Adventure Travel: Up the Drakensberg
The Drakensberg mountains have much to offer those seeking a spot of adventure. Writer Claire Keeton and photographer Marianne Schwankhart explore the magic dragon
Take your peak
South Africa's highest mountain range, also known as uKhahlamba (the Barrier of Spears), soars to 3000m above sea level on the escarpment. The tallest peak, Thabana Ntlenyana, reaches 3482m. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife manages the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, which curves from north to south and is divided into the northern, central and southern Berg. The 243 000ha park is a World Heritage Site, recognised for its natural and biological diversity and historic rock art. For more information, visit www.kznwildlife.com.
A walk in the clouds
The fastest way to the top of the escarpment I know is a contour path that starts below Sentinel Peak, in the northern Berg. The path zig-zags steeply at first and then levels out to a gentle gradient, but it has a few narrow, exposed drop-offs. I hiked up it recently with my 5-year-old son Zade - in ominous weather. Higher up in the mountains, it snowed. I stopped with Zade not far below the two chain ladders that lead to the summit and the source of the Tugela River, which flows into the 950m Tugela Falls. Zade had till then walked smoothly but we had only a few hours and it had started to drizzle. I climbed the rest alone while he went down with my partner, who had already been to the top. Marianne and some friends had gone up in sunnier conditions a few weeks before. For a leisurely round trip, you need about five to six hours, starting from the Witsieshoek parking lot. At the ranger's hut you must complete the mountain register for your own safety and check the weather in advance. Ezemvelo limits the number of visitors to the summit to 50 overnighters and 50 day visitors
Contact: For bookings, call 058 713 4415.
Rates: Day visitors pay a permit fee of R30 per adult and R20 per child.
Ride cowboy ride
The Champagne Castle valley of the central Berg is a popular horse-riding destination, with several stables offering trips. Marianne and I rode with uShaka Horse Trails from the Monks Cowl Adventure centre, which also has mountain-bike trails. The horses were placid and we walked, trotted and cantered through fields and forest. "It was scary at first but lots of fun once I got used to it," Kareen Smith, 27, told us after her first horse ride.
In the past, I have ridden horses from the Champagne Castle Sports Resort and that time, in clearer weather, we could ride higher on paths with spectacular views. Riding on a bike is another way to explore Berg tracks and gain altitude quickly. The cycling on and off the road was appealing enough to get me in the saddle, despite icy rain and mud.
Contact: uShaka Horse Trails on 036 468 1136 or 072 312 2659. Also see www.monkscowl.com.
Rates: R100 for an hour; R300 for half a day.
Camping for all kinds
Monks Cowl campsite near Champagne Castle has views of the Berg and is in a secluded area. Injisuthi hutted camp at the top of a valley between two rivers with Cathkin Peak on the skyline is a green, well-maintained camp with four-bed and eight-bed cabins, safari camps and campsites. Attractive day hikes start from both these camps.
Contact: To book, phone the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife reservations office on 033 845 1000 or e-mail email@example.com
Rates: Campsites for two people are R190 at Monks Cowl and four-bed cabins at Injisuthi are R840.
This house on a working farm with stables has large rooms and a big dining-room table, with a garden and two self-catering rondavels. The rooms have double beds and bunk beds and the style reminds me of a student commune that is clean and comfortable.
Contact: Phone 036 468 1136 or 072 312 2659; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.monkscowl.com.
Rates: The farmhouse is R160 per person per night (with a minimum payment of R960, ie six people).
For a private and stylish self-catering getaway, visit Misty Peaks in an eco-estate next to the Drakensberg Sun. We stayed at Stone Villa, a three-bedroom house with a spacious outdoor living area, braai and deck overlooking indigenous forest. The rooms each had ensuite bathrooms, with large baths and showers.
Rates: R3000 per night, with space for seven adults.
From Johannesburg, take the N3 to Harrismith. About an hour later, turn off towards Winterton. At Winterton, turn right opposite the Engen garage onto the R600 Central Berg road and follow the signs to the Drakensberg Sun Resort. This is on the right-hand side of Misty Peaks.