Celebrated as one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world, the spectacular Drakensberg mountains offer the highest peaks in Africa South of Kilimajaro. Unknown to most, the Drakensberg make up one the longest (1000km) and highest (maximum height 3,482m) section of what is known as ‘The Southern Great Escarpment’. This mountain chain traces its way through much of Southern Africa, and at an astonishing total length of 5000km, it is the second longest mountain chain on Earth after the Andes.
Of the whole escarpment generally, and the Drakensberg specifically, it is the 250km or so which makes up ‘The High Berg’ that is most scenically stunning. The peaks average a height of roughly 10,000 feet (3,048m) at this point, and have some of the most spectacular mountain scenery that Africa, and indeed the world, has to offer. There are hundreds of incredible things to do in the Drakensberg, but here is a great ‘Drakensberg Dozen’ for the intrepid adventurer!
1. Stand Awestruck below the Amphitheatre.
The Amphitheatre is an astounding cliff face, widely regarded as one of the most impressive in the world. Five Kilometers (3 Miles) Wide and 1200m (4000 feet) tall, the face is incomprehensively massive. For scale, it is roughly ten times the size of the famous (South Western) face of ‘El Capitan’ in Yosemite, six times that of the Matterhorn’s North Face, and almost three times that of the Eiger’s immense Northern Face.
The greatest way to appreciate being below it is to walk from Tendele along the Tugela River Gorge to its base. Lush forest and open grasslands alternate along the walk, and as you meander along the infant Tugela stream you can enjoy crystal clear mountain pools, whilst surrounded by peaks and cliffs almost too vast to comprehend.
2. Stand Awestruck ABOVE the amphitheatre!
The hike from the Sentinel Car Park up to the top of the Amphitheatre is absolutely astonishing. It involves the infamous ‘chain ladders’ which dangle mid air, but safely anchored to the rock! When atop the mountain one can head to the highest point of the area, Mont Aux Sources at an altitude of 3,282m. It means ‘Mountain of sources’, and as the Tugela, Caledon (a major tributary of the Orange) and Elands (a major tributary of the Vaal) rivers start there, the name is certainly apt!
One of the highlights of the Drakensberg is standing near the edge and watching the incredible Tugela Falls plummet over the edge of the cliff face. This waterfall is accepted as the second tallest on earth at a height of 948m. Strong evidence exists that the Tugela may in fact be the tallest waterfall in the world, as it is believed by many that the survey of the Angel Falls (usually listed as the tallest) inaccurately inflated its height. Furthermore, many believe the Tugela’s surveys have downplayed its height, and that it may in fact be much taller than its official figure! Whether the tallest or the second tallest waterfall on the planet, there’s no doubting that standing atop the falls is a scenic highlight that will impress the most hardened world traveller!
3. Rock Art
The Drakensberg was declared a mixed world heritage site by UNESCO on account not only of its astounding physical beauty, but the incredible collection of rock art. Called the greatest outdoor art exhibit in the world, an astounding 40,000 items of rock art have been found there. Generally regarded as the greatest collection of Rock Art on earth, the only place to rival this is Namibia’s Brandberg Mountain. The Battle Cave is probably the most famous of all.
4. The Mnweni Valley
The favourite region in the whole ‘Berg for many bergophiles is visited by relatively few tourists. Sandwiched between the magnificence of the Cathedral Peak Valley to the South and the Royal Natal National Park to the North is the Mnweni Valley. It is a traditional region, where pastoralists greet the visitor with warmth as they herd their cattle, sheep and goats as has happened for centuries. It is astoundingly beautiful, with peaks such as the saddle, Mnweni Pinnacles, and Mnweni Needles especially famous. Formal accommodation is available via the Mnweni Cultural and Hiking Centre (http://www.mnweni.org). Agripa Zondo at the centre can arrange accommodation in the huts at the centre for the reasonable rate of R200 pppn, R70pppn for camping, or most excitingly of all – he can arrange for people to sleep on the escarpment itself with a guide – at a rate of R60pppn. His personal number is 072-712-2401.
5. The Cathedral Peak Valley and Cathedral Peak Hotel
At a height of 3004m, Cathedral Peak is less tall than much of the High Drakensberg but it is undoubtedly one of the most famous and beautiful peaks. It forms part of ‘the Cathedral Spur’, made up of the Inner and Outer Horns (3005 and 3006m each), the Bell (2930m) and Cathedral itself. The scene is at once Alpine and completely African, and is shockingly beautiful.
