North Drakensberg Escarpment, South Africa
From The Sentinel
South Africa’s thrilling and magnificent Drakensberg look like mountains from the plains of Kwazulu-Natal, but are in fact a vast escarpment forming the edge, at around 3,000m (10,000ft), of the Lesotho plateau. Volcanic basalt was forced up millions of years ago and spread to form a layer more than a kilometre thick over older sandstone. The eastern end has eroded into a line of tremendous cliffs over 200km long, which form the effective border between South Africa and Lesotho. Here you will gaze on famous and fantastical formations and long, grassy ridges and gorges descending into the plains some 1,800m (6,000ft) below.
The sandstone foothills – the Little Berg – are very special in their own right, a maze of canyons and rocky ridges. Their lush, flowery greenness for much of the year will surprise many travellers expecting desert and dry rock.
The scale here is deceptive: you have to concentrate to appreciate the vastness of the cliffs – drops of 1,000 metres (3,300ft) are not unusual. You can sometimes feel you are looking at the gorges of the Little Berg through the wrong end of a telescope.
Behind the escarpment is a broken, treeless plateau of rough grass and low alpine shrubs which is reminiscent of Scotland, or parts of Mongolia. Meeting the sudden jagged edge of the escarpment as you tramp across this beautiful but seemingly regular landscape never ceases to amaze.
Lesotho is a small, dirt poor kingdom trapped within South Africa. Here on the high plateau, you may meet the Sotho herdsmen living in rough little kraals in summer.
Drakensberg means “Dragon’s Mountains” in Afrikaans; they are the Barrier of Spears to the Zulus, whose kraals are scattered up the valleys of the Lower Berg, their herds grazing complacently on the lower slopes.
Many caves here contain paintings, some very fine, left by the bushmen, the area’s earliest inhabitants, who were annihilated in the great tribal movements that marked the rise of the Zulu kingdom.
The walk along the northern end of the escarpment passes through arguably the most dramatic – and remotest – scenery of all. There are few real tracks here: much of the time you are crossing rough ground, sometimes on tenuous animal trails. That said, much of it is surprisingly easy going.
The Sentinel |
Across the Amphitheatre
The trail from the roadhead, below the famous free-standing tower, The Sentinel, is a delight, winding round the contours of the ridge, then zigzagging up to the first stupendous view on the western rim of the Amphitheatre, immediately below The Sentinel’s thousand-foot red basalt cliffs.
After scaling the infamous chain ladders, the top of the escarpment is a revelation – the Scottish Borders: rocky hillsides rising from shallow, grassy glens, thistles and even heather eking out a living amid the tussocks.
At the top of the nearby Tugela Falls, you will intoxicate yourself with the wondrous view out from the middle of the Amphitheatre.
Day 2: a long but beautiful day, crossing the high plateau. You will pass Sotho kraals, ford streams, and enjoy wide and varied views, including the plateau’s sudden, brutal termination at the escarpment edge. Behind the relative order and reason of the plateau hillsides, all is crazed anarchy: violent spikes and broken buttresses appear and then vanish again amid shreds of rising cloud.
Day 3: today's walk is close to the escarpment edge, regularly crossing the watershed and the national border. The highlight is the Hanging Valleys, which spill into the great hole that is the Mnweni Cutback. Fabulous spires come and go through the gauzy mist that rises, sensuously, around them, then vanishes as it meets the wind at the escarpment edge.
You have to sleep in the high Mponjwane Cave beneath a peak right on the escarpment edge. The berg is full of these caves - more wind-scoured overhangs, really - but this one is special, large enough to sleep 12, with views straight out onto the huge, free-standing Mponjwane Tower, across lower spikes, and down to the ridges and gorges of the Little Berg far below.
The Mnweni Cutback
Day 4: today takes you down the Rockeries Pass gorge, a superb descent, beneath the incredible spires and towers of The Rockeries, on a zigzagging mule track, the first well-established trail since The Sentinel and the route of marijuana smugglers and rustlers, to the beauties of the Little Berg. You emerge into a new and wondrous world: a gorge winding amid tremendous cliffs and long tussocky slopes; waterfalls tumble in on each side, and the vegetation seems to change with each bend in the trail: meadow flowers, small shrubs, then cycads and remarkable proteas.
Day 5: the valley meanders between cliffs and sexily curved slopes and ridges. It can feel like a few minutes after The Creation. You will wade the thigh-deep river several times. The valley gets wider and softer and you pass grazing herds and neat kraals of round, thatched huts (and some newer, square, glazed ones) around little fields of maize.
Walkopedia rating: 92
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