Whether you’re in a two-person hiking tent eye-balling the peaks or a full caravan in a family-friendly resort, fortune favours the camper in the Drakensberg. These are Getaway’s top 10 picks.
We’re spoilt for choice when it comes to campsites in the Drakensberg. There are 24 across its main section, from Bushman’s Nek in the south to the Amphitheatre in the north. As the crow flies, it’s about 160 kilometres of ‘clear mountain streams and age-old forests, of frothing cascades tumbling into pools of laughing water, of green mountain slopes and secret kloofs, of wild flowers and singing birds’, as venerable Drakensberg scribe, Reg Pearse, put it.
I visited in November, when the midweek campsites were quiet and afternoon showers struck like clockwork. As I made my way between them, I realised there are two types of camp-site in the Drakensberg. The Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife ones are very basic, with hot water often the extent of the facilities, but boy, their locations are hard to beat. If you’re a hiker, these are the ones for you. On the other side of the spectrum are the resort campsites that offer an array of activities and a fair dollop of comfort (what I call the three Ps: pool, pub and private ablutions), which are ideal if you’re a bit older or have a young family.
In both categories, I came upon a similar scene. A couple or a group of friends sitting with their camping chairs in a row, facing the mountains, chatting contentedly. They’d be having coffee or a glass of wine, maybe passing food around and occasionally sitting back to take in the changing light on the Berg. This is the twilight time – after a day of exploring and just before the smell of fires and braaivleis waft through the campsite – when the wind stills, the mountains soften and a hush settles on the land. And you get the feeling that camping is how the Drakensberg is best experienced: outdoors, with friends, bare feet on the ground, a gaze upon its mountaintops and a mixture of longing and awe in the heart.
55 sites | Electricity
Hlalanathi, meaning ‘stay with us’ in isiZulu, has a view of the Amphitheatre, which is alone worth coming for. Opened in 1983, this family-owned resort is set on a rise above a bend in the Tugela River, with a row of campsites under trees enjoying elevated, front-row seats of the five- kilometre-wide Amphitheatre. When the river’s in flood, kids in the campsite take tubes down it. At other times, they can enjoy the swimming pool with its 60-metre supertube, play tennis, ride their bicycles or play on the swings.
There’s a focus on families at Hlalanathi, with many guests returning year after year. Part of the attraction is probably the long list of activities on offer. Whatever you end up doing, though, most days are likely to end the same – with a braai in the campsite or a meal in the Oak & Ale, the home-style restaurant and bar on site.
Do This The nine-hole, 18-tee Amphitheatre Golf Course next door has golf clubs and carts for hire. You can walk to the river or up Trilby Hill from the resort. Trilby is an easy hike for the whole family, even small kids. There’s also a children’s bike pump-track, table tennis, pool table and fishing spots (bass in the golf-course dams).
Nearby, Northern Horse offers outrides in the valley, and All Out Adventures has 900 metres of ziplines between seven forested platforms, 150 kilometres of marked mountain-bike trails and paintball. Royal Natal National Park, and its beautiful hiking trails, is just 11 kilometres from Hlalanathi.
Best Sites 1 to 12 have the best views of the Tugela and Amphitheatre. Despite all the activities and comforts on offer, the view is probably Hlalanathi’s best feature. Sites 1 to 4 are the most popular, with good shade and sunken braai spots that create a private lapa area. Four sites have their own private ablutions.
Location The nearest town to Hlalanathi is Bergville, 40 kilometres away.
Cost From R180 per person in low season and R270 in high season.
Contact 036-438-6308, hlalanathi.co.za
84 sites | Electricity
The busiest and probably best-known of all the Ezemvelo campsites, Mahai enjoys a beautiful setting, ensconced in the mountains of Royal Natal National Park. The grassed campsite is surrounded by tall trees, has a mountain stream alongside it and serves up stunning mountain views from all angles. Mahai is extremely popular with both tourists and locals, many of whom have Tugela Gorge Trail at the top of their to-do lists.
