Introduction to hiking in the Drakensberg
The Drakensberg has the largest conglomeration of day walks and longer hikes in South Africa and is also undoubtedly the most popular outdoor pursuit in this region.
A range of favourite hikes
There are several beautiful walking and hiking trails in the Drakensberg which mainly start from the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Camps, such as Giants Castle, Injisuthi, Monks Cowl, Cathedral Peak and Royal Natal. Some of our personal favourites are Crystal Falls and the Spinx; Nandi Falls together with the Sterkspruit Falls; Gray’s Pass; the Sunset Trail; Matterhorn, Injisuthi to Monks Cowl and the Blue Grotto, combined with the Fern Forest, Mnweni Pools, Main Cave in Giants Castle Nature Reserve and the Thukela Gorge Hike.
Grays Park Hike (Source: James Seymour and YouTube)
Googles Maps have loaded most of these hikes. Another useful application that can be used is “TrailGuide”, and a helpful website is drakensberghikes.com.
- Sterkspruit Falls. This easy walk starts at the Monks Cowl Camp of KZN Wildlife. It is marked and is roughly 4 km in length and 1.5 hours in duration. The highlight of this walk is the view of the spectacular Sterkspruit Falls.
Keartland’s Pass, Blind Man’s Corner, The Sphinx and Crystal Falls.
Moderate walk. Because this is a circular route with some uphills, it is described as mild to challenging. It is well marked. It starts at Monks Cowl Camp. Follow the signs to Keartland’s Pass and Nandi’s Falls. You will reach an intersection where the path splits to Nandi’s Falls and Keartland’s Pass.
Moreover, be careful to follow the path to Keartland’s Pass. The Keartaland’s Pass route intersects with the Contour Path. Turn right towards Blind Man’s Corner. Turn back at Blind Man’s corner and follow the Sphinx route to Monks Cowl. Alos en Route you will encounter the magnificent Crystal Falls. 11.5km and approximately 6 hours in duration.
- Nandi’s Falls. An easy walk from the Monks Cowl Camp. Well marked. 8km. 2.5 hrs.
- The Blue Grotto and Fern Forest. These hikes can be done separately. However, it is recommended that you combine the two into one walk. The Route is marked from the Drakensberg Sun Hotel. The hike can be described as easy to moderate. It is a hike of some 10km in length and 4 hours in duration. You will encounter two spectacular waterfalls and a crystal clear pool in the Blue Grotto. The Fern Forest is literally, a “fairy garden” of cascading streams and dense clumps of ferns. Remember to pay the relevant fee at the Drakensberg Sun activity centre and to fill out the register.
- Cleo’s Falls This hike starts at the Drakensberg Sun Activity Centre and is well marked. 7.5km. Just over 3 hours. Easy. The falls are in the Monks Cowl Reserve. This hike can also be approached from the Berghaven side of this area as well.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done”.- Nelson Mandela.
The hike up Gray’s Pass is one of the more accessible routes to experience the wonder of the Drakensberg escarpment and observe the rugged beauty of some of its most prominent peaks. Moreover, it is one of the best routes to reach the plateau of ‘Champagne Castle.’ However, it is a hike that should not be underestimated. It is a moderate to strenuous hike of some 40 km in total, particularly if a hiker intends to explore the top section and walking across to the top of the ‘Champagne Castle plateau.’
The author recommends that three days be devoted to enjoying this hike. The first day should be used to reach the ‘base camp’ of ‘Keith’s Bush. Keith’s Bush is an ideal camping spot next to the Mhlawazini River. The second day should be devoted to climbing and descending ‘Gray’s Pass’. This pass is a strenuous section of the hike, with some treacherous areas with steep drops. The gradient of this pass is some 800 metres. This ascent is similar to the height of Table Mountain! The last part is made up of loose boulders. Approach this section slowly and cautiously. The top of Gray’s Pass is some 3,100 metres. The coordinates of Gray’s Pass are -29.071650, 29.323083.
The views from ‘Grays Pass’ are spectacular with unrivalled views of Monks Cowl, Cathkin Peak, Sterkhorn and the Amplet. Furthermore, the sight of the Dragon’s Back and ‘Gatberg’ are impressive. However, what makes this particular route unique is that the cliff faces of Champagne Castle and the area in its immediate vicinity contain ‘nesting holes’ for a significant number of Cape Vultures and the rare ‘Lammergeyer’ or Bearded Vulture.
The final day of the hike is the return to ‘Monks Cowl Camp’.
The hike starts at Monks Cowl Camp. Remember to complete the mountain register and to indicate that you will be away for at least two nights. Take the route to the Sphinx and then on to the contour path to Blind Mans Corner. Keep to the left of the cairn which marks Blinds Man Corner and keep left onto the trail to Hlatikulu Nek. At the base of Hlatikulu Nek, turn left to enter the valley of the Mhlawazini River River. This area is also referred to as Champagne Valley or Monks Cowl Valley. You then hike to the base of Gray’s Pass, where you will find Keith Bush Camp alongside the Mhlawazini River. You will return similarly.
Injisuthi to Monks Cowl
This hike is strenuous. Moreover, It is approximately 21km in extent and takes over six and a half hours to complete Start early, around 06h30, and you should reach Monks Cowl before 16h00. It is a hike that provides spectacular views of Shada Ridge, Champagne Castle, Cathkin Peak and Sterkhorn, amongst other peaks and ridges.
