General features of the Drakensberg area
The Drakensberg Mountains, which rise to 3000 m and extend 180 km along the western edge of KwaZulu Natal, form the backbone of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, and determine the border with Lesotho. This formidable mountain range is one of South Africa’s most staggeringly beautiful destinations, and in 2001 it was awarded the status of a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, both for its diverse flora and fauna and its impressive San rock paintings.
The greater uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park extends from the Royal Natal National Park in the north to Sehlabathebe National Park, part of Lesotho, in the south. The protected area is 180 km long and up to 20 km wide. Almost the entire range falls within protected reserves managed by KZN Wildlife. Despite going through a series of name changes over the years, this conservation body has looked after the region’s natural heritage for decades and succeeded in striking a balance between protecting the fragile resources and giving visitors an opportunity to appreciate all the mountains have to offer. There are numerous points from which to explore the Berg, ranging from fully equipped holiday resorts and luxury hotels to campsites, mountain huts and isolated caves.
The vast Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa can be divided into four sections – Bergville and the Northern Drakensberg; Winterton and the Central Drakensberg; Himeville, Underberg and the Southern Drakensberg and East Griqualand and Umzimkhulu. The park offers a wide range of accommodation from luxury lodges at Giant’s Castle and Royal Natal National Park or fully-equipped cottages and chalets to rustic mountain huts and over-night caves.
The scenic uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, is home to an abundance of flora and fauna, with many endemic and endangered species.A diverse range of habitats protects high levels of rare and endangered animals and plants. The 243 000 hectare Drakensberg nature reserve in South Africa is home to the Black Eagle, Bearded Vulture, herds of Eland and an abundance of other indigenous animals and plants.
There are about 600 San rock art sites, together representing 35 000 individual images- one of the highest concentrations in Africa. The oldest rock painting is dating back to 4000 years ago and the recent going back to the nineteenth century.
Ancient San (bushmen) rock art can be seen in around 500 sites in the Drakensberg. Guided Walks to some rock art shelters can be booked at Giants Castle, Injisuthi, Kamberg, Cathedral Peak and Royal Natal. Rock Art Interpretive Centres can be found at Kamberg and Cathedral Peak (Didima Camp has an interactive show in a huge rock overhang).
The mountains uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa exceed an average altitude of 3000 metres, forming the highest range in Africa, south of Kilimanjaro. The highest peak reaches an altitude of 3482 metres. The Drakensberg experiences hot summer days and refreshingly cool evenings. However, winters are extremely cold, sometimes with heavy snowfalls.
Towering sandstone cliffs, gigantic peaks, hidden valleys and crystal clear rivers welcome you to the World Heritage site, uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park- a premier eco-tourism destination
The Drakensberg nature reserve in KwaZulu-Natal is incredibly scenic and perfect for photography. From the highest peaks and majestic Amphitheatre to high altitude grasslands, the Tugela Falls and picturesque foothills, each aspect changes with the seasons and time of day. Tranquil uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park provides the perfect environment for scenic walks, hiking, biking bird-watching, riding, painting, fishing and swimming in crystal clear rivers or visiting the Rock Art Centres.
For a taste of real adventure on an uKhahlamba Drakensberg holiday, guests can hike and bike or go rock climbing as well as fly fishing in pristine areas.
Painting, relaxing and viewing San Rock Art in magnificent scenery can be enjoyed by all ages. The cool mountain streams and rivers are a delight for refreshing dips in the heat of the day.
All camps in this World Heritage Site have well laid out day walks for all to enjoy. The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park offers wonderful photographic opportunities and visitors can return again and again to capture its beauty in different seasons and times of day. Guests could also capture images of the Black Eagle, Bearded Vulture and herds of Eland antelope amongst many other indigenous plants, birds and game.
One of the top activities at this South African nature reserve in KwaZulu-Natal is hiking in the Drakensberg. The mountains have an extensive network of trails. In some areas, hikers may not see another person at all during their trail, adding to the intense atmosphere of solitude and contemplation that many trail blazers enjoy.