There are five modern ablution blocks with hot baths and showers, coin-operated washing machines and dishwashing facilities. In spite of being a busy campsite, the ablutions are kept clean and tidy, with the braai areas also cleaned daily.
I met a couple who were staying for two weeks. They did the odd walk but were mostly content to just spend time in camp, watching the people and enjoying the birdlife, which they said was excellent (especially the affable tawny eagle). Their enthusiasm and easy-going manner made retirement seem idyllic.
Do This The most popular hike is the Tugela Gorge Trail. It follows a contour path through patches of forest before arriving in the gorge, which is a great spot for lunch. Cascades is a more relaxed alternative as it’s a flat walk beside the Mahai River.
Best Sites 15 and 16 have good shade, fantastic views of the mountains and are the ideal distance from the ablutions – not a long walk, but not overly exposed to foot traffic, either.
Fun Fact Royal Natal is a misnomer and is not, in fact, a national park.
Location Mahai is 50 kilometres west of Bergville.
Cost From R150 per person.
Contact 036-438-6310, kznwildlife.com
About The Car
I used a fully kitted Ford Ranger safari vehicle from Avis for my trip. The car itself handled all the roads incredibly well and was a joy to drive, but the real pleasure came from the camping setup. The rooftop popped up with a flick of a handle and could close (with the bedding inside) just as easily – so packing up took a matter of minutes. The vehicle comes with a 270˚ shade awning, a 90-litre twin fridge and freezer, and a comprehensive kitchen. A helpful little feature is the tap (connected to an 80-litre water tank) on the side of the vehicle for quick access. The 165-litre fuel tank and solar-panelled electric system will come in handy, especially on big bush trips into Southern Africa. From R1 235 per day. avis.co.za
3. Mountain Splendour
85 sites | Electricity | Pet-Friendly
As I made my way through the Berg, there was one campsite that was spoken of with awe and admiration. My campsite neighbours would say ‘Mountain Splendour’ and make an emphatic gesture with their hands, as if words couldn’t do it justice. So it was with high expectations that I met the owner, Iain Don-Wauchope, at reception on a Sunday afternoon. ‘What we aim to do here is take the schlep out of camping,’ he said. ‘People can store their caravan here and just before they return for a visit, we’ll set it up for them and turn on the fridge so it’s cold when they arrive. The idea is that you get the joy of camping with very few of the discomforts.’
Mountain Splendour was built by Iain’s father in 1980 on a hilltop plateau on their potato farm in Champagne Valley. The site now has a playground with a giant chessboard, a beautiful pool with a slide, and tennis and volleyball courts. There are also plenty of organised activities and open space for games – more than enough to keep kids busy. Goats, sheep and pot-bellied pigs trot around the campsites, while horses, donkeys and cows are kept in an adjoining paddock.
The night I stayed there I was invited to have dinner with my neighbours, two middle-aged couples from Joburg who often visit. ‘We like it here because there are lots of casual walks on the farm and we just love this view,’ Isabel Busschau said, pointing towards Champagne Castle, Cathkin Peak and Sterkhorn. ‘There’s also free tea and scones every morning, and they help you put up and take down your tent.’
Considering all the effort Iain and his team put in, it’s fair to say the place is worthy of its name and reputation.
Do This One of the standout features is the 10-kilometre mountain-bike track around the property that also links onto the Cathkin trails. There are bikes for hire at reception. Hikes into the High Berg (either from Injisuthi or Monks Cowl) can be guided by staff on request. There are shady picnic spots along the Hattingspruit River on the farm, and in season organised picnics are held at Injisuthi.
Best Sites The ones with the best views are 41 to 56, with 51 to 56 adjoining private luxury ablutions that are as clean and modern-looking as those in a hotel. All sites have an 8×8 metre gravel section that’s great if it rains, as the water drains away quickly.
Fun Fact The resort was named after Reg Pearse’s book on the Drakensberg.
Location 30 kilometres south of Winterton.
From R196 per adult, R98 per child in low season.
