Journey to Northern Drakensberg

May 1, 2015

The northern Drakensberg is the most under-rated wilderness area in South Africa. These rugged mountains are jaw-droppingly photogenic but inaccessible to most. Hikers must be fit and experienced, and well prepared. Led by local guide Caiphus Mthabela, we hiked for six days in this soulful mountainscape, home to some of the most spectacular rock paintings in Africa.
Northern Drakensberg Hike

The northern Drakensberg mountains are probably the most dramatic landscapes of South Africa. Mountain guide Caiphus Mthabela standing near the top of Mnweni Pass, looking across to Mnweni Pinnacles.

Quathlamba! A mass of spears. Named thus by Zulu warriors before the white man came. Today called the Drakensberg, mountains of the dragon. A name given by the Voortrekkers. Evocative names, both equally applicable to South Africa’s mightiest mountain range with its spear-like peaks – reminiscent of the saw-toothed spine of a gigantic dragon.

I found this quote at the front of the first book I bought on uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, which most South Africans know as “The ‘Berg”. The book was “A Camera in Quathlamba”, a black and white photographic masterpiece published in 1980 by R.O. Pearse, a legendary explorer of these mountains. The photos in the book blew me away, and being a Cape Town boy who loved Table Mountain, I made up my mind then to get to know the ‘Berg better.

In subsequent years I explored the lower Drakensberg several times, and hiked the large river valleys, up to the base of the huge basalt cliffs. But I’d never missioned up the steep passes to the top.

Then, two years ago during winter I went hiking for four days in the Mnweni area of northern Drakensberg mountains in South Africa with guide Caiphus Mthabela. We spent four very cold days and nights at 3 000 metres in one of the most spectacular landscapes I had seen in Southern Africa.

This northern part of South Africa's largest mountain range made a strong impression on me, as it has on many other photographers and nature-lovers.

This northern part of South Africa’s largest mountain range made a strong impression on me, as it has on many other photographers and nature-lovers. Like a shy leopard, it’s aloof, but oh so beautiful and immensely worthy of your patience. The sort of place you can go for weeks at a time without seeing anyone except a Basotho shepherd. (You can read my article on a previous trip to Mnweni, for British Airways Magazine, here.)

And so, this year I planned to go back. This time we’d walk for six days from The Sentinel Peak near Witsieshoek in the far north, to Didima Gorge in the Cathedral Peak area further south. The route would traverse what almost all the Berg experts rate as the most beautiful part of the Drakensberg.

 

The route would include Mnweni and it's dramatic basalt towers; the iconic Amphitheatre, with its five-km long basalt wall of cliffs; Thukela Waterfall, the second-highest in the world; the impressive rock formations of Rockeries Pass; and some of Africa's most spectacular rock paintings.

The route would include Mnweni and it’s dramatic basalt towers, which I had fallen in love with two years ago. It would include the iconic Amphitheatre, with its five-km long basalt wall of cliffs and Thukela Waterfall, the second-highest in the world. It would include the impressive rock formations of Rockeries Pass, and it would include some of the most impressive rock paintings on Earth.

I roped in my friends and neighbours Miguel and Abigail Ferreira da-Silva, and being adventurous souls themselves, it took them exactly five minutes to book their tickets to Durban. I also picked up the phone to Caiphus, an expert guide who knows these mountains better than anyone.

You can go hiking in the high Berg on your own, but it’s not always safe for a variety of reasons: not only are there Basotho dagga smugglers and renegade shepherds who may relieve you of your heavy backpack, but more importantly, this is a vast, complicated and rugged landscape, which combined with the unpredictable weather can make hiking dangerous if you don’t know where you’re going. It’s easy to get lost – especially when the mist, rain and snow sets in.

We knew our hike would be tough physically. We’d be carrying all our food, our tents and clothing. We’d pitch camp where the landscape allowed. We’d hike an average of 10 to 12 kms for about 8 hours every day on average (except the last day, which turned out to be a 12 hour and 32km day). We’d be hiking at around 3 000 metres most of the way, and we’d swim in the streams and go to the loo behind a suitable rock. The nights would be cold, probably down to minus 5 or ten degrees Celsius.

