Settings of Sheer Magnificence
Some people run across the entire uKhahlamba-Drakensberg in a few days. Others prefer to hike this spectacular Drakensberg Traverse in a week. Some of us have even flown over the peaks in a helicopter, whilst others are still dreaming of ever getting to the ‘berg. However you choose to do it, this 230km stretch of mountain terrain, some 3000 metres high, is a veritable playground for any adventurer!
I remember hiking up to the plateau in the rain, and falling into a river with my backpack. Then getting snowed in for more than a day, in a cave with no warmth. But when the storm passed, and when we emerged from our peanut-littered tent, the mind-blowing view was golden and misty. And we could drink pure water at the source of the Tugela River!
Anyone can make their dreams a reality, not least a journey along the mighty Drakensberg. Add it to your South African bucket list holiday, it’s almost your duty to experience this place of true wilderness at least once in your lifetime.
And while you’re at it, remember to tiptoe into the foothills to listen for the whispers of history. Of Bushmen trance dances and clashing shields with swords. For the Bushmen were here first, surviving from day to day. Then the Zulu clashed with the Boers, the Boers with the English, the English with the Boers, and other tribes too had their own skirmishes.
Nowadays, mud huts and grazing cattle are present on hills that once echoed with the sounds of battle and the screams of dying men. Hundreds of caves and cliffs are adorned with authentic Bushmen rock art. KwaZulu-Natal’s complex history has made the province what it is today. And all the time, the dragon mountains are watching.
The Dragon Mountains
It seems to breathe, to be alive, even to move. This enormous dragon. From the days of dinosaurs to the dawn of the Iron Age. From the hunter gatherers to the farmers – and then along came the tourists. If you haven’t yet visited the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, you are missing an essential puzzle piece in your travels. In your search for you.
Even the names of its many peaks have their own stories to tell. Haunting auras of yesteryear:
Mount aux Sources, Sentinel Peak, Eastern Buttress, Cathedral Peak, Cathkin Peak, Champagne Castle, Monk’s Cowl, Injasuthi Dome, The Sterkhorn, Mafadi Peak, Thabana Ntlenyana, Giant’s Castle, Sani Pass and Bushmen’s Nek. Names that ring with power and grace.
Yes, look out for the endless spiny ridge of the dragon which traverses three provinces and forms the boundary between two countries. Look out for the long dragon tail which seems to bend and contort when the beast awakens. When you do decide to add this remarkable destination to your bucket list, you are in for a huge sensory experience.
Barrier of Spears
The early Afrikaners named the mountains the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains). But the Zulu people refer to the Drakensberg as uKhahlamba (Barrier of Spears). The apt name, therefore, for this incredible feat of nature is naturally uKhahlamba-Drakensberg… an awe-inspiring 240 000 hectares protecting endemic fauna and flora, cultural artefacts, water sources and more.
Get ready to be visually mind-boggled. A feast for sore eyes and a deafening silence. Listen to the call of the Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture. Sit beside bubbling cascades of fresh mountain streams. Taste the fresh air in your lungs. Go on, shout at the top of your voice! Breathe in the fragrance of dry grass, of wet mud and of everlasting flowers. Smell the perfection. It can be overwhelming.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Welcome to the home of the largest group of rock paintings in Southern Africa. Welcome to the home of the Bushmen who painted these artworks on sandstone cliffs and in caves. Discover stories of The Hunt, The Dance, The Gathering and The Eland. The paintings reveal how the San people lived in the area for nearly 4 000 years, their beliefs and their basic needs. Imagine going off to find over 30 000 beautiful rock art images in the mountains. It has been done and documented. For our heritage. It’s no wonder that the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000.
This mighty dragon keeps watch over the KwaZulu-Natal grasslands and rivers, the Lesotho watersheds and its rural simplicities, the Eastern Cape farms and horse trails, and the Free State sandstone cliffs with raptors that soar on thermals.
For many people, the Drakensberg mountains promise excellent hiking, climbing, camping and bird watching opportunities. For the San Bushmen who owned this realm many years ago, it was home. For you, it is an adventure waiting to happen.
Adventures in the great outdoors
Simply make the first move and book your holiday to this mountain paradise.
Horse riding, fishing, birding, wildlife photography, hiking, mountain climbing and ice climbing – the Drakensberg is an all-season destination where the serenity of seeing wild flowers in spring matches the adrenalin pumping thrill of climbing frozen waterfalls in winter. Even driving the Sani Pass is an experience in itself.
Spend nights in the lap of luxury in five-star hotels. Or choose quaint cottages in groves of trees and English country gardens. Escape to a village guest house or pitch your camp in the Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife nature reserves dotted all along the Drakensberg – where hikes begin and restaurants are open.
Did you know that the mountain range is the highest edge of an ancient plateau, the Great Escarpment? This covers most of the interior of South Africa, reaching into neighbouring countries.
