Drakensberg Escarpment

  • Drakensberg Escarpment - From near the Sentinel - © William Mackesy
  • Drakensberg Escarpment - Mnweni Cutback - © William Mackesy
  • Drakensberg Escarpment - Across the Amphitheatre - © William Mackesy
  • Drakensberg Escarpment - From Mponjwane - © William Mackesy
  • Drakensberg Escarpment - Grasslands  - © William Mackesy

Key information: Drakensberg Escarpment

  • The amazing Drakensberg run north-west to south-east for over 200km, dividing the plains of Kwazulu-Natal from the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
  • The Drakensberg are in fact an escarpment at the edge of the high Lesotho plateau, although they look like mountains from below: a long line of vast cliffs, eroded into fantastical shapes and famous formations. The foothills, the little Berg, are very beautiful, and outstanding walking in their own right.
  • The range is so vast that few will walk its full length. The best of the Drakensberg walks are the North Drakensberg Traverse and the South Drakensberg (walk description in preparation). But the walking options, including day walks, are legion. See Walk Summary below.
  • These are tough treks in remote mountains, on which you will have to be completely self-sufficient. Come prepared.
  • Take a look at the fantastic array of Drakensberg walking tours available on the Traverseline website.

Walkopedia rating

(Top 100)
  • Walkopedia rating91.5
  • Beauty34
  • Natural interest17
  • Human interest6
  • Charisma34.5
  • Negative points0
  • Total rating91.5

Vital Statistics

  • Length: 65km, 5 days
  • Maximum Altitude: Around 3,000m
  • Level of Difficulty: Variable
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Drakensberg Escarpment - Across the Amphitheatre - © William Mackesy

WALK SUMMARY

The magnificent Drakensberg escarpment forms the edge, at around 3,000m, of the high Lesotho plateau. Volcanic basalt was forced up some 180 million years ago, and spread to form a layer more than a kilometre thick over earlier 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 grassy ridges. Their lush, flowery greenness for much of the year will surprise many travellers expecting sparse grass and dry rock.

The scale here is deceptive: you have to concentrate to appreciate the vastness of the cliffs drops of 1,000 metres are not unusual. You can sometimes feel you are looking down 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 almost anywhere, in fact, other than Africa. 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 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 on the lower slopes.

Much of the walking above the escarpment crosses rough ground, sometimes on tenuous animal trails. That said, much of it is easier going than you might fear.The walking opportunities are endless and hugely varied. As well as the great high walks along the top of the escarpment:

    • the Central Drakensberg Traverse
    • the South Drakensberg Traverse

(Our terms - these are not official designations), you can do other high walks, such as:

    • the wonderful day walk from the base of the Sentinel to the Tugela Falls and back
    • Day or multi-day walks from the top of the 4WD Sani Pass
    • Day walks to Champagne Castle and Cathedral Peak

The Little Berg foothills provide wonderful, varied walking. Some of the best includes:

    • Around the Amphitheatre area (including to the foot of the spectacular Tugela Falls).
    • Mnweni area
    • Cathedral Peak area (including up onto the escarpment)
    • Champagne Castle area
    • Giant's Castle area

 

Other accounts: share your experiences

Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

See also expedition planning, including our universal expedition checklist. Walkopedia encourages responsible travel.

Guidebooks/maps/background reading

Suggest books and maps

Guidebooks

South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland - Lonely Planet

Walking in the Drakensbergs - Cicerone

Drakensberg Walks - David Bristow

Drakensberg Walks - David Bustone

Other books

Barrier of Spears - Reg Pearse

Dragon’s Wrath - Reg Pearse (out of print?)

Encounters with the Dragon - John Hone - superb photography

Maps

The quality and availability of maps depend on where you go.

Stanfords: www.stanfords.co.uk.  An excellent (and user-friendly) online specialist source of worldwide maps (it is also good for guidebooks).

Best times to walk/weather

Best times to walk

Mid March to June, September and October. 

Summer (November - February) is hot, and frequently wet and cloudy but is best for wild flowers.  March can be lovely, but expect thunderstorms in the afternoon, so start early.  April and May are the best months (but getting colder at night).  June is getting cold on the high plateau.  Winter (July - August) is dry and beautiful but colder (well below freezing at night and can snow on high).  Spring (September and October) are good but les predictable weatherwise.

