A Detailed Overview of the Drakensberg
'Wonderland Far Above The Madding Crowd'
Best known of all the Berg sectors is arguably the northernmost Royal Natal and adjacent summit area its regal prefix bestowed after the 1947 visit of Britain's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Blessed with some of the most spectacular scenery in all of Africa, Royal Natal's backdrop is the world-famous, much photographed and painted Amphitheatre - a crescent of 1 000m sheer basalt cliffs. This massive wall stretches 4 kilometres between the Sentinel (3 165m) and Eastern Buttress (3 047m), with a number of domes rising from its relatively flat summit plateau. In 1836, the French missionaries Arbousset and Daumas named the largest of these domes Mont-aux-Sources - a literal description of this source of five rivers. Of these, the Thukela plummets 948m in five clear leaps, making it the world's second highest waterfall. The Thukela Falls' upper reaches occasionally freeze in winter to create dazzling columns of ice. And just to confound weather experts it is not unheard of for the Berg to turn on a White Christmas in the middle of our sub-tropical summer! Royal Natal is ideal for hiking, with a superb network of graded walks catering for all levels of fitness and agility. And while the summit of Mont-aux-Sources can be reached by walking from the summit plateau and scaling a 100-rung chain ladder, if this seems like child's play you're always invited to join the annual Mont-aux- Sources Challenge, when men and women of iron turn the mountain into a cross-country steeple-chase of epic proportions!
All free-standing peaks in the region demand some degree of rock- climbing skill and the use of ropes. Most prominent of these are the aforementioned Eastern Buttress and Sentinel (the first- ever climbed in the northern Berg), plus the Inner Tower and Devil's Tooth, one of the most recent peaks to be climbed. A number of easily accessible rock shelters are bedecked with San rock paintings and, as such, may NOT be used for overnight purposes. A high ridge where the Protea Nubigena is known to occur remains the only place on earth to be graced with this rare sight. Threatened species are among the game and birdlife that abound both in the higher reaches and among the forests and numerous waterfalls below the Amphitheatre. In the lower reaches trout fishing, horse riding and swimming are popular diversions, along with shopping for that authentic piece of Africana you've always dreamed of!
KZN Wildlife offers a wide range of accommodation within Royal Natal from the luxury lodge, chalets and cottages of Tendele Hutted Camp to the camping grounds at Mahai. There are also privately managed resorts, hotels and chalets within and around Royal Natal. The northern Berg is accessed via the historic settlements of Bergville and Winterton.
Devil's Tooth, Inner Tower -3 Witches. Photo: G. Stewart
South of Royal Natal is a permanently inhabited farming and grazing area not included in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site, although the villagers are deriving benefits from the social- upliftment efforts of KZN Wildlife's Community Conservation Programme. This relatively inaccessible yet varied and spectacular area comprising the Singati, Mnweni and Ntonjelana Valleys is traversed by fewer hikers, due largely to a lack of overnight accommodation in the foothills. There are caves in the summit area for serious climbers - most of the peaks demand expertise and ropes but these are exposed to the elements and difficult to locate in adverse weather. Tents should be considered as more than 'optional extras'.
World Heritage Site status resumes with the easily reached and very popular Mlambonja Wilderness Area. Approached from Winterton, the spire-like Cathedral Peak is an instantly-recognisable and dominant feature among a line of free-standing peaks marching 4km from the escarpment edge. This so-called 'Cathedral Ridge' is most distinctive in that it runs perpendicular to the main range. The convenient Mike's Pass allows vehicular access to the crest of the Little Berg south of Cathedral, thereby shortening the distance to access slopes leading up passes such as Organ Pipes to the very top of the escarpment. Ascending Cathedral Peak itself is a fairly lengthy, rocky scramble that usually requires no rope work - unlike the Pyramid and the Column - although the latter's 300m sheer rock face was first conquered solo and without ropes by George Thompson - one of the classic tales of Berg mountaineering. Cleft Peak, the Ndumeni and Ndedema domes, Little Saddle, Sugarloaf and Witch Peak each fall into the more amateur-friendly category of climbs.
While much of Mlambonja Wilderness Area is dotted with caves containing rock art of the highest quality, the gorge below Ndedema dome has one of the richest concentrations. Hikers may NOT, though, shelter overnight in ANY caves housing these threatened treasures. Summit caves are available, but will likely present hikers and climbers with long walks for water during the dry season. Reaching the summit plateau via the Bell-Twins Traverse presents spectacular views, but is the longest of the various routes, not clearly defined, and therefore beyond the scope of hikers with little experience. Visitors can gain valuable insights into the Berg's crucial ecological importance at the Cathedral Peak Education Centre. KZN Wildlife runs a camping ground nearby.
Approaching the central Drakensberg sees Estcourt and Mooi River added to the list of access towns each with its own character, charm and local attractions. Accommodation and tourist facilities aplenty await at the Mdedelelo Wilderness Area, named after 'he who cannot be overcome' - the imposing, sheer-faced and flat-topped block known in English as Cathkin Peak. The Zulu name is not entirely accurate, but ascending Cathkin Peak does demand well-honed rock-climbing skills. Adjacent to Cathkin Peak on its northern side is Mount Memory and a large cross honouring those who died in the Second World War. Between Cathkin Peak and the escarpment, Monk's Cowl presents one of the most difficult climbs in all the Berg. This area also includes the notorious Ship's Prow pass, its southern fork (3 300m) the highest summit of all Berg passes and northern fork listed as 'severe - not recommended'. Several smaller free-standing peaks beckon would-be adventurers with less-daunting challenges the easiest climbs being Eastman's Peak, the Litter and Intunja, a Zulu name describing the hole large enough for a herd-boy to climb through. Several herd-boys could, in fact, pass through this 'eye of a needle'! Champagne Castle (3 248m) is attached to the main escarpment and can be ascended by walking from the summit plateau. Champagne Valley, meanwhile, is home to the internationally-renowned Drakensberg Boys Choir, whose three decades of mountain-top public performances have reached legendary status.
