The Drakensberg is a truly spectacular region. The iconic mountain range, also known as Ukhahlamba or 'barrier of spears' in isiZulu, is incorporated into the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg National Park which is recognised as a World Heritage Site.
With peaks that soar to over 3000 metres, the mountain range stretches over some 200 kilometres which is just one of the reasons it is an outdoor enthusiasts paradise. There's also the spectacular scenery, beautiful wildlife and vegetation, rivers, waterfalls and picture perfect vistas at every turn. Green and lush in the summer months, and often covered in snow in winter the Drakensberg is as diverse as it is captivating.
There is so much to 'the Berg' (as it's known by locals) that the thought of planning a visit can be somewhat overwhelming, and distances are vast. Here we give you a breakdown of the three main regions, where to stay in each, and a taster of some of the hiking trails waiting to be discovered.
As with all hiking it is important to be prepared, to know your route and to take along all of the necessary provisions. Some of the hikes require permits and/or park entry fees. If you are not a seasoned hiker, or you are new to the area, perhaps look into one of the many guided hike options on offer, or ask for advice at your hotel or guesthouse.
Central Drakensberg (incorporating Winterton, Champagne Castle, Monks Cowl & Giants Castle)
The central Drakensberg is also known as the Champagne Valley where waterfalls, rock pools and lush scenery are aplenty. It consists of three impressive peaks - Monk's Cowl, Cathkin and Champagne Castle, while the spire-like Cathedral Peak can be reached via the town of Winterton.
In the Cathedral Peaks area, the popular and very picturesque Rainbow Gorge trail is a moderate hike that takes about 2-hours to complete. The route starts at Didima Camp, travels along the foot of Tryme Hill and then through the yellowwood forest to the Ndumeni River Gorge. As you follow the gorge past waterfalls and rock pools you'll be treated to the sight of rainbows glistening in the spray.
If you are super fit, then you may want to challenge yourself by hiking to the top of Cathedral Peak. The strenuous hike will take about 7-hours and can be started at the Cathedral Peak Hotel. Plenty of rock scrambling is required towards the end as you reach the summit.
From Monks Cowl there are relatively easy hikes leading to the Sterkspruit Falls, Crystal Falls and The Sphinx. You will be rewarded with beautiful views and crystal clear rock pools to swim in.
The area surrounding Giants Castle is filled with many caves containing ancient San rock art. The most impressive display is probably at Main Cave where you can also visit the Main Caves Museum. Also worth noting is the relatively easy 2-hour round trip to Berg View, and the 4-hour round trip to World's View - both offering spectacular views. Giants Castle is also popular with bird enthusiasts and the popular Vulture Hide is the perfect spot to observe the Bearded Vulture.
1. Cathedral Peak Hotel
2. Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse
3. Gooderson Monks Cowl Golf Resort
4. Antbear Guesthouse
5. Berghaven Cottages
6. Champagne Castle Hotel
Northern Drakensberg (incorporates Bergville & Royal Natal Park)
The Northern Drakensberg, which includes the Royal Natal Park, is best known for the instantly recognisable and much photographed Amphitheatre - a 4km wall of sheer cliffs soaring 1000m. There is an excellent network of graded walks within the park catering to a range of fitness levels.
A hike to the summit of Mont-aux-Sources from the Sentinel car park is the only hike in the Drakensberg that leads to the top of the escarpment and back down in just one day. The 5-hour (round trip) walk to the top of the Amphitheatre will reward you with spectacular views of Tugela Falls. The final ascent is made via a 100-rung chain ladder.
The Tugela Falls are the second highest falls in the world and can be reached on the Gorge Walk which starts at Royal Natal National Park and winds through indigenous forest to the base of the falls. The hike is along an easy gradient and is a round trip of about 7km. The final stretch requires some boulder hopping and ascending a small chain ladder to be greeted by the spectacular sight of the Tugela Falls cascading down the Amphitheatre.
1. Alpine Heath Resort
2. Montusi Mountain Lodge
3. Berghouse & Cottages
4. Sandford Park Country Hotel
Southern Drakensberg (including Himeville, Underberg & Sani Pass)
The southern Drakesnberg is perhaps best known for the Sani Pass which follows the Mkomazana River all the way up to the border with Lesotho. This southernmost section of 'the berg' is accessed via the villages of Himeville and Underberg. The peaks in this section of the mountain are not as high as further north, but the low-lying valleys make for beautiful walks and rambles and it is a fly fishing paradise with richly stocked rivers.
The popular Giants Cup Trail is a 5-day hike that starts at Sani Pass and ends at Bushman's Nek. Days are a maximum of 12km long and the route is well marked. Nights are spent in hiking huts. Bookings are essential and can be made through KZN Wildlife.
For the extremely adventurous, the route to the summit of Sani Pass is a gruelling 8km hike each way and is definitely not for the fainthearted. Passports are essential to cross the Lesotho border.
1. Moorcroft Manor
2. Mkomazana Mountain Cottages
3. Pennygum Country Cottages
4. Amazian Mountain River Lodge
5. Umzimkulu River Lodge