Weather

Depends on the season (see above), but come prepared for unpredictable mountain weather and cold nights at all times.  And cold fronts (several days of rain) can’t be ruled out, although they are rarer in autumn/winter.

For detailed weather information, have a look at: www.worldweather.org or www.bbc.co.uk/weather/world/country-guides

Getting there/transport/permits/fees

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The nearest significant airports are Johannesburg and Durban, depending on which area you are heading to.

Those on organised expeditions will be transported from/to arranged start/departure points.  Transfers to the main hotels can be arranged.  Otherwise, you will need to get there by car - 4WD in some cases.  Always leave your car somewhere safe.

Permits may be needed to do these walks. Other small fees may be payable.  Expedition organisers should arrange these.

Route(s)

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See detailed walk pages.

Possible problems, health, other warnings

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  • Altitude: the high plateau is likely to affect all comers a bit.  Expect to puff and perhaps a mild headache.  Come prepared to cope.  Drink lots of water.
  • Mountain weather: snow, rain, severe cold and wind are possible on the high plateau at any time of year.  Come prepared.
  • Heat and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
  • Heights: The clamber up to the escarpment is not for those who have difficulties with heights.  Huge heights throughout on the high plateau: it is easy to slip: take care.
  • Harmful animals, including snakes. Take all appropriate precautions.
  • This is remote, often trackless country: you can easily get lost and will have to carry all your food and other supplies/and help will be hard to get if things go wrong.
  • Health risks: you may not get prompt medical help of a standard available elsewhere if you become ill.  Come prepared, including getting all appropriate inoculations/medications.
  • The Sotho herdsmen in the high hills in summer can cause problems (theft, harassment and even attack).  Try not to walk in a small group.  A guide (and porters) are essential.

 

See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.

Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.

Make sure you have appropriate insurance.

Guided or independent?

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Independent

Walking independently on the high plateau is not recommended, other than day walks.

Guided/supported

Given the remoteness of the country and difficulty of getting supplies, an organized expedition is the only sensible option and traveling here with a knowledgeable guide has huge advantages. 

Expedition organisers include:

 

 

We cannot speak highly enough of our guide on the North Drakensburg trek, Ian Shooter, who was charming and very experienced.  He will arrange day walks.  Try to get your organizer to use him if you can.  Ian@drakensberghiker.co.za.  He is starting to organize expeditions in his own right, and is likely to be good value. 

Accommodation

Camping is the only realistic option when on a trek in the high mountains.

Accommodation in the lower reaches includes:

 

  • The Cavern (charming 3-star - nearish The Sentinel) - www.cavern.co.za.  Can organize walking and other activities.
  • Cathedral Peak Hotel (well known, luxury).  Famous post-trek scone-loading.
  • Sungubala Mountain Camp - www.sungubala.com - beautiful situated camp (fixed tents and cabins) nearish the Sentinel end: a good and characterful option, and good value. Can organize walking, riding and other activities.
  • The Mnweni Cultural Centre, at the roadhead below Rockeries Pass, has sweet huts (self catering).

 

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Other information and tips

Although you won’t need it, carry your passport if you will be crossing the border between South Africa and Lesotho.

If coming by your own car, leave it somewhere safe.

Do not expect “full Monty” Himalayan-style trekking.  Small groups may not have a mess tent, and there may not be a loo tent.

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Useful websites and information

There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.

 

 

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Other things to do in the area

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Other walks

Endless. See also The Fugitives’ TrailDrakensberg-tourism.com has a fantastic selection of day walks in the area.

Other activities

Game viewing.

Climbing.

White water rafting

Battlefields (Zulu / Boer Wars).

Shopping, if you must

We are not a shopping website. But, anything bought from local people must be of some help to this poor area. So, wallets out!

Drakensberg Escarpment - From Mponjwane - © William Mackesy

OTHER ACCOUNTS
share your experiences

Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).

Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.

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Drakensberg Escarpment - Grasslands  - © William Mackesy...
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