The Drakensberg is the name given to the eastern portion of the Great Escarpment, a geologic formation located in South Africa and Lesotho. The Drakensberg or “Mountains of Dragons” stretch for over 600 mi (1,000 km) and reach their greatest height at 11,424 ft (3,482 m) . Needless to say, Mathieu and I did some hiking during the 12 days we spent in the mountains!
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On our way to Kruger National Park (see previous post), we visited the Blyde River Canyon Natural Area, a part of the Drakensberg in the iMpumalanga Province. We weren’t sure what to expect but when we got to the edge of the flat plateau and peered over the edge, we were blown away. The views of the meandering river far below and of the giant rock pillars in the distance were surreal. We followed a beautiful scenic route along the top of the deep canyon, stopping along the way to enjoy views of canyon and to see waterfalls. Even the gray, rainy weather didn’t diminish the splendor of the area.
After visiting Kruger and spending a week in Eswatini (see previous post), we visited the section of the Drakensberg along the Lesotho/South Africa border in the Free State and KwaZulu Natal provinces. The locals affectionately refer to this section as “the Berg”
First stop, Golden Gate Highlands National Park, known for its beautiful golden and orange-hued eroded sandstone cliffs and rocky outcrops. We did a nice hike up Mushroom Rock and along the ridgeline overlooking the valleys and rocky formations of the park. And thanks to iOverlander, we wild camped at an amazing spot just outside the park that we had all to ourselves.
Next we visited Royal Natal National Park, known for its Amphitheater, a massive rock wall about 3 mi (5 km) long and 1,640 ft (500 m) high. After hiking up a gorgeous valley and standing at the bottom of the Amphitheater looking up, we knew we had to stand at the top and look down. So we drove the 2 hours back the way we’d come the day before so we could access the Amphitheater via the Sentinel Peak trail. We hoped the view from the top was worth the 2-hour drive back and the drive up the steep, rough road to get to the trailhead.
After sleeping in the trailhead parking lot and battling a very strong wind all night, we woke up early and hiked up to the first viewpoint to watch the sunrise. We weren’t yet on top of the Amphitheater but watching the sun’s light spread up the rock wall and over the valley below was breathtaking. Then, after hiking around the backside of the massive rock wall, climbing up a long, steep metal ladder, and walking across the flat plateau, we arrived to the top. Peering over the edge of the Amphitheater down into the valley where we’d stood the day before was amazing, and totally worth the effort to get there. And we had the view entirely to ourselves. Wow.
From Sentinel Peak trailhead, we drove south, passing Royal Natal (again), to go to Injisuthi Nature Reserve. When we arrived that Tuesday, we shared the camp with only one other couple, Wendy and Ian. They’d been coming to Injisuthi annually for many years and were wonderful unofficial camp hosts. After welcoming us to the campground, our gracious hosts invited us over for a sundowner (aka happy hour or aperitif). We had a great night of conversation and delicious South African wine under the nearly full moon. We ended up staying in the reserve for 4 days, hiking, relaxing, and hanging out with Wendy, Ian and their family who joined them for Easter weekend. The weather was mostly gray, and sometimes wet, but we had a great time, largely because of our new friends.
After Injisuthi, we continued south to Sani Pass, said to be one of the most dangerous mountain passes in the world. A perfect first test of our bakkie, Wily’s, 4X4 capabilities. Ha! [Note: Wily is short for Wilhelmina after the street we lived on for our month in Joburg]. Originally a mule track, Sani Pass Road is one of several roads that cross into the country of Lesotho, and is the only road crossing the summit of the high Drakensberg. While construction has started to improve the lower part of the road, most of the steep upper part is still very rough (aka hair-raising). While having a 4X4 is not required…it should be! After a slow and steady climb up the steep, rocky, switch-backed road, we reached the top (time for me to exhale). We got our passports stamped then looked out into the mountainous, wind-swept country of Lesotho. We then found a great wild camping spot where we spent a wonderful, windless night under a clear, starry sky. The next morning, the sky was gray and threatening rain. We drove a short distance further into this sparsely-populated area of Lesotho then turned around to go back down the pass before the forecasted rain and possible snow. The drive back down was a bit nerve-racking but Wily proved herself yet again.
Next we continued south to Garden Castle Nature Reserve, hoping to drive out of the rain that started falling just after we got off Sani Pass Road. While it did stop long enough for us to set up camp, the rain started again and continued for the rest of the day and night. It wasn’t a downpour but it was consistent. Thankfully our rooftop tent stayed mostly dry and we slept fine. There was a huge storm system over most of South Africa and a forecast of rain for several days. Since we couldn’t escape the rain, we decided to stay at the reserve and just chill. We weren’t the only crazy campers there; we shared the campground with Jeandre and Bianca, a South African couple who’d just started their week-long vacation. Along with chatting some with our neighbors and sharing travel stories, we spent our time in the tent or in the bakkie watching movies, journaling, reading, napping, listening to music, trying to remain upbeat in the soggy, cold weather, and twiddling our thumbs. At one point, I occupied myself by washing the bakkie under the rain. Ha! Unfortunately, due to the persistent rain, we didn’t get to hike in the reserve. But, we got some glimpses of the giant, rocky peaks towering in the distance. And thankfully, we’d hiked and enjoyed other parts of the Drakensberg during the previous weeks.
I’ll let the pictures and videos show you the beauty of The Berg. Enjoy!
[*Thanks to Ian Miller for the great selfie of the four of us (him, Wendy, Mathieu and I) during the sundowner.]