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This mountain range should be on every hiker’s must-do list. Our five experts have spent significant time up there and recommend these great routes for you.

Also read: 12 escapes in the Northern Drakensberg.

 

1. Rainbow Gorge

Duration: 5 hours
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Cost: Free for hotel guests, day visitors R50

The iconic Cathedral Peak. Photo by Justin Fox.

Rainbow Gorge Trail is a delightful meander into a verdant kloof. It’s a six-kilometre return walk from Cathedral Peak Hotel – an easy ramble for the whole family. The picturesque trail follows the Ndumeni River upstream, winds through lush forest into a gorge, past rock pools, rapids and waterfalls. Look out for the magnificent yellowwood trees growing here. If you catch the sun in the right position, water pouring down the sides of the kloof throws up sparkling rainbows that dance in the spray. Even without the blessing of rainbows, this is a spectacular nook of the Berg. Recommended by Justin Fox

Do it: You can buy a trail map for R10 at the hotel reception. Cathedral Peak Hotel is in the central Berg, about 30 kilometres from Winterton. From R1495 per person sharing DBB, including teas. Tel 0364881888. The trail can also be started at Didima Camp, which is just east of the hotel. From R1120 for a chalet (sleeps two). Tel 0364881332, kznwildlife.com

 

2. Injisuthi Battle Cave Walk

Duration: 5 hours
Difficulty: Easy
Cost: R70 per person hiking fee (including guide), R40 day visitor entry

Streams and ghostly falls along the Injasuthi hike. Photo by Scott Ramsay.

A multitude of hiking routes begin from Injisuthi Camp in central Drakensberg, but this 11-kilometre return walk is the most accessible introduction to the mountain wilderness. On this walk, your destination is Battle Cave, a huge sandstone overhang dotted with rock paintings. The cave itself is fenced off so you’ll need to book a community guide at the camp to accompany you. From the camp, walk a short way back down the main road to the first bridge over the river, then follow the gently rising path alongside it.

A few kays on, just upstream from the junction of the Injisuthi and Mbovaneni Rivers, Battle Cave looms large. Move closer, and the rock comes to life with exquisite paintings of eland, the San’s most commonly painted animal. Look out for two paintings of rhinos, and the therianthropes (half-human, half-animal figures). On the far right of the shelter, look for the Bushman about to shoot an arrow from his bow, and the one with a spear. Another holds an axe, and yet more seem to be clustered in a tussle, with arrows flying around them. It’s one of the very few paintings that shows an act of aggression or hunting, but perhaps this is not a literal battle scene but a depiction of the magic and power that shamans were able to harness. Recommended by Scott Ramsay

Do it: Injisuthi is my favourite KZN Wildlife campsite in the mountains, between Monk’s Cowl and Giant’s Castle, with fewer chalets than other bigger camps. There is only a small shop for supplies, and the long, winding potholed R331 access road (off the R600 from Winterton) deters most visitors. Four-bed chalet R660 for two, R310 per extra adult. Camping R95 per person. Tel 0364319000.

 

3. Sugar Loaf

Duration: 4 hours
Difficulty: Moderate
Cost: Free for resort guests, R30 per person for day visitors

A great hike for kids as well. Photo by Justix Fox.

Start your hike at The Cavern and head for the pimple on the ridge line behind the resort. From The Cavern’s top gate, take the path to the right. In spring, look out for clumps of Barleria monticola, which has an attractive mauve flower. The path continues straight up the slope and is well signposted. When you reach the sandstone ridge (you’ll be puffing a bit, as the going is vertical), the path leads into the craggy Sugar Loaf Gap. Once out on top of the plateau, the views back down the valley are sublime. At this point, take note of any marker that identifies the route back through the gap for your return journey. The path bends to the left and leads to the summit of Sugar Loaf. Here you might be joined by vultures, both bearded (lammergeyer) and Cape, which often soar above the mountain. Recommended by Justin Fox

Do it: Pick up a free map of the route at the resort reception. The Cavern is in the northern Berg, about 45 kilometres from Bergville. From R1200 per person sharing, full board. Tel 0364386270.

 

4. Giant’s Cup Trail

Duration: Full day (around 7 hours)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Cost: R75 per person day-hiking permit, R45 park entrance fee, local guide R650 for four people and R100 per person extra

Bridges cross streams along the Giant’s Cup trail. Photo by Fiona McIntosh.