Contact 036-468-1172, mountainsplendour.co.za
4. Dragon Peaks
132 sites | Electricity | Pet-Friendly
‘Last year during the festive season we had 2 380 people staying here,’ staff member Jess Hatting told me as we walked around Dragon Peaks. ‘We have a pub, restaurant, aviary, two dams and even a church. There’s also the Adventure Centre, a pool and playground with three trampolines. Campers never have to leave!’
It all adds up to a kids’ paradise, which was probably part of the vision back when it began. In 1954, the news editor of Natal Daily News, RW Tungay, bought Dragon Peaks and turned it into a caravan-park resort. Shortly afterwards, he established the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir (the school is next door).
Today, with lovely views onto the nearby mountains of Champagne Valley, the resort has shaded, grassed and paved caravan and camping sites and three ablutions blocks. Sculleries, washing machines and a cleaning service are also available for campers.
The on-site Oaks Superette has daily staples and luxuries such as rusks, home-made biscuits and jams. The shop also sells petrol and diesel and has an ATM. The restaurant, with log fires in winter and an outside dining area overlooking a dam, has Wednesday specials such as eisbein and mash (R105) and a quarter chicken with chips (R70).
Do This The Adventure Centre adjoining Dragon Peaks offers Scootours, helicopter flips and a zipline canopy tour. There are six hiking trails on the property, while Monks Cowl Nature Reserve is close by for some serious hiking. The aviary, according to Jess, is where ‘old ladies love to feed the parrots, doves, chickens and ducks’. There’s a water slide into the children’s pool and two diving boards into the 23-metre-long pool. There’s also a games room with table tennis, pool and air-hockey machines, and two bass dams to fish in.
Best sites 71 and 72 have a slightly elevated view of the pool and mountains, while 68 is a big, grassy site with equally good views.
Good To Know There are dog-friendly camping units and self-catering cottages and cabins too.
Location 30 kilometres southwest of Winterton.
Cost From R180 per adult and R90 per child in low season.
Contact 036-468-1031, dragonpeaks.com
5. Monks Cowl
30 sites | Electricity
This is a great base for hikers as the campsite is at the entrance of the Monks Cowl Nature Reserve in Champagne Valley, the starting point for a number of routes. I love the idea of beginning and ending a hike at your campsite. But if you want a bit more comfort, see Dragon Peaks and Mountain Splendour nearby.
The sites are spaced out over a steep, sloping area and there’s a fair amount of shade around the camp. Twelve of the 40 sites have power. The reception has a ‘tea garden’ that serves hamburgers (R50), ham-and-cheese sandwiches (R25) and chicken wraps with salad (R70) – it’s open from 8am to 3.30pm.
I found the ablutions at Monks Cowl to be in an acceptable state, but there are some scathing online reviews about the cleanliness of the campsite. Either way, the proximity to the mountains will never disappoint.
Do this Blindman’s Corner is one of the best day hikes, while the trail to the Sphinx is also a very popular option for hikers.
Best sites 11 and 12 are on a rise, above the other sites, and have good views, shade and electricity. For the best view, however, head to the bottom of the campsite and take the corner block. It looks out onto the mountains and is under a tree.
Location Monks Cowl lies at the end of the road leading into Champagne Valley, 36 kilometres southwest of Winterton.
Cost From R110 per person.
Contact 036-468-1103, kznwildlife.com
30 sites | No Electricity | Glamping option
‘The best thing about this campsite is that you lose signal 10 kilometres away,’ Braden Clark, an entrepreneur from Hillcrest, told me beside his fire with tongs in hand. ‘It’s the perfect place to come and unwind. And the hikes are gorgeous. The trails to Grindstone Cave and Marble Baths are particularly beautiful.’
Set at the end of a track deep in the mountains, the sanctuary of Injisuthi owes part of its allure to the drive in. As you lose cell-phone reception, the road turns to gravel and the scenery into big vistas and looming mountains. Entering an area that feels like a dragon’s lair, you come upon Injisuthi campsite, lying between three ridges, two rivers and beside a stand of yellowwood trees. With distant views of Cathkin Peak and Monks Cowl, this is a valley of supreme tranquillity. (Before the land was purchased by the state in 1980, it was a small private resort called Solitude.)