One thing I did not realise beforehand is how rugged the landscape is on TOP of the escarpment. From below, the escarpment looks mostly flat. Yes, the hikes up the passes to the top are very tough and steep, but the ridges on top of the escarpment are also high and long, and they’re no joke. (But it does help to laugh while you’re trudging up hill!)

So, we were expecting an adventure, and the Drakensberg certainly delivered!

Contact Caiphus Mthabela on +27-73-603-9107. His daily rate depends on length of hike, and size of the hiking group. You can also email him on caiphus@emachibini.co.za.

Contact Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge on +27-58-713-6361.

Contact Cathedral Peak Hotel on +27-36-488-1888.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

The morning of our first day...about to head off for six days on the high mountains of the Drakensberg. This photo taken just in front of Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, where we stayed the night before.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Abi and Caiphus at the start of the trail, near Sentinel Peak. We would be walking in one direction, from north to south, so we arranged for our vehicle to be transferred from Witsieshoek to Cathedral Peak Hotel, where we would finish our hike.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

The dramatic landscapes of northern Drakensberg mountains combine with capricious weather to create some beautiful photo opportunities...

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Migs, Abi and Caiphus enjoying the view of the Amphitheatre from halway up the walk to the top of the escarpment.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Caiphus and Migs climbing up the chain ladders to the top of the escarpment. The ascent is about fifty metres over two series of ladders. If you're scared of heights, just don't look down!

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Migs and Abi enjoying the views and suprisingly warm water. The Thukela River flows over the edge of the cliffs, and eventually this river becomes one of the biggest and most voluminous in South Africa. Some people say the Thukela Falls are the second-highest in the world after Angel Falls in Venezuela, but the Thukela Falls are really a series of precipitous cascades, so is it really a single waterfall?!

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Enjoying the last light of day with a hot cuppa tea and coffee. At this stage of the hike, and unbeknown to us, Caiphus had some serious toothache, so he spent the first two late afternoons recovering in his tent. He hadn't told us about it! Caiphus, you're a tough guy man!

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Abi and Migs parading in their K-Way thermal underwear. Ja, things start getting weird after a few days of high altitude, hiking and two minute noodles!! Thermals are a must in autumn and winter in the Berg. In fact, at any time of year. Snow has been recorded at some point in every month of the year here, even in the height of summer.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

On day 2, we camped above Fangs Pass and the so-called Madonna and her worshippers, which are tall rock pinnacles (seen on the left of this photo).

Northern Drakensberg Hike

The bottom of Fang's Pass...I took this photo on a previous hike in this area. Madonna and her worshippers are at the top right of this image...on my hike with Caiphus, Migs and Abi, we camped at the top of the mountains.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Migs warming up with a cuppa coffee. One of the most critical gear items is a decent stove! I used a red MSR Whisperlight stove, which can use any type of fuel (I used Benzene, which is apparently the best, although it's highly flammable). Migs and Abi had a Kovea stove with a regulator, which worked just fine too. Whatever you do, don't use a gas canister stove without a regulator, because the cold and high altitude means that it will struggle to burn hot (I found this out last time I was in the Berg). My MSR stove was a bit finickity to get started, but once you have hang of it, it's a very hot, efficient stove, that I highly recommend.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

One of my favourite views in Southern Africa. Looking out over Mnweni Pass towards the Mnweni Pinnacles. As the sun started setting (and as we drank more whisky), the Mnweni Pinnacles seemed to come alive. Although JRR Tolkien moved to England when he was just 4, he may have seen the Berg as a young boy (he was born in the Free State), and I can't help but think that these mountains may have subsconsciously inspired him when writing Lord of the Rings. (Although I doubt he ever saw these pinnacles at Mnweni).