Hiking trails in the Drakensberg offer something for everyone. Whether you prefer to stroll through secluded, shaded valleys, walk the rolling foothills, hike the upper reaches or take on the challenge of man against mountain, the Drakensberg is certainly a hikers paradise. The nicest thing about hiking trails in the Drakensberg is that there are so many fascinating landmarks that can be reached with a comfortable walk and the minimum of climbing. A wide variety of routes are available, from a short easy amble through indigenous fern forests to admire a nearby attraction, to more strenuous one-day hikes that trail over river and hillside – or head for the more imposing high ground. There is nothing to beat walking or hiking in the high country. You will breathe clean, crisp mountain air as you revel in the sights and sounds of nature.
Walking and hiking in the Drakensberg is safe and secure – provided that a few simple ground rules are observed:
Climbers and hikers in the Drakensberg and even those just going for a walk in any of the Drakensberg Mountain reserves must sign the Mountain Rescue Register upon entering the reserve. This is a safety precaution which also makes it easier and faster for the rescue team to locate visitors should a problem occur
In winter, the higher reaches become spectacular snow-scapes, with the valley and peaks transformed into a wonderland of white. But if you are adventuring at this time of year, you need to be aware that glorious sunny days can quickly turn into misty, snowy conditions. In summer the Drakensberg is idyllic with bird-song, luxuriant grasses and wildflowers, and cool streams cascading through gorges and rock pools. But if you are setting out on a walk on even the most benign summer afternoon, be alert for sudden thunderstorms that seem to come from nowhere followed by short spells of unseasonal cold. So in addition to a camera, carry a jersey or rain jacket, preferably with a torch and some chocolate in the pockets.
Some examples of hikes are the Cascades, the Gorge walk, the Thukela Falls walk (the 2nd highest waterfall in the world), Dorian Falls Walk, Mike’s Pass and Rainbow Gorge.One of the most popular hikes is the Giants Cup Hiking Trail which takes place over 5 days in the scenic foothills around Cobham. Trails can be found in Cathedral Peak, Garden Castle, Giant’s Castle, Highmoor, Injisuthi, Kamberg, Lotheni, Mkhomazi, Monks Cowl, Royal Natal National Park and Vergelegen.
Royal Natal National Park
The Royal Natal National Park (RNNP) is a Unesco World Heritage with fantastic landscape. It forms part of the greater uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park.
The Royal Natal National Park has an interesting history dating back many years. In 1836 while exploring Basutoland, two French missionaries, Arbrousset and Daumas, first discovered Mont-Aux-Sources, literally the mountain of sources (of the rivers). In 1908 the idea of establishing a National Park in this area was conceived, and the territory was explored by Senator Frank Churchill, General Wylie, Colonel Dick and Mr W. O. Coventry. Recommendations were put forward, but it was not until 1916 that the Secretary of Lands authorised the reservation of five farms and certain Crown Lands, totalling approximately 8160 acres, and entrusted it to the Executive Committee of the Natal Province.
On the 16 September 1916 the National Park came into being. An advisory committee was appointed to control the park. Shortly afterwards the Natal Provincial Administration purchased the farm “Goodoo”, upon which a hostel had already been opened in 1913, and incorporated a small portion of the Upper Tugela Native Trust Land, thus swelling the National Park to its present 20 000 acres. The Advisory Committee was abolished in January 1942, and the park was administered by the Provincial Council until the formation of the Natal Parks, Game and Fish Preservation Board on the 22 December 1947.
Mr F. O. Williams held the first hostel lease rights on the farm Goodoo that he obtained from Mr W. O. Coventry, the original owner. Mr Coventry became lessee of the whole Park in 1919, and took over the post of Park Superintendent in August 1924 at the grand salary of £5 per month. In 1926 he was succeeded by Otto and Walter Zunkel, who each added their share of buildings and improvements. Mr Alan Short was the next Superintendent, and was in charge when the Royal Family visited the park .Queen Elizabeth II visited the park in 1947, five years before she became queen; since then, the national park and the (now closed) hotel are prefixed by the word ‘Royal’ in memory of this visit.
This leading KwaZulu-Natal nature reserve in South Africa offers wonderfully scenic views, lofty mountains and waterfalls in a prime location within the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park.
The Royal Natal National Park is the most popular of all the resorts in the Drakensberg, and although there are some good hikes outside the park, they don’t really compare with the sheer majesty of those within its boundaries.
