5 years ago

Onto the Dragon’s Back | Drakensberg, South Africa

Just west of the road between Johannesburg and Durban, and bordering the landlocked nation of Lesotho, is one of South Africa’s most stunning areas, the Drakensberg mountain range. Expansive yellow and green landscapes, from farmland to forests, are set against a truly magnificent backdrop of jagged peaks and plateaus. Great hikes abound and there is a rich history, too, as the area is dense with San cave paintings dating back millennia. The Drakensberg is a UNESCO World Heritage site for great reason. Only a short road trip away from Jozi (5 hours) or Durban (3 hours), and enjoyable on most budgets, I visited on a couple of occasions.

While I wish I could’ve spent more time there and gone on some overnight hikes, I simply wasn’t prepared for camping in snowy conditions at 3000 meters. When you’re living out of a 50 liter REI bag, there’s only so much you can get in there, and my limited layers and 3-season tent wouldn’t have cut it. Having the world’s biggest toiletry kit likely doesn’t help, but exfoliating, moisturizing, and smelling good weren’t things I was willing to give up for another piece of clothing.

It was a good thing I was realistic about my limitations, as the nights I spent at the picturesque Didima campsite, near Cathedral Peak in the central Drakensberg, were rather crisp. One the flip side, it made for cool, comfortable days in a fleece.  The Cathedral Peak & Amphitheatre trails I did were fantastic, and I was eternally thankful that KZN Wildlife didn’t have the same lame 2-or-3 hiker minimum policy that shut me out of some fun hikes at a pair of South Africa National Parks.

Didima Campsite, Drakensberg Mountains

Cathedral Peak (Central Drakensberg)

This was my first stop in the Drakensberg after a long weekend in Durban, and it did not disappoint. I was the only one at the Didima campsite, which was desolately creepy at times, but worked out fine. The campsite was clean, and just a short walk from the main camp, where there are unique huts, along with a restaurant, pool, and a conference center where I borrowed wifi. It’s also where you put down your details & plan into a log, in case they need to send search & rescue for you.

The landscape and weather on this one made me feel like a Hobbit, and I really enjoyed the spring reds and yellows, as well as the light spray reminiscent of Seattle. Higher up, they warned of the quick-moving fog and they weren’t exaggerating. Your visibility can change significantly in seconds. This happened a few times at the top. As I started seeing bigger and bigger patches of snow, I realized it would not be a good idea to use the chains and go all the way to the peak, so I came just short of that, but enjoyed myself thoroughly anyhow.

Near the main camp there is also a Rock Art Interpretation center. Unfortunately, its run on an African schedule, like many places on this continent. This meant that despite its posted hours of operation, it was not open both times I went. There is, however, I tiny spa next to it where $3 USD ensures you don’t look like Anthony Davis. In lieu of learning about rock art, I did the latter.

After a couple of nights here, I packed up camp and headed north. As I was leaving Didima, a glance at my rearview mirror made me come to a complete stop. I Sparta-parked on the two-lane road, grabbed my camera, and smiled and waved as I walked up to this crew. It’s one of my favorite shots from the trip.

The Amphitheatre (Northern Drakensberg)

Amphitheatre hike, Drakensberg

With no campsites nearby, I made the right choice staying at Karma Backpackers, about an hour drive from the trailhead. Homey atmosphere, quiet, and an attentive staff were the beginning. The homemade jams you could sample were very, very good and unlike any I’d ever had before. I ended up buying a couple of small jars of chunky orange and whiskey marmalade & black cherry and brandy jam. With ingredients like that, picked right from their garden, how could I not?

The day of my hike, I decided that risking damage to my rental car was not worth saving a few kilometers. So, I got off the very crappy road to the trailhead and parked at the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. Then I took the wrong trail for about 90 minutes, but eventually got on the right path.

I feared that the staff at the gate would stop me from climbing solo, but it didn’t happen. After presenting Wild Card – one of the best purchases I made for this trip – and signing in, I was just told to be careful & come down no later than 3:30 pm, in order to make it back before sundown.

Fast-forward to sundown and I was glad I had a headlamp. Taking my sweet time at the top left me with no light the last 500 meters of my descent.

I made the ascent quickly, save for the ladders which were quite fun. Once at the top, I slowed it down and made lunch on the banks of the slow-flowing stream.  After eating and writing some postcards, I followed it all the way to the edge. It became Tugela Falls there, the 2nd tallest in the world.

The next day, I paid it forward and hooked my drunk Zutu friend with a ride, too. I didn’t know he was inebriated when I slowed down to pick him up, but quickly figured it out. The carton he had in his hand was not milk, but sorghum beer. It’s an odor that stings the nostrils, and I asked him to put it away (it was 10 am). Of course, he fumbled it and spilled quite a bit on the seat and floorboard. The pungent smell stayed with me all the way to Johannesburg, long after I’d dropped him off.

Me & my drunken Zutu hitchhiker
Ah, good times. Bad smells.
Main Caves (Northern Drakensberg)

My second foray to the area was a good one, too, despite a couple of hiccups. When you book a B & B and they don’t open the damn door at night, it puts a wrench in things. More African schedule conflicts at the Kamberg Rock Art Center also meant getting shut out on a tour there. But eventually, my fellow American and I found a place to stay and a place to see San rock art.

The Main Caves is where we got a glimpse of the famous paintings, by way of a short group tour. Again, the area was quite beautiful and the warm weather made for a pleasant 30 minute walk to the site.

The guide provided little insight due to his limited English, but it was cool to see the famed, ancient paintings made by hallucinating shamans.

Golden Gate Highlands (Northern Drakensberg)

After getting shut out of a 2nd hike to the top of the Amphitheatre due to high winds, plan B turned out to be great.

Golden Gate Highlands, a small, quiet National Park lacks the big game of many other parks, but its setting makes up for it. I finally saw the biggest of the antelope in Africa, the Eland, here. It was held in high regard by the San and featured in much of their artwork.

 

By sheer luck we also stumbled upon the tiny town of Clarens while on a mission to find food. It was unlike anything I’d seen in Africa, very much a tourist town, but enjoyable. Especially because they had a craft brewery; the only place that was willing to sell us beer to go due to the blue laws. It was a big, big win after being declined at several places. They make a decent IPA, too.

I only scratched the surface, but the Drakensberg was certainly worthy of all the praise and even exceeded expectations. Kruger, the Garden Route, and Cape Town get a lot of love, and rightfully so.  But this place is right up there, too. Anyone who enjoys the outdoors should put it on their list when in South Africa.

And anyone young-at-heart will appreciate seeing these signs everywhere.

Pounding Zone, Drakensberg

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