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Caiphus showing Migs and Abi our route on the fourth Day. The best maps to use are the offical uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park maps pubished by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, which is the conservation authority of the World Heritage Site. But be warned. While the maps are generally accurate, they're not precise, and several paths are not accurately marked. So always take a GPS with you. I use a Garmin Oregon 550 which combined with the map is very useful. I also took a satellite phone. I'd say this is another essential item to have, especially in an emergency, because there is hardly any cell phone reception up top.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Migs and Abi looking out over the edge of the escarpment at the mist and cloud rolling in. In the far back left of the photo you can just see the Mnweni Pinnacles, where we had camped the night before.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Caiphus standing on a cliff at the top of Rockeries Pass. The views of the peaks in among the clouds were just incredible. While the lower Berg was covered in early morning mist and cloud, the top of the escarpment, where we were hiking, was generally clear and sunny - but still cold.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Cape vultures are found only in South Africa, and one of their largest populations live near Rockeries Pass in the Drakensberg. They make their nests and roosts on the steep cliffs, and during the day soar on thermals looking for carrion to scavenge. They are endangered because of poisoning and poaching...that's a whole 'nother story that I won't get into now.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

It was a beautiful, powerful scene: The clouds and mist rolling up and over the escarpment, surrounding the peaks.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Caiphus and Abi looking out from the top of the escarpment towards Cathedral Peak and the Bell Tower. I like this quote which I found in the iconic book Barrier of Spears by R.O. Pearse. "I believe that if we are ever to regain our sanity, if ever dignity, quietude and integrity are to return to this earth of ours, we will have to realise once again our kinship - our oneness - with the creatures of the wild. Here the earth is rich; the winds blow clean and strong from the mountains; and the clouds march endlessly over wind-swept skies; and here life, the true life of nature, goes on its way untroubled. These things spell healing."

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Basotho shepherds Hape Farelani and Pezulu Habayani

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Pezulu Habayani and his shepherd dog Payena - tough man, tough dog!

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Caiphus Mthabela, mountain guide. He lives near the bottom of Rockeries Pass with his wife and kids, along with several cows, goats and horses, plus a few fields of maize. He was once a dagga smuggler, and got to know the mountains while transporting dagga during the nights down the steep passes. After some time in jail, he returned to the Berg, and signed up for a guiding course. Today he is one of the most respected and trusted guides in the Drakensberg. I doubt there's anyone who knows these mountains and its local people better. You're in safe hand with Caiphus. Contact Caiphus on +27-73-603-9107. His daily rate depends on length of hike, and size of the hiking group. You can also email him on caiphus@emachibini.co.za.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Migs checking out the amazing views of the mist and clouds in the valleys below, surrounding the peaks of the Berg. This is near Mlambonja Buttress, The Elephant and Cockade peaks.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Caiphus admiring the views of The Cockade, with the escarpment cliffs extending south-east towards Organs Pipes pass, and Cleft Peak to the right out of view. The highest mountain in Southern Africa is Lesotho's Thabana Ntlenyana (3482 metres, meaning "Beautiful little mountain"), followed by nearby Makheke (3461m). But neither of these are on the watershed, so technically they are not part of the actual Drakensberg. The six highest peaks on the watershed are: Injisuthi (3410m), Champagne Castle (3246m), Popple Peak (3331m), Giant's Castle (3314m), Mont-aux-Sources (3282m) and Cleft Peak (3277m).

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Descending down from Cleft Peak towards Organs Pipes pass. The downhills were as tough as the uphills - especialy with a 20kg pack on your back!

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Caiphus near the bottom of Organ Pipes Pass, admiring the views north towards Cathedral Peak.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

On our way back down the mountains to Cathedral Peak Hotel, we visited this spectacular rock art site (I asked and received permission first from the authorities prior to leaving on the hike). The Drakensberg is one of a few World Heritage Sites worldwide that is proclaimed as such for both cultural and natural reasons: the rock paintings are a big part of this, as well as the unique natural scenery and uniqueness of its plant species.

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Chacma baboons live on the hills and cliffs below the high escarpment...they hardly ever venture right to the top (probably because there's more food lower down, and temperatures are more moderate too).

Northern Drakensberg Hike

Where our hike ended. After walking 32 kms in the mountains on our last day, we made it back to Cathedral Peak Hotel at last light...very tired in body but thriving in spirit.

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