Traversing the foothills of the uKhahlamba- Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site from Sani Pass to Bushman’s Nek, the 59,3-kilometre Giant’s Cup Trail (GCT) is the most accessible multi-day trail in the range. As it weaves beneath golden cliffs, past weather-sculpted sandstone rocks and through swaying grasslands studded with protea, watsonia and helichrysum, the trail takes you to lookouts, over mountain streams, through dells of tree ferns and to caves with (poorly preserved) rock paintings.

Sightings of Verreaux’s eagles, jackal buzzards, dassies and eland are common, while occasional sightings include blue cranes and bearded vultures. Old farmhouses provide rustic overnight accommodation and there are lots of gorgeous pools in which to bathe, particularly at Ngenwa (day 1), the Mzimkhulwana hut (day 2) and Killiecrankie (day 3). Wildflowers dazzle in spring and summer, while in winter the high peaks are often sprinkled with snow. The trail is well marked and has no mega-climbs, but it is undulating so do some training with a loaded pack. You can stock up on snacks at the park offices, but bank on carrying all your supplies. Recommended by Fiona McIntosh

Do it: The trailhead is on the Sani Pass road, off the R315 from Himeville/Underberg, six kilometres past the Sani Pass Hotel. Tel 0338451000, kznwildlife.com

On SA Adventure Trails’ four-day Giant’s Cup Hikeathon slackpacking option (which covers the GCT’s days 2 and 3 in one day), you walk with a daypack and are shuttled to and from guesthouses near the trailheads. R4600 per person for a group of four minimum. There’s also a three-day walk ending in the Drakensberg Gardens valley. drakensberg-hikes.co.za

 

5. Amphitheatre Hike

Duration: Full day (around 7 hours)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Cost: R75 per person day-hiking permit, R45 park entrance fee, local guide R650 for four people and R100 per person extra

Endless, endless views from the top of the Amphitheatre after a strenuous hike. Photo by Fiona Mcintosh.

The five-kilometre-long, 1200-metre-high cliff face of the Amphitheatre, bookmarked by the Eastern Buttress at one end and the Sentinel at the other, is an instantly recognisable Berg landmark. It looks impenetrable, but for fit hikers with a head for heights, the trail to the top of the plateau is straightforward. From the car park, the path climbs steeply via a series of zigzags to the base of the imposing Sentinel. The hard work is over, so stop here to take in the views, then continue round at the base of the cliffs to the foot of the famous double chain ladders, which lead to the top of the natural fortress. At the top, turn left and walk for half an hour or so on a weathered track to where the Tugela River cascades off the escarpment to form the second-highest waterfall in the world (after Venezuela’s Angel Falls).

Here, at over 3000 metres above sea level, the air is thin and you look down on soaring birds. The vistas over the jagged peaks and pinnacles of the northern Berg are magnificent; less obvious are the endemic plants that survive in this rugged mountain wilderness, so linger a while – all the time watching the weather – before retracing your steps. Note: this is a serious mountain outing. Inexperienced hikers should take a guide. Recommended by Fiona McIntosh

Do it: The trailhead is the Sentinel car park, in the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area, seven kilometres (on a poor road) from Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge (28 kilometres from Phuthaditjhaba in the Free State). Hikers cabin from R495 per person sharing B&B, bungalow from R745 per person sharing B&B. Tel 0732287391.

This day hike forms part of the Amphitheatre Heritage Hike, a three-day guided trail (with porterage available) run by Active Escapes, which starts at The Cavern resort and finishes at Mahai campsite in Royal Natal National Park. From R3850 per person for a group of four. active-escapes.co.za

 

6. Icidi Gorge

Duration: 3 days
Difficulty: Extreme
Cost: R170 per person one-way hiking permit, R45 park entrance fee

It may be extreme, but this is one gorgeous trail. Photo by Shane Quinnell.

This route includes scaling the famous Sentinel ladders and standing on the mighty escarpment – both things all hikers should do at least once – with an additional sojourn through Lesotho and a gorge considered hectic even by Berg standards. Start the hike following the Amphitheatre route (see previous page) until the mighty Tugela Falls; from here, head southeast to reach Icidi Gorge (about 15 kilometres from the car park). There is no real path but the beautiful rolling grass plains of Lesotho make for relatively easy walking, as long as you have decent maps and navigation skills.

