Tips for hiking in the Drakensberg
What to expect on a Drakensberg hike and how to prepare?
A hike into the Drakensberg is not to be underestimated. We have been involved in organized hiking tours for over 10 years and have experienced most of what human nature and the mountains can throw at us.
The most common question we get asked? How hard is the hike?
How long is a piece of string? Until we actually get to hike with our clients or train with them we have absolutely no idea how hard the hike is going to be for them. There are so many unanswered questions that our ‘crystal ball’ doesn’t reveal to us about their mental and physical limits or capabilities. Our tips for hiking in the Drakensberg have evolved over years of hiking in the mountains. And no, running for 20 minutes a day on a treadmill will not get you ready for a Drakensberg hike.
What to consider on a Drakensberg hike
The most common mistake travellers make when deciding on what hike to do is that they assume they can handle say a 10km daily hike in the Drakensberg. I mean how hard can it be right? 10km on the road would take the average person about 2 hour’s right? What people fail to consider is that 10km in the Drakensberg can take up to 7 hours. In fact, when we plan a hike, we budget on between 1.5km/h to 2.5 km/h depending on the gradient of the hike. And if you have had a 1:50 000 map of the Drakensberg spread out before you, you might well consider upping your training regime when you see how close those contour lines really are. If you are a bit rusty in the map deciphering department, the closer the contour lines the steeper the gradient.
What goes up must come down.
So yes we have determined that a hiker might manage say 1.5km/h going up some really steep terrain. That does not mean you can make up time on the downhills? Well not always. In fact, a lot of hikers sometimes move slower downhill than uphill. A combination of sore knees and muscles (the famed Elvis Presley or sowing machine leg usually the main culprit), slippery or muddy conditions and an element of trusting your footing can sometimes make for a really slow descent.
The compounding effect of fatigue
Hikers also need to be honest with themselves when it comes to the duration of the hike and how fatigue will affect them. One of the greatest tips for hiking in the Drakensberg is energy conservation and fitness. Basically due to the severity of the hikes in the Drakensberg fatigue will compound especially over multi day expeditions. This is where training is crucial. And by training we don’t mean running on a tread mill for 30 minutes every day. Proper multi day ‘mountaineering’ training and hiking is required. Stamina and endurance are key tips in making the best of your Drakensberg hike. This fatigue compounding is a factor we also consider in our route planning. As general rule, hikers will get slower towards the end of the day.
Who let the backpack out?
The average backpack weight on a Drakensberg hike can easily max out at 15-25kg. Now add that weight to a 40 Degree gradient for 5 hours. It is probably best that willing hikers participate in a few training hikes so that they can not only get used to the weight but also consider what they really need to pack. We’ve been on hikes when clients have hauled out the bottles of wine, lipsticks and kitchen sink. Another really cool philosophy when training with a backpack is the age old wisdom of ‘rather bleed on the training field that the battle field’. Just be careful of those knees.
Weather conditions in the Drakensberg
So besides the fitness levels required on a Drakensberg hike, one of the most important tips for hiking in the Drakensberg is understanding the volatile weather conditions in the mountains. Your biggest threats are Hypothermia, Hyperthermia and Dehydration. Proper cold weather gear is essential especially in the winter months and when hiking on the escarpment. Determining the availability of water is also crucial for survival. Although there is a plenty supply in the summer months, winter can be dry and water may be scarce to come by. Although all the rivers and streams are demarcated on the maps they may be dry when you get there. Always prepare for the worst case scenario when hiking in the Drakensberg.
We were looking for some fog the other day but mist it
The Drakensberg is notorious for its thick fog. And sometimes it just magically appears out of nowhere. A sure way to get your self hopelessly lost in the mountains. A good understanding of low visibility navigation is the key to surviving. And don’t rely on your GPS. Sometimes the mist plays havoc with your system or your batteries run flat. Remember. Always prepare for the worst case scenario. Make sure you have a detailed map of the area and a good old fashioned compass for navigation. And oh yes, try not to fall of one of the narrow ledges. It’s a long way down the last time we looked.
These are some of our tips on hiking in the Drakensberg. Feel free to add your comments below or give advice from your experiences.