The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park protects a mountain wonderland; a chain of craggy, ancient fold mountains made up of towering Basalt peaks, interminable rolling gorges and valleys, towering cliffs and sandstone caves.
Included in the World Heritage Site is the jagged, green sweep of the Amphitheatre, easily one of the most extraordinary cliff faces on earth.
The Amphitheatre’s recognisable, almost flat, plateau extends wall-like for 5 km as it looms over the Drakensberg National Park like a sentinel. A hike to the top, whilst one of the most exciting things to do in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, is not for the faint of heart and involves a near vertical climb up chain ladders.
The Drakensberg (mountain of the dragons) is easily some of country’s most inaccessible terrain. It forms a natural semi-circular border between South Africa and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. Between the two is no hard fence or border post, only a hellishly rugged landscape that sometimes doubles as routes through which to smuggle stolen sheep, cattle and dagga.
It’s Africa’s highest mountain range south of Kilimanjaro.
uKhahlamba (from the Zulu ‘Quathlamba, meaning battlement of spears’) is an adventure without borders, a beauty without boundaries – too much to experience in any one visit. The reserve is well over 240 000 hectares, runs 200 kilometres north to south, and about 50 kilometres west to east, making it one of the biggest conservation areas in South Africa.
The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park – useful information
The Drakensberg Park is a mountain park, not a game reserve with easy to drive dirt roads. You don’t go for the day and expect to tick it off your list.
You should also know that it’s a wilderness area…
Head into these mountains for three or four days and you’ll see no one; not another car, settlement or even person…
That said, there are day tours (look for tour providers in either Durban or Johannesburg), still worthwhile if you are short of time.
The park is huge, and you’ll have to choose which parts to visit. It’s a hiker’s and birder’s paradise with such gobsmackingly gorgeous scenery that you’ll need a few days simply to absorb the beauty, before you can even begin to appreciate it.
To put it all in perspective: the ‘berg’ as it’s known locally, is roughly divided into three sections: the northern, central and southern ‘berg.
Some people speak about a further division between the ‘high berg’ – the steep rises from the plateau with arduous hiking and overnights in huts or caves (you’ll need to book these in advance, many of them through KZN Wildlife) – and the ‘little berg’ – the lower altitude rolling hills, ravines, dense forests and grasslands of the Drakensberg where you’ll find the more popular day hikes, lodges and campsites.
Get there: by car from either Johannesburg or Durban (roughly three hours’ drive) on the N3 that connects the two cities, before heading along a network of minor roads into the mountains (your Drakensberg accommodation will give you more specific directions).
The Important bits
Tip 1: the mountains of uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park contain the biggest collection, and most concentrated group, of San rock art in Africa (over 40 000 paintings spread over 600 caves and shelters); but to see them you’ll need to contact Amafa, the organisation that controls access to famous rock art sites, or individual reserves
Tip 3: if you’re heading out on a hike, even a short one, it’s vital that you take along water, food sun protection, a cell phone and a first aid kit.
Main things to do
The only way to experience uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park a is by taking part in the myriad physical activities that will get you out into the mountainous terrain.
Some of the best hikes are:
- Injisuthi Battle Cave Walk (not too strenuous)
- Giant’s Cup Trail (a full day and strenuous)
- Amphitheatre hike (to the top of Tugela Falls – strenuous, involving chain ladders)
- Ploughman’s Kop (short, steep, up and down within four hours, 7 km)
- Rainbow Gorge (good for families, 7-11 km)
But you don’t have to be a hiker to get something out of uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park. There are 4X4 trails, an aerial cable trail, the Big Swing, canopy tours, horse riding, ice climbing, mountain biking, paragliding, river rafting, rock climbing, trout fishing, kayaking and zip lining (whew!).
Don’t forget: Mnweni Valley (sandwiched between Cathedral Peak valley and the Royal National Park) for its incredible wild beauty, Giant’s Castle vulture hide, Loteni Wilderness Area and Monks Cowl Wilderness area (both areas have a few caves in the area for overnight hiking).
When to go
Don’t underestimate the changeability of weather when in the mountains. The weather, although pretty good all year round, can change in minutes from a sunny, calm day into an electric storm, and snow is often visible on the peaks during winter.
Winter (May – August) is the driest time of the year, and cool (night temperatures can drop to below zero) but your days are still beautiful with temperatures as high as 15 degrees celsius. Winter is considered the best hiking season.
Summer (November – February) is wet and the days can get really hot, but the afternoon thunderstorms are pretty spectacular, and your evenings warm enough to manage the odd overnight in a cave when on a hiking trail. Not as popular for hikes, it’s nonetheless the greenest time of year and you’ll see a lot of wildlife.
Where to stay – our top 5 recommendations
Right at the foot of the mountain in Qambathi Mountain Reserve is this modern Lodge, sleeping 10 guests in beautifully prepared rooms, three of which are garden suites with private decks, and a further cottage with an open plan kitchen and dining area (sleeps 4). Cooking, art or photography courses on offer too.
Perfect halfway base if you’re meeting family or friends between Durban and Johannesburg in the heart of the ‘berg. Alpine Heath is a series of 100 chalets with fireplaces and your own patio with mountain views to die for and a spa for lazy afternoons.
Beautifully furnished en-suite rooms each with its own private patio opening out onto lawns and rock pool with uninterrupted views of Hodgsons Peaks (snow-covered during winters), Moorcroft lies just off the junction with Sani Pass making it an ideal base.
The views of the mountains from the poolside alone are worth a sojourn at Cathkin Cottage, but the five bedrooms, each with their own private entrance off the garden, easily hold their own.
We’ve saved the best for last. This small family-owned lodge oozes colonial at the foot of the Drakensberg, with several cottages on offer and large verandas, farm-style fare and views to match. You’re also close to the Battlefields route.