At an altitude of around 3000 metres, it may take your breath away. The top of Icidi Gorge is fairly wide and grassy, with one or two caves. After spending the night here, you head down the steep, pathless gorge until your legs are burning – you will hit sections with denser vegetation but there is still no path; other parts will entail some scary scrambling (as maps suggest, ‘ropes may be required’). It’s beautiful but deserves respect. Once you are out of the gorge, the walking gets easier. From here, you follow the valleys to Mnweni Cultural Centre (about 30 kilometres from the top of the gorge), through a landscape of rivers, lusher vegetation, flowers and traditional Zulu villages. Difficulty aside, this hike is remote and receives little traffic so it’s worth doing if you want a proper adventure.Recommended by Shane and Tarryn Quinnell

Do it: The hike starts at Sentinel car park. Stay here the night before (dorm bunk bed R110 per person – no need to book) or Witsieshoek. We suggest an overnight stop before you tackle Icidi Gorge (there are caves, which are safer than pitching a tent on the Amphitheatre escarpment), and another overnight stop once you have exited Icidi – camp not too far from the end of the gorge, as it gets more populated further down. Stay at Mnweni the night after.

 

7. The Bell Traverse

Duration: 3 days
Difficulty: Extreme
Cost: R70 per person per night hiking permit

Three days of magic along the Bell Traverse. Photo by Shane Quinnell.

Imagine a typical Berg hike: majestic mountains, intense exposure, mighty rock faces and mind-exploding views. Then imagine the same thing on steroids, concentrated into a traverse seven kilometres long but which takes most of a day. The Bell Traverse starts from Bugger Gully, the short steep path at the base of Cathedral Peak on the southeastern side. It is accessed by the standard Cathedral Peak route, which requires about 10 kays of fairly steep hiking (fill your water bottles when you can as there is no water on the traverse).

If you get to the plateau below Cathedral after 15:00, pitch camp there – don’t try the traverse in the dark! From Bugger Gully, this phenomenal route winds like a serpent between The Bell, Twins and Mitre, some of the better-known peaks of the Cathedral valley, to the top of Mlambonja Ravine, just below the Berg escarpment. Expect dramatic big-mountain scenery and about five scrambling sections, where one has to tip-toe across rock faces a few metres wide over large drops of nothing below. Depending on your progress you can sleep in Bell Cave (halfway along the traverse) or at Twins Cave (just before you cross over to Mlambonja Ravine). You hike back to the hotel via the ravine – steep with a semi-decent path. Take the southern path at the fork and follow the trails east for about 10 kilometres. If night falls, Xeni Cave offers shelter.  Recommended by Shane and Tarryn Quinnell

Do it: Stop by Didima Camp to collect permits and a map. The hike starts from the grounds of Cathedral Peak Hotel.

 

8. Mnweni Pass and Rockeries Pass

Duration: 3 days, 2 nights
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Cost: R60 per person per night hiking permit

One of the most remote routes you can do in the Drakensberg. Photo by Scott Ramsay.

This route explores the most remote, and for many the most beautiful, part of the Drakensberg. The first day is spent walking into the high hills below the escarpment, with a stay overnight at the base of Fang’s Pass, alongside the junction of the Mubudini and Mnweni Rivers. Because Mnweni is outside the formal protected area of the greater World Heritage Site (for now), there are few other hikers in this part of the Berg – although dagga smugglers and cattle rustlers sometimes use these passes at night (camp away from the main path).

Start early the next morning, and continue up the banks of the Mnweni River until you reach the pass. From there you’ll ascend 800 metres in a mere kilometre-and-a-half; a tough, steep climb but the views at the top are mesmerising. As the sun falls in the sky, the Mnweni Pinnacles are silhouetted with gold. Set up camp on top of the escarpment, then pull out that flask of single malt. The next day, carry on across the escarpment towards the top of Rockeries Pass. Along the way, you’ll cross a small stream. Stop and fill your water bottles, and know that this is the source of the mighty Orange River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean some 2000 kilometres away. Carry on down Rockeries Pass and look out for Cape vultures nesting on the cliffs. At the bottom, follow the Thonyelana River (take a well-earned dip in the rock pools), then back onto the road which ends up at the hiking centre where you started. Recommended by Scott Ramsay

Do it: The Mnweni region is owned and managed by the community. This hike starts and ends at Mnweni Cultural & Hiking Centre, on the D1736 past Woodstock Dam coming from Bergville. Rondawel R250 per person, camping R90 per person. Tel 0727122401

If you haven’t hiked here before, a guide is recommended – Caiphus Mthabela lives nearby and is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable. R1000 a day for up to three hikers, R400 per person extra. Tel 0736039107, emachibinitraveltours2015@gmail.com.