The highlight of a visit to the park is the first view of the massive rock walls that form the Amphitheatre. The Eastern Buttress (3009 m) is the southernmost peak of the 4-km of cliff face, which arcs northwards towards the Sentinel (3165 m) forming an impressive barrier. On the plateau directly behind the Amphitheatre is Mont-aux-Sources (3299 m) named by French missionaries in 1836. This mountain is the source of five rivers: the Elands which flows into the Vaal; the Khudeda and the Singu leading into the Orange/ Gariep River in the Free State; and the Tugela and the Bilanjil which lead into Natal.
The most impressive of these is the Tugela which plunges over the edge of the Amphitheatre wall, dropping around 800 m through a series of five falls. The Thukela waterfall near the Sentinel (614m) is the 4th largest waterfall in the world. It flows to the Indian Ocean. The gorge created by the waters of the Tugela is a steep-sided tangle of boulders and trees which at a point near the Devil’s Tooth Gully has bored straight through the sandstone to form what appears to be a tunnel around 40 m long.
The Royal Natal National Park is home to a huge variety of flora. This is due to the 1500 m rise from the base and the many plateaus, cliffs and valleys, often with their own habitat. A large portion of the park is grasslands and the lower parts are protea savannah. Six antelope species occur plus the hyrax (klipdassie) and baboons. There are also mongoose, jackals and otters. However, these animals are shy and not easy to view. There are 200 species of birds including the very special bearded vulture and the black vulture.
Royal Natal National Park is renowned for its spectacular scenery and fabulous mountain trails which explore the heart of this KwaZulu-Natal nature reserve in South Africa.
At Royal Natal National Park in South Africa, visitors will discover exciting walking and Drakensberg hiking adventures, horse riding trails as well as opportunities for trout fishing, swimming, climbing and relaxing with a picnic on a KwaZulu-Natal holiday.
For those who just want to relish the clear mountain air and magnificent views, there are many scenic spots and places to swim in the clear mountain streams. Trout fishing at Royal Natal National Park is available in a dam and in the Mahai and Thukela (Tugela) rivers. The stables at Rugged Glen provide opportunities to ride into the mountains for unique landscape views and sightings of Mountain Reedbuck and Grey Rhebuck that seem to have no fear of people on horse back.
On a KwaZulu-Natal holiday at Royal Natal National Park, guests can see the Bearded Vulture (Lammergeyer) and Black Eagle riding thermals that rise above the Mont-aux-Sources plateau. Mont-aux-Sources, which means ‘mountain of sources’, is so named because several rivers begin their journeys here. The surrounding valleys and ridges offer wonderful walks through an ever changing landscape with many upland birds and flowers.
The most popular activity at Royal Natal National Park is undoubtedly hiking.
Hiking in Royal Natal National Park
There are over 130 km of walking trails around the Royal Natal National Park, many of which are easy half-day strolls. Even the hikes that don’t climb up to the top of the escarpment wind through beautiful countryside of grassland dotted with patches of yellowwood forest and proteas set against the stunning backdrop of the Amphitheatre. Soil erosion has increasingly become a problem as more and more hikers visit the park. In an attempt to control erosion some paths may be closed to hikers.
A comprehensive hiking guide for Royal Natal National Park can be purchased at the Thendele Camp Visitor Centre, and at the main entrance gate. The brochure has a map and shows the extensive network of hiking paths from the gentle walk to Fairy Glen to the challenging hike up the Crack and down the Mudslide.
Some of the best views in the whole of South Africa can be found.You can choose a tough walk of around 4-5 h to the Tugela Falls, if you are an experienced walker. An easier hike is to the Tiger Falls, a walk of about 3-4 hours. You have the chance to see eland, dik diks, klipdassies and baboons. There are also mongoose, jackals and otters but these animals are quite shy. There are 200 species of birds including the very special bearded vulture and the black vulture.
The so-called Otto’s walk is well suited for beginners or there is a trail that goes to the Tugela Gorge.
The walk up the Tugela Gorge is a 14-km round trip which begins at the car park below Tendele Camp. The path heads up the gorge and follows the Tugela River passing through shady patches of yellowwood forest. Higher up along the valley there are rock pools which are ideal for swimming in. After around 6 km at the entrance to the gorge there is a chain ladder; from here you can either wade through the gorge or climb up the ladder and walk along the top. There are magnificent views here of the Devil’s Tooth, the Eastern Buttress and Tugela Falls. Beware of heavy rain on this walk as flash flooding through the gorge is extremely dangerous.