The Hotel and resort is an institution in South Africa, and celebrated 75 years of operation recently. Staring out at the escarpment and Cathedral spur while having afternoon tea on the hotel’s terrace is absolutely magnificent, and this is especially true during rare incidents of snowfall, as happened in 2011 and 1996. The Buffet is traditional and legendary, and with numerous hiking and sporting activities on offer it is justifiably famous as one of South Africa’s most famous family resorts.
6. Summit Cathedral Peak
Not for the unfit! The hike to the top of the peak gives unsurpassed views not only of the Spur itself, but of the escarpment nearby, and some of the Mnweni Valley to the North. It is extraordinarily beautiful, and a major highlight for the physically fit.
7. Take a helicopter flip around Cathedral!
For those who are not you to the physical challenge of climbing the peak, but who would like an adrenaline kick plus the best sights, a helicopter flight is a must! Pretty pricey by local standards, the flights are nonetheless very reasonable when compared to similar ones internationally and is an incredible highlight of a trip to the Berg.
8. Rainbow Gorge
The gorge walk in the Cathedral Peak area is gentle and beautiful, following the river where one can bathe in crystal clear water. It ends in a tight gorge where sandstone boulders are held suspended almost in mid air above you, and where a waterfall fills a small cavern. Diving into the water at the very end lets one emerge within this small cave, with the water tumbling on and around you. Space for no more than 3 at a time!
9. Giant’s Castle
The Giant’s Castle area is the highest in the South African ‘Berg. Mafadi is the highest point in the country at 3,450m and is visible in the region, while Giant’s Castle itself rises to an imposing height of 3,315m. The camp itself is one of the highest in the Central Berg and is situated at an axis weather point, meaning that snow is more common than at Cathedral or Royal Natal to the near North.
The area is a game reserve too, and its 35,000 hectares are home to the largest single population of Eland antelope in the world in a concentrated area (roughly 300). Don’t miss the gentle 30-minute hike to ‘Main Cave’, an exceptional Rock Art site.
A major highlight for birders throughout Southern Africa, the famous vulture hide at Giant’s Castle allows one probably the best opportunities on Earth to see Bearded Vultures or ‘Lammergeyers’ in the wild. Whilst these enormous, magnificent and endangered birds are certainly the highlight of the hide, they are by no means the only attraction. Jackal Buzzards, White Backed Vultures, Chats, Crows, Ravens and (if one is especially lucky) Drakensberg Rock Jumpers are all available to see through the one-way glass of the hide.
Once teeming with so much game that it gained a name meaning ‘Place of well fed (hunting) dogs’, Injisuthi sits beneath the incredible peaks of Cathkin Peak, Monk’s Cowl and Champagne Castle. The camp used to be known as ‘Solitaire’, and still has a sense of isolation and solitude hard to match anywhere in the ‘Berg. Administered by Ezemvelo KZN wildlife, electricity is switched off at night making for peace and excellent star gazing! A hike to ‘Marble Baths’ in the area, where one can see the massive wall of the Injisuthi Buttress reflected as one swims, is incredible.
12. Cleft Peak
Hiking to the top of Cleft Peak is physically demanding but stunning. The immense vertical cliffs of Cleft fall away to the lush green valleys below, and at a height of 3,277m it is the tallest peak in the Cathedral Area.
Things I HAVEN’T detailed which maybe I should have:
Champagne Sports Resort!
The Cavern Berg Resort!
^^these 2 are famous family resorts)
Driving up to the ‘Middle Berg’ to admire the high berg. An obvious one is the stunning view from Mike’s Pass above Didima (in the Cathedral area). This is the easiest way for older / not as fit people to see the high peaks from height.
Zip-lining in the forests below the Berg
Tower of Pizza
Little Switzerland Hotel
The Southern Drakensberg (Eastern Cape)
The Grand Traverse (a hike that does all the main peaks)
The Flora of the region
Various waterfall hikes
The various amazing passes (Fangs, Ntonjelana, Ifidi, Greys etc.)
Nearby Golden Gate National Park
Video of Jenman Safaris Staff member hiking the Drakensberg