 

Meet the experts

Fiona McIntosh
Author of several guides to SA’s best hiking trails, Olympian, and our go-to for all things walking.
I fell in love with the Berg as a child. These days I spend every Christmas at The Cavern resort in the northern Berg, and use it as a base for hiking.
What keeps me coming back? I’m drawn by the light, colours and champagne air. Down in the valleys, it’s lush and verdant. A stream disappears into thickets and emerges to cascade through pools that invite a bracing plunge. The sandstone comes in shades of red and ochre, lending a warmth that’s absent among the basalt peaks. Up there, it’s a stony world of browns and greys, ground scrub and sublime starkness.
My best memory of the Berg? In 1939 my uncle, the poet Uys Krige, went pony trekking and spent a week in the Amphitheatre’s hiking hut. He wrote a book about it, Na Die Malutis. Last year I retraced his steps using the book as my guide. It was an unforgettable, soulful time of walking alone. My favourite hike of all time? The Amphitheatre summit via the famous chain ladders. It’s the ultimate Berg ascent with the most spellbinding views.

 

Justin Fox
Former Getaway editor-at-large, author, and annual Drakensberg pilgrim.

I fell in love with the Berg as a child. These days I spend every Christmas at The Cavern resort in the northern Berg, and use it as a base for hiking.
What keeps me coming back? I’m drawn by the light, colours and champagne air. Down in the valleys, it’s lush and verdant. A stream disappears into thickets and emerges to cascade through pools that invite a bracing plunge. The sandstone comes in shades of red and ochre, lending a warmth that’s absent among the basalt peaks. Up there, it’s a stony world of browns and greys, ground scrub and sublime starkness.
My best memory of the Berg? In 1939 my uncle, the poet Uys Krige, went pony trekking and spent a week in the Amphitheatre’s hiking hut. He wrote a book about it, Na Die Malutis. Last year I retraced his steps using the book as my guide. It was an unforgettable, soulful time of walking alone. My favourite hike of all time? The Amphitheatre summit via the famous chain ladders. It’s the ultimate Berg ascent with the most spellbinding views.

 

Scott Ramsay
Photojournalist, outdoor specialist, and has been to every wild place in South Africa.

Twenty years ago I picked up an old copy of A Camera in Quathlamba, a black-and-white photography book by Malcolm Pearse, the first to do justice to these mountains. Ever since then, I’ve been inspired to wander here with my camera.
What keeps me coming back? To me, the Berg is like a predatory animal: intriguing and intimidating, attractive and dangerous at the same time.
My best memory of the Berg? The night I spent alone on a ledge overlooking the Tugela Gorge. I lay down in my sleeping bag at sunset and watched shooting stars raining down on the immense basalt cliffs of the Amphitheatre. When I woke up at first light, I was engulfed in a thick mist. My favourite hike of all time? A five-night, six-day trek that starts at the Sentinel, up to the top of the Amphitheatre, then along to Mnweni cutback, past Cockade and Cathedral Peak, down Organ Pipes Pass into Didima Gorge, to end back at the Cathedral Peak Hotel for a cold beer and the best food in the mountains.

 

Shane and Tarryn Quinnell
Extreme adventure couple, currently on a journey to summit Africa’s five highest peaks.

For me [Shane] the Berg is a place of awe and mystery which was etched in my memory as a child. My wife Tarryn and I have fallen in love with the dramatic nature, and find ourselves regularly coming back to hike, climb and bike.
What keeps us coming back? Only one word truly describes the Berg: epic. It’s near impossible to find a mountain range like it anywhere else in the world. It is a unique, ancient and incredible place.
Our best memory of the Berg? Unfurling our bivy sacks (waterproof sleeping bag covers) on a plateau below Cathedral Peak, with one of the most amazing views in the world, knowing that no one else has the same view. Then watching the world change through a rainbow of colours to darkness illuminated by countless stars. Our favourite hike of all time? The mighty Bell Traverse. It encompasses the soul of the dragon: epic valleys and cliff lines, jaw-dropping views, cave sleeping and stomach-churning exposure.

 

Map of the 8 best hikes in the Drakensberg

 

 

This story first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.

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