Most of the caves within the Mdedelelo Wilderness Area are rather inaccessible or overexposed to weather extremes, but KZN Wildlife's campsite at Monk's Cowl is conveniently situated and privately-run establishments are in great abundance. Giant's Castle was originally proclaimed a protected area in 1904 and the peak that gave the region its name is one of the most conspicuous and recognisable of all within the World Heritage Site. The Giant, as it is popularly known, can be conquered by walking and scrambling up Giant's Castle Pass or taking one of several rock-climbing routes to the summit. Mafadi (3 446m) and the Injasuti Dome (3 379m) are the two highest points in South Africa, while Makheka, at 3 461 metres, is the second highest point in all of southern Africa. These free- standing peaks all demand above-average climbing skills. Also prominent within Giant's Castle are three long, unbroken rock walls Red Wall, Trojan Wall and Long Wall, plus the passes that were dynamited during the 19th century to prevent San Bushmen from launching cattle raids against white settlers in the valleys below. Most Giant's Castle caves contain San art (and thus may not be used for overnight shelter), but the highlight is undoubtedly the Main Caves' Museum, where audio-visual and standing displays depict the 'home life' of these tragic nomads. This sector is probably also the best for game and bird watching, and along with the protected rock paintings, many of the World Heritage Site's threatened treasures are found here. These include rare birds of prey whose eating habits can be studied at the Vulture's Restaurant while trout streams provide visitors with the opportunity of catching their own free lunch!
Numerous well-maintained hiking routes traverse the valleys of Giant's Castle, and KZN Wildlife operates accommodation facilities in each of the three main areas - chalets and cabins at Injasuti in the north, and campsites at Hillside in the east plus the Main Camp to the south.
With access via picturesque settlements at both Rosetta and Nottingham Road the Mkhomazi Wilderness Area presents less spectacular free-standing peaks such as Redi, the Hawk and the Tent, but the soaring buttresses are as impressive as anywhere else along the escarpment. The highest peak south of Kilimanjaro, Thaba Ntlenyama (3 482m), is clearly visible towering above the Kingdom of Lesotho to the west. Trout fishing and hatcheries are major attractions, particularly among the beautiful foothills of the Kamberg section, where self-guided trails include one specifically tailored for handicapped visitors. Kamberg is the pioneering hub of small tourism ventures in this region. Two environmental education centres are appropriately situated within easy access of a wetland conservancy for Blue, Wattled and Crowned Cranes. Further learning experiences await at the Loteni Museum dedicated chiefly to the district's first European settlers. Privately-run resorts, hotels and guest houses are found outside the protected area, while KZN Wildlife offers chalets, cottages, huts and camping facilities within its boundaries at Kamberg, Loteni and Highmoor. South of Mkhomazi Wilderness Area is the rugged beauty of Sani Pass, where the road winds up an increasingly narrow V-shaped valley flanked by towering buttresses. This is the only eastern road access to Lesotho, but 4- wheel drives are necessary to proceed beyond the South African border post. The summit can be reached on foot - a 6km walk gaining 1 000m in altitude.
Sani Pass is approached from the twin villages of Himeville and Underberg, as is the southernmost sector of the World Heritage Site, the Mzimkhulu Wilderness Area. Here the basalt rock-faces are not as high as further north, but the escarpment buttresses and peaks are exaggerated by low-lying valleys between them. Most prominent of these peaks are The Rhino - a relatively easy walk but also offering several challenging rock climbs - and Mlambonja, Wilson's, Walker's, Mashai and Thaba-Ngwangwe all above 3 000m. There still remain unconquered pinnacles for potential history-makers to stake their claim! Useful caves are dotted throughout all altitudes but, as usual, those adorned with rock paintings are off-limits for overnight shelter. The popular Giant's Cup Hiking Trail meanders between Sani Pass and Bushman's Nek, coursing parallel to the escarpment. It is also possible to cross into the adjoining Sehlabathebe National Park, but as it lies within Lesotho, visitors should carry valid passports. In addition to rustic mountain huts in the vicinities of Cobham, Garden Castle and Bushman's Nek, KZN Wildlife runs a well-appointed campsite at Cobham with direct access to the Giant's Cup trail.
The southern Drakensberg is a paradise for fly-fishermen, golfers, water sport enthusiasts, equestrians and polo players, mountain- bikers, bird-watchers and botanists. Hotels in the immediate surrounds of the Mzimkhulu Wilderness Area are complemented by the abundance of lodges, cottages, cabins and guest houses dotting the wonderful high landscape around Himeville and Underberg. From north to south, the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park and World Heritage Site is filled with the promise of wild, natural beauty and inspiring delights where traffic snarls, computer viruses, politics and pollution have no sway. This last haven of an uncontrived people who lived close to the earth remains a veritable refuge for all that lives and we are proud to be the custodians of this globally crucial treasure. So join us in the rarefied air of the Zulu Kingdom's elevated reaches - we look forward to sharing with you our expertise, enthusiasm and dedication plus all the life-enhancing mystique of this truly spellbinding wonderland!