The 20-km hike up to Mont-aux-Sources (3299 m) can be completed in a strenuous day’s walk. The path starts at Mahai Campsite and heads steadily uphill following the course of the Mahai River. The path climbs steeply around the eastern flank of the Sentinel (3165 m). Just after the Sentinel Caves is the notorious chain ladder, built in 1930, which takes you up a 30-m cliff face. Once on top, Mont-aux-Sources is only 3 km away and involves no more serious climbing. The views from the top of the escarpment are splendid as they stretch out over KwaZulu Natal. The hike up to Mont-aux-Sources is restricted to 100 people per day because it is so popular.
The 8-km trail to Cannibal Cave heads north from the road leading to Mahai Campsite. The route follows the Goldie River for 1 km before crossing over and following the ridge north again until it passes close to Sunday Falls. The path then rises over Surprise Ridge and on to the Cannibal Cave. The walks from the Rugged Glen Campsite are over rolling hills and although there are some good views of the Amphitheatre, they don’t compare with the hikes from the Thendele and Mahai camps.
Travelling by car, it is possible to visit the summit of Mont-aux-Sources in a day by driving around to the Sentinel car park at the end of the road and purchasing a permit en-route. This day trip is an extremely popular expedition but visitors are advised to take protective clothing as the high altitude weather is extremely unpredictable and can change very quickly.
The Central Drakensberg
Cathedral Peak area
The Cathedral Peak area is defined by a freestanding set of peaks extending from the escarpment
Cathedral Peak is the main point of access to some of the wildest areas of the central Drakensberg, and provides some of the most spectacular scenery for hikers. Driving into the area, the road passes traditional Zulu villages and dips through leafy valleys, with the views gradually opening up as you get closer to the park.
The park itself is ringed by dramatic peaks with views of the Cathedral Spur and Cathedral Peak (3004 m), the Inner and Outer Horns and the Bell. An alternative to hiking round the peaks is to drive up Mike’s Pass, suitable for saloon cars (although it says 4WD only), from where there are spectacular views of the Little Berg. The sheltered valleys in this area are thought to have been one of the last refuges of the San in the Drakensberg.
This is one of the best places to see a large number of San cave paintings found in the Drakensberg; the Rock Art Centre at Didima makes a good starting point. Leopard’s Cave and Poacher’s Cave in the Ndedema Gorge have especially good galleries of paintings.
An earlier name for Cathedral Peak was Zikhali’s Horn, named after Zikhali who escaped to Swaziland after his father was killed by Dingaan. During the years that he and his tribe spent in Swaziland they assimilated many aspects of Swazi culture.
Hiking in Cathedral Peak
The Cathedral Peak area is growing in popularity with hikers. There is a good network of paths heading up the Mlambonja Valley to the escarpment from where there are trails heading south to Monk’s Cowl and Injisuthi or heading north to Royal Natal National Park. The campsite at Mike’s Pass or the Cathedral Peak Hotel are good bases from which to set out exploring the area on a series of day walks.
Maps are available in the information office and show a number of walks. For keen hikers there are designated caves and mountain huts on the longer trails. The 10-km hike to the top of Cathedral Peak is one of the most exciting and strenuous hikes in this part of the Drakensberg, and the views from the top of the Drakensberg stretching out to the north and south are unforgettable.
Rock Art in Cathedral Peak
An excellent introduction to San rock art in the area is just past the entrance to the park, at the Rock Art Centre. A key thread in the museum is the eland, a vital aspect in San mythology and culture, with some life-size replicas in the entrance. The museum begins with an introduction to the culture and lifestyle of the San, with a look at archaeological finds, quotes from some of the last San descendants, and descriptions of the symbolic meaning of some of the most famous paintings.
At the back of the museum is a replica of an open-topped cny splendid paintings; more mysteriously, a San hunting kit was found here in the 1920s, which can now be seen at the Rock Art Centre.
What to expect: The Cathedral Peak area is a world of high mountains, massive rock buttresses, towering crags and pinnacles, deep clefts and valleys.