You will need to get a friend to drop you off at the Injisuthi Camp and to collect you at Monks Cowl Camp. The walk starts from the main office, and you need to head in the direction of Van Heynigens Pass. You will walk between Chalets Three and Four.
The walk-up Van Heynigens Pass is tiring, but it is worth it when you reach the top, and you can walk across to the viewing point. The views of Red Wall, the Greater Injisuthi Buttress, Cathkin Peak, Monks Cowl and Ship’s Prow are particular. You then need to return to the main contour path and turn right to walk along Shada Ridge to Blind Man’s corner. At Blind Man’s Corner, you turn right down the contour path to either go down the Sphinx Route or Keartland’s Pass to reach the Monks Cowl Camp.
Mnweni Pools, Mnweni area.
The Mnweni area is a traditional tribal area in the Northern Drakensberg. Access this region from Bergville. The local community have set up a unique cultural centre with accommodation and guides who have been trained to take groups of hikers on the many trails in this area. The Mnweni is one of the most ruggedly beautiful regions of the Drakensberg and contains peaks of the like of the Mnweni Needles and the Saddle.
One of the most popular hikes in this area is the day hike to the crystal clear and turquoise coloured Mnweni Pools. Hire a guide to take you on this trail. The duration of this hike is some five hours, and its distance is approximately 13 kilometres. The walk starts and ends at the Mnweni Cultural Centre. It is essential that you pay to do this hike at this facility and that you complete the mountain register.
Sterkhorn or Mount Memory
This is a peak of some 2,973m and one of the most strenuous hikes in the Drakensberg. This hike can be completed in a day or some seven hours. However, you need to be very fit to do so. It is more pleasant to do this hike over a period of two days.
The trail starts at the Monks Cowl Camp. Follow the route to The Sphinx, Breakfast Stream and Blindman’s Corner. You turn left at Blindman’s corner and follow the route to Injisuthi. The turnoff to Sterkhorn is relatively close to Blindman’s Corner.
You will notice a small forest at this point. This is an ideal camping site, as it is close to a stream. This is also the perfect spot to hide an overnight rucksack and to proceed with a day pack.
You will note that the path has a very steep gradient. Eventually, you will reach a narrow ledge. It is recommended you then use an anchored rope and harness to proceed. The drop is considerable.
Once you have moves past this obstacle, you will ascend again along a narrow path. You come across a cave. Exit the cave vertically. You will then reach a safe platform. The final stretch is a scramble up a path until you reach a cairn and white cross
Cayley Mountain Resort to Bell Peak
This is a pleasant hike of some four hours. An easy hike of some four hours. The walk starts at Cayley Lodge and skirts the edges of the AmaSwazi community.
The hike is very peaceful, and you have lovely distant views of the AmaSwazi community going about a simple existence. A notable highlight of this hike is that you pass a critical San Rock art site with some magnificent frescos.
Finally, after a steep scramble, you reach the top of the “Kop”. Undoubtedly worth it but you will need a rock art custodian to appreciate the rock art.
Mushroom Rock is one of the most popular hikes in the Cathedral Peak area. The walk starts at the back end of the Cathedral Peak Hotel. The total distance of this is just over 5km. However, the gradient of the hike is steep. Regarded as a result, as a strenuous walk. The views along the way are magnificent.
Other walks in the vicinity of Cathedral Peak Hotel
Rainbow Gorge. This trail starts at Cathedral Peak or Didima Camp. The duration of the
walk is some 5 hours depending on your starting point. Its grade is moderate. This hike is
renowned for its lush forest and pools experience. The trail is well marked.
Doreen Falls. This easy hike starts at the Cathedral Peak Hotel. It is 4km in length and the
total duration is some 2 hours.
Baboon Rock. The start of this walk is the Cathedral Peak Hotel. It is a moderate hike of
some 8km and a total duration of 4 hours.
“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb” –
Thukela Gorge Hike
This hike is a moderate hike of some 14 km. The duration is some 5 hours. Start the hike at the Gorge parking site, which is just below the Thendele Campsite.
Follow the well-worn path until you reach the mouth of the gorge. Here you will need to do a bit of boulder hopping and the odd swim through a pool or two until you reach the end of the gorge.
When you return turn up the little valley leading towards Devil’s tooth for about three hundred metres. There is a path that takes you up to a spectacular rock overhang and viewing site of the Amphitheatre and the Thukela Falls.
Some key tips to consider when taking a walk or longer hike
- Firstly, sign the mountain rescue register;
- Secondly, wear sturdy leather boots and carry a walking pole;
- Thirdly, wear a light rucksack even in the case of a walk;
- Also, ensure it contains food items for at least one day, warm clothing and a poncho (the weather in the Berg can change suddenly), sufficient water, a small medical aid kit, a cell phone, map, torch and a box of matches;
- Moreover, in case you encounter a bushfire try to get as quickly as possible to a small grove of trees or light a fire break around you. At worst run directly through the fire and roll;
- If caught in a lightning storm, urgently head for a forest. At worst squat over a piece of insulating material and ideally cover yourself with a poncho or raincoat. Discard any metal items and leave your backpack a distance from you. Do not lie down or stand under an isolated tree; and
- Lastly, walk in a group of at least three persons.