilessly exposed to the hot sun. Within the first hour, we were completely soaked in sweat. To avoid boiling from the inside, we had to pour cold water over our head whenever encountering a river. Basti soon spotted a chameleon we had tried to find on multiple occasions before, but without success. What a refreshing surprise!
At the end of the valley, the long (~ 5 hours) ascend up to 3000m began. We had to overcome several small peaks and climb through small rock mouths. Little by little we gained on altitude. It became obvious that in our guides opinion, we advanced too slowly. He suggested several times to rather take an alternative, less challenging route. But of course, we didn’t want to hear of that ;).
During every break we took, we couldn’t stop marveling about the gigantic mountains surrounding us and the stunning view into the valley. About ½ hour before reaching the first cave, we stopped at a small river to have a little swim and wash off the sweat. Even though the water was very cold, it was refreshing and enjoyable. We learned that from the flow of the river, we could recognize whether we were looking towards South Africa or Lesotho.
The last few meters to the cave proved to be very difficult – we had to climb on a little edge a footstep wide, pressing our bodies flat to the rock to not fall over. Luckily our guide took our backpack. Otherwise we would have never made it- it was already scary enough! The cave and the view, however, recompensed for all the efforts. It was amazing to have dinner at the entrance of the cave and enjoy the sunset over the valley.
This was our lucky day. It started with a clear view of the sun rising over the Drakensberg mountains. Below us, however, the valley was set into a dense mist. We kept our fingers crossed that it would pass during the day.
We first had to go back down to the saddle we were crossing yesterday (with the river and the Lesotho border). A tough climb (≈2h) up to Cliff Peak situated at 3277 m followed. We could really feel the altitude since breathing became more and more challenging. On top, the view was amazing. We had a full 360° view in every direction and could admire all the different mountains and rock formations. In the far distance, we could see some other people hiking. The guide told us that, most probably, those were Lesothian people heading towards South Africa. They were really tough. They often crossed the mountains in sandals and carrying their little children on their head. Once, our guide had even met a person with a WHOLE bed on top of his head climbing down to the valley. Impressive!
After that, we descended for 1h to a little river where we rested a bit to recover and gain strength for the second climb of the day. It started easy, but the last part was very steep and demanding. We had a long lunch break on the saddle – crackers, cheese and coffee- and even a little nap :). Unfortunately, the sky started to turn dark and we were afraid of getting caught in heavy rain or a thunderstorm. We hurried down an easy side of the mountain (≈ 3 km).
Again, we found a river to swim in and clean ourselves (this time the water was warm and comfortable) before the last hour of the hike. We made it on time before the rain began.
This cave was very large compared to the one the day before, so we got our own “private” cave section. Who would have thought we would get an own honeymoon-suite in the middle of the mountains 🙂 ? Unfortunately, this cave was not well protected and it got quite cold during the night. Since it was situated on a flank of a hill, the view was also not as beautiful as from the cave before. In any case, it didn’t matter since the fog became so strong in the early evening that one could hardly see anything – a really ghostly atmosphere.
We were told that the last day was going to be the toughest and longest day. Our alarm was thus set to 4 am! After having several coffees and breakfast in the dark, we hit the trail shortly after 5.30 am. Due to the rain the day before, the first steep descent proved to be quite difficult. Several times, slippery sections forced us to make detours to avoid accidents. During one of these detours, we spotted a dangerous snake (most probably a Berg Adder).
After more than 2h of walking, we finally saw the Bell and Cathedral peak again. They both looked so majestic! The guide explained that if the sun dried the rocks fast enough, we would be able to climb the Cathedral peak. So for the next hour, we kept our fingers crossed for the sun to become strong and hot.
For the first time during the trek, we followed an actual path. It winded along the Drakensberg mountain range allowing for stunning views. We could spot several people attempting to climb different peaks. Our guide explained that this section of the Drakensberg region was indeed a paradise for climbers.
Soon after, we arrived at the bottom of Cathedral peak. Luckily the guide declared that the cresting the summit was doable. A rope was wrapped around my waist for security reasons. Reassuringly, I was informed that this rope would prevent my death in case I slipped. However, I would most likely end up with a couple of broken ribs instead.
To arrive on top of Cathedral peak, we had to overcome several “real climbing sections”- although challenging, it was real fun! Once on top, we could enjoy the sun. Unfortunately the view into the valley was blocked by clouds. Nevertheless, the climb, the rope, and the adventure – it was definitely worth it.
After reaching the botttom, we further descended a steep slope for about 2 km before stopping for lunch at a small plateau. Luckily, we had brought more food than our guide had planned for. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had anything to eat. When we suddenly heard a thunder not far away, we hurried to get down the ridge. Our guide enlightened us with some scary facts: The number of dead people due to electrocution by a flash of lightening on this ridge was the highest in whole South Africa! I guess this was one of the fastest descents we have ever made.
Once down at a “safe” altitude, we crossed a meadow full of beautiful flowers. It was such a different scenery compared to the mountains before. But all the same, just magnificent.
The rest of the day we walked through a large gorge steadily going down. Little waterfalls and all variations of green trees surrouned us. Shortly before arriving at the car, a last challenge awaited: Crossing a little river-and getting completely wet shoes. In total, it was a long day with 11-12 h of hiking, but a fantastic one!