From the very south …
Start in the southern reaches of the Dragon’s back left toe, in the sleepy town of Underberg. Have a beer (or 3) with the locals at the Himeville Arms who will regale you with stories of cattle hustling and car accidents on Sani Pass. Or stories of mule trekking up Bushmen’s Nek Pass, being snowed in and flooded out.
The southern Drakensberg is but an hour from Howick and the northern reaches are a mere 4 hours from Johannesburg. There are picture opportunities around every corner and when you first get a glimpse of the Royal Natal National Park Amphitheatre, you’ll be sold. A barrier of spears. For sure.
From Underberg, drive the road under the berg past Loteni to Kamberg Nature Reserve, tucked away behind the Giant and overlooking the Hlatikulu wetland. A place of huge silences, wild baboons and cranes, this valley is one of the best destinations to rejuvenate body and soul. Close to Mooi River and Nottingham Road, it is also not isolated – world class hotels serving nouvelle cuisine nestle quietly in huge gardens.
Farmers will entice you to the East Griqualand region, towards Kokstad, where enormous open spaces meet the sky and Wattled Cranes fly by. Cederville and Swartberg, Matatiele and Mount Currie are all regions so colloquial and local you will feel right at home in the pubs and cafés.
Listen to the chat about 4×4 trails, Iron Age relics and flying amongst cranes (all three species – Blue, Grey-Crowned and Wattled) in a gyrocopter. Fly fishing, mushroom picking and sheep shearing competitions – it is all happening here in the foothills of the southern Drakensberg.
… to the very north
End your journey in the northern reaches of the dragon’s right ear lobe, at Oliviershoek Pass and Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. Get into the mountains faster on horseback and seek out the incredible 948m high Tugela Falls, the source of the huge Tugela River that flows to the Indian Ocean. Interact with friendly Zulu people who’ll tell tales of Zulu wars and other tribal battles fought hundreds of years ago.
Blink and you’ll miss Witsieshoek – a tiny dot on the map but not to be bypassed by any roadtripper. Find it right at the foot of Sentinel Peak in the north, with breath-taking views out to Mont-Aux-Sources and the Amphitheatre. Then take the classic route to the central berg, via a narrow, tarred pass. See the blinding blue waters of Sterkfontein dam from your elevated road, then head to Bergville and Winterton for tea and scones.
A round of golf in the Champagne Valley or a spa treatment for relaxation’s sake. Buy some fresh herbs, ride a horse or simply go shopping for traditional Basutho blankets and vintage clothing. Watch falcons swoop at the Falcon Ridge Birds of Prey Centre or check inside the Winterton Museum for any links to your ancestors who may have been some of the first farmers in the area.
If you travel by car around Lesotho, you get the best taste of the Drakensberg. You see the tallest peaks and you hear the deepest peace. You taste the snow on your tongue and you meet the people of the three provinces bordering the Park: the many cultures living in KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State, Eastern Cape – and Lesotho, the mountain kingdom.
It is only if you need a boot load of groceries that you head into Estcourt, past Spioenkop Dam. Picnic in the nature reserve while zebra, giraffe and antelope graze peacefully nearby.
This region takes you into the setting of wars and battles, marking landmark dates in our history: the Anglo Zulu War, Zulu Civil War, Anglo Boer War, Rebellion of Langailibalele, Bhambatha Rebellion and more. But this is a whole new article and a whole new saga and an entire holiday on its own…
For now, focus on the Dragon Mountains and make sure you go and conquer the Barrier of Spears. In your dreams. It can be done!
Story by Janis Theron
Not a walk in the park
The Drakensberg Grand Traverse (DGT) is a 200-250km hike across the Drakensberg mountain range, South Africa, which takes most walkers about 14 days. There is no prescribed route or trail, but various checkpoints which include summits of the most significant Drakensberg peaks, all over 3000m. A popular course is to begin at the Sentinel Car Park in the northern Drakensberg and end at Bushmans Nek in the south. Some insist the DGT should be an unsupported hike, others go even further and call it a race, while others choose to take a much longer and slower trek. Whichever way, it is a thorough physical and mental challenge – don’t attempt it if you aren’t reasonably fit or prepared to carry a backpack for days on end.
WHO TO CONTACT
Drakensberg Tourism Association
Tel: +27 (0)36 448 1557
HOW TO GET HERE
The Drakensberg is served by good tarred roads and is easily accessible
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Summer or spring. Winters often see snow capping these mountains.
AROUND THE AREA
There is lots to see and do aside from walking and hiking. The Drakensberg Boys’ Choir performs at the Choir School in Champagne Valley. There’s game viewing on horseback at Spionkop Nature Reserve, horse riding, mountain biking, trout fishing and golf at the Champagne Sports Resort. This is a paradise for adventure lovers.
TOURS TO DO
Take a guided tour to the famous rock art sites of Didima Gorge or the Kamberg.
Drive to a site, then take a walking trail. There are countless to choose from.
WHAT WILL IT COST
Permits are required to access areas that fall under Parks Board protection. The fee is nominal and is used for maintenance costs.