South Africa Adventures’ guide to the 5 best hiking areas of the Northern Drakensberg
Are you looking at a hiking trip in the Drakensberg Mountains but have no idea where to begin?
It’s no wonder you may be overwhelmed. These incredible and majestic mountains extend for over 200km from what is known as the Northern to Southern Drakensberg regions. So yes, it can be pretty overwhelming when deciding what part of the Drakensberg best suites your hiking needs.
So where would the best areas be to go hiking in the Drakensberg?
As mentioned the “Berg” as it is referred to by the locals is basically divided into the Southern and Northern Drakensberg by Giants Castle Peak (3,316m), which protrudes for nearly 4km from the escarpment of Lesotho. Although the areas south of Giants Castle to what is known as Bushmans Neck are still spectacular in terms of scenery and hiking, the Northern Drakensberg is still rated as THE BEST HIKING AREA by far. This article is specifically focused on the five main ‘areas’ that make up this part of the mountain range as well as the popular hiking trails.
What are the 5 main hiking areas of the Northern Drakensberg?
Basically the Drakensberg is punctuated by five regularly spaced masses of jagged peaks and towers of basalt rock that are engraved with precipitous gullies and passes that thread their way up the steep cliffs into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. The areas below start from the area just north of Giants Castle as extend north to the Amphitheatre (the most northerly of the range)
Injasuthi is one the most remote areas of the Drakensberg with no modern day development which just adds to the authentic and uniqueness of this magical spot. These spectacular turrets of rock stand out from what is known as the Trojan Wall, an imposing 900m cliff face that gives rise to the highest mountain in South Africa known as Mafadi ( 3,451m).
The most popular multi day hike is a challenging circular route of about 65km over 4 days/3 nights. The best route up is via the old ranger station known as Centenary Hut (overnight there). The escarpment on the second day of hiking can be accessed either via Judges Pass or the more technical Corner Pass. The second night is spent in the highest cave in the Drakensberg known as the Upper Injasuthi Cave-a perfect spot from a view perspective as well as its proximity to the summit of Mafadi. The descent is via Leslies Pass with the third night in the Marble Baths cave at its base. With an altitude gain of over 2200m and given the single track hiking terrain as well as the scrambling from time to time, this hike definitely requires a good level of fitness and hiking some hiking experience.
Cathkin Peak and Champagne Castle
As you drive through what is known as he “Champagne Valley’’ you will get your first glimpse of the imposing Cathkin Peak which the Zulu people call Mdedelelo (make room for him). A sound name given the massive bulk it represents. One of the most prominent features is the Monks Cowl which rises up between the knife edge ridges of Cathkin Peak and Champagne Castle (3,377m).
The most popular multi day hike is this part of the Drakensberg is the 3 day trek to the summit of Champagne Castle via Grays Pass. The hike covers about 45km over 3 days/2 nights. A nice option is set up a ‘base camp’ at Keith’s Bush Camp and ascend and descend Champagne Castle via Grays Pass in one day. The altitude gain on day 2 is about 1200m over 4km. So a good level of fitness is required. Possible day hikes can be done to Blindmans Corner returning vi Keartlands Pass.
Summiting Cathedral Peak is one of the most exiting hikes in the Drakensberg. Reason being is that it is basically the only free standing mountain in the Berg that is accessible to hikers where no technical experience is needed. (although ropes are highly recommended for safety reasons).
The peak can be done in one day but that would involve a 22km hike with an altitude gain of nearly 1800m. Our 3 day hike is one of the easiest hikes and is perfect for novices or people hiking in the Drakensberg for the first time. We basically split the hike into 3 days/2 nights, giving us ample time to summit and enjoy the stunning scenery. For hikers looking for a more challenging option, the Bell Traverse hike descending down Organ Pipes is a must do.
The Mnweni Area is also stunning in terms of its remoteness and scenery. The area is the only one in the Northern Drakensberg that does not fall under the Natal Parks Board authority. The land is basically owned by the locals. Mnweni is known as ‘the place of fingers’ due to the Pinnacles, Rockeries and Needles or rock.
The most popular multi day hike is a 3 day/2 night hike. The first night is a camp site at the base of Mnweni Pass. The second day ascends onto the escarpment with an overnight in Ledgars Cave which boasts one of the most scenic views of any cave in the Drakensberg. The hike down is via Rockeries Pass.
Amphitheatre and Sentinel
Rising nearly 1000m from the valley below, the Amphitheatre is one of the most iconic mountains in the Drakensberg. Home to second highest waterfall in the world, the Tugela Falls is probably the most popular hike. The reason for this is that the Falls is a relatively easy day hike covers a mere 8km and can be done in about 6 hours round-trip.
However, it is still an awesome overnight hike where hikers can experience a Drakensberg overnight experience with views to kill for. Alternative day hikes can also be done at the base of the Amphitheatre in the Royal Natal National Park. The most popular being the Tugela Gorge walk that can be done in about 6 hours.