Hiking in South Africa in the Drakensberg

For various reasons, people often tend to travel away from where they are from. Perhaps we take for granted what’s on our doorstep, thinking we will always be able to visit, or maybe we think we ‘know’ where we are from and there is more to see abroad. I’m guilty of this too and while I have been fortunate to visit a fair amount of South Africa, I had only visited the Drakensberg once before – and only for a weekend.

The Drakensberg is an escarpment that stretches for over 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from the south to the north of the country. It’s highest peaks, and where it is most ‘prominent’, is in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal where it borders Lesotho, and here it is divided into three areas – south, north and central. Unlike our hiking in Tanzania in December, it is very affordable to hike in the Drakensberg as there are no park fees, it’s easy to hike independently and one can camp from under US$10 / person / night.

There are heaps of accommodation options available but thankfully we had a recommendation from a good friend of Didima Camp in the central Drakensberg. This was a super recommendation and with an unbeatable location at the foot of Cathedral Peak and offering cheap camping, superb facilities as well as a pool and tennis courts I can happily recommend to others.

Whilst Catherine and I were camping, my mom and sister were staying in one of the self-catering chalets while there is also a restaurant should you not wish to cook – lots of options depending on your preference and budget. (We stopped at Harrismith, roughly an hour away, to stock up on supplies).

There is also a huge array of walking options – from gentle short walks to full day hikes as well as multi-day treks – with guides available near reception (though we didn’t use one, we were quoted around $30/day). The terrain is also nice and varied – there are a number of 3,000m peaks to summit, smaller hills to climb,  gorges and valleys to walk through as well as forests  to explore and natural pools to swim in. If you’re planning on a full day hike, be sure to leave as early as possible as the weather gets very hot and the clouds also tend to come in during the afternoon.

On our first full day we headed to Rainbow Gorge, an undulating four hour return walk from camp that took us through a lush forest. The path begins pretty much from the camp reception so is super easy to do and our destination was a ‘hanging boulder’ – a large chalkstone wedged between the walls of the gorge.

Aside from the snake we encountered in our first few minutes, we thoroughly enjoyed this walk and found it relatively easy to do on our own with my only piece of advice being to stay high and not to enter the gorge until you physically have to (we entered too early and thus had to wade through water and bolder hop for a bit before getting back on track).

The next day we left nice and early and headed up Tryme Hill, which starts on the same path as the Rainbow Gorge hike. There are two ways up and we opted for the steeper shorter route over the zigzagging path. From the flat top at 1,800m we enjoyed our breakfast with a spectacular 360 degree view as our backdrop. Excluding breakfast, the hike took us around four hours.

 

View from atop Tryme Hill
View from atop Tryme Hill

After lunch back at camp, we drove to the nearby Cathedral Peak Hotel and headed to Doreen Falls for a refreshing afternoon swim. It’s a gentle two hour walk from the hotel and a good way to end the day.

Making our way back from Doreen Falls
Making our way back from Doreen Falls

After a day in Durban to see my gran and a very dear family friend, we decided to visit a different part of the ‘Berg’ and headed for the Champagne Valley, which was no more than an hour’s drive from camp. There are a number of walks that leave from the Drakensberg Sun hotel and we opted for one that took us to another set of pools and through a fern forest.  It was an extremely well-marked and gentle walk that took just under three hours. En route back to camp along the main road (R600), we stopped at a lovely roadside café called Scrumpy Jacks where we tried their supposedly world-famous honey cheesecake. It certainly didn’t disappoint! Speaking of food, one of the highlights of heading back to South Africa is always eating and there was certainly no shortage of chocolates and biscuits.

Beautiful spot for a game of Rummikub!
Beautiful spot for a game of Rummikub!

Finally, it was so good spending time with Catherine and my family. Living in London means I don’t see them often enough and it was so special to be together. I was also very chuffed Catherine was able to see a new part of the country and I have no doubt we’ll be back. It’s not only beautiful but incredibly relaxing and peaceful and I’m excited to explore a little more and climb a few peaks when we next visit.

Practical Information

Getting there – It was a four hour drive from Johannesburg while Durban is three hours away. Should you not have your own car, there’s an awesome hop-on hop-off bus service available – for more information, visit the Baz Bus website.

Accommodation – We stayed at Didima Camp, which I will happily recommend to others.

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