That night in camp, with the subtle outline of the surrounding geological giants for company, I counted the sounds. There weren’t many: the hissing fire, the distant river (in which campers like to dip on hot days), a cricket, then a nightjar. And that was it. I could understand why Braden loved it: ‘We’ve been all over the Berg but we keep coming back here.’
Do This Battle Cave, with its wide sandstone overhang, is one of the best-preserved San rock-art sites in Southern Africa and can be combined with a hike to Marble Baths – sandstone rock pools so white they look like marble. This hike can be done in a day or made into an overnight experience by staying in a nearby cave. Lower Injisuthi Cave is an easy morning’s walk from main camp. A walk to Grindstone Cave can be combined with a return via Cataract Valley to make it
a 13-kilometre round trip.
Best Sites They all come with a braai stand and good grass covering but the best of the lot are the three safari camp units – glamping tents on platforms. They have braai areas and gas stoves, as well as stretcher beds. It’s only R180 more for two people sharing – and everyone staying in them looked very pleased with themselves.
Fun Fact Injisuthi means ‘well-fed dog’ in isiZulu due to how good the hunting was in this valley back in the day. Today, campers can buy a frozen trout (R45) from the reception to sate their hunger.
Location Injisuthi lies at the end of a road 50 kilometres southwest of Winterton.
Cost From R120 pp, safari camp from R225 per person.
Contact 036-431-9000, kznwildlife.com
8 sites | No electricity
One of the Berg’s lesser-known gems, Highmoor greets the surrounding ridges at eye-level with panoramas that rival the best in the Drakensberg. With few activities on offer and the nearest town 40-odd kilometres away, this is a campsite for those seeking solitude. There are, however, two trout dams for fishing, where a pair of wattled cranes are known to nest. The dams are backdropped by grasslands undulating on and on towards the escarpment and the great wall of Giant’s Castle.
Facilities are rustic and include a picnic site with braai stands for day visitors and a small campsite about a kilometre from the reception. Oldwood bushes surround each of the eight sites, creating a boma feel and providing shade and wind shelter. There are two hot-water showers and braai stands at each campsite. The best thing here is to put your feet up and enjoy the peace in what is considered, at 1 960 metres, the Drakensberg’s highest campsite.
Do This Six people are allowed to fish at each dam per day, strictly catch-and-release with flies only. Aasvoëlkrans Cave is four kilometres from the office and is one of two caves where hikers may stay overnight. The round trip takes about four hours.
Best Site Stand 7 is at the far end of the campsite and has the best views, although 3 and 4 have similar views but are closer to the ablutions.
Good To Know A plucky sedan can make it up the approach road (6km of gravel, 4km of potholed tar), but the last kilometre to the elevated campsite might be a bridge too far.
Location Highmoor lies at the end of the Kamberg Valley, west of the Midlands.
Cost R85 per person.
Contact 072-190-9612, kznwildlife.com
15 sites | No Electricity
Lotheni Nature Reserve has long been loved by fly-fishers for its trout-stocked river. However, the 3 984- hectare reserve feels a little run down. The setting is still distractingly beautiful, though. Lying deep in the mountains between Underberg and Nottingham Road, the campsite is a further two kilometres into the mountains beyond the office and surrounded by classic Drakensberg majesty.
Lotheni was once a sheep farm (the original homestead is now a Settler’s Museum), but the Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo) took over in the 1950s. Today, visitors might see eland, grey duiker or mountain reedbuck on their walks around the reserve. An Eland Domestication Unit was established at Lotheni decades ago, with the herd growing to 40 in the hope of one day taming this icon of the Drakensberg. (The closest anyone got was a Midlands farmer riding an eland around the show ring at the Royal Show in Pietermaritzburg.)
All sites are nicely grassed, with the Lotheni River snaking its way past the campsite. Campers are rewarded with better scenery and a much closer connection to nature than at the chalets. During this trip, my conviction grew that fortune favours the camper. The only downside is that there are just two trees, so shade is hard to come by.
Do This The Emadundwini Trail (12 kilometres) is highly recommended, as well as hikes such as Eagle Trail, Jacob’s Ladder Falls and the walk to the historic gelib tree, which sprouted from a seed hailing from Somaliland, brought home and planted by a local officer after serving in East Africa during WWII. The Cool Pools are the best place for a dip after your hike.
Best Site Blesbok has a big tree for much sought-after shade and good views of the escarpment. If Blesbok is taken, ask for Billy, the only other campsite with shade.
Good To Know The shop has basic supplies such as beer and firewood; anything else is a long drive away. There are also self-catering chalets and a basic mountain hut called Simes Cottage.
Location Lotheni is 49 kilometres southwest of Nottingham Road.
Cost From R100 per person.
Contact 033-702-0540, kznwildlife.com
20 sites | No Electricity | Pet-friendly
Cobham makes our top 10 list mostly due to its spectacular setting. An emerald soufflé of a mountain ridge forms an eye-catching backdrop and a place to rest your gaze in between turns of the boerie, while a distant Giant’s Cup adds grandeur to the scene.
‘This is a hiker’s paradise,’ said Charl Brummer, the recently retired conservation warden who worked here for 12 years. ‘Natal Parks Board took over from Forestry in the late 80s and initially all it had was a long drop. But people came for the hiking.’
It seems that not much has changed, with hiking still the main attraction and the campsite not particularly well-kept. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it probably had the most underwhelming facilities of all the campsites I visited. For example, there are 15 braai places but most of the grids are either broken or missing (so take your own). And there’ve been complaints about the signposting on some of the trails. For many visitors, however, the basic nature of the campsite is a big part of the allure.
A stand of tall cypress trees creates some valuable shade and a row of small oldwood bushes lines the boundary of the camp. While there are no electrical points in camp, there’s reliable hot water.
Do This There are day and overnight trails, with the option of nine caves to sleep in. For the best day hike, Charl recommended the Pinnacle Rocks round-trip
on a portion of the five-day Giant’s Cup Trail, returning via Emerald Stream. The Pholela River is lovely for swimming and trout fishing (R120 per day).
Best Site The sites aren’t numbered and it’s first-come-first-served, but if you have a choice I’d recommend one of the shaded sites under the cypress trees.
Good to know The Giant’s Cup Hiking Trail starts near Sani Pass and its second-night hut is at Cobham. The trail follows the line of the escarpment through the Little Berg into Garden Castle and ends at Bushman’s Nek.
Location Himeville, Sani Pass and Underberg are all a short drive away.
Cost R90 per person.
Contact 033-702-0831, kznwildlife.com
10. Hermit’s Wood
12 sites | No Electricity
Upon first look, it seems like the road ends at Drakensberg Gardens. But beyond the resort’s tennis courts and golf course is a little lane that takes you into Garden Castle Nature Reserve and to a small camp called Hermit’s Wood.
The campsite lies on a bank with grassland unfurling away from it and the Mlambonja River bubbling nearby. Beside the site, a grove of tall gum trees sways in the wind like kelp in a restless ocean. With the campsite set right below Rhino Peak, this is a place to roll out of your tent and climb up a mountain.
There’s a communal gas freezer in the washing area, two toilets and two gas-power showers, with a bench and braai place accompanying each site. Other than that, there’s hardly any sign of humans. If a hermit’s life is your thing, this place would certainly do.
Do This There are many hiking routes to caves and valleys in the area. Rhino Peak is a challenging, 18-kilometre trail that demands an early start (it takes nearly 10 hours), while Pillar Cave is a popular choice and takes about four hours (nine kilometres). Mermaid’s Pool with its small waterfall is about a kilometre from the camp and is the ideal spot to cool off after a hike.
Best Site 9 and 10 are at the top end of the campsite, with the best views but don’t have nice grass (caravanners prefer them), while campers tend to opt for 6 and 7 as they’re level and grassy.
Location Hermit’s Wood/Garden Castle Nature Reserve is 30 kilometres west of the town of Underberg.
Cost R90 per person.
Contact 033-701-1823, sacampsites.co.za
*Many of the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife campsites only accept cash and operate on a first-come-first-served basis.